Why do we travel?
For those of us privileged enough to be able to travel voluntarily, reasons often include becoming more fully ourselves and experiencing something genuinely different. This desire for authenticity, in ourselves and in that which we perceive to be other and outside our current experiences, is widespread enough to be noticed and exploited by the tourism industry, with signs reading “experience the REAL Thailand” and “find yourself in Bali”.
Seeking authenticity in our travels comes from a good place. It highlights our desires for genuine interactions with other human beings, for learning about the experiences of those with different life paths and identities, and possibly even for utilizing our privilege to support real people instead of opportunistic corporations removed from the locations in which they operate.
However, as is the case with many good intentions, this desire for authenticity can be harmful. Much of this harm stems from a strict and arbitrary idea of what counts as authentic and the fact that the privileged traveler has the power to decide what makes the cut. For instance, while spending 3 months in Zimbabwe a few years ago, I asked several friends what their cuisine had looked like prior to British colonization. As their current main foodstuff, a labor-intensive dry porridge called sadza that holds its shape when spooned onto a plate, is made of cornmeal, it couldn’t have existed prior to the transfer of corn to Africa from the Americas. I’ve had similar questions about Italian, British and South Asian cuisines before tomatoes, potatoes, and chili peppers made a similar journey. From my perspective, sadza was a colonial by-product, as was the black tea served alongside it. When I shared this view with my friends, the effect was clear: my strict and arbitrary definition of what could be considered authentically Zimbabwean delegitimized and minimized their identity and emotional ties to the food they knew and loved.
This highlights a tendency in our search for authenticity - to regard older traditions and cultural forms and those which predate recent cultural exchange as more authentic. This viewpoint is understandable, especially as a reaction against the infiltration of Western corporations such as Coca Cola into most crannies of the world, including a remote village in eastern Zimbabwe, and the Westernization of many popular tourist destinations, from food offerings to street signs. Yet the reality is that all places and peoples are dynamic. Historical and current globalization, the movement of people, ideas and things, has fostered cultural exchange and the transformation of traditions over time. Cultures also evolve without interaction with outside forces. When we define authenticity as similarity of a particular part of a culture to its version at a particular point in history, we mistakenly regard people and places as static, freezing them in time.
Aside from our tendency to award authentic status to more longstanding traditions, we also withhold this label unless the cultural form feels “other” enough and different enough from our cultural forms to be plausibly untainted by them. But ironically and cruelly, our globally dominant culture and associated language simultaneously demand conformity for material gain and social acceptance. Without this, the inherent amount of difference between cultures would render many practically inaccessible to travelers.
When we travel in search of authenticity with these unconscious assumptions and unfair expectations lurking in our minds, we often end up unknowingly demanding that locals perform a certain version of their culture for our tourist dollars. The result is a paradox: we want specific historical versions of cultures that are different enough from our own to feel authentic but similar enough to actually understand and enjoy. We travel to search for authenticity, but by traveling we reinforce the global dominance of our culture which demeans and degrades the other cultures we seek to experience. Seeking authenticity obscures it from us.
It also shortchanges us. Traveling with a particular idea of what authentic looks, tastes, smells and sounds like creates expectations and takes our attention away from what is. When we’re less present with ourselves, where we are, and the people around us, we’re less likely to feel deeply satisfied in addition to being more likely to cause accidental harm.
So, what to do? Here are some guidelines for navigating these realities:
1. Take people and places as they are now
Don’t force them to live up to some idea conjured up by tourist companies, history books, or your own mind as the antithesis to your everyday life. Don’t expect them to be similar enough to be accessible and understandable to you. On the flip side, don’t expect them to be different enough so that you can feel like you’ve escaped your daily grind and your culture. Manage your expectations or avoid forming them. Of course, it is very hard to travel with no inkling of what you’re going to find once you arrive, but be honest with yourself. Why are you drawn to particular places? What expectations do you have? Find balance - have just enough foresight to plan yet not enough to keep you from accepting what is when you’re there. The best days often come when you're not expecting them.
2. Only do what you actually want to do
Travel guides and guidance from friends are riddled with “must sees”. What if nothing on those lists strikes your fancy? I almost always skip museums when I travel. While you could argue that I’m missing out on important historical context, I would argue that I’ve never absorbed this information from museums even when I’ve forced myself to go to them. Luckily, each place and culture and even person is unfathomably complex and contains endless dimensions. Engage in the same activities you enjoy in back home and try new ones which feel right. Do you in a new place. By living your truth while traveling, you’re more likely to find authenticity in the place you’re visiting.
3. Engage other cultures carefully
Cultural exchange can be mutually beneficial but it can also be oppressive. Acknowledge the power dynamics in your interactions with non-travelers. Be aware that you probably embody and therefore unknowingly reinforce ideals that other people must conform to in order to gain social currency and acceptance. And make sure your engagement with other cultures doesn’t cross the line into appropriation. Appropriation can take many forms, but it almost always involves travelers benefiting materially from or being praised for a particular cultural form while the people to whom that cultural form belongs are ridiculed, persecuted, or exploited for it. Engage from a place of humility to learn, not to seek validation or make money. Always respect the stated boundaries of engagement, and where appropriate, wait to be invited.
Instigated by studies in Sustainable Development at the University of Edinburgh, Sarah has spent the majority of her adult life between 20+ countries. She is intrigued by the global infrastructure that produces inequality and many interlocking revolutionary solutions to the ills of the world as we know it. As a purposeful nomad on a journey to eradicate oppression in all its forms, she has worked alongside locals from Sweden to Zimbabwe. She is a lover of compassionate critique, aligning impacts with intentions, and flipping (your view of) the world upside down.