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Travel and the quest for "authenticity"

I've had the blessing and privilege of doing a fair amount of international travel. It all started when I spent a semester in France the summer of my second year of college. At that time, I wasn't familiar with the premium some travelers place on "authentic" experiences. With more travel, to cultures that differ even more from my own than France, I've encountered this idea of authenticity, and it troubles me.


Who wants authentic international experiences? Generally, more experienced travelers. They are people, like me, who had some pretty tame beginning travel experiences, and have leveled up. Coming mainly from Europe, North America, and Australia, they are bored by their closest cultural cousins and seek the ever-more exotic. While hordes of plebes are clotting up the Louvre and posing with London police boxes, these travelers are eating plates of crickets in Bangkok, hitching rides in Siberia, or haggling for boat rides in Zanzibar. They like to stretch themselves and discover the strangest (to them) things the world has to offer. When they meet up with other adventure travelers, they casually exchange stories about that crazy night in Paramaribo, the monastery that's an 18 hour bus ride (and a two hour walk) from Seoul, or the time they thought they might die alone in Mexico. Sometimes there's bonding in the telling, but sometimes it's a game of one-upsmanship in which the teller is bragging about their efforts to find the most authentic or extreme experience in a strange land.


The concept of authenticity in travel implies something that exists independent of western culture, and independent of the existence of tourism. Travelers may complain that a previously "unspoiled" place is now "ruined." Ruined in this case usually means, "It has become more like my home country so I don't like it anymore." This particularly applies to less industrialized countries where people live with more material poverty. Travelers want to see those people pumping water from a community well, not flipping on the tap in their own kitchen. They want to see donkey carts, not mopeds. They want to see happy children writing on slates under a tree, not in high tech computer labs learning to make websites. They want to see women wearing the labor-intensive traditional clothing, not the latest fast fashion from Europe or America.


What they want to see is material poverty.


Years ago, I was on a blind date with a man who was from a different culture than mine. We talked a bit about travel. I got on a roll about some of the places I had been, and he accused me of "poverty tourism." He said I only traveled to gawk at poor people. I denied it, and defended myself. And it's true, I did not, and do not, travel to gawk at poor people. I travel because I am fascinated by all the different cultures around the world, and how they reflect humans adapting to their surroundings. It's also a ridiculously beautiful planet, and there is no substitute for seeing some of the most beautiful vistas in person. I have an inquisitive mind, and a change of scenery will perk me right up in a hurry.


Yet I understand why he said that. Because poverty tourism looks a lot like what I do. That conversation with him started me on a path of soul-searching about travel. Why was I traveling? What did I get out of it? What did I take, or give, through travel? Why are other people traveling? How do people in the visited places feel about it? How is tourism affecting them? These are questions for a separate blog, and they are important. For now, let's go back to authenticity.


It's easy for people from richer countries to lament the loss of "authenticity" in poorer countries. I think this idea of authenticity is a proxy for poverty. The truth is much of developed country culture comes from material wealth. We have things like ATMs, clean drinking water from a reliable municipal system, functional governments, lots of vehicles, good cell phone coverage, digital literacy, and even pet food, as a result of our shared material wealth. And you know what? Those things are great! I really like being able to trust the water that comes out of the numerous taps in my house, and I like not having to devote a portion of my day to hauling water. I like that my laundry takes maybe half an hour of labor instead of a couple of hours, including walking to the washing spot, beating the clothes on the rocks, and hanging them to dry. I like that if I don't know where my friend is, I can send them a text and find out. And it's so easy for me to travel to visit family and friends! Surprise, surprise, poor people think those things are great, too! And when they get some money, that's the kind of stuff they buy. Would you choose to give up your access to a washing machine so you can live a more authentic life? Would you stop eating cuisine that isn't Native American to try to live more authentically North American? Would you give up your cell phone and rely on traveling acquaintances to deliver messages? I bet not.


It's easy to sit in an air-conditioned Starbucks and write a blog on your MacBook lamenting the loss of "the REAL Country X." But what you are really lamenting is the loss of poverty. The ATM that popped up in that remote place? Guess what, local people use that to get cash, just like you do. The computer lab at the grammar school? Those kids are using it to learn about the world, just like kids in your hometown. And that lady wearing the traditional costume? She's got her cellphone tucked in her dress so she can keep track of her kids, who sometimes wander off without telling her, just like kids in your town.


Wealth comes at a cost for culture. It is easy to see that loss in the United States. Wealth allows us to isolate from each other. We don't have to have company to do the laundry, because it takes so little time. We don't need neighbors to help raise the barn because we don't run small farms so much. We don't have our big extended families nearby because wealth has given us access to education, medicine, and family planning, so families are smaller and it's likely all the children will survive; and also because wealth allows us to move away for better opportunities. We gave away an authentic kind of interconnectedness in exchange for ease and convenience.


We got that wealth by sacrificing our natural resources and enslaved and oppressed people. We are feasting on the carcass of a previously "unspoiled" country. Yet as we fidget with the smartphone in our hand, we sign digital petitions opposing other countries selling off their natural resources so they can get the same things we have. We want other countries to hold for us the authentic hearts we used to have. And that is unfair. If the wealthy have holes in their hearts, it is not the responsibility of the poor who are working hard to have children stop dying from unclean water, or the forest dwellers who are selling some land so their kids can go to school.


This is not to say that the preservation of ecosystems in the service of stabilizing our climate is not an urgent and global issue. But while rich people are crying real tears at the loss of another million acres of Amazon rainforest, I haven't seen anyone circulate a petition supporting the replanting of the great hardwood forests of New England, or the removal of towns and cities to permit restoration of the prairies of the Midwest. Giving up our wealth to restore our own home and our own hearts somehow never seems to be an option. Instead, we ask others to forego their own wealth so we can sleep peacefully, smartphones under our pillows.

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