Roadside Phở and Room Service: The Nebulous Hunt for Travel Authenticity


Roughin’ it.

“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.

Cambodian market food

Local soup, garnished with hardxcore.

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.

12 thoughts on “Roadside Phở and Room Service: The Nebulous Hunt for Travel Authenticity

  1. Fan mail time!
    Your insight is keeping me sane on my trip, seriously. Thanks.
    I think a class could be offered for travelers: Assessing what you REALLY want from vacay. Because as you’ve pointed out, nobody says “Man, I want to see the inside of every air conditioned luxury hotel in India, and rate their pools onTripAdvisor while I wait for room service Lamb Korma or whatever, and maybe hit one temple as long as it’s close and there are no beggars there.” But if those people could just come to terms with that part of themselves before the trip, there’d be a lot loss guilt and negativity for them to contend with!

    • Haha, glad I can provide some assistance.

      Farm fresh truth, there. When we were planning our Big Dumb Asia Thing, we said explicitly that we were going to need to live it up occasionally. We had a daily budget for accommodation and food, and also the mutual understanding that occasionally we were willing to splurge and stay in a nice place to relax. It became much less of an issue when, on the road, one or more of us would break down and say, “No, we’re getting a/c this time” or “We’re eating pizza tonight, everyone shut up.” We wanted authentic, but it was important to understand that we were still travelling, and that, frankly, we were plushy Westerners, and we couldn’t handle authentic all the time.

  2. As my mother once said, “Those girls want a Canadian vacation with China as the backdrop.”

    “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.”

    Hey! I think those nights are fun 😦

    “I am a traveler, silly local, no simple tourist.”

    Haha! Oh man, do I hate tourists.

    Is Lonely Planet still credible among world travelers? I thought I’d heard that it wasn’t. Flipped through the Japan one once and found it Orientalist, culturalist, and in some sections inaccurate, though I assume it varies pretty widely.

    • I remember the Korea LP being pretty flimsy and vaguely “Ohh, whacky Asia!” as well. We had a hand-me-down one for India, and it acted as a mostly-worthwhile companion to Wikitravel, though we definitely wouldn’t have bothered if we had to pay for it. The maps were definitely the most worthwhile thing in them.

  3. “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.” – Love this line!

    While I don’t really want to go sit in a resort in another country (like, if I want to sit beside a pool for long periods of time, Canada’s pretty equipped and the travel costs are lower), I think trying to aspire to “authentic” experiences is a bit complicated. It assumes there’s some sort of unifying experience of living and being in a particular country, and can infantilize and exoticize the people living in the country you’re visiting.

    Enjoyed your thoughts on navigating that territory between not wanting to just tour the sights, but also acknowledging that’s kind of what you’re doing if you’re not living somewhere. It’s tricky figuring out the kind of traveler you want to be, and the kind of experiences you want to have and then measuring them up against every other traveler’s judgment – for all of their helpfulness and friendliness, travelers all have that standard of the difference between being a traveler and a tourist. But it’s an individual definition and constantly changing. I think that flexibility is definitely the key!

    Nice post (sorry for the overlong comment)

    • I think you touched on something interesting here, the ~authentic~ thing being a unified, Ur-Foreign experience, like everybody in Vietnam or Nicaragua has identical lives, and wouldn’t it be so cool to live just like the undifferentiated entire population.

      Yeah, I absolutely understand (and share) the yearning to head off the beaten track and not have just the experience dictated to me by recommendations culled from Lonely Planet and Wikitravel, but without setting down roots and having weeks to a month in a place, that’s all you’re really going to get (and all that the local people are going to bother suggesting, as they know that kind of stuff is the surest bet). And yeah, other travellers all have different ideas of what the road means — it was our thing in Vangvieng. We were perfectly content to float down a nice river and walk through some forests, and told other people what a great city it was, but sans meth, some of the other travellers talked about it like the whole city was ravaged by the black plague.

  4. LP not credible anymore…….what ever will I do as I misplaced my Europe on $5 a day many years back (I actually managed on $3 and that included at least trying two pints of local brew, accomodation – hostels were 50 cents a night – mail home – the internet would not be developed for another 20 years – and local food of course (though we travellers often spoke of meals from home if we ever made it back). By the way I still have my Europe on $10 a day guide; indeed, I still have my tiny knapsack and sleeping bag which are coming up to 43 years old! Time to get the new knapsack back on (which you and Zack used in Europe before your Asia adventure). Anyway Michael, another great read!

  5. “For some people, “authentic” conjures actively glimpsing local poverty through the windshield, although never deigning to view it through anything but tinted glass.”

    your post gets right to the crux of it, about the desire to travel and see the “real” india or whichever place…and about confronting the very issues in which the modernized, western world is very talented at hiding (or ignoring, in some cases).

    i’ve had similar thoughts during my travels… but you wrote it far well and far deeper than i think i could ever express. thanks for posting this.

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