7 Reasons Why the 'Authentic' Travel Experience Is a Myth

483608842_aBdNs-M.jpg

One reason people travel is to have an "authentic experience." They envision traveling to a foreign country and living, eating, and doing the things locals do. I have exchanged emails with people ready to set out on a long adventure who see themselves living with tribespeople in the African bush or in Southeast Asian villages.

Most likely, they are in for a disappointment.

The problem stems from the expectations people have before they go. When I was in Samoa, I was talking to a woman from New Zealand who had been driving around the islands. She sounded disappointed and a little bit upset that Samoans had television sets. She lamented the destruction of the Samoan lifestyle and blamed it on Western countries. She then went into a rant about how wonderful it was being able to live a self-sufficient life in a village.

When an ethnic restaurant opens up in a Western country, that's diversity. When a Western restaurant opens up in a non-Western country, that's cultural imperialism.

I pointed out the inconvenient fact that Samoa is not in fact self-sufficient in food. No Pacific country is. The most popular foods are instant noodles and corned beef. The biggest part of the Samoan economy is income sent home from Samoans living abroad. The current population of Samoa would be almost impossible to sustain by methods used in the 19th century.

She got upset and ended the conversation.

She had an idea of what Samoa was, and more importantly, what she thought Samoa should be. Her Samoa was closer to the Samoa of the 19th century or the Samoa of Margaret Mead. She was denied her authentic cultural experience because Samoans (how dare they!) were watching TV and using electricity. Samoans just weren't Samoan enough for her. Even though she would never state it as such and would bristle at the accusation, she wanted Samoa to be a cultural zoo where she could go and look at the locals doing their cultural thing.

The problem of course wasn't with Samoa. It was with the woman. She suffered from several fallacies that infect many travelers.

These beliefs include:

The myth of the noble savage

Steven Pinker explained this idea in great detail in his seminal book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The belief holds that before the arrival of Western civilization, people everywhere lived in harmony with each other and with nature. This is far from the truth. If anything, even despite the horrific wars of the 20th century, humanity has become more peaceful over time. Early humans were warlike and did their damnedest to harness nature, which was the biggest threat to their survival. They just didn't have the tools to do the damage we can. Sun Tzu didn't write The Art of War as a thought experiment. It has been estimated that prior to the rise of civilization and agriculture, 60 percent of males in some regions could expect to die from the hands of another person through warfare, murder, or execution. Mass burning of land was a common way to flush out animals. People in developing countries are neither innocents nor scoundrels. They are just like anyone else.

Applying different standards to other cultures

When an ethnic restaurant opens up in a Western country, that's diversity. When a Western restaurant opens up in a non-Western country, that's cultural imperialism. If diversity is good for us, why isn't it good for others? Preservation of culture is considered an asset when practiced by other countries, but a liability when practiced at home. There are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald's, Burger Kings, Wendy's, and KFCs ... COMBINED. I don't think anyone is worried about a Chinese cultural takeover of America. A few McDonald's and Starbucks overseas is hardly an invasion. Author Rachel Laudan noted the response by one of her Mexican friends who was criticized for serving Italian food: "Why can't we eat spaghetti, too?"

Confusing modernization and Westernization

Through the power of guns, germs, and steel, the first part of the world to modernize was Europe and North America. As other countries modernize, many people confuse this technological advancement with becoming more Western. In the above example, Samoans have TV, but they mostly still live in traditional fales and have strong village and family ties. Japan is a fully modern country, yet it is most definitely not Western. Technology isn't culture. While there are some groups that resist technological change, the vast majority of humanity has quickly grabbed at any innovation that will make life easier. The classic modern example is cell phones, which have found their way to some of the poorest and remotest places on Earth.

Presented by

Gary Arndt has been traveling and writing around the world since March 2007. He is the author of the popular travel blog Everything Everywhere.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

Just In