A road, a mountain, a temple. A cheap meal, a good deal, a great view. As travelers we’re always looking for someplace or something. Whether shopping in a late night market in Bangkok, dancing at carnival in Rio or eating crepes in a restaurant off the coast of Brittany it’s all part of the search for an authentic experience.
Too often we try to make our actual trips match images automatically conjured at the simple mention of a destination. Say Seville and we want to see flamenco dancing and matadors. Munich? Give Lederhosen or a Dirndl a try while drinking out of beer steins. Stereotypical or not, we want these experiences in part to get as close as possible to perceived life as a local, and also to have done something that gives us bragging rights when we return home.
Fearing we’re going to miss something a guidebook told us we can’t, can drive us to become checklist travelers; speeding through sights and neighborhoods without fully appreciating anything. Naturally, we want to see the main attractions and buy one of a kind souvenirs wherever we choose to travel. No one’s saying go to India and skip the Taj Majal or when in China to give the great wall a pass. But when we visit Paris and feel we haven’t really been there because we didn’t go to that café in that part of town on that corner there might be a problem.
It’s nearly impossible to always be in the right place at the right time while traveling. Like it or not, we’ll end up in the wrong season somewhere for something, or on the wrong day, arriving just a little too late for any number of events. I know I was supposed to watch the sun set on Kuta beach in Bali, and the sun rise at Ankgor Wat in Cambodia, eat Kaiten-zushi in Tokyo, and paella in Madrid. I didn’t. I was also too late for Oktoberfest by a week, didn’t go to a full moon party in Thailand, and made it to Seville but missed the bullfight. The list goes on and on. But I did meet an elderly man in Ogose, in Saitama Japan who, after I asked for directions to a festival (that ended the previous week of course), took me to waterfalls in the mountains, then called his wife to tell her to go shopping because he was bringing a foreigner home for dinner after which they appointed themselves as my Japanese Grandparents whom I could visit any time I felt like. I also accidentally found a small restaurant in Tarragona Spain run by a friendly couple that served huge lunches with a bottle of local wine for less than 10 euro. Some of the most rewarding experiences in my travels have been anything but planned. It’s about that little place we ended up having dinner because the one in the guidebook was packed, or that wrong turn we take that results in great photo opportunities. If we focus on what we actually got to see and not what we missed out on, we may realize that some of our moments spent abroad were authentic enough after all.