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What is “authentic travel?”

Me, during Diwali puja in the family prayer room, Delhi

“Authentic travel” is about engagement

I have been thinking about the concept of authentic travel for the past few days, ever since seeing the 76-second Travel Show with Robert Reid on this subject. He actually filmed one shot for the show at TBEX, the travel bloggers conference, and I was one of the audience members loudly saying “no, it’s not” in response to his statement: all travel is the quest for difference and the more exotic the better. But even though I went along with the gag, for the video, I do think a lot of people go to India because they perceive it to be so different and exotic.

India is one of those places where the question of authentic, or “real” often comes up. I have heard backpackers say that Pahar Ganj – the backpackers ghetto in Delhi – is the “real India,” whereas the Delhi-ites I know have almost never been there, and would probably be happy if it was bulldozed.

My own feeling is that backpacker culture is an import, and far from being “authentic” or “real” has actually caused the local culture to morph around it. It unwittingly creates a scene in which poor local people learn to cater to foreign tourists. And thus you find the Pink Floyd Café in the sacred town of Pushkar, and foreigners happily sipping beer in a place that is supposed to be entirely free of alcohol.

Authentic travel in India to me is:

- sitting on the living room floor around an open fire during the naming puja (religious ritual) for my partner Ajay’s nephew,

– going shopping for diyas (lights) and flowers during the pre-Diwali madness in Delhi with Ajay’s Mother,

– trying to wrap my head around teacher Swami Brahmdev’s answers during satsang (question and answer period – literally translated from the Sanskrit as a search for truth) under the mango trees at Aurovalley Ashram,

– watching the effect love and play has on the Tibetan refugee children in the Art Refuge program in Dharamsala – they become children again.

For me, “authentic” travel is about engagement. The more deeply involved I am, the more “authentic” it is.

But my experience of travel in India is rooted in my involvement with an Indian family, and has given me perhaps a different lens through which to view India. When I first landed in India in December 2005, Ajay picked me up at the airport and I stayed at his family home. (I had met him through a mutual friend about 13 years earlier, in 1992, when he visited Toronto.) We fell in love about three days later, and I was lucky to be warmly welcomed into his family.

So I live with my Ajay’s Indian family when I am in Delhi and try to blend in as much as I can – I am essentially Indian in Delhi. I live in non-touristy south Delhi, wear Indian clothes, rarely see or speak to non-Indians and move around the city as a local, not as a tourist. But of course I am not Indian so there is bound to be moments of friction as I assert my individuality or need for privacy. (Luckily his family is very tolerant.)

with my Indian family in Delhi

But the moment I start traveling and staying in guest houses, I am perceived as a foreigner and I can really sense the difference. In Delhi, I feel like I have crossed the cultural divide; I feel accepted for who I am. But on the road, I feel a bit like a target. I can sense a slightly condescending attitude (until I say I am married to an Indian, and the attitude completely evaporates); and of course I am often confronted with what one pundit called the “white tax” – inflated prices for foreigners.

Personally, I don’t like being a tourist in India – probably because I do have the experience of being in an Indian family for much of the time I am there. But I don’t know how to get around it when I am on the road.

In the end, if you have a profound and meaningful – or fun and enjoyable – personal experience, who is to judge whether it is authentic or not? After all, reality is perception.

Would love to hear about others’ experiences with authentic travel and thoughts on the subject.

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18 Responses to What is “authentic travel?”

  1. Sister Tinh Quang July 6, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    My travel experiences to Vietnam and Mongolia have never been as a tourist. I am a nun and stay in temples wherever I travel. Daily activities as a nun are the routine. I seldom go shopping, except just before I leave, in orde to bring back gifts for family and friends.

    However, is my experience authentic? Though I am not treated differently than any other nun, I am treated differently, culturally. In Canada, I am still vibrant and active at 63 years of age. In Vietnam, I am old and am not allowed to do any work. This has nothing to do with being Canadian, but with being over 60. There is much reverence for elders in the culture. Often, feelings of discomfort arise, as I’m not used to having everything done for me.

    When involved in monastic duties or ceremonies, if there are lay people there, I am an anomaly, as they don’t see western monastics often, if at all.

    So, as you can see, my experience is as you have indicated … I am white and a novelty; I am a nun and treated as any other monastic (age included).

  2. Mariellen July 6, 2010 at 11:51 am #

    Wow, thanks so much for your comment Sister Tinh Quang. You really are having a unique “travel” experience. What a great perspective. Ever thought about writing a book? I just read Three Cups of Tea and thought it was excellent. Maybe a book like that.

  3. Laura Byrne Paquet July 6, 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    “For me, “authentic” travel is about engagement. The more deeply involved I am, the more “authentic” it is.”

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Mariellen! This sort of travel doesn’t have to be “exotic,” either. Sharing a pint with a friendly group of locals you’ve just met in a small-town Canadian pub is probably more “authentic” than drinking a beer alone in a rooftop bar in Tokyo. For me, meeting people always makes the difference. (It’s a huge motivation for me to conquer my natural shyness.)

  4. Bruce July 6, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    Mariellen,

    Actually, authentic travel is just getting below the surface of a culture to interact with the people and the environment. It takes more work but is far more rewarding, as you illustrate in your post. It involves getting a sense of “place” as Gary Synder puts it.

    In fact, that’s what I do every time I visit the Gaspé. My wife’s family is Acadian-Quebecois, a distinct cultural subgroup quite different from the rest of French Quebec. I’ll be visiting in about two weeks so I’ll send my impressions.

    Bruce Wilson

  5. Mihaela July 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    I’m also married to an Indian, and, whether I like it or not, I “go local” when we visit family in Chennai. That being said, this past winter, during my third time in India, I experienced intense culture shock for the first time. I found out that when we take family trips around the country, all of us, my in-laws included, enjoy the sanitized five-star travel experience much more than going local. Sometimes, the real India is more than I can handle – and, more than my parents-in-law, who’ve lived there all their lives, can/prefer to handle :)

    I’m not advocating one or the other, I’m actually still working to understand what happened and to process my various experiences in India. But in the future, I certainly will not make fun of people who choose the five star hotels!

  6. vasavi kandula July 6, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    This is one of the nicest posts about India I’ve read in the recent post. Will look forward to more! :)

    @Mihaela Its a basic conflict that I as an Indian girl have too.. I would like to travel thru the real India, do budget travel, the way the majority of Indians travel, but I find it very tough.. And I resent the five star hotel experiences..
    I am used to some level of comfort, but I want to get my hands dirty too.. Am going to be backpacking arnd India soon.. will let you know how that goes!

  7. Mariellen July 6, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    Thanks for the comments Bruce, Mihaela and Vasavi. I appreciate your open-minded attitudes, all three of you. It is so easy to judge others … but so pointless.

  8. Andi July 7, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    Well, of course I agree with your statement about the more engaged you are in a culture the more authentic of an experience you will have. And trust me I try every single time I travel to engage myself 100%. However, it’s hard to do that sometimes when you have a limited amount of time. Usually, on my 2nd trip somewhere I am able to engage more. I’ve found that Couchsurfing helps me have an authentic experience.

  9. Sara C. July 10, 2010 at 2:49 am #

    I don’t think you necessarily have to marry into an Indian family in order to travel “authentically” to India or to experience “The Real India”, whatever that is!

    I do, however, think that, unless you’re doing something like that – traveling for a purpose other than pleasure, living as an expat fully intregated into the culture – you have to go above and beyond as a traveler.

    I spent two months in India in 2008, and by the second month of my trip people would routinely assume that I was an expat living fully within Indian culture. This was because I didn’t dress or carry myself like a backpacker and made an effort to learn local customs and connect with the people around me. Most of the backpackers act like backpackers – they aren’t really interested in getting to know Indians on their own terms or really connecting at all with the culture beyond platitudes.

  10. Krista July 10, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    May I suggest more people volunteer as English teachers at the Sri Aurobindo ashrams and other ashrams/orphanages, like I do !?! All you have to do, is read (simple) stories and ask questions. Most students just need a chance to speak to a fluent tourist, using the English they have already learned at school.
    I volunteer annually now, and really look forward to revisiting my new friends.

  11. Emma July 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Hey Mariellen,

    This makes total sense to me. I always try to make my travel experiences as authentic as possible. The definition of “authentic” always changes for me from place to place… and I try to hold onto this badge of authenticity with enjoyability.

    I’ve never been to India, but I imagine it to be the ultimate test for a backpacker. I enjoyed reading your account immensely.

    If there’s one thing I want to experience it is taking the train in India. Have you? I think this article may be of interest to you:

    http://www.traveljunkiejulia.com/train-ride-from-hell-in-india/

  12. Mariellen July 23, 2010 at 11:09 pm #

    Hi Emma,

    Thanks for your comment. I read the Train Ride From Hell blog – ha. I have taken trains in India more times than I can count. In fact, I just wrote a piece for the Brooklyn Nomad about my two favourite train rides in India (I think it will be posted next week). Both are stories about train rides that turned from hell-to-heaven. But that’s the magic of India for you!

    My one piece of advice is to try and take trains with the words Shatabdi or Rajdhani in the name. They are the best trains in India. And definitely take an overnight train.

    Mariellen

  13. Kristin September 20, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    Hi Mariellen! This is my first peruse of BDG – I really enjoyed this post. You’re right – “authentic” or not, you’re the only one who can judge whether you accomplished what you set out to accomplish on a trip.

    Even in the US we have rifts between cultural authenticity – In my home, New Orleans, the locals say that Bourbon St. is not a “real, cultural” experience. Yet it IS real for many of the tourists who love it.

    For me in NO, and for you I’m sure in India, you just want people to see the parts of a place that you love and cherish and want to share. Looks like your tour clients will be very lucky to have that experience with you!

  14. Garima April 3, 2012 at 8:03 am #

    I feel anything that exists I the real world, whether a luxuriousTaj in Mumbai next to the pavement where street children sleep or the Taj Mahal in Agra outside which petty thieves try to run away with your chap pals, is truly a partof India and can’t be overlooked. So whatif it makes this country hard to describe early in a few sentences.
    Authentic travel to me means being authentic to yourself and not demanding anything different from your host people.
    Very importantly I feel being authentic will mean keeping your eyes and ears open. So u don’t miss the slightly hidden faces and expressions that are just beyond the glitz, at the cusp of the shadows. Then even in a ritzy place u can come face to face with real people’s real lives.

  15. Mariellen April 7, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    Really great comment, Garima, just love the poetry in the way you write. I agree with you about experiencing all of what India has to offer from the Taj to the footpath. And also about being authentic to yourself and keeping your eyes and ears open. Keeping yourself open. Truly, your comment is words to live by. Thanks so much for writing!

    PS I feel very humbled and grateful when I get beautiful comments like this. I see so much spam, trolls, hate on the Internet. I feel so lucky to attract comments and commenters like this.

  16. Kiran Chaturvedi February 10, 2013 at 6:28 am #

    Authentic. Experience. Both words I have been using a LOT to describe and talk about the work I am doing with my travel venture. But I think really what I want to convey, as you have also pointed out , is about th esense of engagement. I have created a guest home in a remote and amazingly beautiful, pristine part of the Garhwal Himalays (about 6 hrs drive from Rishikesh) and am now taking guests so that they have an Authentic Expereince- see how th etraditional village eco-system works, how the crops are organically and manually grown, how food is still seasonal and part of a lifestyle cycle, and so much else. How myths of the mountains and the hills color people’s days and actions and worldview. But in spite of this, I sometimes wonder, this is just my perspective. Who is to say only the traditional is authentic? Who is to say the expereince of happiness and family fun in a resort holiday on the beach is not Authentic? Rather than talk of authentic, we could use the words Engagement, Connect much more aptly, as that is what we are trying to really convey. When we are connected, engaged, we enjoy, we are happy. Thanks for your wonderful, engaging stories.

  17. Rhiannon December 17, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    Authentic travel is whatever you want it to be. For me, this is experiencing a place in as many ways as possible and immersing myself in the culture, traditions, languages and cuisine of a country.

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