Finding 'real' experiences when travelling: Authenticity and poverty are not the same thing

Authenticity. Have a scan through pretty much any travel story ever written and you'll find that word, or at least that concept. Have a look through mine: it's there.

We're all on a search for authenticity, writers and travellers too. Sit around in any hostel social area and listen to the people chat about the "real" experiences they've had, the "authentic" restaurants they've found, the "legit" locals they've met. Spend time in a hotel lobby and you'll hear a similar thing.

Everyone wants the genuine article when they travel. They want to know that they've discovered the true essence of a place. They want to feel that they've experienced this destination in the way it really is, unadorned and unplanned and unvarnished for the tourist gaze.

And so we go through the world seeking out the dingiest restaurants we can find, hoping authenticity comes from plastic tables and dirty chopsticks. We wander nondescript markets in backwater towns and marvel at normal people doing normal things. We pay big dollars to walk through slums and favelas and stare at poor people and convince ourselves this is what's real.

What is authenticity? Is it poverty? It seems to be confused that way; the idea that for something to be legit it has to be a challenge, it has to be cheap and dirty and borne out of struggle. The pavement pho joint on the back streets of Saigon is authentic; the fine-dining restaurant run by a celebrity chef is not. The tour of Soweto near Johannesburg is authentic; the burgeoning cafe culture in Braamfontein is not.

The authenticity travellers crave is often reductive, an idea that places and people should always remain the same. The version of a destination we have in our heads is authenticity, regardless of what we arrive and actually discover.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. A month or so ago I stayed at an Italian agriturismo, a farm-stay in the hills above Verona. A lot of these agriturismi are known for their excellent food, and Il Porcellino was no disappointment, with amazing, traditional cuisine being pumped out of the farm's small kitchen.

We'd been there a few nights before I finally met the person who had been cooking those amazing meals, who'd been turning out this authentic Italian food, the cucina povera of the Veneto area, traditional recipes from a place with a long culinary history, and… he was Romanian. The cook who had been creating the risotto al amarone and pappardelle al cinghiale for our dinners in this lovely old farmhouse was a Romanian guy named Valentino, who'd lived in Italy for 10 years.

At first my heart sank. This amazing Italian cuisine was being made by a Romanian guy? That's not authentic. That's not real.


But then I thought about it. Valentino has been living in Italy for 10 years. He's learned the recipes from locals. He's met the suppliers. He knows how to cook. I've never lived in Italy, and I can make really good Italian food. How about a talented chef who's been there a decade?

A Romanian guy making risotto is not my idea of authenticity, but who's to say what that really is? I'm picturing an Italy of the past, a fantasy land where pasta is cooked by nonnas and everyone's name is Maria. That place doesn't exist. And anyway, when the food is this good, who cares?

Valentino is the new Italy – but new, for a lot of travellers, is not authentic. New people are not authentic. New recipes are not authentic. New traditions are not authentic.

Prosperity, too, is not authentic. Travellers don't want to go to a flashy shopping mall in Mumbai, because that's not real. (Never mind that plenty of genuine Mumbaikars would love to hang out there for the day.) Real, for us, is a slum tour or a really cheap meal.

But we travellers need to be careful with this concept of authenticity. We need to avoid getting locked into an idea of what a place should be and ignoring all evidence to the contrary. We need to stop dismissing certain people and their ways of life because they don't match up with the stereotype we had in mind. After all, not every German loves beer; not every Kiwi loves rugby (I mean, I guess).

There's nothing inherently wrong with trying to seek out "real" experiences, with attempting to cut through the marketing clatter and the competitive-traveller bullshit and seeing a place for what it really is. But you have to go into these experiences with, as the Friday Night Lights quote goes, clear eyes and full hearts.

You have to see what's there, not what you expect. You have to accept that authenticity is a nebulous concept, that countries are vast, complicated and nuanced beasts where not everyone and everything will meet your idea of legitimacy.

And that that doesn't make them any less interesting.

Do you seek out the authentic when you travel? What does that word mean to you? Is it a travellers' conceit, or a real thing to discover?



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