“Everyone wants to see the real India,” Faith remarked one day. “Ideally, the real India has western toilets, a swimming pool, and fine Italian cuisine.”
Which is to say that when people travel, they want to see how people really live. They want to experience the culture, they want to hob-knob with the locals, they want to eat the local food, whether its from a plate or a trough or straight off the carcass of some wild beast. They want to see the real India, or the real Venezuela, or the real Croatia, because the fake India or Venezuela or Croatia is for rich suckers. They want something approaching the experience of every day life for a local.
Well, every day life plus or minus a few foreign luxuries. Local people, it turns out, do not always occupy swanky hotel rooms and take private vehicles to and from various points of interest. Local people sometimes do not get chilled bottled water brought to them by other local people for pennies. Local people do not have a considerable part of their everyday budget devoted solely to cold beer and ice cream. Local people lead local lives, which is to say they work, and commute, and have families and groceries and chores, and get angry and tired and bored, like anywhere else in the world. But people on vacation would often prefer not to have that part.
Travelling through Asia, we were certainly not exempt from such thinking. We liked to consider ourselves fairly rugged, decently weather-worn and capable. We had definitely drunk some murky water. We had absolutely crammed into an overstuffed local bus flush with livestock when the price was right. We saved our dollars with sweat and effort. We had hiked and walked and jogged; we had been covered in dirt and grime and unspeakable detritus from vehicles and animals. We had burns and scrapes and calluses. We were hard.
But we were also occasionally soft. Sometimes we would pay for the air conditioning room, or hold our biological functions daintily until we could locate a western toilet that met our prudish specifications. We were ashamed of our deeply instilled bourgeoisness, certainly, as we felt it impeded our ability to properly accrue authenticity while travelling. A notion overtook us, this idea of a zero sum game, that every time we gave in to our pinky-up hoity-toityness, we took away from our ruggedness. We wondered if other travellers could tell, if they were keeping track of our transgressions, if there was a scoreboard just out of sight. We wanted to slough off this neediness, this attachment to luxury. We wanted to see the real world.
We wanted authenticity.
Of course, part of the problem lies in your definition of authentic. For some people, the word “authentic” means that the waiter’s flawless English betrays just the tiniest hint of a local accent. For some people, “authentic” conjures actively glimpsing local poverty through the windshield, although never deigning to view it through anything but tinted glass. It means the commemorative souvenirs were actually made in the country you are in, rather than just shipped in from China, unless you are actually in China. It means actually exchanging money to a different currency. It means the resort has a local culture night where everyone gets to wear a grass skirt or a sari or a kimono for a few hours so everyone can take an adorable Facebook profile photo.
For others, nothing is authentic unless they come down with a case of Malaria. Unless they are trekking the Mongolian steppes in yak-fur boots which they skinned themselves and sewed together with their own hair. Unless the volcano they are hiking erupts suddenly and they are marooned upon a boulder. Unless they have someone urinate upon their jellyfish stings. Unless they are pooping directly into the earth. Unless the people nearby have never even seen a computer, never mind thought of what an internet could be. Unless they learn the local language, adopt the local religion, become adept at preparing local meals, become an accepted and respected member of local society, gain a position of influence and respect, fall in love, take a partner, raise a family, grow old, die, and see their remains consecrated in the local rites.
Part of the reason people spend so much time looking for authenticity when they travel is because it is so vague and impossible to capture, because there are so many different types. You can stay at the resort, and you can also build your own home from twigs and animal furs. You can eat at the five-star restaurant on the rooftop with the stunning view, and you can eat at the truckstop with the garbage fire. There are dozens of levels and sublevels of authenticity available. But then, you never want to deal with a level of authenticity which is not to your taste. When confronted with something not at the tier of authenticity you desire, something either too cushy or too gritty, you feel duly repulsed.
Something is too comfortable, too Western, too homogenized for foreign tastes? Suddenly you are insulted. This proprietor or cook or guide thinks you a rube! A dainty, soft-handed layabout who can’t handle a little dirt, or a little spice, or a little discomfort. I am a traveler, silly local, no simple tourist. No griminess will ward me away! Now, bring me the local chili with the terrifying name so I can try to impress you by eating it, or navigate basic social interactions with my bewildering and piquant take on the local language.
Of course, even the most seasoned traveler has their limits, a breaking point of discomfort at which things become not so much authentic as masochistic. This water has how much feces in it? Your people like to sleep on beds of scorpions, you say? The local rite of passage into manhood involves retrieving what from which animal’s anus? Things take on an air of mockery, like the locals are simply trying to see what ridiculous thing they can convince the tourists to do in the name of cultural understanding. “Of course we eat the gall bladder,” they say, poorly containing their giggles. “It is an insult to our gods not to.”
Pity the locals, too, who must try to gauge each new tourist and adjust their pitch with each incoming one. Try to be too western, speak too much English, give them the tourist price, and you’ll receive a face full of indignation. Play it cool and test out how much of the Lonely Planet language guide they memorized and you might scare off the unprepared.
Because whatever degree of authenticity the traveler desires is deeply cherished, is worn as a badge of honour, and deviations from the appropriate respect for their investment are treated with contempt. They’re going to the real India, and when they get back, everyone is definitely going to hear about it. Whichever India that is.