Harley Rustad is the author of Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees and the new book Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas.
In 2009, I was sitting in a tea shop in Delhi talking with a fellow backpacker about what he had liked and disliked about his trip to India. “I didn’t like the cities,” he said. “I preferred the villages; they’re more authentic.”
India, like many countries at the beginning of the 21st century, was undergoing transformative changes, among them, urbanization and social shifts fuelled by booming industries such as tourism, technology and film. Many people who packed a backpack and bought a plane ticket to India, however, travelled there not because of these changes but to avoid them. Cities, the thinking went, were not only overpopulated and noisy but rapidly modernizing, whereas more rural areas were desirable because they had changed little, continuing on as they always had. As I listened to the backpacker, I found myself questioning his assumption: Was cosmopolitan Bangalore truly less representative of “authentic” India than a remote village in the Himalayas?
“Authentic travel” was entering the lexicon of travel agencies and tourism campaigns, bloggers and social-media influencers around the world. Such travel promoted the value of more exchange, fewer checklists, more time and less scheduling. In the past, we visitors had followed set paths because we were advised that we should, that otherwise we would miss out. But those paths had become worn, and the people who lived along them accustomed to outsiders.
The so-called “authentic” traveller, by contrast, took up a new kind of challenge: to step off the beaten track, to travel without a guidebook, to embrace the unexpected and unplanned instead of the itinerary, to seek locations believed to be less changed by what we, from elsewhere, knew well. It was in hope that the barrier separating the tourist from their destination would begin to crumble and out of the ruins would come a moment not fabricated but genuine.
The spirit of “authentic travel,” at its heart, includes elements undoubtedly positive: actually talking with people rather than just taking their picture; or seeking places that are unfamiliar and might therefore challenge firmly held beliefs or perspectives. But in my experience, the search for the “authentic” is a search without end, flawed from first step to last.
Authentic is often a veiled term for traditional. The traveller hopes that when they arrive at their destination, it will feel not only unique to that corner of the world, but exactly what they expect. Those expectations are often historical, based on images long held in our minds: the village unchanged for centuries, the street undeveloped or unpaved, the practice still practised. This very search for the authentic can quickly veer from innocent curiosity to see how someone else lives to uncomfortable and even harmful expectations that a country, a town, a person remain unchanged.
Such expectations have been heightened by social media. Alongside our water bottles and extra socks, we travellers from elsewhere now carry with us images of the look and feel and spirit of where we are going: the alleyways of Beijing, the floating markets of Bangkok, the beach towns of Goa. The proliferation of travel photography, which spreads like wildfire through platforms such as Instagram, has vividly coloured these expectations.
Even before we arrive at a place, we have been inundated with thousands of images – of the glorious waterfall, the serene viewpoint, the bustling market – from all angles, seasons and times of day. We can practically smell the spices, or feel the mist on our faces. We know exactly where to stand to take the best picture. But behind that solo backpacker enjoying a scene apparently all to herself is an unseen horde of other tourists waiting in line. And if someone happens to stray into the picture, photo editing software can helpfully erase them to create a false illusion of solitude and serenity.
When those of us who have been enticed by such images finally arrive at a destination, the reality rarely matches what we’ve seen. We expect National Geographic images from the 1970s to be reflected in the reality of a place we visit in the 2020s. Instead, we find that our destination has grown or become more popular, or simply changed. What we hoped to experience is no longer there; what we believed to be “authentic” has faded. The “authentic,” we discover, is but a mirage – shifting and evaporating the closer we get to it, until at last, when we stand in the spot we dreamed so clearly, instead of contentment or joy, we find disappointment and disillusionment.
And so we shift from the place itself to the experience. We shirk even the must-sees, the Taj Mahals or Eiffel Towers of the world, simply because they’re popular, in favour of what we hope will be more meaningful experiences with a place or a person: a spontaneous conversation, a hidden sight, a surprising moment. But a deeper truth takes hold: that our very presence as a tourist – our visiting, seeing, interacting – holds a transformative power in itself. Even those experiences we believe to be “authentic,” those less planned or less set before us, are a kind of fabrication simply by the fact of our being there. Try as we might, “tourist” or “traveller” is an impossible skin to fully shed.
We will always be someone who came from away, whether we’ve travelled across our own country or across the world, and that presence invariably effects change wherever we go. We cannot escape, no matter how far we travel, that we are harbingers of some of the inevitable transformations and developments we try so hard to avoid. Cities may change at a more rapid rate than a remote town, but we, the tourist, are partly responsible. Travelling is like walking across sand: it’s impossible not to leave a mark.
At the end of the road, the search for the authentic may have less to do with the locations we travel to or the people we visit than what we want to see in ourselves: honesty. We don’t want to be a lemming in line for a tour that someone else recommended; we want to believe we are the agents of our own steps. That desire can push us, the curious traveller, to increasingly greater extremes in our search for our own authenticity, in our search for what truly and honestly makes us happy. But as much as we expect honesty in others we meet, we are not so honest in ourselves: we crop photographs, we share only glamorous stories, we proliferate ever more tinted expectations for others to follow. If we don’t realize our own transformative role as people who travel, accepting that our idolized destinations will change and that “authenticity” is shape-shifting mist, then all we will have done is gone a very long way.
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