by Marc Escanuelas
I spoke before about the disconnect between the fantasy of a place and the reality we meet upon arriving there. Sometimes the reality pales in comparison but other times it spurs an additional interest that makes you want to dig deeper and learn what makes a place, and its people, tick. I’m sorry to rain on your parade but crossing the divide between observer and observed isn’t easy and takes a sincere effort on your part. Doing so may well be the most rewarding experience of your life but as a casual traveler running into numerous cultural walls it can be frustrating. You can waste a lot of time searching for that elusive “authentic” experience. The first time I went to Morocco I took a day trip from Marrakech to the Ourika Valley. A white van took me and several other travelers from Place Djemaa El-Fna on a dusty ride into the Atlas Mountains.
Our first stop was to partake in a traditional tea ceremony in the house of a local woman and her many children. She poured the tea with a flourish, raising the kettle high above the cups as a ribbon of mint tea sliced the air like a blade. She did a sight gag with the sugar that made us all chuckle.
I wondered how many times she had done that gag before and how many people had chuckled as I did and recounted the story back home. How many people had walked away thinking that they’d caught a glimpse of the “real” Morocco.
The words “real” and “authentic” get bandied about a lot while traveling. It’s the holy grail of every backpacker’s experience. Something bragged about over beers. Is it really an authentic experience if it’s performed especially for your benefit and is otherwise not a part of their daily life? Does it lessen the experience for you to see a local whip out a cellphone to play Angry Birds or match your knowledge of American sitcoms?
Authenticity is an entirely subjective experience. I’ve heard travelers complain in the same breath about the presence of McDonald’s and squat toilets and the lack of WiFi (in fairness, it’s usually me complaining about the WiFi). Conversely, does this mean that all the people you meet that don’t live in the countryside aren’t real? It reminds me of the sentiment espoused by Sarah Palin declaring that only Americans who live in small towns were “real” Americans.
Every hostel lists day trips to the countryside where one can have a “real” and/or “authentic” experience. Although sometimes I go on these excursions, I accept the fact that it’s a photo op and little else. Regardless of where you are in the world, profound cultural distances can’t be bridged in a day.
Sometimes it seems like Westerners would rather believe an exotic fantasy about the rest of the world rather than learn the truth about a place. As if time there should stop for their amusement. Why wouldn’t there be a McDonald’s or a Carrefour or a Starbucks? If the locals support these businesses, what’s the problem? Personally, I’d like to think that culture and tradition are far more resilient and adaptable than people fear. I don’t think that the appearance of these chains is a sign of impending cultural collapse. If anything, it’s a sign that we are gaining more in common at a faster pace. It’s also important to remember that there’s nothing new under the sun, that no culture that you’ll visit has ever been free from outside influences. Having grown up in a Mexican household; I find it fascinating how many world cuisines were radically transformed by Mexican natives such as the tomato, chili, chocolate and vanilla. Does the inclusion of these ingredients make Italian food less Italian?
I think the best way for me to try and connect with a culture is to withhold judgment and to look and listen more than I speak. If anything, travel has reinforced my belief that we are all connected. Globalization is just the latest iteration of what we’ve always done, which is to take part in the human story. The human story is less about people and nations and more about what we all have in common. We all share the same basic needs and our destinies are intertwined. Instead of worrying whether or not something is “authentic” or not; ask yourself what you would do if you were in their position. Relish your role as an observer. Better yet, try being an observer once you get home.