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The Loaded Question: What is Authentic Travel, Exactly?

October 1, 2010

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.  -James Michener

First morning in Seoul

My first morning in Seoul

It’s been over ten years now and most of the memories have faded but a few of the moments of my time in South Korea stand out: the bright green pleather seats of the airport in Osaka, Japan, as we waited for the flight that would take us to Seoul. The crazy traffic leaving the airport on the way to our accommodations once we finally arrived. Waking up early on my first morning in Seoul before many of the stores had opened and exploring the neighborhood near our hostel.

This was my first real international trip and there I was on the other side of the world in South Korea. I hadn’t gone alone. It was the summer after my senior year of college and I had travelled to Asia—Asia!—with a group from my church. Imagine how ecstatic I was! Me–in Asia. There were times I had to pinch myself because I simply couldn’t believe it. I was twenty-two years old and much of my experience of the world had been limited to the Western hemisphere. But there I was, half a world away, on another continent.

Traditional Korean dance performance

Reenactors perform traditional Korean dance

Having studied Korean for two years in college, I didn’t feel completely unprepared for what I would see and experience in Seoul but it felt unreal seeing the language all around me: on the storefronts, the street signs, the food packaging. Everywhere. My most vivid memories are comprised of the occasions when I immersed myself in the culture. On that first day, eating soondae, a sort of blood sausage made of pig intestines filled with rice, from a street vendor. Trying quail eggs for the first time. Meeting the locals, including the crazy lady in park who approached me, stroked my face, and called me beautiful. Wow. Writing about it takes me back to those moments.

I was such a little girl then during my time in Seoul. Twenty-two years old, but still. I thought myself so superior to other group members who chose to eat at Pizza Hut or KFC while I had a lunch of mandu almost every day at a little hole in the wall restaurant near the hostel. And on the last day, when I wanted to go exploring one of the 15th century palaces on my own and being told that the whole group would be going to Lotte World, basically the equivalent of a Disney theme park? Talk about pissed.

I’m older now, and with age has come wisdom. While I’m less likely to thumb my nose at someone else for not wanting to immerse themselves in the authentic elements of a different culture, I  still ask myself: why travel if not to immerse yourself in the culture and customs of a new place? Isn’t that what authentic travel, “real” travel, is all about?

A recent article published online in the New York Times Travel Section In Transit Feature (“When ‘Real’ is the Traveling Priority,” September 20, 2010) was really what inspired me to question the prevailing dogma about what constitutes authentic travel. Is it about embracing the indigenous cultures of your chosen destination and connecting to local traditions and ideals? Or is it fidelity to your own ideas and expectations about the travel experience? What does it really mean to travel “authentically”?

These differing ideas about “authentic” travel seem like they’re on two opposite sides of coin. After all, the first suggests that authenticity is a function belonging to the travel landscape–the culture, the food, the customs–while the second proposes that it is a more internal function determined by the traveler’s own self.  At times these concepts converge, but at other times they’re at odds with each other.

For me, authentic travel is about needing—no, craving—that infusion of the unfamiliar. It’s an insatiable hunger to experience something different, something alien to my daily existence. The unfamiliar reenergizes me and reawakens something in my soul and yes, maybe it’s selfish, but I want that. I need that. But the experiences I choose when I travel have got to be true to who I am and what I want to do as well.

So what does authentic travel mean to me?

The slate water feature at a McDonald's in Cody, WY

The slate water feature at a McDonald's in Cody, WY

  • It means seeing attractions and visiting establishments I couldn’t see or visit anywhere else. For instance, I do everything in my power not to dine at national chain restaurants when I travel, although the slate water feature at a McDonald’s in Cody, Wyoming was pretty special.
  • It means having an agenda, but not being intent on following it. Learning to let the moment dictate my movements, if you will.
  • It means seeing the things that interest me, not the things that interest everybody else. I like old cemeteries and I’d rather spend time there than in a theme park.
  • It means spending time with the locals whenever I can because culture isn’t inherently in a place–it’s in the people (the relative ease with which I’ve met locals as a solo traveler is a huge bonus to traveling alone).

So here’s my loaded question: what does “authentic” travel mean to you?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kim permalink
    October 1, 2010 6:22 pm

    I agree with your philosophy on “authentic travel” – I pretty much try to do all of those things when I go somewhere too. I like going where the locals go as much as I can! That being said, I’m usually travelling on a budget and trying to cram in as much as I can, therefore if that means I eat a meal at McD’s here and there bc it’s cheap and fast than I don’t see anything wrong with that. Also I couldn’t imagine going somewhere for the 1st time and not visiting the major tourist attractions – that’s part of the reason I’m there after all – not the tourist “trap” places mind you, but significant cultural sites, yes. But mostly I like visiting off-the-beaten-path things, and I like what you said about not planning every minute of your day; I think it’s good to be open, to head out with a general idea of where you want to go/what you want to see, but also do a bit of wandering. I think everyone has a different idea of what authentic travel is and that’s ok – some people I know just travel for the relaxation, to party or shop a lot. That’s not me, but if that’s them than that’s cool! That’s the great thing about travelling – you can tailor it to your own personal preferences and budget!

    • October 2, 2010 5:38 pm

      Yeah, I guess you gotta do the tourist attractions (they wouldn’t be so popular if they weren’t really special, right?) although I can feel myself moving more and more away from the crowded tourist traps and just finding cool places to sit, grab a bite to eat, and just people watch.

  2. October 21, 2010 10:01 am

    travelling is tricky business. you don’t want to miss out on anything. you want to see it all…feel it all…
    but it just isn’t possible to do that. especially if you don’t travel alone. different people have different agendas and different choices in food.
    i love sightseeing though, and i love roaming the bazaars and looking at indigenous crafts and produce. that goes a long way in making a place ‘real’ for me 🙂

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