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A Masaai woman in traditional garb / Photo Marc Veraart

Inner travel helps you learn more about yourself – and just as importantly, other cultures.

It often seems the highest compliment a travel experience can get is, “ohhh, how authentic.” Authenticity is the lauded stamp supposedly verifying the traveler has really made contact with another culture.

And yet, when Kenya’s Masaai hide their microwaves to dance for tourists, and a traditional Chinese tea ceremony filled with wide-eyed Europeans is more authentic than a KFC packed to the gills with Chinese families, what, really, is authenticity?

To me, it seems the authentic is often nostalgia for a simple and idealized way of life that most travelers have never experienced, and want to believe will never change. The authentic is the fixed, the traditional, the pre-modern, and most frequently, the poor.

This illustrates the first rule of seeing other cultures as they really are, by first traveling inward.

1. Redefining Authenticity

This idea of authenticity often reinforces the same set of power relations travelers hope to undo: the control of dominant, technologically advanced, “modern” countries over more “primitive”, poor countries.

Why is it that “modern” countries are free to change, but other cultures and societies are supposed to exist in a permanent pre-modern condition?

Why is it that “modern” countries are free to change, to grow wealthy, to develop, but other cultures and societies are supposed to exist in a permanent pre-modern condition, living in ignorant bliss uncontaminated by the influence of the outside world?

Are people only authentic when they’re poor? When they don´t have access to the opportunities and choices that (significantly wealthier) travelers do?

How can we think about authenticity in a way that is not synonymous with poverty and unwavering obedience to tradition?

These are questions travelers need to ask in order to work for healthy, sustainable growth in the places they visit, and to escape this dichotomy of authentic, static, noble poverty vs. inauthentic wealth, growth, and change.

2. Challenging Personal Assumptions

Blonde poverty / Photo carf

“They may be poor, but they´re happy!” I cringe every time I hear this refrain.

I remember meeting an American professor in a Oaxacan café and telling him about the intense poverty in the Sierra Norte, where my husband is from. My husband’s brother had gone to the U.S at age seventeen and lived in a cave, working to support his parents and five brothers and sisters.

My husband’s parents both worked full time to pull in an income that could send only one child (my husband) to college. I said, “There are no opportunities in the Sierra”, and the professor replied, “Yes, but they are content, and opportunities is an American concept.”

An outrageous assumption: they don´t really want opportunities, they live in graceful, natural, harmonious poverty. We may enjoy the opportunity to travel across Mexico, but they are happier eating tortillas and living in tin roof houses.

Such a nice, heartwarming thought coming from someone who has never faced poverty.

One of the hardest things as a traveler is to accept that the way you want to see a culture may be very different from the way local people see (and want to see) it.

Inner travel should be the effort to move beyond assumptions, to free oneself of easy explanations and answers that come from what one would like to believe, and not what is.

3. Across the class spectrum

Chinese are loving it / Photo mcchronicles

I admit, I think the best places to eat are always the dumpling restaurants with two linoleum tables, a couple of stools, and a crate of beer in the corner.

I love morning taco stands, markets, and tiny restaurants packed elbow to elbow where one can eat for a buck and toast the guy at the next table.

But, sometimes, it’s worth it to pop into a McDo or the latest upscale fusion restaurant downtown: who’s there? What are they doing?

I went to McDo in Beijing for the first time at 3 a.m, just after a rock concert, to find it packed full of college students, asleep atop stacks of textbooks, with trays of tea and fries scattered around them.

It was a surprise peek at middle class Chinese culture; the up-and-coming cadres, doctors, and teachers snoozing under the golden arches.

Similarly, at an upscale Chinese restaurant (where I’d never have gone if the university where I taught hadn’t thrown a banquet) I saw Chinese who twenty years ago were in the full throes of the Cultural Revolution now eating Peking Duck and watching Imperial acrobatics, waited on by dainty young girls in red qipiaos.

This was an insight into modern China possible made possible by escaping the local dumpling joint. It is worth it to experience (if one’s budget affords) the whole class spectrum, to help jolt oneself awake to the past and future of a place, and to the complicated layers that compose it.

4. Witnessing Connections

Chinese worker / Photo jijis

“Made in China” takes on a whole new significance pulling into a Chinese factory town, with air so dense your eyes burn and a persistent cough claws at your throat.

Seeing people riding bikes under the gray haze of factory chemicals, seeing the grimness of life without sky or air, changes the way one thinks about all those familiar “Made in China” labels.

Similarly, knowing how much the average coffee farmer makes in Mexico or Colombia changes the way one thinks about the prices of an average pound of Mexican or Colombian coffee at home.

It is so easy to miss these connections; corporations and the media conspire to obscure them.

But travelers have the chance to connect their lives with the lives of people in the places they visit, to expose the injustice of these connections between rich and poor, developed and developing, and to potentially create sustainable, just connections in replace of exploitative ones.

5. Ways of Seeing

Coffee is not just coffee when it is a glass mug of Malay espresso and sweetened condensed milk, served on a sticky 85 degree day in a Kedai Kopi in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, with a steaming bowl of lahksa.

The best way to experience “inner travel” is to take no detail for granted.

It is a full-on sensory experience that yanks all those dormant parts of oneself, the parts that go plodding through the day to day in familiar places without really seeing, to life.

The best way to experience “inner travel,” the process of moving oneself out of a familiar mental space, is to take no detail for granted.

Every place, even Columbus, Ohio (which, having grown up there, I had always assumed was the most boring place on Earth) is full of quirks and smells and sights and sounds and local particularities.

It can all be travel, even the same day-to-day bus ride to work, even the park where you walk the dog every evening, even the landscapes that are so familiar you barely see them, if you peer through the eyes of a traveler.

How has inner travel helped you experience other cultures? Share your thoughts in the comments!



About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • DHarbecke

    "Why is it that “modern” countries are free to change, to grow wealthy, to develop, but other cultures and societies are supposed to exist in a permanent pre-modern condition…?" Because if they became something other than how we see them, they couldn't support our illusion of 'authenticity'.

    Vacationers who request An Authentic Experience (TM) from the tour agency have already lost the point. When "I'm looking for an experience" becomes "give me an experience," what follows will be tailored to expectation, not spontaneity. The best guides aren't the ones who lead you by the hand – they're the ones who point you in the direction, and you go there yourself.

    Thank you, Sarah, for the brilliant reminder that travel is HOW you see, not WHAT.

  • Sofie

    Very thought provoking article so thanks for writing it.

    It struck me a couple of days ago, after poking around some of my favourite travel blogs that are written by travellers I'll call "brave," that if I be honest I do not really want to immerse myself into the poverty conditions to be found in the Third World. To look at the wide gap in the Philippines, for example, hurts me. Do I really want "an authentic experience"? Perhaps a more important question to ask is, "Do the ones who live in the Manila slums want such 'authenticity'"? There are plenty there who say, "No." It reminds me of the Filipino charity Gawad Kalinga's work… building IMHO humane but simple housing in its quest to rid its country of poverty. I don't believe the folks there desire to strip away all that's Pinoy (a positive expression for all things Filipino)… just lift their poorest of the poor out of their inhumane conditions.

    Sofie Jamison

  • Sarah Menkedick

    I think you make a really good point, Sofie, about not wanting to immerse yourself in poverty conditions. I think that's entirely natural, provided you're not denying the existence of such conditions. There is plenty of poverty in North America and Europe, that North Americans and Europeans usually don't see. How many Americans go on tours of Indian reservations, or take tour buses through destitute neighborhoods in Phoenix or New Orleans or Los Angeles? How many people visit the Parisian suburbs where the riots took place several years ago? Maybe more than I'm aware of, but I doubt as many as those who visit Brazilian favelas or Filipino slums. My point here is that simply touring a favela or visiting a slum or witnessing "authentic" poverty sometimes gives travelers a sense of pride or satisfaction that I think is a bit misplaced. If one simply tours these areas, gets an "authentic" perspective, and goes home, it seems like mere guilt alleviation or, worse, some sort of trophy-getting experience for the traveler. The goal, as you said, should be to create healthy and humane living conditions in these areas….and the ways of achieving that goal are really diverse, and not nearly as simple as immersing oneself in poverty during a trip abroad. That could be one way of empathizing or starting to take action, but it's not the only way, and it's not some sort of end-all-be-all in and of itself.

  • Alan

    Very good article! It's well written and thought out. Will definitely take these things into consideration next time I travel anywhere. Thanks!

  • RobynJohnson

    It's interesting, the assumptions we make about the emotional conditions of the poor. I'm not sure we can make broad generalizations one way or the other. My dad, who grew up in the slums of LA during the 40s and 50s, visited an elderly woman from the old neighborhood a few years back. Her recollections of those times were radically different than his own, claiming that those years were the happiest of her life. Everyone was poor, but they were poor together. Granted, I think our sense of community has changed over the decades. At any rate, he remembers it being a rather difficult, painful period, especially as he become more aware of the discrepancy of wealth in the city.

    That being said, making the claim that being poor necessarily means one doesn't desire opportunity for self-improvement is odd. That right should be granted to everyone, regardless of financial means.

  • Eva

    Fabulous post, Sarah. I especially loved #1 – the idea that modernized, usually urbanized folks are somehow less "authentic" than their poor, rural colleagues has always driven me crazy. I'm no less Canadian for being a city kid – so how is a privileged youngster in Kuala Lumpur any less Malaysian? He or she would have just as much to teach me about the local culture…

  • Sarah

    Thanks, Eva. I guess the modern/rural divide comes from the fact that cities tend to experience greater degrees of globalization, and thus in countries where there are huge divides between urban and rural areas (like Mexico and China) long-standing traditions (like making tortillas on a traditional comal in Mexico) are better preserved, and more pronounced. But the cities are just as integral to understanding a country as the more isolated, and more traditional, rural areas. Major political and cultural movements often radiate from cities. One can't understand China, for example, without exploring Beijing, even though I think most people would agree that there's also no way to get a clear picture of China by only going to Beijing. In other words, I think you're right on that it's not a simple black and white issue of authenticity in poor or rich, urban or rural areas.

  • Sarah

    Great point about expectation vs. spontaneity! It is so hard to get past one's expectations to try to see things as the locals see or would like to see them, and not as a traveler wants to see them. Who knows if it's possible…but I think it is important to get beyond the romantic or cynical set images of a place.

  • Dennis

    Absolutely loved the article. I thought #3 was very insightful. To witness such a seemingly traditional country like china go through a sociological evolution like they're currently experiencing must be incredible. Each class as authentically chinese as the other. Great post

  • Dave

    Great Article, one thing I have to say though. The blonde girl looks cute but is really creepy.

  • ianmack

    The photographer does some amazing work. You should check out his full collection

  • sofie

    Yes Sarah I couldn't agree more… The problem of poverty in the world is a complex subject and there are diverse solutions, and people have different talents and strengths they can use to perhaps not solve the problem but at least make somebody's world more humane. I just think booking these "Authentic Experience" type vacations many times become self-serving in the end, and that's exactly why your article grabbed my attention. Thank you for writing it! It serves as a wake-up call to all of us travellers to at least be honest with ourselves, and hopefully give more consideration to how we can take travel to a higher place.

  • Marc Veraart

    Thanks for this beautifull article! and using my masaai photo! kind regards Marc

  • Sarah

    Hey Marc,

    Your photo is amazing; thanks for letting it be included!

  • Marc

    sure no probleme Sarah, If you need any other picture, give me a buzz! Bye the way what are yoy doing in Mexico besides spending long lazy saterday afternoons playing scrabble ;-)

  • Sarah

    Writing! And making big pots of chili, the best comfort food of all time!

  • Rebecca

    Great article. It makes you think when you travel. I live in AZ and tourists would probably be surprised to see Phoenix up close and personal. It's different from what was portrayed on the Travel Channel! I myself was shocked that the city is going through a "transformation." Who knew…

  • adam

    "Opportunities" is not an American concept. The root of materialism is poverty… the well fed remain idealists…

  • Angela

    "An outrageous assumption: they don´t really want opportunities, they live in graceful, natural, harmonious poverty." This assumption is even more outragous if we think that poverty in most countries is caused by ruthless western politics and reckless capitalism. The poor are not happy, the starving are not happy, people living under the constant threat of bombs and war are not happy.
    I personally suspect that most people in the so-called civilized world are not happy either. With all opportunities London offers, office or retail employees start working in the morning when it's still dark and finish working when it's already dark. They go back home with no energy but to watch tv in a semi-catatonic state and the highlight of their week is going to the pub. Most people have 3 weeks (the luckiest, 25 days) holiday per year, unique moment in which who has been responsible enough to save something can leave, in the quest of a spot in the sun.
    I might live in a rich country, but around me I see a lot of unhappiness, stress and frustration.

  • estan

    Sarah, this is an insightful post and a timely one as I just posted something related to it at my blog. This is not always realized but true. It's the quest for the so called authenticity that drives tourism industries across the world that sometimes, alas, the locals will manufacture just to attract tourists. If there's a demand, why not create it?

    In many traditional festivals, sometimes the original idea or religious/cultural reference gets lost in translation. But then, many leisure tourists, the camera toting, bus riding and herded like sheep from one place to another (often terminating at an overpriced souvenirs shop) would be happy to witness such events, a break from the usual and something to show folks back home.

  • len

    the way i deal with this sort of thinking, is not to vacation travel. it's to travel, work, and live. authenticity is when you allow yourself to fully immerse yourself in another culture. it's hard to vacation travel, and not see the things that you think you "should" see. it's just where you want to set your expectation levels. you will never be disappointed if you don't expect things, and just let your experiences guide you! cultures will evolve! stopping to listen and talk to the locals is the only way into the heart of the people, and heart of the land.

  • Andris

    Yes! Fantastic article, I completely agree. As a photographer, I'm amazed at how many times we as tourists frame our shots to include the picturesque temple or the traditional dress while cutting out the satellite dishes, tourist buses, and locals Avril Lavagine t-shirts. These things are every bit as 'authentic' as the rest and are part of the 'real' story.

    Incidentally…didn't we go to high school together?? :)

    • Tim Patterson

      Whoa – did you guys really come out of the same school? There must have been a great English teacher there – you're two of the best writers at Matador.

    • Sarah_Menkedick

      Ha! No way! You have to send me a PM and we can reminisce. Wow, I never woulda thunk it–meeting up on Matador years later.

  • Bryndel

    “How many Americans go on tours of Indian reservations, or take tour buses through destitute neighborhoods in Phoenix or New Orleans or Los Angeles?”
    Funny you should mention the reservations… My church, along with a lot of the other Unitarian Universalist churches in Colorado, actually does have an annual 9th grade trip to some of the reservations, following a year of learning about the two cultures hosting them in turn who are actually historical enemies. I joined the church when I was too old for this, unfortunately, but I’m still debating volunteering as an adult supervisor :)

    But in general, no, the vast majority of Americans stay as isolated as possible from much of this… I recall spotting a lot of stray animals our overseas travels when I was a kid, the kind of skinny filthy critters that get rounded up and put in shelters most everywhere in the US (at least the places we lived, anyhow)–being a hopeful veterinarian, they were what stuck out to me at least as much as the touristy sights and sounds and people. But my parents for whatever reason didn’t want to let me adopt or feed any of them, heh. :P
    It still bothers me sometimes. Maybe when I’m rich and famous one day (or, more seriously, done with college and more financially stable than I am now) I can go back and start shelters/neutering clinics/etc. Which seems off-topic to some, undoubtedly, given that the article only references less-privileged *people,* but I’ve always been a firm believer that the well-being of animals and humans are linked and definitely not mutually antagonistic.

  • Anne

    I met this professor in Chile once who told me that the Aymara people in the north had found ways to adapt to the tides of change since contact with Europeans. He argued that they used the “poor natives” rhetoric to receive increased government aid and embark on lucrative enthno-tourism efforts. I thought that was fairly punk-rock.
    Sort of like in All About Eve where Eve Harrington pretends to be this delicate, uber-feminine creature to gain power and fame. I feel like when people get put in boxes, they find ways to work it to their advantage. I’m not saying that it’s justified to put women or poor people in boxes, just that it happens and I think it’s pretty interesting to see the results, the moments when things don’t work out predictably.

  • neil cassidy

    I’ve lived in China for four years now, and I’ve gotten food sickness to the point of vomiting on 13 different occasions. Please don’t judge people because they eat at McDonald’s. It is a welcome treat for many American expats living or traveling in developing countries with poor hygiene standards. Your romancing of morning taco stands and the like sounds predictably pretentious and immature, the bourgeois sophistication of a privileged post-college girl. I’m betting you absolutely hate people who” look like tourists,” too, and feel superior when you see them. Listen, there’s no right way to travel–people find their own meaning(s).

  • Sarah

    Interesting, Neil – seems like you didn’t read this post at all and are just looking to pick a fight. My point about McDonald’s was that travelers shouldn’t automatically dismiss it or look down on people that go there; that it’s possible to have “authentic” experiences at McDonald’s, too, and that I’ve gone there and had as interesting a time as when I go to morning taco stands. I was actually encouraging people to go to McDonald’s – a point you completely missed.

    Yet again, the irony: “I’m betting you absolutely hate people who” look like tourists,” too, and feel superior when you see them.” Actually, this whole article was about dispelling some of the myths that travelers hold about being “superior” to tourists – most of my articles are actually about debunking the myth that there’s some lofty distinction between travelers and tourists, and that “travelers”, however they define themselves, automatically have authentic experiences, whereas “tourists” don’t.

    I think you need to read a bit more closely and carefully and focus on understanding the piece instead of throwing haughty insults around. Your comment shows a forceful misunderstanding of the piece and I wonder if you even read it, or just wanted to leave another angry comment.

  • robin

    Regarding point No.2, I agree that it is excruciating to hear people talk about the apparently inate happiness of the poor, but I think you’re too dismissive of the professor’s point that opportunity, as you meant it, is an American concept.

    It’s a dangerous assumption, but a common one, that the more “modern” and “emancipated” people get the more they resemble Americans and Europeans, and it’s a little early to conclude that Western economic models are even sustainable in the long run.

    So it is legitimate to at least conjecture that in the rush towards globalisation and homogenised consumerism, there is a risk that much of value might be lost and little gained.

    That people might lift themselves from poverty is of course a hopeful prospect but I think what some have been brave enough to question are the rigid and limited terms, western terms, on which their attempts appear to be predicated

  • Jackie

    A very stimulating article Sarah and well written. Often my authentic self re-appears in the most odd and unexpected moments and places, where I feel a state of energetic self-acceptance , it is during these moments where having no expectations tends to occur. Practicing the no standard/no judgement rule when traveling in other cultures , has widened and opened my entire self, body and soul .The senses become heightened and the details you mentioned stand out loud and clear. Perhaps the popularity of National Geographic for us Americans became so popular by seeing and viewing the life and world outside of the one we live in. My point being, whatever you take in, receive, feel, which stirs emotion is different for each beholder and so the inner travel begins…

  • Sandy Brisbane

    ok. Being poor is not a sure recipe for happiness but neither is wealth a gurantee of misery.

  • Nick D

    A lovely quote by Henry James that I heard years ago, while working as a documentary videographer, has stayed with me. I think it captures one of the key ideas of this thread:

    “To take what there is, and use it, without waiting forever in vain for the preconceived — to dig deep into the actual and get something out of that — this doubtless is the right way to live.”

    (Notebook entry, 1889)

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