Sunday, February 21, 2010

Olympic Contrasts

This past week marked the beginning of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games. As a proud Canadian, a fan of winter sports in general, and a long time resident of a previous Olympic City, Calgary, I feel connections on several levels to this event.

However, this is the first time I have been out of the country for the broadcast of the games and, needless to say, it is a very different experience living here in Mexico while a significant part of the world is watching the daily drama unfold on their TVs. - which brings me to one of those differences; TV programming. As I mentioned at the beginning of last week’s Blog, the community video feed here in Loreto Bay is provided through the Mexican Satellite Broadcast monopoly holder Sky TV and we receive a “package” of channels from Sky through the Internet/Phone/Video Supplier that controls the fibre optic lines into each home in the development.

Unfortunately, since we do not receive any of the major North American network channels, we do not get dedicated Olympic coverage, just occasional “Headline” reports on news channels like CNN. Having spent a good part of the past three years living here, I was familiar with the limitations of the video service available, and that we would not be getting Olympic coverage from that source.

After looking into the matter last summer I opted for one of the two solutions available for watching North American programming while living here. Before I left Calgary last Fall, I purchased a “Slingbox” and a dedicated PVR (Personal Video Recorder) and I arranged to “share” a cable feed and internet connection with someone living there. The Slingbox technology is simple to explain – the piece of hardware is about the size of an average hardcover book and it sits on top of either a PVR or satellite receiver. With this box connected to power, the cable or satellite feed and an internet connection it can control the TV receiver in exactly the same way as is normally done with a remote control from the sofa in the same room as the TV. However, in this case the control is coming from my computer here in Mexico through the internet, and the resulting program signal is sent back through the internet to my computer where I can watch the TV program of my choice which originated back in Calgary. It then remains a simple step to connect my computer to the TV monitor here in Mexico and, (voila!) Canadian Olympic coverage on my TV here in Mexico.

The “downside” of this solution is that the quality of the signal I receive depends on the bandwidth available for my internet connection, which is determined by how many others sharing that internet connection are also streaming a video feed. In other words, the more people here in Loreto Bay, using the same internet connection, that are watching their own Slingbox system back home, the slower the transmission is. When you are watching TV through the internet, a slow connection speed results a blurred picture and, in extreme cases pauses and break-ups in the audio. Not the best things if you are watching fast paced sports coverage like hockey or downhill skiing!

The other option would be to bring a satellite receiver and dish that is registered in the US or Canada down here and pull down your own satellite signal direct to your TV here. This would give you just as high quality a signal as you would enjoy with the same equipment back home, with none of the shared bandwidth limitations I describe above. Unfortunately, this solution comes with it’s own problems. The first of which is that it is illegal to receive satellite TV signals here in Mexico, unless through the Sky TV monopoly. It is also against the letter of the Condominium Regime’s rules and regulations for this development to have satellite dishes visible from the ground level of the house. If you choose to ignore or circumvent these issues, you are still left with the problem of how to get the cable carrying the signal from the dish to your TV receiver through several feet of concrete and adobe block walls and ceilings. In spite of these “problems”, suffice to say, there are a few determined Home Owners who have managed to get their own satellite signal into their homes and they are able to enjoy the Olympic fruits of their efforts. By the way, it should be said, that a fair percentage of the ex-pat population here and elsewhere in Mexico use this method to receive their TV programming. As an interesting side bar to this, apparently Canadian satellite dishes are the most popular, due to the better signal that they receive in this area. So, by whatever means, it is possible, with some effort and planning, to get coverage of these games down here – which sets up the somewhat bizarre situation of watching winter sports live in mid-summer conditions.

While I was back in Calgary over the Christmas holidays, I received a gift of a pair of red mittens with the Olympic logo on the outside and (cleverly) a white maple leaf appliqu̩ on the palm area Рmaking a mini flag banner with each hand of these mitts. They were one of the most in-demand gifts this year in Canada, with the official clothing supplier going through millions and millions of pair during the pre-Christmas shopping season. Many of you, who are watching the crowd scenes during these games will be familiar with them, it seems that almost every other person is wearing a pair!

So these mitts returned with me to Mexico after Christmas and, without access to other Olympic paraphernalia, they have become part of my wardrobe while watching my somewhat blurry TV coverage. Doing so, I have discovered an unexpected benefit to wearing these mittens while I watch the games – my hand doesn’t get wet and cold from the condensation on the outside of the beer can I am often holding! Go Canada Go – Ehhh?

It has also been a reality check of sorts, talking to my Mexican friends and colleagues, who have little or no interest or awareness of the “unfolding drama” that is taking place in an environment of ice and snow (with intermittent rain!) thousands of miles north of here. It’s a timely example of how TV shapes our interests and priorities – because I have access to this North American signal I am wrapped up in the day to day drama and apparently consequential significance of round robin hockey match-ups, or who fell during their double axel jump. While most of the Mexicans I know, and almost all of the Home Owners who live here without that access, are more or less blissfully ignorant of the “sturm und drang” taking place around the Olympic cauldron in Vancouver.

As much as I am enjoying following the coverage of this event, I am also glad that it is limited to two weeks – because it is a distraction from all of the sensual beauty of living here. Particularly now, as we notice the temperatures rising again after a month or so of “cooler” weather and the daytime highs are reaching the higher 70’s and at night the heavier “winter weight” covers are being pulled back and a light blanket is once again enough.

Yes, it will be nice to refocus on the beauty of the sunrises over Coronado Island, the perfect blue cloudless sky, the gentle breezes and sparkling clear nights full of stars. After all the excitement has died down, the Olympic flame has been extinguished, and the fans all over the world have returned to their regular routines – we here in Loreto will still be living in this “Gold Medal” location. Being able to watch world events from afar, while enjoying pristine isolation and a perfect climate in one of the most beautiful places in that world, it doesn’t get much better than “Living Loreto!”