A traveller’s defence of social media

Before I start, I’d just like to make it clear that this isn’t going to be some Chris Crocker-style advocacy on behalf of social media. To be honest, despite the fact that I am a regular user of various social media platforms, I’m really not much of a fan. I use ‘em, but I really don’t like ‘em all that much.

At best, they’re a distraction, but at worst they actively work to reduce the quality of people’s personal relationships and their lives more broadly. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that many’s the time that I’ve sat down to a day’s work and before starting, opening up my browser for a quick check of Facebook before getting stuck into writing, only to crawl out some time later, wondering where the hell the morning went.

There’s been a lot of attention lately on the negative influence social media has had on the way people engage with each other. Its detractors claim, quite justifiably in my opinion, that social media supplants genuine, meaningful communication with simplistic, superficial interactions. It’s also accused of leaching our lives of meaning by encouraging an endless, unfulfilling pursuit of ephemeral affirmation, in the form of positive feedback loops, echo chambers, ‘follows’ and ’likes’. Don’t even get me started on “fake news”!

Hell, even some of the people responsible for creating the complex, interconnected environment in which nearly all of us are now embedded are seriously conflicted by how it’s unfolding. Consider, for example, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, who is one of the more prominent people to come out in recent times expressing regret for their role in the ongoing degradation of the fabric of society, which he attributed to the inherent, deliberate design and continuing rise of social media platforms such as the one he helped create and refine.

So yeah, social media is just another modern-day symptom of humanity’s tendency to deflect from the real, substantial issues of the day and instead focus on transient and unsatisfactory gratification and the justification of one’s own opinions. But despite all that, it does actually have some good points and can even be quite useful, as we have recently discovered during the latest leg of our family vagabonding adventure around the Iberian Peninsula.

Nomad Family AndorraFor the past eight months we’ve been a nomadic family, having sold most of our possessions, rented out our house in South Australia and taken up a transient lifestyle exploring Europe. In an effort to fund this slightly utopian lifestyle, we started a blog. It’s both a tool to communicate our adventures to remote friends and relatives, and a tool by which we’re hoping to make some small income and extend our adventures a little bit longer than our original savings would allow. With this goal in mind, we’ve also developed a social media presence as a means to disseminate our efforts to as broad an audience as possible. We selected Twitter and Instagram as our channels of choice (please feel free to visit, like and/or follow both, while I go and wash my hands). In today’s hyper-networked world, this is just a necessary evil and it’s one that we’ve embraced both consciously and cautiously, knowing full well that it’s basically mostly bullshit.

I guess at this point I should start my defence, even if it does make me feel just a little bit dirty…

Three recent events have shone a light for us on some of the positive aspects of social media, which have made me feel just a little bit better about our participation in this labyrinthine and often dystopian modern digital landscape.


1] Back in our pre-nomadic lives, we subscribed to and paid a considerable amount for a wide range of sedentary services, including healthcare, Internet and phone connections, and our local automobile club. We suspended or cancelled the majority of these services when we hit the road, but after a few months we discovered that one of them had continued to withdraw a regular monthly fee, despite the suspension of our membership.

That was money we needed, to pay for essentials like tapas, Airbnb accommodation and surfboard hire, so we immediately went online to find out how we could a) stop the payments, and b) organise a refund of the money that had already been erroneously withdrawn. This particular organisation still hadn’t even enabled online payments by the time we left Australia, so it was no real surprise when we discovered that the only way to contact them was via phone – they didn’t even have a generic email address. Remember, we’re on the other side of the globe, so given the amount of time we’d have to spend on hold during a typical phone call to this organisation, we’d end up spending the equivalent of what had already been withdrawn just waiting to speak to someone.

But hold on, do they have a Facebook account? Of course they do – everyone does these days.

A quick message to their page and within four hours the payments had been cancelled and the wheels were in motion for the payments to be refunded. Hashtag-winning!

Cobbled laneway Spain

2] Not long ago, a week in fact, we were returning home through the dark, winding alleyways of Lisbon after a day of exploration, when I looked down and spied a wallet on the cobblestones.

 

 

“Bugger,” I thought. “Someone’s going to be annoyed that they lost that.”

A quick scan of the contents revealed an array of credit cards, ID and around €90 in cash. Thankfully, I’m an honest kind of guy. I determined that the best course of action would be giving the wallet to the first policeman we bumped into or, failing that, going to the station first thing the next morning and handing it in there. We didn’t encounter any police on the rest of our walk, but when we arrived home I took another look at the owner’s ID – a Californian driver’s licence with an LA address. “What the hell,” I thought. “Let’s do a quick Facebook search.”

I kid you not, within 30 seconds I’d found the owner’s profile and sent him a message. Within 10 minutes we were talking to each other via the phone function in Messenger. And within 45 minutes I was in a nearby plaça shaking hands and returning a wallet to a very relived Californian. He was leaving Portugal for the UK the next day, but hadn’t realised he’d lost the wallet until he got my message. He hadn’t even had time to cancel any of the cards! This was a genuine good news story with a happy outcome that would have been virtually impossible to accomplish in the days before social media.

3] The day after this happened we suffered every traveller’s nightmare by being pickpocketed. One of Lisbon’s light-fingered low-lifes managed to undo two zips on my wife’s handbag and remove €20 and one of her credit cards without her even noticing. It wasn’t until a concerned citizen drew her attention to it that she realised she’d been robbed.

Panoramic view of Lisbon

Lisbon – a beautiful city, but keep a close eye on your belongings.

Thankfully it was only a small amount of cash and the card was one we hadn’t used even once while travelling, but we still needed to cancel it post-haste before the Artful Dodger had a chance to rack up a debt that we’d have to chase through our travel insurance – an experience that nobody looks forward to.

Once again we jumped on the laptop, only to discover that while we could put a temporary block on the card through the bank’s online portal, we couldn’t cancel it without speaking to someone in person. Sigh.

There was a reverse charges number that we could call, but not relishing the prospect of sitting around on hold – time during which the thief could be using the card – as well as the very real possibility of being charged for the call by our Spanish mobile provider (who really reads the T&Cs when they sign up?), we once again turned to social media for an alternative solution.

About one hour after we’d sent the first message through Facebook, my wife’s phone rang and we discovered a representative of the bank, calling to help her through the cancellation process. It took about 10 minutes, during which the rep was very helpful, expressing both sympathy for our circumstances and envy at our adventures outside of this one unfortunate event.

By lunchtime we were back out the door with a renewed caution of petty criminals and a grudging sense gratitude and respect, both for our bank (a much more sophisticated breed of criminal, I’m sure you’ll agree) and social media – two entities for whom we’d previously only felt contempt and a lingering resentment at having to engage with them at all.


So there it is. Despite its countless failings and ongoing role in the erosion of of individual lives, personal relationships and the very structures that bind our modern society together, social media – specifically Facebook in this instance – does have some benefits, particularly for international travellers.

The scoresheet is still heavily weighted in the negative, but these three examples offer a fragment of redemption, at least in our eyes. In the end, however, no digital conversation can or will ever beat genuine, face-to-face interaction, a fact that is reinforced for us daily as our vagabonding adventure continues.

Advertisements

Five things to do with your kids in Burgos

It was not without regret that we boarded our train this morning and left Burgos. The ancient capital of the kingdom of Castille fairly oozes history – from being home to one of Spain’s most popular folk heroes, El Cid, to more recently having the dubious honour of being the capital for General Franco’s ultimately successful 20th century fascist rebellion. It’s a wonderful city and, for a variety of reasons, a fantastic place to visit with kids.

We found the people of Burgos to be overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, and lightheartedly tolerant of our bumbling attempts to communicate in their mother tongue (Castellano, better known outside of Spain as “Spanish”, originated in the lands of Castilla – Leon and La Mancha). Eating out in Burgos was a particularly pleasant experience, and there were plenty of things we could do with the kids that kept them engaged, enthusiastic and wanting to see, do and know more.

Because of this positive experience, we thought we’d share some of our highlights from Burgos for those of you who might consider bringing your children to visit this wonderful city in the future.


1. Museums
It might sound like I’m taking the easy option by mentioning museums, but there are a couple of truly exceptional ones in Burgos that more than justify their inclusion at the top of this list.

The first one we visited was El Museo del Libro (The Museum of the Book). This small, unassuming institution, laid out over four levels just off the Plaza Mayor, ambitiously seeks to chart the entire history of writing and books – although I noted that there was little mention of anywhere east of Mesopotamia or west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Following the story from Sumerian clay tablets through to the 21st Century and the Kindle, you’ll find a range of examples of how humanity has recorded its thoughts and the influence that books have had on the rise and reformation of western civilisation throughout history. The Museo uses a variety of multimedia and multilingual resources to inform and engage visitors of all ages.

To be honest, I was surprised by just how interesting the kids found the Museo Del Libro, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been, given La Chica’s obsession with reading. We were the only people in the Museo the day we visited, which was both a shame – because it would be great to see such an important subject more well recognised – but also great, because it meant we were able to take our time and discuss the exhibits as loudly and for as long as we wanted. We recommend this museum to anyone wanting to fill an hour or so in Burgos

Museo del Libro Fadrique de Basilea
Travesía del Mercado 3, Burgos
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday,10:00-14:00 & 16:30-20:00
Entry: Adults: 3€, Children <14: Free

The Second museum we visited was a definite highlight – not just of our time in Burgos, but of our trip to Europe so far. El Museo de la Evolucíon Humana (The Museum of Human Evolution) is one of the best natural history museums that we have ever visited, anywhere. Using a range of innovative and highly engaging technologies and storytelling devices, the museum’s installations guide the visitor through the galleries and display spaces outlining the scientific disciplines and techniques used over the years to trace the evolution of the human species.

We all loved it, but it was particularly engaging for the kids, who literally sprinted from one display to the next, impatient to find out more about this fascinating area of scientific investigation.

The Museum was built to underpin the incredible archaeological work done at the nearby World Heritage Listed dig in the Atapuerca Mountains. This is one of the world’s most important sites, in terms of an archaeological record of ancient humans, and it has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolution of ours and other closely related hominid species. But the museum covers much more than just this one site, with sections on Darwin, the role of fire and much much more to engage and fascinate visitors of all ages.

No trip to Burgos is complete without a visit to this museum. Full. Stop.

Hint: we arrived at 6.45pm and discovered that entry was free after 7pm. Because the museum closes at 8, this only left us an hour to explore the entire institution, which was nowhere near enough time. If you’re thinking of taking advantage of this little work-around, we’d advise you to plan to come to the museum on two, or even better, three consecutive days, so you can take in everything that this incredible place has to offer.

El Museo de la Evolución Humana
Paseo Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos
Opening Hours: Tuesdays to Fridays from 10:00-14:30 PM & 16:30-20:00. Saturdays, Sundays, public holidays & July, August & September 10:00-20:00
Entry: General Admission: 6 €
Children <8: free. Other benefits and concessions are available for a range of visitors – see website for more details.

2. Eating out
We had some great eating experiences in Burgos. The city is renowned in particular for its soft, white sheeps’ milk cheese and morcilla (rice-filled blood pudding), but there’s so much more to this city to justify its title as Spain’s gastronomic capital for 2013. Here are just two suggestions for places to eat:

Acuarium – We discovered this awesome little bar quite by accident one evening while enjoying a paseo through the city centre. Located down a laneway just off the Plaza Mayor, Acuarium drew us in with its sign promising “Free Tapas”. The croquetas that came with our first round of drinks were pretty good, but a couple of minutes later a delivery of food to a neighbouring table really caught our attention. On enquiry, we discovered that they were having piparra en tempura, crispy tempura baby peppers, and we couldn’t resist ordering a plate for ourselves. The tapa was huge, and mouthwateringly delicious, but unfortunately it didn’t suit our kids’ frustratingly conventional tastes. Thankfully, the alitas de pollo (chicken wings), that came soon afterwards brought about a minor miracle, at least in our little circle – zero complaints, even effusive praise, for a meal ordered out in Spain!

Acuarium

This might not sound like much, but we’ve had an incredibly frustrating time with food here in Spain – well, the food hasn’t been frustrating, it’s our children’s unwillingness to try new or “different” foods that’s been doing our heads in. But since Acuarium, we’ve found that they’re beginning to demonstrate a bit more enthusiasm for trying new things (even if chicken wings aren’t all that new).

The service here was also really friendly and professional, and their willingness to tolerate our poorly framed questions about the food was greatly appreciated.

Acuarium
Travesia del Mercado, 9, Burgos (right opposite the entrance to El Museo del Libro, coincidentally)

Another of our memorable eating experiences was had at Viva la Pepa. Mem led us to this cool little bar//cafe, having found it on the vegetarian/vegan search portal Happy Cow. As a non-meat-eater most of the time, she’s been finding eating out in Spain particularly difficult, given this country’s strong focus on the cooking of flesh of every conceivable variety. We’ve found Happy Cow indispensable in finding places that offer a less meat-heavy menu, particularly in larger towns and cities. Viva la Pepa, which backs onto the Plaza outside the Catedral de Burgos, was one of these finds. Mem’s falafel burger was a winner, while they also satisfied my carnivorous inclinations with a meatier offering, and were able to keep the kids happy with their menu infantil and a pair of generous fruit smoothies.

Viva la Pepa
Paseo del Espolón, Nº4 Plaza del Rey San Fernando, Nº6
Burgos

3. Exploring & playing outdoors
If we were to write a book about our current nomadic adventure (and we may well do just that at some point), it could quite justifiably be titled “A Guide to the Parks and Playgrounds of Europe”. If we were to do that, Burgos would warrant almost a whole chapter to itself.

One activity we all thoroughly enjoyed was the walk up to El Castillo (the castle), which sits atop a knoll overlooking the old city. The ridge behind the Castillo is interlaced with a network of paths winding in and out of the pine forests and undergrowth, which proved a real adventure land for the kids. When we got there, the Castillo was unfortunately closed, despite opening hours which would seem to state otherwise. However, just nearby we discovered – wait for it – a playground, next to which was a bar that served cold beer and patatas bravas (amongst other things), so everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Also great fun for these visiting Antipodeans was discovering the numerous storks’ nests – massive structures built on many of the city’s highest towers with no respect for history or eminence.

Storks

Another highlight, from an outdoors perspective, was the Parque de la Isla, which we discovered by following the Camino de Santiago markers along the river, and which also had an “awesome” playground.

4. Eating in
Eating out and discovering new and interesting dishes is one of the most exciting and energising things about travelling. But sometimes, whether it’s because you want to save a few euros, or you can’t face another plate of fried whatevers, you just want to cook something for yourself and have complete control of what’s going into your body, and those of your family.

Up until Burgos, we’d been pretty underwhelmed by the quality of produce available in Spain, particularly in the south. It was all just a bit tired looking and there wasn’t a great deal of variety. Paris, by comparison, was awash with beautiful fruit, vegetables and a thousand other high quality ingredients (the wine, the cheese, the… well, you get the point) – but that’s another story for another time.

Thankfully, in Burgos we rented an Airbnb flat with a functional kitchen (and good knives – the owners also owned a restaurant) and we were able to find some excellent quality ingredients. This meant that Burgos now also carries the title of “Best Homecooked Meal by the Selwoods”. The benefits, for both your physical and mental wellbeing, gained from good quality, fresh vegetables should never be underestimated, and their availability definitely influenced how much we enjoyed our time in Burgos.

One place we chanced upon and which we recommend to anyone visiting Burgos and looking for good quality organic produce (amongst other ingredients) was:
La Tienda Organica (the organic shop)
C/ Antonio Valdés y Basan 1

5. El Camino de Santiago
No post on Burgos would be complete without a mention of the Camino de Santiago. This pilgrim trail, which winds its way from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain, dominates Burgos, which is one of the major towns along the route. One gets the impression that the bulk of Burgos’ tourism trade is centred on catering for the needs of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who attempt the Camino every year, and it gives the town much more of a cosmopolitan, international feel than many of its counterparts in other regions of Spain. Shops are filled with paraphernalia, including walking sticks, clothing and other souvenirs marked with scallop shells (the symbol of Santiago – St James the Apostle), while restaurants and hostels advertise special rates for peregrinos (pilgrims).

The camino itself splits into two as it passes through Burgos, and we had a great time looking out for the trail markers – tiles with the scallop shell insignia – that lead the pilgrim through town. Although we’ve only done very small sections so far, the Camino is high on our bucket list of things we want to do before leaving Spain. While you’re in Burgos, however, we recommend a day’s walk out and back along the Camino. You’ll soon find yourself out in the beautiful countryside that surrounds the city, sharing the route with people from every corner of the globe. There’s a real collegial feel to the Camino and you and the kids are bound to meet some interesting characters along the way.

Check out the Wise Pilgrim Guides for some more really good information on the Camino and Burgos.


So that’s just about all we have to say about Burgos. The city treated us incredibly well – we felt welcomed, entertained and well fed, and came away wanting to return to finish off some experiences and find time to check out a number of things we’d wanted to do, but just didn’t get time to this time around.

Logistics

Getting there: Burgos is 2.5 hours from Madrid and 3 hours from San Sebastian by train. If you book far enough in advance it’s a surprisingly cheap journey. Our favourite portal for booking trains in Spain is Trainline.

You can try it through the Renfe website, but we’ve had no luck on that front because they don’t accept payment via Australian (and possibly other nationalities) credit cards, not even our travel money cards (WTF Renfe, I mean seriously!?)

Accommodation: We stayed in a terrific little family apartment sourced through Airbnb.


Have you travelled to Burgos with your family? Have any other hints, tips or general comments on travelling with kids? Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s have a conversation.

For more details on the area see the Lonely Planet guide below (affiliate link):
Spain travel guide - Castilla Y Leon (2.936Mb), 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet
Digital version of Spain travel guide – Castilla Y Leon, 11th Edn Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet