What is Authentic Traveling? (2/3)

What is Authentic Traveling. Authenticity is not simply doing what the locals do.
Authenticity is not simply doing what the locals do.

In Part 1 of the series, we talked about why pursuing authenticity in traveling is such a perplexing task. To understand what authenticity is, we look at five ways travellers misunderstand the concept.

In this post, we will continue the list and start at myth #2.


Myth #2: Equating Authenticity to What the Locals Do (or Don’t Do)

Observing what the locals do may give us some insight into their culture, but it may not always be the kind that we are looking for. It is romantic to imagine that we can just hop on a local bus, hop off at a random spot, and find a community untouched by the tentacles of modernity.

That is a good plan until we discover that those people are an episode ahead of us in Game of Thrones and could recite from memory the secret Starbucks orders we never knew existed. Many uses the same Procter & Gamble soaps we use at home, drink beverages owned by the Coca-Cola Company, and are equally clueless about their ancient rituals as we are.

One discovery from traveling is the realization of how similar people are across the globe, in both temperament and the way they conduct their daily lives. Is it a cause for celebration or grievance? Does that mean even the locals are not “authentic” to their own culture?

We will expand on this question in a later section (myth #4). But for now, without going into the morality of globalization and the extent of cultural imperialism, we need to recognize and accept that there are overlaps between cultures – similarities and differences are equally integral to seeing the culture for what it is.

So instead of imitating locals to gauge authenticity, it is better to first ask ourselves what is it that we seek. Are we looking to understand the place as it is or aspects of it that highlight our beliefs of how it should be?

If we want to witness and participate in traditions untouched by Westernization, then looking for locals off the beaten path may very well be the best way to have an experience authentic to our intent. But again, we should be aware that they constitute only a part of a culture, not the whole, and they are definitely not the final arbiter of authenticity.


Myth #3: Equating Authenticity to Exoticism

One example of travel inspiration are the photos of exotic landscapes and promises of a destination that resembles heaven on earth. Those white sandy beaches, face-painting natives, and dances and rituals dating back hundreds of years figure prominently in the advertisement brochures of travel agencies.

Most don’t see, however, the transports that carry imported sands from nearby countries, the “natives” who put on costumes and drive their Toyota to their Saturday night gigs, and the dance rituals carefully choreographed to reflect a convenient balance of savagery and Disneyesque theatricality. And that mystical tree people tie their written wishes to? It was planted a few years back at the request of tourism bureau’s marketing department.

It is easy to confuse something that is exotic with something that is real in the sense that it naturally exists outside the tourism industry. There are some of us who still refuse to believe that many of the indigenous people in the faraway land cook with a microwave and not fire sparked from some magic stone. And we can be certain that the locals will gladly play into such imagination in order to promote business.

For those who desire cultural accuracy, those exotic affairs would not be authentic. For others who simply want to be entertained, visiting those places would be perfectly authentic for their weekend getaways.

Of course, not all rituals are fabricated. Many are based on traditions and historical facts. Still, while those acts may be true to form, our relationship to them is not. In a way, we already intuitively feel this when we, for example, purchase our way into participating in an ancient “hunting” ceremony.

This suspicious and slightly silly feeling we get arises from the misalignment of the intent and the original purpose of that cultural act. A ritual performed to appease the gods of hunting before an actual hunt is true to its intent; the same ritual performed in front of audiences for profit is not. One is functional, another is transactional.

For those who seek education, such performance may be authentic. For others who actually wants experience a hunting ritual, paying to watch such performance would not be authentic. Again, what is the intent?


Myth #4: Equating Authenticity to Certain Historical Periods

Claude Debussy was an iconic French composer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works underlaid the core of French Impressionist movement and influenced many generations of composers who followed.

Interestingly, a defining characteristic of his music is the use of scales and chord motions borrowed from the Javanese Gamelan, a traditional music of Java and Bali in Indonesia.

While one can identify the Asian influence in Debussy’s works, one cannot easily accuse his works of not being “French” enough, or that it is not “authentic” to the French style. It is what it is, and what it is is inseparable from the culture that spawns it.

Likewise, the arrival of Greco-Roman culture, Christianity, Protestant Reformation, and the eventual separation of Church and State are all structural changes that have fossilized into layers of cultural bedrock of many European countries.

Many of those changes were not only drastically different from the cultures they replace, they were also originated from places foreign to many of the host countries.

This illustrates a point — culture and its history are not static but in a constant state of flux. Fashion and ideas continuously interact and replace each other. In the long view of history, those influences become so integral to a culture that to exclude them for a more “authentic” view of that culture is absurd.

When we insist on a certain cultural expression as the benchmark for authenticity, what we are really looking for is a specific slice of that culture’s long history. While there is nothing wrong with that, insisting on its exclusivity runs the risk of seeing history in a narrow and static point of view. An attempt to understand a foreign culture solely through its tradition is like defining Western culture entirely through horse carriages and muskets.

Continued in Part 3 | Back to Part 1

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