In Search of the Authentic


‘Get a taste of the authentic…visit the ethnic villages…try a traditional mud bath..’ – these are the kinds of slogans you see advertising day trips, boat excursions and mountain treks. Tourist agencies are keen to sell us a piece of the real, the genuine, the ‘authentic’. It seems to me a strange thing to sell, but I understand of course why they are so popular and fellow travellers often state they are looking for an authentic experience. What they seem to mean by this is an experience they themselves associate with the place they’re visiting; such as traditional dress, food and other aspects of ‘culture’. The disappointment is often visible if they can’t find this apparent truth. So what’s wrong with this? Probably not that much, but something makes me feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of something being ‘real’ in this way.

To me, this search for the authentic feels a little too much like being in a museum; searching for the exotic, the ‘other’. As interesting and engrossing as I find travelling to be, I don’t see countries as museum pieces or exhibits to tick-off on my list. I don’t regard the people as trophies to photograph and the natural surroundings as a playground to jet-ski or amble through on elephant back. But does anyone really? I doubt few do in that way, not consciously at least. I saw many examples though of what may be less conscious or considered behaviour. In a Cambodian centre for people who’ve lost limbs from land mines, I watched a family photograph young men with prosthetic limbs, standing 2 feet in front of them, without asking and without saying a word to them. The father ushered his daughter into the photo. She posed, smiled, he took the picture and they left. Again and again we saw tourists collecting these experiences like tokens to be cashed-in at home or on social media; as though having your photo taken with a ‘real land mine victim’ (who you didn’t communicate with, or even smile at) authenticates your trip. I might sound like I’m whinging here; I know people are like this and I know that it’s hardly the end of the world in the big scheme of things – there are clearly more pressing problems than a few rude or oblivious tourists doing the rounds. But this kind of thing happened so often that it concerned me and I wondered if, in fact, this is at the root of many of our problems. For while we see each other as separate, while we remain superficially engaged with others – passing by them as though we are the current, they the exhibit – we will remain at odds.


If I don’t want these kinds of photos, these exchanges, what am I looking for instead? Well not much really I suppose – I’m there in lots of ways to see what happens, to see who I meet, what I might come across, what I might hear and experience. This all sounds quite noble, but in all honesty it comes not only from my intention to respect the people and the place I’m visiting, but also from a kind of passive, apologetic standpoint:

“I’m sorry for what my country did to yours. I’m sorry we stole all that land and killed 75% of your ancestors. I’m sorry we enslaved you, stole your children, your spices, your jewels, your forests, your rivers…I’m sorry that because of all that, I’m the one sitting in your cafe, eating your food while your wife sweats in the kitchen for me and your children clean the tables. I REALLY AM VERY SORRY!!!”

These kinds of thoughts drove me crazy and tend to get in the way of every single interaction! And really, it’s pretty patronising and condescending even to think such things. Nevertheless, this is the battle I had in my head every day of the trip, which my wife (though not party to every single thought) will confirm can be a tad debilitating and can make the most simple of tasks a drawn-out, ridiculously polite affair! When someone was rude to us, I would cut them a little extra slack:

“Well if your grandparents had been separated from their ancestral lands…if you had to serve white people all day long as a result of the current global economic and political situation born out of the colonial era…etc etc!”

What a ridiculous way to travel around the world!!

But, that’s how I did it – being irritatingly polite, frustratingly passive and exhibiting an odd, I-am-not-worthy air about me at times. I said a sincere ‘yes please’ or ‘no thank you’ (with full eye-contact) to everyone that asked or offered anything; be it a taxi ride, a fish curry or a little beachside opium. But, as you’ll know if you’ve travelled much, that leaves you little time for anything else! What spurred me on was seeing fellow travellers not even acknowledge the existence of others, no matter how irritating their requests might be. One thing we can offer everyone at the very least, for free, is our attention and respect.


But what’s all this got to do with the authentic?

Well, if I as a traveller turn up somewhere looking for what I consider to be the ‘real’ version of ‘them’, what exactly am I saying in doing so? I’m implying that I know what the ‘real’ is for a start. By extension I’m also denying, or perhaps disregarding, the peoples’ right to redefine the authentic; they are not passive, non-actors in the world. They are the real, the authentic, simply by being there surely? In saying this I am not claiming that it’s wrong to seek out the elements of traditional ‘culture’ that a place may be well-known for. Of course it’s not. It is the way we, as tourists, go about it that could arguably be interpreted as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’.

You could also say I’m being pedantic or too academic in my thinking here and perhaps I am. It’s important though, I think, to consider the words we use and how our thinking influences (no matter how subtly) the way we interpret and interact with the world and then consequently the effect we have upon it in return. Along the way we met a lot of tourists who seemed to feel short-changed if they hadn’t seen an ‘authentic’ dancing troop or eaten the ‘real’ food. But it is of course these ‘real’ peoples’ right to carry, pickup or drop whatever parts of their ‘culture’ that they choose and this decision is no doubt hugely individual. What makes this even more complex of course is that outside (often colonial) forces and/or influences have been responsible, to a greater or lesser extent, for this change in (or adaptation of) ‘tradition’, ‘culture’, the ‘authentic’. Coming from a place that has more than a little blood on its hands, I continually asked myself how I should behave. Am I being paternal, patronising even to seek out the traditional – would my enthusiasm be interpreted as a gentle pat on the head (“well done, good for you”) or as genuine, simple, good-old fashioned interest? In this search for the authentic do we get distracted? Do we in fact gloss over the truths of history, side-stepping any questions that may arise from a more considered, contextualised analysis?

Hang on though! Isn’t travelling supposed to be enjoyable, fun – an adventure?! I make it sound like a dissertation, a research project! Am I just thinking way too much about everything?! Maybe I need to plonk myself down on a beach with a mojito and some Jodi Picoult*!

I’m pretty sure that yes I do think things through quite a lot and maybe take things all too seriously! But it comes not from a place of all-knowingness, nor judgment; rather one of uncertainty and perhaps childish fascination. Whilst I may squirm sometimes at those tourists who behave differently to myself, I don’t look down my nose at them and in many ways I envy the relaxed, personable way that many travellers experience the world; full of laughter and smiles, not overly thought-out, crippling politeness! What I try to do is keep asking more questions, try to see things from as many angles as possible. Above all, to embrace the confusion I find in such a wonderfully complex world. We can of course never know everything, never appreciate every viewpoint and never really catch the ‘authentic’. Like everyone else, we are part of it and can choose how to shape it, albeit in a minute way. To continue the museum metaphor, as long as we see the world in this way, we will remain separate from it. It will always be ‘us’ looking at ‘them’; ‘our’ current, modern version of events versus ‘their’ traditional, old-fashioned. But we all exist right here at the same moment in time – none of us are any further forward or behind. It is now, whether you live in a rainforest or a luxury, automated apartment. If we choose to be aware of the connections between us, we may be able to grasp a greater, truer sense of the responsibilities that come with that and understand that we all exist, authentically, side by side.

(* I have nothing against Jodi Picoult – I’ve just noticed a lot of her books about these days!)