Authentic Travel

28 Dec

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Like so many things in our world, travel has become just another contest.

Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling, and I frequently do it, but it’s hard to weed through the forest of travel blogs, travel sites, and travel forums, without succumbing to the notion that to many, travel isn’t necessarily about where we’ve been, and what we learned there. It has increasingly become about documenting every last detail of our adventures and posting immediately and simultaneously to Facebook, Twitter, and our blog, so everyone can see just how much fun we’re having. Granted, many of these posts are well intentioned, and a blessed few are even insightful and thought provoking, but for the most part, even exotic travel has become as banal as the rest of the internet, and why? Well, because it seems like everyone does it now.

Once upon a time, it was a unique experience to travel Europe, never mind Asia. You’d be sure to at least have people ask you all about a Euro trip, even twenty years ago. Now most people will probably tell you that the restaurant you loved was “touristy,” and that you payed too much for your plane tickets. So what happened? For one, more people are traveling, and spending time abroad. Comparatively cheap airfare has made getting to other continents at least feasible for many. In addition, study abroad programs have enjoyed a massive increase in popularity among American universities. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t spend at least a summer, or a few weeks “experiencing the culture,” in another country. This all has the net effect of making travel seem less special than it once did, and it certainly contributes to the air of elitism surrounding “experienced,” travelers.

I put experienced in quotes, because all travelers, will tell you they’re experienced. It feels good to pass on information about a place like we know it like the back of our hand. At parties or get togethers, it feels nice to say “oh I’ve been there, the food’s horrible, except for this one nice little cafe operated by Fabrizio, tell him I sent you,” or “oh man make sure you validate your metro ticket, one time, I forgot to and…” On and on it goes, but if you ever bring up travel in a group of self-perceived globetrotters, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a ridiculous amount of one-upsmanship, and arrogance in these exchanges, and it all revolves around a single idea; the idea of authenticity.

Authenticity seems to be the Holy Grail of travelers across the income spectrum. High end travel agencies have increasingly been promoting “authentic experiences.” For example, a $11,795 Signature Kenya and Tanzania trip from luxury travel agency Abercrombie and Kent, offers a chance to: “Make your stay more meaningful by stopping at a local school and interacting with the children.” Now I won’t be so presumptive as to assume that wealthy people can’t be compassionate and caring, and for all I know, this is an entirely sincere effort to engage with the locals. But what’s interesting, is that this option exists at all. It means that even people on fairly expensive vacations are at least interested in an “authentic experience,” observing the locals. These excursions become more morally opaque when we look at things like slum tourism. This is where I see the desire for authenticity lose all sense of morality, where looking at people living in horrible conditions becomes just another stop on a trip that includes elephant rides and temple visits. The travel companies and apologists can couch the experience in the terms of “immersion,” and “poverty awareness,” but it’s really nothing more than just another voyeuristic grab at the elusive chimera that is authenticity.

You don’t have to be rich to be an authenticity hound though. Plenty of poor backpackers will pull the “I’m not a tourist,” card on you, if you stay in enough hostels. For the record, I’ve backpacked, and 90% of backpackers are great, but hang around a hostel lounge and you’ll eventually meet someone who just has to prove that he’s seen more places than everyone else, and not only that, he’s had more authentic experiences. Sure, Vienna must have been great, but he got to experience the “Real Slovakia,” while helping a farmer birth a baby goat in a small village outside of Bratislava. These people often consider themselves drifters, or globetrotters, untied down by worldly concerns like money. They’d surely look down at the banker who impresses people by flaunting his money. But the travel braggart is no better, and to me, even worse than the banker. He shows off his “wealth of experience,” rather than monetary wealth, but what makes him worse is that he looks down on the banker, blissfully unaware of his own hypocrisy.

When someone tells you that your favorite part of a city is “too touristy,” or tut-tuts when you grab a burger at the McDonald’s in front of the Pantheon, what they’re really complaining about is a lack of authenticity. I can understand not wanting to waste an experience abroad eating American fast food, but why should that be a waste? I think the answer for most, is that while you’re in Italy, you should eat Italian food, and that McDonald’s is not real Italian food. It’s not authentic. Beyond that, they’ll say, you shouldn’t really eat pizza there, because that’s not authentic enough either. Some of this is understandable. It’s important to try new things when away from home, but frequently, the quest for authenticity while abroad turns in to an obsession. So many of us become obsessed with “not looking like a tourist,” or “not doing touristy things,” on our trips. The Ugly American stereotype has become so revolting that we cling to our phrasebooks and city guidebooks on the plane ride, then surreptitiously hide them in our bags lest the locals find out our secret.

Here’s the thing; it’s not a secret. Everyone knows you’re a tourist. We all might like to think of ourselves as trans-continental chameleons, able to blend in to any culture seamlessly, but that just isn’t how it works. There are  a select few who manage this, but for one, your language skills probably aren’t up to the task. It’s very, very hard to reach native fluency, unless you actually live speaking the target language. Sooner or later, your accent will probably show. I get trying to fit in and respect other cultures. That’s great. But there’s a lot of arrogance in the “non-touristy tourist,” that I find almost as ugly as the Ugly American. Further, the touristy stuff is touristy for a reason. It’s usually the best, or most important stuff in the city. The Vatican is touristy. The Eiffel Tower is touristy. But they’re touristy because they demand to be seen. They’re cultural landmarks that require our attention. You don’t have to wear a floral shirt with an enormous camera strapped around your neck like the millstone representing your marriage, but if you’re in these cities, you’ll go to these landmarks. And you’ll be a tourist. And there’s nothing wrong with that.


The reason we feel a little conflicted, or hollow after visiting these sights, is that we have the gnawing notion that we haven’t yet experienced the authentic, the true France, or Italy or any other country. On some level, this search for authenticity is admirable. It’s a truly worthwhile endeavor to get to know another culture, and understand it, below its surface representations and tendencies. But there’s a shadow side of this as well. Often lying underneath a stated desire to “experience the authentic culture,” is the desire to say “I saw the real (wherever) and you didn’t.” In the age of iEverything and have it your way, it’s unsurprising that everyone wants “unique” experience. We want to feel like we’re better than the crowded masses waiting for the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. I’ve know people who have skipped seeing the Mona Lisa because they didn’t feel like fighting the crowd. Seriously? This is the ultimate in what I call tourist-hipsterism. It’s the idea that anything that has mass appeal is somehow less worthy of consideration, that because everyone’s doing it, it’s beneath such worldly and experienced travelers. Maybe I’m a conformist sheep, but there are certain non-negotiables for me when I travel. I don’t care how touristy these destinations are, I feel obligated to see them. Are there more authentic experiences out there? I’m sure there are, but even if they’ve been “done to death,” I find these cultural icons worthy of respect. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but when I enter a cathedral, or even a local parish, I keep my voice down, and cross myself. It’s a ritual, and maybe an empty one for some, but I still find value in it, if for no other reason than to show some respect. My generation, the Millenials has become so arrogant and narcissistic, that it rejects anything “mainstream,” out of hand. The pompous “non-tourist,” is but one symptom of this disease. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a tourist trap, because I’m just so darn special.”

But part of me has to feel bad for, or at least sympathize with those searching for an authentic experience abroad. Whether it’s searching for “old world charm,” in Europe or “a simpler life,” in Asia, Africa, or South America, Americans go abroad to find the authentic, because they clearly aren’t getting it at home. Implicit in our desire to get abroad, is the nagging feeling that we’re missing something at home. At some level, I think the desire to get abroad is the desire to escape from an existence that is perceived as banal and vacuous. Many of us have had our fill of iPads, overpriced cars, houses, and educations we can’t afford but financed anyway. We’ve consumed these things, and been left wanting, so, like locusts, we’ve moved on to consuming other cultures. At a very deep level, I think getting to the “authentic” other culture is about saying, “I did that country. I understand it. I have consumed that culture and now it is mine to show off at parties like my trophy wife, or my Rolex.” We’re looking out on the final frontier of our consumptive impulse: experiences. Everything is advertised as an experience now. Your Apple experience. Your Toyota experience. Of course, your College Experience. Your Abroad Experience. We’re consuming so much more than products now.

That said, I believe there are still travelers who are genuinely interested in other cultures, not as objects of consumption, but purely out of human curiosity. If we’ve been duped into consuming everything we can get our hands or minds on, we’re still hardwired to wonder. If you reflect deeply, you know why you’re doing something. You know when you share an experience to one-up all the others int he room, or to impress them with your worldliness and global knowledge. I’d just suggest to refrain from that impulse. It’s admirable to try to get to the “real,” culture of a place, but do it for the right reasons. Because you’re truly curious, or just because you want to know more about the infinite world around you. We should also jettison the arrogant attitude that says we can ever truly, completely understand a culture. I had a student ask me “How do you find the German character?” As I struggled for an answer, I realized, that I couldn’t even characterize the American character. Cultures are just too big, and too complex to really consume. We can never truly own them, not even our own. And perhaps therein lies the hope that try as we might, they’ll resist becoming commodities, just one more thing to buy and sell in our travels.

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12 Responses to “Authentic Travel”

  1. Papa Angst December 29, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Excellent essay. I agree that type of self-conscious traveler can be unattractive. But I understand their urge to seek out an experience that isn’t so commodified. But that’s tough given that, as you say, the ‘off-the-beaten track’ experience has long since been commodified, too. Once I got over my illusions about travel, I really started enjoying myself and seeing where I really was. Your point about humility, like those about consuming overseas experiences, is very well made. Thanks for sharing these insights.

    • jamesroom964x December 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      The best travelers I know are relaxed. They aren’t consumed with absorbing a culture or having an authentic experience. They want to of course, but they are just as relaxed about getting to the “real,” culture as they would be about missing a train. It’s helpful to learn that you can’t plan for everything, and I think travel, if done right, force feeds you that lesson. You’re going to miss trains and flights, even if you plan accordingly, and you’re going to have trips that you don’t like. But it’s accepting those experiences and maybe even realizing that it’s ok to have an imperfect experience, is where I see the real value of travel.

      • Papa Angst January 1, 2013 at 5:40 am #

        Very well said. “Doing without doing.” I agree.

  2. soph1920 December 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    Very well-written. I am embarrassed that I was turning into one of those, “Oh, but let me tell you about MY experience abroad” travelers, when I really haven’t been to that many foreign countries. Like you said, I think that stems from feeling like there’s something missing in your own life, and cloaking that by trying to impress people with what a worldly person you are. I’m working on being more relaxed and just accepting the experiences for what they actually are as opposed to what I think they should be. Because if I all I can do is brag about knowing a place like the back of my hand, I didn’t learn much while I was there, did I? Good article, keep up the good work!

    • jamesroom964x December 31, 2012 at 4:31 am #

      Thanks, Ill try to keep the articles coming. That’s great you found humility though, it’s so much more relaxing to just sort of go with it and enjoy the experience you actually do have.

  3. thenarcissisticanthropologist January 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Narcissistic Anthropologist and commented:
    An interesting discussion about the nature of travel (albeit driven by youthful cynicism). I agree that communication technology advances has created a culture of documentation whereby we feel the need to capture and share every moment to the detriment of actually experiencing our travel moments. I also agree that we get into “ego wars” about going to places that are undiscovered or not falling prey to experiences that are too “touristy”. But, I believe that there are still the purist travelers who go to see what they will discover…and that sharing moments isn’t the worst thing you could do as long as you are also reveling in them.

    Personally, I like to mix up my travel experiences: there are those destnations designed for relaxation or to “get away” and those designed to experience local culture. And touristy or not, visiting the landmarks that put a place on the map can be an awe inspiring experience all the same, even if you have seen it on the internet, in TV or Movies a zillion times…

  4. andreaemiles January 20, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    What a great article! You have put very articulately into words something that I’m constantly trying to balance out when travelling and even more so now that I’m living in a foreign culture. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to reevaluate my thinking.

  5. musingsoftheamusingmuse January 20, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    I love what you’ve written here. I agree with you 100%. I’ve traveled with people who didn’t want to stop and see something that they considered “touristy” while I tried to counter their argument with my own, “But… it’s RIGHT HERE! And WE’RE here… so why not?!” I’ve eaten at a very small, tucked away restaurant in Barbados some of THE BEST flying fish, rice & beans and sweet potato I’ve ever had and as I relished every delicious bite and talked to the woman who owned the place I watched tourist after tourist file through, take a look at the spread and turn their nose up at it.

    I know that I will never be mistaken for coming from anywhere other than the USA, but I love experiencing new cultures, talking to locals, seeing the “touristy” areas as well as the non-touristy spots and soaking it all in. In a few weeks, I’ll be in Costa Rica and Panama. I can’t wait!

  6. A Writer Inspired January 20, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    So true! My favorite line is one I discovered myself while traveling in Rome:
    “Here’s the thing; it’s not a secret. Everyone knows you’re a tourist.”
    Ha! I wish I had read that before I went it would have saved me from being so disillusioned.

  7. moodsnmoments January 21, 2013 at 4:08 am #

    “Cultures are just too big, and too complex to really consume. We can never truly own them, not even our own.”

    james, you certainly have a way with thoughts and emotions which your words carve out so beautifully….
    admire your writing and aspire to get to near levels of such work…
    in hope,

    • onetwistedpoet January 22, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

      The one-upmanship of “authentic experience” travellers is a personality defect they’d have even if they stayed at home. Seeking deeper understanding of new cultures and sharing it with others shouldn’t be confused with needing to use your adventures as a personality prop. We’re all tourists, as you say, it’s just a matter of who you’re doing it for – yourself or others.

      And Westerners are wrong about needing to seek authenticity abroad – although there is undeniably a vapid obsession with consumerism that permeates richer cultures – the real world is everywhere, it’s just a question of seeking it out.

      • jamesroom964x January 22, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

        Thought provoking words, definitely. I think distinguishing between someone seeking understanding of other cultures vs. using them as a personality prop comes down to intuition. You can always tell when someone is trying too hard.

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