That’s the question I’ve been chewing on lately. It’s been hard for me to put my finger on exactly why experiential and slow travel appeal to me. It’s not OK for me to not understand this as it will help shape the logistics of future travels. Whenever I pose the question to myself, the answer always boils down to a desire for authenticity in travel. Simple, right? I want authentic travel experiences, and a solid tactic to meet this goal is to give myself time to beat a new path wherever I go in search of these experiences. Yes, this post was going to be straightforward and snappy, a gilded and elaborate missive explaining the driving force behind Traveling Savage!
Then Sunday happened. Sarah and I had a long and provocative conversation about the term “authentic.” Not only that, I also found an old and stimulating article on the topic at Brave New Traveler by Pam Mandel of Nerd’s Eye View. It was becoming clear that my knowledge of self was fuzzy at best. Where does it all go from here? Read on.
As a culture, Americans are obsessed with authenticity. We want the genuine article, whether it’s a first edition Catcher in the Rye, a one-of-a-kind Picasso, or the befriending of macaques deep in the jungle of Borneo. The desire is so strong we don’t even mind fake authenticity. It’s in our food (do you really think Olive Garden’s chefs are training in Italy?), in our clothing (distressed jeans anyone), and in our social interactions (How are you? Good, how are you?). We want, and I’m speaking in generalities here, what others don’t or can’t have. Is this class driven? Do we just want to feel special? In a world that ticks along to a schedule of exacting mass production, we are starving for the rare and random and flawed.
In the context of my travel plans, the first obstacle was accepting the fact that “authentic” simply isn’t the right word, nor does it go very deep. I had to just throw it out. What does it even mean to have an unauthentic or counterfeit travel experience? The cynics among us might equate the opposite of authentic with touristy experiences, but I think that’s an unfair comparison. It implies that popular destinations, events, restaurants, and activities are somehow not real expressions of the culture in which they exist. As Pam’s article points out, the world today is what it is. There is no parallel Lost-esque universe where our media- and imagination-fueled perceptions of place exist. It is pointless to seek some era of the past. And then I thought, “Am I just trying to escape the known?”
Escaping the Known
The thoughts rippled through my mind: what I desire is a place unmolded by a familiar human touch. I want to be a part of something without being the reason for it. Subconsciously, I shy away from places riddled with America’s monolithic consumerism as if it were some parasite devouring the soulful origin culture, Starbucks and McDonalds left behind as a kind of byproduct. This is a cynical view, but I can’t deny that it shapes my perceptions. The places I’ve loved most, like the Orkney Islands, are distant outposts where time seems to lag behind and it’s hard enough for a person to get there let alone some multi-national franchise.
Experiential travel is the perfect vehicle for diving into a culture. It blends the satisfaction of learning local customs with the joy and excitement of travel. Perhaps I have a latent fear that learning will be inhibited by the presence of my “known” American culture, one that is more prevalent in cities around the world (I have been known to say that big cities are “samey” – whether I’m staying in a hostel in London or a timeshare in New York City, the experience is, somehow, always similar). I want to tread foreign ground. What I realized – just as I’m writing this – is that perhaps I don’t know yet what I don’t know. I have traveled, true. So what, so I have stepped out of one bubble into the midst of a bubble bath.
So what does this mean for my motivations? I’ve learned that I harbored a hidden small-mindedness that, like an airplane window, was cropping the vastness of the world. I like when ideas come to a neatly-wrapped up conclusion, but there’s room for all of these ideas to exist and then some. The rare and random and unique and authentic is not some place on the map. No, the world will not do the work of providing “authentic” environments. It must be expressed at an individual level.
What’s my motivation to travel? To learn, to grow, to create, to share. Traveling Savage will be a place to help others do the same. To be continued?
What travel preconceptions, prejudices, or false beliefs have you identified and left by the wayside?
Listening to: Mogwai’s EP+6 album
Drinking: Balvenie 15-year single cask