When I first started traveling, I had the romantic notion that “real” traveling had to be all about having authentic experiences. I also had a specific idea of what “authentic” meant. It meant eschewing pre-packaged tours. It meant immersing in strange lands where there were less “tourists”, where the local folk spoke a different language, and you didn’t have “touristic” signs to guide you every step of the way.
In addition to such a narrow viewpoint, I viewed myself as one of the real travelers. Oh the vanity!
Recently I had a couple humbling experiences that shone a light on the fallacy of my views.
1. Recently, as we had limited time in Chiang Mai, we reluctantly signed up for a prepackaged tour. A 3 day trek through the Rainforests, Rafting, et-al.
I remember walking behind the guide in a motley crew of western travelers thinking how this was all “touristy” and how I needed to be “exploring on my own”. We got to spend a night sleeping in the midst of the rainforest. It was beautiful, going to sleep and waking up to the chirping of birds and secadas. The next morning, I woke up early, about 3 hours before our group got together, and decided to have my “authentic” experience. Donning my shoes, I set off down a path in the rainforest on my own, determined to find a spot far away from everyone else. Just me, the forest, and my “authentic” rainforest experience. I’d gone about 10 minutes into the rainforest when, upon turning a corner, I was stopped short in my tracks by two snarling dogs blocking my path. It was quite a narrow path, and on either side was thick brush. As I ever so slowly turned around and started to walk back, away from the animals, and back to camp, it dawned on me why the guide that I wished wasn’t there, always used to casually walk in front of the group with a big stick and a sword.
I sheepishly made my way back to camp, realizing that the only reason I was able to come so deeply into a rainforest, able to spend a night in its depths, able to fearlessly and (reasonably) safely march through it was because of the local guide that came with the pre-packaged tour that I so thoughtlessly maligned. If I had decided to strike out on y own I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far into the forest.
I was having my experience of walking through and being in a rainforest, and instead of appreciating the moment, was belittling the experience because I had paid for a guide.
2. Jodee and I landed in Jakarta and stayed in a cheap section of the town. Away from the fancy malls and touristy sights. No one spoke English. There were no well marked public transport options, no tea stalls with english menus. Authentic right?! Totally. And I got more than I expected. Breakfast consisted of me peering at food items in a local food stall trying to decipher what it contained while the remaining patrons tried to help me out by naming them in Indonesian. Of which I understood nary a word.
Later on in the same day, trying to buy milk in a store was a 10 minute long affair that included me dancing like a monkey enacting out adding milk to coffee while the store owners stood by very amused.
This was totally an authentic experience I wanted. And having had a tiny taste of the “real” traveling I stepped out to experience I appreciated so much more the small mercies that the touristy areas afforded. Like people that spoke two words of English, enough to get some sort of communication going. Menus which had a tiny description in broken English. Food items with pictures so that I could see what they contained. Wifi in places so I could lookup translations. Signs so I knew where to go. All these things I previously pooh-poohed afforded me a different sort of experience valuable in its own right. It afforded me the freedom so that I could venture deeper into the culture, interact a bit more with the locals unfettered by thoughts as to how to figure out my next meal or how to get back home.
An experience cannot be anything but “authentic”. Simply because it affords you just that. An experience. What lenses you view it through, what judgements you place on it and what you decide to take away from it determines how much enrichment you let into your life.