In Search of the Authentic

Travel

‘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.

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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.

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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!)

A Rubbish Post

Travel

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Our recent travels took us through India, Vietnam and Cambodia – three countries in which you’ll see piles of rubbish burning on the sides of roads, either frequently or constantly, depending on exactly where you are. We went to India first, which of the three was by far the worst in this respect. So bad in fact that we almost didn’t notice the rubbish when we arrived in Vietnam. It’s all very well coming in from the outside and being appalled by just how much rubbish there is though, while your being there contributes to it. This clearly narrows the scope you have for disgust or complaint. Nevertheless, we had to drink water while in India obviously, but we were told (and didn’t particularly want to test it out) that the tap water was unsafe. So, we bought plastic bottled water – and it’s these plastic bottles that are just absolutely everywhere; the labels don’t even bother suggesting that you recycle them. They simply ask you to crush them, so that they might take up less space in landfill. So as we passed through, astounded by the scale of the problem, our options were get ill, dehydrate completely or contribute. So who’s to blame, if anyone?

Supposing it is that you cannot drink the tap water, which I suspect is the case, what’s the solution to that? Better quality tap water obviously. But what about the major producers of one of the main problems, the bottles – Nestlé, Pepsi & Coca-Cola. Not only do the leftovers of their more obvious products litter the entire country, but the water bottles they produce provide millions of gallons each day, especially to foreigners like myself. I shudder to think just how many bottles we got through in the relatively short time we were there. Perhaps a more important question then is who benefits from the tap water being apparently undrinkable? Well, Nestlé, Pepsi and Coca-Cola certainly do pretty well out of it. Would it be beyond them to lobby the Indian government, discouraging or slowing down investment in the infrastructure needed to make tap water drinkable?

But it’s not just bottles. An Indian family friend who traveled with us for a few days, laughed at us for not throwing our rubbish on the street. ‘You’re in India now’ he joked. The same thing happened on the toy train from Pathankot to Kangra. En-route we stopped briefly enough to grab some food through the window. It was served on a polystyrene tray, which we didn’t really notice being so hungry and a little naive at that point. On we went, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, the train taking a great curved line along the edge of hills that yawned gently down towards the wildlife sanctuary of Maharana Pratap Sagar. Trays fluttered from the windows as others finished their snack. I instead, hung my arm out of the window, dangling the tray so that the sticky sauce might run off it and I could slip it into the pocket of my backpack. The couple opposite sniggered as I fiddled around with it. Hundreds of miles away, watching the sun go down from a bridge in Rishikesh, we watched a man pull-up on a motorbike and lob plastic bags of rubbish in to the ‘holy’ Ganj. At the Himalayan foothills, cows lazily munched on rubbish a short walk from the Dalai Lama’s residence. Every train-line, every road, every river has a plastic residue.

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It would really be very easy for me to criticise coming from a place where waste disposal and recycling is part of the weekly routine and really it’s a luxury for me to be able deliberate over it like this. It might too seem like a kind of patronising, lefty, eco-sadness but the scale of the problem in India alone is so overwhelming that, being completely truthful, I’m not quite sure that there is much we can do. It feels we may have passed the point of no return. Of course I don’t want that to be true – I’d like to think that if we ALL start recycling etc etc, we’ll save ourselves right at the very last moment. But I know that this is neither the solution nor very likely.

In a country of more than 1 billion too, I expect that for the majority of Indians there are far more pressing problems than plastic in the rivers (and they certainly don’t need me telling them to get their priorities right after a few weeks swanning around eating Masala!). Survival from day-to-day seems to be way higher up the list for most, especially those we call the financially and economically poor. Who then, does it come down to? Well all of us I suppose, no matter how disengaging a statement that may be.

While we may all be able to effect change, the force with which we can do so is not necessarily equally or democratically shared out. So-called ‘product stewardship’ now exists and is supposed to encourage producers to consider (and be responsible for to some extent) the life of their product beyond the point at which it is sold. If taken seriously, companies like Coca-Cola would be using compostable materials and/or taking responsibility for proper, efficient, sustainable means of recycling. This could include every aspect of the process, from collection to finished, recycled product. (If taken really seriously, Coca-Cola would voluntarily fold altogether). This is unlikely to happen until they are either legally or economically compelled to follow such a path.

A friend we made along the way, from Germany, who was equally astounded by the magnitude of the problem, suggested that it would continue to get worse until plastic became a scarcity, at which point we would be compelled to dig up, clean and reuse all that which we’ve buried. Sadly I think he may be right.

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Of course India is not the only country with this problem and the reality is obviously that we share it, some of us moving it to someone else’s country; those in Europe have long been sending their waste and ‘recycling’ to other countries for ‘processing’. We are a little delusional if we think this is always what happens or indeed that even if it does that it is the end of the problem. Aside from being aesthetically displeasing, litter on the ground and in the rivers is probably leading us towards a toxic apocalypse of sorts. This is something that most of us, if we stop to think about it honestly and for long enough, probably know.

So despite what it might sound like, I’m not trying to gain the moral high ground here or to preach; I’m as much a part of the problem as anyone and I don’t shirk my responsibilities. In fact I can quite honestly say I didn’t drop a single piece of litter the whole time we were traveling – very noble of me I know! But what good did that actually do?! Every piece I didn’t drop, ended up being in a bin that was burnt on the side of the road or piled on top of other bins, that blew down the road or into rivers. What was the point of me holding on to it all as though it would make a difference? This is the question that any of us are faced with when we think about resisting, revolting, recycling, protesting…what difference will my tiny effort or contribution make amongst such a great mess?

Of far greater use to the planet, would be if I didn’t consume anything; if I didn’t use the products in the first place, nevermind bending over backwards each week to make sure not a single tin, bottle or container slips in to the landfill bin. Even better though, if I didn’t exist at all! Sadly though, perhaps for planet earth at least (and you too if I’m going on a little!), I do and my challenge is to navigate my way through to death causing minimal harm! We can all take this challenge on if we choose, but again the same question comes up – what difference will my tiny effort make? Why should I deny myself the luxuries, the ‘pleasures’ that money can bring when apparently no one else cares? Isn’t life hard enough without all these extra constraints, all this guilt, all this worry? Doesn’t it distract from the important things? Being too serious about things can take the joy out of life, the spontaneity; it can distract us so much we miss the genuine, real, simple pleasures – the ones that cost and damage nothing.

But it doesn’t have to be serious, or oppressive. A friend once told me that rather than try to do everything, she chose to do some things really, really well. And while this might sound like a bit of an excuse, it’s realistic, achievable and leaves you room for some joy.

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Now, back to me! Where am I going with all this? I went traveling and didn’t like all the rubbish everywhere, so what? Get over it. Welcome to the real world. I don’t have the answers – I’m contradictory and hypocritical in my actions like most people. Maybe not as much as some, but more than others no doubt. What then can I offer? I can’t solve all the problems, I can’t change the world with a quiet little blog post. What I do have though is a really bad analogy and here it is:

We the minority ‘rich’, stand on the edge of the swimming pool sunning ourselves, drinking cocktails, pissing in to the water. The trouble is we haven’t realised the pool’s getting bigger and soon enough there’ll be no edge to stand on and we’ll all be flailing around in the great, drain-less urinal we’ve created! Nothing can stop this now. It’s too late!

So, what can we do if we’re all going to end up in the water anyway……??

STOP PISSING IN IT!!

On travel

Travel

First of all, there’s probably no point in reading what I have to say without knowing something about me – enough to be able to put my words in to context. So, without giving you an unnecessary biography, here’s what kind of traveller I am.

Born in England, I’ve been to roughly 25 countries in my 33 years, some only very briefly on holiday, others as a backpacker. This most recent trip was very much as the latter, sticking to about $10-$20 per day depending on the place. To do this meant mostly taking public transport rather than taxis and/or tours, staying in reasonable but not lavish accommodation and eating in plenty of ‘local’ places too. As a result, we got a pretty good idea of how the average tourist travels around, what they might see and who they might meet. We also found ourselves miles from any other backpackers and gained glimpses of how the people of those countries live. Of course, I’d never claim to know how any other person experiences life, so I won’t pretend to here.

While travelling I always try to treat people with the respect, politeness and understanding I think we all deserve. Of course it’s easy to say that, but heat, dust, lack of sleep and lying rickshaw drivers can push us all beyond our normal limits and I’m no exception! Equally, few people would say they try to be mean, rude or disrespectful whilst on their travels – but many are. How you behave is probably determined by how you see the world and yourself (and perhaps your nation) within it. Being English, it would be easy for me to see it as a place I used to all but own, or certainly dominate; the rest of the world should be grateful for the things my ancestors brought them. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, as you may see if you read more of my posts, I verge (unintentionally) towards the apologetic and consequently have a tendency to think things through probably way too much – to the point of it being debilitating in many instances. As we all know, being aware of things (or simply being aware there are things we should be aware of…even if we aren’t quite sure what they are!) can sometimes be more of a problem than being ignorant.

Having said that, for me, one of the most important things about travelling is facing these internal challenges – there are so many situations that draw out the contradictions in us and can both disgust and inspire us in equal measure. How do you reconcile shouting ‘I SAID NOOOOOOOOOO!’ to a woman asking you for money to feed the child in her arms? Can you? How we process and come to terms with all of this is hopefully the greatest lesson and greatest gain we can emerge from traveling with. Or…we can end up even more confused than when we first set off!

These posts might give an indication as to which is true for me!

The Boy

Travel

Currently in-between trips I’ve recently returned from traveling with my wife for a few months in India, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia. These pages explore the journeys we made, the people we met and the thoughts I had along the way.

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Rather than offer a guide to the places or a lowdown on the best things to see, I’ve tried instead to explore the complexities of the modern world and how we relate to everyone we meet or pass by – be they driving our tuk-tuk, sharing our dorm or asking for our money.

I don’t pretend to do this profoundly or with any greater authority than you or anyone else – but I hope it sparks some interest.