The idea of ‘authenticity’ was something we talked about a lot in my undergrad anthropology classes. As it was a class full of millennials, most of this discussion focused on social media, our digital selves, and travel, particularly backpackers, who were often considered to be travelling with this idea of authenticity as a major part of their credo. In reality, this is rarely possible. No matter how far you get off the beaten path, the traveler’s experience is a long-shot from that of someone who has grown up or even settled in a place, who has an understanding of the culture, history, and shared experiences of a people. Nonetheless, the idea of immersion when travelling is attractive, and when I think back on all the times I’ve set out in the last ten years, it has been with the idea of learning something new about a place. I’ve visited countries like Nepal and the Philippines, with the idea that this experience is far removed from my every day, and I’ve always come away feeling better for it. I had this in mind when I decided I wanted to visit Mexico. For years, I’ve wanted to explore Latin America, and Mexico felt like a good first taste. Based on the recommendations of friends, I booked us in for tickets to Cancun.
At first, I was frustrated by what I didn’t feel was an ‘authentic’ experience. I wanted to be immersed in their culture, and while we did some scuba diving and took a couple of day trips to visit Mayan sites like Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba, I felt largely as though I had been caught in a tourist trap. I was having a wonderful time at the all-inclusive resort, don’t get me wrong, but – as Cheree and I were guided through yet another gift shop, into what felt like our umpteenth buffet line – I was beginning to feel like a commodity. We were essentially livestock, with wallets.
It was around that time I learned something that gave me pause; tourism is the only industry in the Yucatan peninsula.
This revelation from one of our tour guides flipped my perspective on things. He was reflecting on 2009, when the A1H1 virus hit Mexico and how that had reduced tourism to negligible amounts in that year, despite the fact there were zero confirmed cases of the virus in the Yucatan. The impact this had on the locals was near catastrophic. I remembered hearing similar things from my Nepalese guides, who’d wanted my friend and I to move there and open a resort. They said we could do it with as little as 100,000 Australian dollars.
I’d like to digress here for a moment. At the same time as I was having this conversation, I was on the brink of finishing Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. The week before, I’d finished Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy. Both of these were books that fell a little outside my usual range. They are both memoirs, and I’ll admit that when it’s not for study, I predominantly read fiction. In a way, both of these books are about observing and reflecting on life, I got different things from both of them, and would recommend both, but there was one part of Adult Fantasy that this comment from my tour guide made me question. While discussing the end of her father’s employment, and his prospects for retirement, Doyle offers the following:
‘While political refugees and asylum-seekers came to Australia with soon-to-be-dashed hopes of safety and security, our older people are headed in the other direction, starting a grey economy built on cheap offshore labour. Some of Dad’s friends had taken this route in retirement. It was one of the things we talked about, as we bandied around plans. But neither of us felt comfortable with the idea. It conjured up steamy, unseemly scenes from literature: lecherous white men in linen suits, happy to leverage gross inequality in favour of their own comfort.’ (Doyle, p.285)
The imagery here is powerful, and the connotations are weighty, because as comfortable as they may be, it is a certain type of man who can pull off the linen suit. Often they are Bond villains. That said, I think that there are two parts to this equation. There is the question of social responsibility, which is, how do we behave when we are guests in someone else’s country? It’s true, it’s possible to take advantage of inequality, and there are those who would actively seek to do exactly that, but I think there is another element to the economic consideration here. Migration is good for economies, for every migrant (or refugee) that comes to Australia, they will, theoretically, not only become part of the workforce, but they will create economic motion. They will need to buy food and clothes, pay rent, go to the doctor, entertain themselves, etc, etc, all of which are things that add to a country’s economic health. On the flip side, grey nomads moving to other countries will not be entering the labour market, but they are then moving liquid capital into that state’s economy – where they will do all of the above –creating employment opportunities, which for places like Nepal and Mexico are a major win.
Our tour guide thanked us for visiting Mexico, and I was embarrassed, because up until that point, I had somehow felt like I was being hustled. I felt like I was being commodified, and in truth I was, but that in its own right is a kind of authentic experience. More than that, I was a necessity. I realised that what I had previously thought of as seeking an ‘authentic’ experience was more of a demand, a requirement that my hosts allow me some kind of insight into their lives, their culture, and their history. I was essentially showing up at someone else’s house and heading straight for the fridge.
After leaving Cancun, we went to Los Angeles. It was one afternoon, spent in Santa Monica and Venice Beach, another place that might be considered a tourist trap. While we were there, I found myself on a palm-lined boulevard, hanging out and killing time while Cheree went shopping.
I wasn’t disappointed by my LA people watching. I saw some guys recording what I think was a music video for Martha Reeves’s Dancing in the Street. I saw a seven-year-old violinist work an entire crowd. I saw a young California girl guitarist with a Pomeranian in her bag bust out some acoustic power ballads, while a middle-aged Latina woman improvised an interpretive dance (she had also joined the street dancing film crew and stayed on for the buskers). Meanwhile, a surly clown stood off to one side, frustrated that no-one was interested in his balloon animals.
My doppelganger walked past at one point and stopped to say hi. All of this happened in about half-an-hour.
I had a similar experience several years ago when travelling with my dad. We were in Barcelona and ended up walking down a boulevard lined with some of the most incredible living statues. We’re talking full body paint, carnival worthy costumes – a particular standout were a pair of monks, who had rigged it so it looked like one was levitating over the other as they meditated.
What I enjoyed most though, and what has really stuck with me, were the statues on break. There were about half-a-dozen of them around, a couple smoking cigarettes, a couple more sharing some coffee from a thermos, another reading the paper. The veneer had slipped aside there, they were half-clad in costume, some of them had removed their makeup, others had thrown on jackets. They were a glimpse beneath the surface of the tourist experience.
I think it’s those moments of sitting back and seeing what comes, where the real sense of authenticity emerges. For those who live in a world of tourism and travel, there’s definitely a sense of the performative self… but that doesn’t change the fact that these people are living their lives. Understanding cultures from around the world is important, learning and broadening your horizons has endless value, but what’s lost when you ignore the people in front of you? As travelers, it’s not right to demand an inside peek at their world. We can watch, and when we are granted a glimpse we should be thankful, but this particular gallery is also someone’s home. The statues are human, after all.