redefining authenticity

I always thought that the more I traveled, the less like a tourist I’d feel. I figured that with every trip I’d inevitably become better at finding the good deals, local hotspots and off-road adventures, and that this globetrotting savvy would be my golden ticket to having more authentic experiences abroad.  

But instead, the more I traveled, the more like a tourist I began to feel. I became hyper-aware of the tourism industry, convinced that travel companies had their fingers in every pie and that all the backpacking hacks in the world couldn’t help me escape their influence. I developed an obsession with the concept of authenticity — is every “touristy” activity a trap? When does something stop being local? Is a certain degree of removal inherent in the experience of the foreign?

I was ruminating on all of these questions in a mad-scientist kind of way when it came time for me to visit Myanmar, a country that had consistently been described to me as majestic, in defiance of explanation; a marvel I’d have to see for myself to understand. Words seemed to fail everyone when trying to articulate what was so spectacular about this country, so I thought it might have the same effect on me (although I’ve rarely, if ever given up on trying to describe something. Some call this, “being verbose”). 

But for me, Myanmar has proven to be a solution to a mystery as opposed to a mystery itself. What has captivated me most about this country is ironically not the bewitching crepuscular skies nor hypnotic rural landscapes, which are indeed difficult to capture in words; it’s how I’ve felt as a tourist. And I’ve come to understand that this authenticity I’ve been doggedly seeking and routinely convinced I was missing, I’ve actually been experiencing everywhere, every day. 

 

Myanmar is often skipped over by Southeast Asian backpackers. It’s the most impoverished nation in this neck of the woods, just now transitioning out of a brutal military regime. Most of the land is flat and looks pretty thirsty, so there isn’t much greenery to admire like in Vietnam or Laos. The infrastructure leaves much to be desired; drives that should take three hours take more like eight. Flights and buses depart only once or twice a day, hostels are few and far between, and it sometimes takes 10 or 15 minutes for a tuk-tuk to come by.

But I for one have been infinitely charmed by all of these potentially frustrating quirks. The mostly dirt roads are trodden by so many old cars and horse carriages that if you close your eyes, you hear a symphony of rumbling motors and clicking hoofs, a soundscape of decades past. There aren’t many formal businesses or even restaurants, so the best spots for viewing sunrises and sunsets are where the crowds gather, not clubs or bars. And the light pollution is so minimal that the stars are almost as bright as in the middle of the Indo-Pakistani desert, giving this magical fairyland a sprinkle of real stardust. 

 

But the tourism industry certainly exists, albeit in very nascent stages — which brings us to how Myanmar has ended up providing the answer to my maddening authenticity riddle. 

A crisp wintry morning finds me and Jess, my partner-in-travel for this leg of the journey, in Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most popular destinations.

Inle is home to a beautiful winery and some lovely monasteries and pagodas, but its main attraction is the lake itself: simply massive, littered with villages, floating markets, and indigenous tribes. 

There isn’t a debate about the best way to see Inle Lake — there is one way to see Inle Lake. If you want to visit the long neck tribes, or learn how to weave lotus scarves on machines made of bamboo, or watch fishermen teeter on the rims of wooden boats as they make their catches of the day, you hop on a boat and pay a local to take you around. The assorted villages are only accessible by water.

Because there are no other alternatives for seeing the lake, whether or not this is a tourist trap is a moot point. At last, I find myself in a situation in which I don’t have to worry about distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic. The playing field is leveled; if one of us is being duped, we all are. 

 

In the course of this day touring Inle, it occurs to me: even if we are being tricked — even if the fishermen or weavers we’re watching are putting on a show for tourism’s sake, does that necessarily make the experience inauthentic? 

I’m still learning the weaving techniques the women in the Ywarma village have been practicing for centuries; I’m still observing the astonishing balancing skills of the Inle fishermen and getting around by means of the waterways. Do I have to tiptoe into a workshop unnoticed and catch a woman in the middle of her work to claim I’ve seen the “real” thing?

I used to think the answer to this was yes, but Myanmar has taught me to think differently. 

The way a country presents itself to tourists is part of that country’s authentic truth, not a detraction from it. The scenes staged for the tour boats tell us what traditions the Myanmar people are most proud of, most excited to share. That there are limited options for transportation teaches us about the country’s infrastructure, the same way that a surplus of options in a country like Thailand teaches us about its. A high saturation of travel agencies or tour companies just tells you that you’re in a tourism-driven economy; the traveler riding the local bus and the traveler taking a private cab are both learning something about the country they’re visiting. In some places, cultural dilution is the truth. 

My truth is: I’m a tourist. And as such, I can trust that I’ll always genuinely experience how different countries treat their tourists. As it turns out, I can never not experience authenticity, even if I never again find another off-the-beaten-path hole-in-the-wall. 

Phew. 

 

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5 thoughts on “redefining authenticity

  1. Ray says:

    Congratulations Cathryn on your revelation: from my experience there’s no place like home as Dorothy said. Most people treasure their chosen home and want all who visit to leave with a positive image. I love and respect every place I have ever visited and all the wonderful people. You are truly an envy of mine . I love you! Grandpappy.

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  2. Kelly | The Wandering BlondeKelly says:

    I really love this one, Cathryn! I feel like sometimes it’s too easy to use “authenticity” as the key determinant in whether or not a travel experience is good or noteworthy. But I think that this is the wrong way to go about it.

    Call yourself a backpacker, traveler, tourist, sightseer, or whatever, but they’re all fundamentally the same thing. They’re all traveling abroad to see, eat, learn, and experience new things. And honestly, if those countries that we all travel to didn’t in some way exaggerate their primary features for us travelers, I think travel would be a little less exciting. After all, it’s those features that draw us there in the first place. Plus, I don’t think touristy has to mean bad. Some of the best places in the world are super touristy, and for good reason: they’re the best places in the world!

    Also, there really are no unexplored corners of the world anymore. I think that we as travelers aren’t so much traveling to uncover brand new “authentic” places, but as part of a more personal journey that affects us on an individual level. Who cares if someone (or a million people) has already seen that sight or had that experience? What matters more is how we each learn and grow from it.

    …Okay, novel is finished. Sending lots of love your way, Cath xxx

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    1. Cath Shelton says:

      My dear!! I am simply eating up your words!! So well said. And I fully agree that “touristy” doesn’t have to mean bad! I’m beginning to feel that words like “touristy” and “authentic” are worthless descriptors when it comes to travel. You’re right — it’s all about personal experiences. For example, one of my favorite restaurants in NYC is in the theatre district, right across from Carnegie Hall. Sounds “touristy” — but if I’m a New Yorker and I go there regularly, wouldn’t that make it “authentic?” This discussion is super cerebral – haha – but I think that illuminates our point: these words are symbolic, not inherently substantive. Whether an experience abroad is “authentic,” “worthwhile,” etc – is up to the individual, and can’t be defined by the masses.
      Ohhhhhh how I hope one day we can get coffee and chat face-to-face about all this!! So much love dude, to you and your family! ✌🏻️xx

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