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Traveling “authentically”

Can we dispense with the bullshit of “authentic travel”? No? Okay, fine, let’s discuss because I’ve recently become rather fired up about it and would like to drop my nickel in this bag.

1. You will never, ever experience a foreign country as a local or a native. This is not a knock on your desire to be as ‘low impact’ as possible, particularly if you’re a Westerner or from some other modernized country (because Scandinavia is first world but not Western, same as Japan) but ‘low impact’ does not equal ‘no impact’ nor does it mean that you’ve managed to assimilate yourself in less time than it takes to cross the globe via jet plane.

Even if you have saved your ducats and pounds over a period of time to take a trip to another country and you need to budget to make sure you can last through the length of your trip, you are a) having an opportunity 90% of people in that country will never even consider, let alone have, b) you will have an outsider’s frame even if you make best efforts to have an insider’s frame, and c) this is an option for you. It is an option and at any point in time you can lift your hands and cry uncle and leave.

You can leave; they can’t. If you think that doesn’t color your experience then you have no understanding of constraints, and if you have no understanding of constraints, I can’t even talk to you.

2. This is not to say that you can’t live in a place for a really, really long time and develop a measure of ‘local sensibility’ but even so, you will still struggle. I have a friend who has lived for a number of years overseas, speaks the language of her chosen home fluently, and still thinks in English. She feels that extra half-second of thought in every conversation. I have another friend who skipped back and forth between two countries while growing up and still experiences a form of “cultural vertigo” which strikes her at the oddest points – she gets homesick; she looks around and doesn’t understand why she’s where she is versus where she’s not; she has to ground herself again and again.

Are their experiences authentic? Of course! But if they struggle, you think in a week, a month, even a year or so you’ll have had “traveled authentically”? Piss off.

3. Everything looks prettier in pictures and photo books. That’s why we look through these things; they whet our appetites, excite us, and sometimes yes, you do find exactly what you’re looking for. Even if you get off the tourist beaten path, even if you stay with a local or native family, you are a guest. And guests will always see the best that there is to see. That is not to say that “best” = “great” but is it better than the norm?

Do not kid yourself. Be smarter than that.

4. It’s so fucking condescending. Please excuse my language–no, sorry, don’t excuse me, I meant it. It is so fucking condescending to imagine that one way is authentic and one is not. Whether you travel with private security, an entourage and a retinue or if you travel with just your shoes tied to your backpack, why is one way more authentic than the other? The question of authenticity belongs either to you–which is about how you see the world and so is fundamentally authentic or it belongs to the place that you’re visiting, or to them (as in the “them” of the country you’re visiting) and you are always a “not them” so it’s either fundamentally unauthentic, your presence, or fundamentally authentic because your position is that of visitor.

Pick your poison: they’ll all kill you in the end.

5. Go anyway. And I mean that. It is more important that you go than how or why or when. It is more important that you go and you see that there is a world outside your world. It doesn’t matter if you go from a third world nation to a first or vice versa; go. See the world. See the different flavors of our world. See the colors. See the people. Taste the food. Smell the air. Touch, touch the earth and the concrete and the steel and the trees and the grass. Feel everything. Go.

[end rant]


About Quinn

In it but not of it. A reformed player, now watcher. Speaker of raw truths.


3 thoughts on “Traveling “authentically”

  1. Great article. Well said.

    Posted by Jono Cusack | 28 November 2013, 2237 EDT
  2. disagree, but not with everything

    Posted by Elena Levon | 29 November 2013, 0053 EDT

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November 2013
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