The Kindness and Cruelty of Strangers – Part 1 (Or How Being Cheap Can Get You Killed)

 

I was seated in the backseat of an Opel Corsa; in the driver’s seat was Miguel S, 32, and on shotgun was his girlfriend, both of whom I’d met for the first time that morning. We were driving on the highway heading to Girona, about an hour and a half from Barcelona.
 

Why was I traveling in a stranger’s car you might ask? The answer was simple: I’m cheap.

 

 
I had hitchhiked once before, in Bacnotan, Ilocos Norte, Philippines, several years ago. I wasn’t alone though, and this was out of sheer necessity. Long story short, a mate and I had taken a siesta while our friends were in the water surfing. We didn’t notice them leaving, and they had assumed we had ridden in one of the other vehicles back to our lodgings in Urbiztondo, about forty minutes away by car. We woke up, and realising that we had been abandoned, walked out to the main road in our board shorts with not even the equivalent of €1 between us, to thumb a ride. My mate was awfully relaxed about the whole thing–I had a feeling he had done this before. Fortunately, the first car we hailed picked us up. It was a high school teacher in an owner jeep. He wasn’t going in our direction completely, so we had to take another ride, this time by public transport. Jeepneys do not have any dress code, and since this attire is fairly commonplace in rural areas in the tropics, two shirtless guys in nothing but board shorts and flip flops did not raise too many eyebrows. Although we did elicit some giggles from some schoolchildren. The driver seemed to understand our situation and did not ask us to pay the full fare. Upon arriving at our lodgings, our friends were quite amused by the entire affair, and I was less than amused that they didn’t even consider returning for us once they’d realised we’d been left behind.
 

 
Whereas being half naked in a stranger’s jeep and in a Public Utility Jeepney with a friend a few years ago was a matter of necessity, now I was by myself in a stranger’s car for less-than-unavoidable reasons: I was using the car-sharing platform Blablacar for the first time in order to get to Salt, Girona from Barcelona to see The Coup, a hip hop group from Oakland, California, as part of Girona’s annual Black Music Festival.

I had heard about Blablacar from a schoolmate who had used it to get to Madrid, and she had vouched for it, saying that it was quite secure. Blablacar works by connecting people who have cars with those who don’t, with the car owners covering their petrol by charging the riders less than it would cost if they took a bus or train. The website requires you to create a profile, and there is a feedback system which keeps the members accountable.

The Coup were playing from 2200 up to 0200, so I had booked a ride back to Barcelona the next day, at around 1630, this time with Arturo B, 44 years old, Renault Espace. Both rides cost a total of €14. But I still had to sort out where I would spend the wee hours of dawn after the concert. And whereas Blablacar costs something to get somewhere, to stay somewhere there is another online platform called Couchsurfing which is absolutely free.

I had been a member of the Couchsurfing community since 2010, but had never had the opportunity to participate. The way Couchsurfing works is, you offer a couch (or bed) in your home to travelers for a night or more, and they in turn are expected to pay it forward, hosting people in their hometown. The community had modest beginnings as a non-profit, but had grown massively, and was eventually bought and turned into a for-profit enterprise, much to the dismay of many veteran couchsurfers.

Spending one night in Girona seemed like the ideal opportunity to give Couchsurfing a try. I was able to find a host fairly easily (Guillem, 22, 9 positive, 1 negative reference), but the day before he said he couldn’t host me without giving any particular reason. I tried finding other hosts, but since it was at the last minute, I didn’t get any confirmations. As I had already booked the rides on Blablacar and paid for the concert tickets as well–and the Coup was one of my favourite hip hop groups–I opted to go the way of the ballsy and the brainless: I decided wing it.

 

All part of the Couchsurfing experience of course
All part of the Couchsurfing experience of course

So an hour and half later, after bidding Miguel and his girlfriend adieu, I stood in the middle of what appeared to be a shopping complex in Salt, Girona. No worries, I had a tablet and all I needed to do was find a wifi hotspot so I could get to the venue. I hung around a bowling alley for a bit since they had free wifi and window shopped since the concert was still three hours away. The map showed that the venue, La Mirona, was only 15 minutes by foot and upon consulting with some locals, apprehended that Girona was around 45 minutes by foot, since public transport wouldn’t be available after the concert. No problem. A 45-minute walk was a piece of cake to me.

At 0100 the Coup took the stage.

An amazing set. During the after party, Boots Riley and the rest of the band hung out with the audience. The Spanish women were all over them of course, and after managing to snap a few photos, I drifted to the bar.
 

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Boots (on the left) and Jayjay, whom I would meet again later.

At 0400 I exited La Mirona. It was dark, and the temperature was around 12°C and I started to walk. I was crossing a bridge when I heard voices behind me. A cursory glance showed two men, and as they drew nearer, they became two black men speaking English. American English. California English. It was the guitarists of the Coup. They were a bit disoriented and were looking for their hotel. We walked together, chatting and smoking, and I felt like I wanted to tell them I had no place to stay that night, and could I crash at their hotel? But my Asian etiquette would not let me.

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According to Chris Rock, Martin Luther King Boulevard is violent and dangerous street. And here I was walking on the Spanish version in the middle of a strange town in the dead of night.

 

We parted ways and I continued to walk.

At around 0500 it was getting colder. I had taken a few wrong turns, and I was starting to run out of energy. My plan was to get to Girona and find a hostel or something, since I’d been there before and it was more accustomed to tourists than Salt. But by 0530 I couldn’t keep on.

The cartons came from the bin, the blanket I had brought. Because I have foresight.
The cartons came from the bin, the blanket I had brought. Because I have foresight.

What would have been my first Couchsurfing experience turned out to be my first homelessness experience. I think someone came in at one point to use the machine, and the bright fluorescent lights kept me from getting any quality shuteye, so less than an hour later I was back on the road.
 

 
It was getting light, but colder than ever. I saw a door to an apartment building ajar, so I went in and napped on the steps for a bit just to keep warm.

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Walking into a town at dawn feels like a scene straight out of the Walking Dead.

 
Two hours after I had left Salt I sat in a cafe sipping tea. It was the best tea I had ever tasted.

The rest of the day I strolled around Girona, sketched, listened to some blues music in the plaza, had lunch, met with Arturo, 44, at 1630, picked up two other riders, and slept like a dead man until we reached Barcelona.

 

 
 

To be continued.

Unplugging

The Creative (detail)
by Jose Gamboa
56 x 20 cm
acrylic on canvas
2014

 

For the past three and a half weeks, I’ve been on a social media sabbatical–more specifically, a facebook fast.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve gone on a facebook fast or been, to practice my castellano, incommunicado.

 

A couple of years ago, feeling a bit overwhelmed with how much the internet was taking up my time, and how it was affecting me psychologically, I decided to unplug once a week. That meant that every Sunday I didn’t go online at all. Then, I decided to try getting off facebook for a week.

 

 

Then it extended to a month. Then two. It is sort of like freediving, seeing just how far you can push yourself. In the end, I stayed off facebook a year and a half.

 

Eventually, reality pulled me back in because I started working as a freelance community manager, and the bogus account I had created to manage pages was taken down (big surprise since the account was named Katherine Upton and had only photos of the same). Until that point, even though I was managing several pages, my personal account was deactivated, and I had no connection with my 150 or so facebook friends during this time (I also tried to limit my connections to a minimum, believing Malcolm Gladwell’s “Rule of 150” from The Tipping Point where he purports that people have the capacity to have no more than 150 genuine connections. But believe me, I didn’t really have a whole lot of friends to add back then anyway. Today, things have improved for me somewhat socially, but I still don’t consider myself to have been blessed with a large number of true friends.

 

For some reason, being reachable never appealed to me. As a result, I only got a cellphone in 2008 when they handed me one at work, signed up for facebook in 2009, five years after the social media giant had already been available. At the height of their popularity, I didn’t sign up for Friendster, Myspace or Multiply, and consequently didn’t feel any remorse when these platforms went under, taking people’s precious photos and writing down with them. Today, I still own the same phone I bought five years ago, and in 2013 I bought a secondhand iPad 2, which was my first ever smart device. On it I installed the messaging app Viber, but because it is not supported on the iPad, I never got on WhatsApp, simply because I didn’t like the name or interface, and I thought mistakenly that Viber was sufficient, which was wrong because the former apparently is the preferred app of 99% of instant messenger users. Later, facebook outsourced their messaging interface, forcing everyone to install a 3rd party app which sucked.

 

Now, after moving to Barcelona and doubling my number of facebook friends, I decided for a second time, to go on a facebook fast. Again, it was partly because I was starting to feel overwhelmed, and I thought it was time to pull the needle from the vein.

 

facebook
Source

 

Also, I was simply acting in accordance to my nature. I really think that facebook is too powerful, and can dictate whatever they want and the masses will follow, and that despite Zuckerberg having the best intentions, what happens in the future when he eventually goes? The people left running the biggest repository of private information may not be so ethical. It could already be happening. I had dragged my feet getting into the social media bandwagon, and now I was trying to get out before I got in too deep.

 

Source

 

A third reason is because I think one of the biggest drawbacks of social media is narcissism and shortened attention spans. Facebook has spawned the selfie, the throwbacks, the oh-so-precious relationship and status updates that have become drugs for our egos. For an introvert like myself, I find it anathema to overshare, to imagine oneself so important as to matter, to be the voice of reason in a s0-called discussion about what colour a dress is or whatever controversy is currently trending.

Ironically, I have this blog and I have shared quite a bit on it as it is. But this is not for likes.

Furthermore, studies have shown that overuse of social media foments envy, lowered self-esteem, and for younger people, hinders academic adjustment.

It is such a breath of fresh air when you get off the timesuck that is facebook, or social media in general. The day seems longer, there is time to do relatively more important things, read a book, reminisce–not always a good thing, and to have–can you imagine?–real life conversations.

 

Here’s what unplugging has taught me:

 

1. You learn who your real friends are

This is the biggest insight I gleaned from my 2nd facebook fast. Of course, living abroad, I told my family that I would be going on a social media sabbatical, but I didn’t tell anybody else. Coincidentally, this was right about the time that Lent started, although I didn’t realise it at the time, and my sister joked that being raised Catholic, religious observance is in my theological body clock.

Even for the first facebook fast, I didn’t post an update notifying my adoring public that I would be deactivating. That would be contradictory to the entire exercise.

 

A day after I got a text from a couple of people asking what happened to my account. And I also started looking for emails and mobile numbers, alternative ways of getting in touch, and those that I wanted to get in touch with, I did so through these channels. Many were perturbed, others simply took it in stride. But facebook can be such a mindfuck–pardon my french–that you really start to get deluded into thinking those likes mean something, that your opinion matters, that your wall is your pulpit, your microphone for spewing your unimportant garbage into the world. Facebook doesn’t even show it to everyone unless you pay them for reach.

 

So I realised who actually wanted to talk to me, who I wanted to stay connected with, not just the random like or share. Having 300 or so ‘friends’ on facebook was in the end, a meaningless number, and by my count, I had between thirty to forty real friends. More to the point, it isn’t about being a hermit (something I’ve been called more than once), it’s about realising that you can be in touch in so many other ways, and that while social media may be the easiest and currently the most prevalent, it isn’t necessarily the best.

 

2. There is more time in the day than you realised

When I started to unplug I would leave my phone at home, or just let the battery run out. I stuck to a rigid schedule for checking email, even using a plug-in that would block my email screen every half hour. Whereas prior to deactivating I would log into facebook the first thing when I booted up the computer, or years later when I got a tablet, was the first thing I would instinctively check in the morning and the last thing before going to bed. Even Instagram at one point started to get too much, but at least it is not so intrusive.

 

 

Studies show that Filipinos spend an average of 4 hours a day on social media. The rest of the world probably goes to about 2 to 3…but nonetheless, that adds up. There are a lot of telling statistics on Tech Addiction. Life is brief enough as it is, and I refuse to squander any more time than I already have.

image
This was on the refrigerator of my former boss who is a single mom with two teenage kids.

 

Without facebook, I found life went at a much more leisurely pace: cooking, cleaning, going for strolls, and doing errands, writing, and getting a lot of work that I had been putting off thanks to the addictive distractions of facebook, twitter, instagram, pinterest, tumblr, etc, done.

 

3. It gets easier

Like any substance you abuse, be it food, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, going cold turkey on facebook is extraordinarily difficult. The first time around, I had a bad case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Nobody invited me to anything, simply because they couldn’t add me to an event. I would hear conversations about this post, that comment, events, and hadn’t the faintest clue about what was going on. I started to feel like a non-person.

But after a while, as I mentioned in No. 1, people start to come around. They find other ways of reaching you, they pass the message through everyone around you. This was similar to when I refused to buy a cellphone. People would reach me through other people’s phones, and I eventually started using other people’s phones to text and call others, which of course, didn’t sit well with the one who owned the phone and had to pay the bill. I also learned that there are actually people who are affronted by or suspicious of people who don’t have a mobile phone or facebook account.

After a month I was relishing the exhilarating feeling of not having to check my wall, or needing to respond to friend requests from strangers or people you really didn’t want to add, or facestalking that cute girl from the bar, or keeping up with whatever people were concerned about, eating, wearing, or hawking.

 

4. You need a substitute

But it isn’t enough just to deactivate facebook. Or not log into social media…on our personal smart devices these are always on, so unless you adjust the settings (or delete the app) the notifications will keep clamouring for your attention like a spoiled child every three seconds. Like alcoholics or drug addicts, if you don’t substitute the destructive habit with a positive one, you just tend to find another millstone to hang around your neck to replace the previous one. Aside from social media, the internet is in itself a huge landscape for you to simply lose yourself in. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried pretty much all sorts of platforms, wasted hours in discussion boards, watching TV series, days playing computer games, and have gone on youtube video binges, and even email suddenly becomes extremely interesting when you are so used to being in front of a screen that it is your default state, regardless of whether there is something to do or not.

The point of unplugging is to preserve your limited time and bandwidth and devoting these to worthwhile projects and activities. So in the morning, instead of tapping on that notification, do a few stretches instead. Instead of checking twitter twenty times a day, do it only when you’re boiling tea or making coffee, and set a timer. Get a limited data plan. Or better yet, don’t get one. I don’t have 3G on my tablet, which means I cannot always be connected and have to find that modern day oasis: The Wifi hotspot.

Similar to Tim Ferris’ advice in The Four-Hour Workweek, people should go on a low information diet. This means you limit the amount of input to your brain, thereby saving your brain capacity for only important matters. Don’t open email from other people first thing when logging in. This only puts you at the mercy of other people’s agendas. Instead, send those emails that you need to send, setting a timer for a half-hour or so, and log off once you’ve completed the most important email tasks. Repeat in the afternoon. Don’t read shit novels, magazines, listen or look at advertising, don’t memorise useless information, write it down, don’t read messages right when they arrive, or answer the phone during a meal.

 

So what do you do instead with the extra two to four hours in your day? That’s your call; you could take up a hobby, or learn something you’ve always wanted to, like dancing, but you will be surprised at what you are able to accomplish once you’ve taken control of your daily routine.

 

So if you’re considering going on a social media sabbatical, here are some suggestions:

  • Realise whether or not you are spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer
  • Start weaning yourself off by checking email, social media, a fixed number of times a day. Try running an errand without bringing your device with you.
  • Intentionally do not check your email/facebook/instagram/twitter the first thing when you wake up and the last thing at night. Place the device in another room, or at least not by the bedside table when you sleep. Place it on silent at night.
  • Pick a day to unplug. Saturday or Sunday usually works best.
  • If you decide to deactivate, try shooting for a week and see how it feels. Go longer if you feel like it.
  • Disable notifications or better yet, sign out or delete the apps. Take them off your home screen.
  • Find a substitute. If your mornings are spent browsing social media, write instead. In the evenings, reading a book is a great way to relax your brain for deep sleep.
  • If you have kids, you can install plug-ins to limit their time online, or this is also a great strategy for the more technologically-adept parent:
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Source

 

To finish, I’m not saying facebook is bad, not at all, and just like computers and the internet, it serves a purpose. Google, Wikipedia, Youtube, these have become indispensable, or at least, extremely useful in education, research, finding what’s showing at the cinema and how to breakdance. Social media has brought people closer together in ways that the post, beepers, cellphones, skype, instant messaging did to some degree…but in a more immediate, (somewhat) enjoyable, and visual way.

Nowadays, a community page is mandatory for all businesses and organisations, and I know that it can be useful. As an artist, I have experienced firsthand how the internet has turned the art game on its head, taking away some–not all–the power from the institutions (galleries, curators, museums, auction houses). It is important for anyone with their own business, but especially those in the creative fields to have an online presence, be it a website, online portfolio, or a pinterest account (which I will never ever sign up for. Ever).

18.09.17 Update: 2015 – Opened a Pinterest account 😑

 

Approaching the end of my social media sabbatical, the urge to stay off facebook for good is really strong. But we’ll see how it goes.

 


 

Jose Gamboa

Day 30

19.57 21/03/2015