“See the light as it shines on the sea it’s blinding
But no one knows, how deep it goes
And it seems like it’s calling out to me, so come find me
And let me know, what’s beyond that line, will I cross that line?
See the line where the sky meets the sea it calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know, how far I’ll go”
I’m currently winding down my 7-week stay in Bali. As I wrote recently, I’m staying in a little surfer town along the west coast of the island. It’s a lovely little town but most of the inhabitants are tourists. Bali has such a lovely culture and I sometimes worry that my experience isn’t as authentic as it should be. But what exactly does that mean? What makes a travel experience truly authentic? And does that even matter?
What Makes Travel Authentic?
There are loads of famous quotes that refer to the tremendous educational value of traveling. However, I don’t think that these benefits apply if you’re only drinking margaritas by the pool for three days. In other words, I would say that a resort vacation can be fun but doesn’t provide you with any of the educational benefits of travel. That being said, not every vacation has to be authentic. Not every experience that you have on vacation needs to be authentic. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend a few days on the beach and completely indulging yourself. However, I believe deeply in the educational value of traveling and hope that for the majority of your vacations you take a little time to learn something new.
For me, learning something about your destination and the people who live there is ultimately what makes travel authentic. What makes these experiences so personal and exciting is that you can define your own experience. What you learn and how you learn it is ultimately up to you. However, it’s good to push yourself outside of your comfort zone from time to time and to learn new things in new ways. I’ll provide a few ideas later in this post for how you can experience a place in new ways.
In researching for this article, I found this post which similarly questioned authenticity and travel. It’s a nice read and closes quite eloquently with the question:
Rather than look externally for authentic experiences, should we look internally?
It’s the perfect question to ask as it relates to this topic. I believe many people try way too hard to do something obscure just so they can post their “authentic” experience on Instagram. In the end, you can define your own authentic experience but it requires some effort to learn and to expose yourself to something new. To be authentic requires you to indulge your senses and take some risks.
Do something you haven’t done.
See something you haven’t seen.
Eat something you’ve never tried.
And ask questions while you’re doing it.
How Can You Make Travel More Authentic?
It’s hard to visit any city and have an experience that’s completely authentic. These destinations are absolutely affected by tourists and by the businesses that are established to serve them. Hotels are mostly pretty unauthentic but where else are you supposed to stay? Do you have to sleep in a tent in rural Mozambique away from any all tourists to have an authentic experience? Absolutely not!
Fortunately, there are loads of ways to give yourself an authentic experience. Here are a few ideas:
Museums and Other Cultural Sites and Experiences
Likely the most common way to learn about a place is to visit a local museum. Museums are designed to provide this knowledge. They’re mainly designed for tourists but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t “authentic.” I think the idea that tourist attractions can’t be authentic is largely overstated. Some of these attractions are overly artificial and don’t necessarily teach you anything about the place you are visiting; however, if you carefully select certain museums and other cultural sites, you can learn a lot.
Here in Bali, tourism is the primary industry so almost everything is designed for tourists which might lead some to believe that nothing is authentic. Does that mean there’s some wrong with seeing a Balinese dance performance? While these performances are often crafted for tourists, at least you get to see something that you’ve never seen before and you might learn a little bit about the history of the dance and why these traditions live on to this day.
Go Beyond the Typical Tourist Sites
While I think you can learn a lot from museums and other tourist attractions, I also believe that any vacation needs to spend at least some time away from these areas in order to enhance the value of the experience.
Being from Holland, nothing bothers me more than when I see people visit Amsterdam and restrict their visit to the “coffee shops” and the red-light district. Sure, these institutions reflect the country’s largely liberal values; however, they don’t teach you much beyond that. To know Holland, you have to explore beyond these areas to give yourself an accurate understanding of Dutch life and culture.
Mexico is another prime example. Do you think you’ve learned anything about Mexican culture because you’ve stayed in beach resort in Cancun or Cabo? Though I suppose it’s possible, you most likely have to go beyond these “tourist traps” to learn anything about Mexico and Mexican culture.
Eat the Local Cuisine
Food can give you great insight into the local culture. What are the ingredients? Where do they come from? How are they prepared? Is the food influenced by other types of cuisine? What’s the traditional local drink? Even the vibe in the local restaurants and cafes can give you great insight into local culture.
In Bali, for example, the food is heavily rice-based which makes sense given the famous rice fields that attract so many tourists. But Bali also produces amazing fresh fruits and vegetables which makes for wonderful juices and smoothies. Further, and as I wrote last week, the fresh young coconut yields a popular refreshing drink on a hot day. You might also learn about the coffee that’s produced here including Luwak coffee which is A) the most expensive coffee in the world and B) made from animal feces… seriously. Studying local food and spices might also teach you about Indonesian history, which is marked by the Dutch colonization of Indonesia which lasted until the mid-20th century. So, while I know that at some point on your vacation, you’ll want a burger or a slice of pizza, challenge yourself to try new food… and learn a little bit about how it became the local specialty.
I wrote earlier about the benefits of staying longer in one place as opposed to jumping around from place to place. One of those benefits is that you can do a deeper dive into the local culture. You may learn more about the day-to-day lives of locals. You may even get a taste of what it’s like to live somewhere as opposed to just feeling like a tourist.
From Day 1, this has been one of my primary objectives with this sabbatical experience. I wanted to try to feel like a local in a number of different places by staying for more than a few days. I think this was particularly valuable in Europe where I got into a regular routine where I would wake up, visit my favorite cafes in each city, work for a few hours, wander around some new neighborhoods, and find great places to eat at night. Through this routine, I met some great people along the way (both tourists and locals), wander around some areas off the beaten path often primarily inhabited by locals, and got a great feel for the local cuisine. I didn’t feel any pressure to visit typical tourist destinations and really got to know some of the nuanced details of each place… through the lens of someone living and working there.
Meeting People and Asking Questions
One of the ways I tried to learn on this trip is by meeting people. As someone who is slightly on the introverted side of the spectrum, this was both challenging and exciting. In the end, it’s been amazing to hear the great stories that people have to share. While I went into the experience wanting to learn about local culture, I also learned a lot from tourists and ex-pats who had a wide range of reasons for being in the same city as me. People’s stories are fascinating but you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to ask questions. Don’t assume that they’re weird just because they’re different. Try to understand each other other… be curious and empathetic. Fortunately, most people love talking about themselves so if you show genuine interest, I’ve found that most people open up really quickly!
Final Thoughts on “Authentic” Travel
In the end, do what you want. No one said your travel experiences had to be authentic. However, one of the great benefits of travel is learning about new cultures and new people. I wrote earlier about how many of the world’s problems could be solved if people took the time to learn about each other. That doesn’t mean that you have to spend every moment focused on cultural enrichment; however, you should find a balance between relaxation and pushing yourself to do something new. It can be as easy as going for coffee and starting a conversation with your neighbor.