Friday Musing: Authenticity

When I travelled full-time in 2014 and 2015, I was concerned with finding and choosing “authentic” experiences. I had been out of the country only a handful of times before my big embarkation but was determined to be a traveler rather than a tourist.

This is a distinction that many travelers before me had declared important. I wanted to follow in their meandering footsteps by following no prescribed path at all. I relished in quotes from prominent travelers such as:

“The travelers sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” -G.K. Chesterton

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” -Paul Theroux

The key distinction is in the lens through which you guide your experience. A tourist has a limited time and thus a limited scope of options. He gets only highlights and checks them off a list. A traveler seeks a more immersive experience. Out of the way places, local friends, and longer stay with no set agenda.

I sit here in Lisbon, several days into my week long stay and having just left a week in Switzerland. I feel restless knowing that, on this trip, I am a tourist. While I have stayed exclusively with local family members and ex-pat friends, frequenting many lesser known gems, I am still experiencing only a tiny fraction of these places and going through a short list of highlights, even if that list is largely of a locals’s design.

My past assertion that the tourist does not have an “authentic” experience, is entirely silly and arbitrary. I thought that if I drew inspiration and crafted plans around seeing all of the popular sites, I would not experience the “real” side of a place.

There are infinite “real” interpretations of any place. Every local has an entirely different view of their home. No doubt all visitors, regardless of how long they stay or what they choose to experience, will have a similar diversity of impression.

The only way to ensure an inauthentic stay is to allow external forces and expectations to override your personal preferences. Authenticity comes not from what you do but the reasons that determined your choices. Authenticity come in allowing your intrigue to guide you above all else.

In purposely skipping some popular site that genuinely interested me I was creating a less authentic experience rather than a more authentic one. I considered certain places off-limits to a more immersive and authentic traveler such as myself. All I had done was find the inverse method of allowing the “must-see” attractions to guide my experience. Rather than allow their magnetic pull to attract me, I had chosen a default opposite polarity and let myself be repelled.

Believing you should or believing you shouldn’t both equally limit your experience. The true traveler releases judgement and follows nothing but her own curiosity and intrigue.