Real Travel: In Search Of Authenticity

by Pam Mandel Apr 12, 2007

a woman and a child in thailand

In an age of commodified culture and globalization, does true authenticity even exist?

Authenticity. It’s the buzzword of the enlightened traveler. We seek the genuine experience, something unspoiled by commercialism or prior visitors; we seek the perfect interaction with the culture we’re visiting.

Maybe our fantasy is to be adopted by a tribe, to receive some kind of acknowledgment that we’re not just another camera-toting white-shoe wearing tourist. Maybe it’s to have a time travel moment, to visit a land seemingly unspoiled by progress.

Maybe we want to boldly go where no man has gone before. We are out of luck.

For some reason, writing about authenticity in travel has been flying across my radar lately. I read stories punctuated with introspective commentary about polluted cultures or an inability to leave our world behind.

I’m starting to think we are missing the point.

The Inescapable Us

We live in a small world. In a day and a half, we can be in the African bush, with a Hmong hill tribe, in the Moscow subway.

Visas and politics not withstanding, the world is open to us. If our bodies and minds can be there, our global policies and influences are there too.

And we tend to really enjoy things like Internet access and indoor plumbing, which got there the same way we did. I suspect we prefer a somewhat sanitized authenticity.

The word authenticity implies a genuine, distilled sort of experience, a kind of transitory purity that may exist somewhere, but will be gone as soon as we lay our eyes on it.

Some time back I watched an episode of Globe Trekker where the host visited a tree house dwelling tribe in – oh, was it New Guinea? And I remember seeing western t-shirts on some of the tribe, left behind by the last camera crew, perhaps?

Sure, travel companies will charge you a lot of money to offer up a “real” experience, but what you’re purchasing is no more or less authentic for its exclusivity.

A Return Home

seattle space needleHere in Seattle you can take a ferry out to an island and attend a “genuine” Native American powwow, with salmon bake and native dances – but the powwow we stumbled into last summer had a fun fair and roller coasters.

There was a salmon bake and dancing, but also, cotton candy and fairground games where you could win a giant pale pink teddy bear. Was it less authentic?

The strip malls of Vegas are no less real than the Kingdom of Bhutan. We have to stop being offended by the Bob Marley cassettes, no, the Pearl Jam CDs, left behind by the last generation of travelers and take it as part of the experience.

It is what is real now and when we travel we are in it. We are both cause and effect of this perceived lack of authenticity.

We’re relying on our destinations to provide it, but it’s Shangri-la, it’s Atlantis, it’s Brigadoon and Camelot. You can’t get there from here.

The best we can hope for is to be authentic in our travels. Wherever we go, there we are.

This post was originally published on Nerd’s Eye View. Reprinted with permission.

Pam Mandel is a freelance technical writer, as well as the travel editor for BlogHer. She keeps her own personal blog of photography and musing’s at Nerd’s Eye View.

What do you think about culture and authenticity?

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