Discovering New Places

Authenticity keeps coming up in conversations. First it was the white people and dreadlocks conversation, followed by one about manufactured authenticity via cappuccino. In that same post, David says, “I find that for most tourists nothing is more important than seeking out the “authentic” of where they are.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to discover a new place. More to the point, I’ve been wondering where the quest for authenticity begins, and in what contexts we apply it. When I travel to Providence, Rhode Island, about 45 minutes away, do I seek authenticity in my experience? Unlikely, unless the authenticity that I seek comes in a bowl of clam chowder or a Newport Storm. Even when I travel across the country–my country–“authenticity” is rarely part of the equation. When we travel to foreign countries, however, many of us seem intent on experiencing life “like the locals,” yet we find utterly bizarre ways of doing so: we look for things “off the beaten [tourist] track,” which often means consulting a guidebook, rather than asking a local. And as I can attest to firsthand, asking a local stranger often results in a rather skewed answer as well; for example, I’m not going to give up my favorite local bar to a Texan tourist, only to find it crop up in a guidebook. Asking a local in Morocco often means being directed to a place owned by his relative, from which he can nab a commission.

I’d imagine that if other people are like me, what they’re seeking is actual, everyday life. For many people, though, I think the assumption is that, in developing countries in particular, that “actual, everyday life” has to come with a strikingly different appearance than what they’re used to; when in fact, it’s often right in front of their eyes.

I read tourists’ impressions of Morocco from time to time and am always amused by descriptions of the “real” Morocco; judging by these, Morocco is poor, it is rural, it is Berber. Of course, all of these things are true, but they are by no means the only truth. I remember a few years ago I got involved in a comment war with an American Muslimah in Rabat, who took issue with my description of reality in Meknes; she couldn’t possibly believe that I hung around with young people in bars, or that we occasionally went nightclubbing in Marrakesh. To her, those were things that tourists do, not things that Moroccans do. For better or worse (and I’m neither condoning nor admonishing), she’s wrong: In today’s urban Morocco, those activities are no longer restricted to foreigners. Young women are increasingly showing up in bars and smoking in public. The lines are blurring.

The other American’s experiences were equally “authentic”; a married Muslim, she lived with her husband’s family and prayed at the mosque. Like me, she was learning Arabic, and like me, she struggled to fit in sometimes. We were both foreigners attempting to live “normal” lives in foreign countries, surrounded by locals and not expats. And yet we couldn’t have been more different.

That said, I don’t think there’s much use in arguing over whose experience was more authentic, more real. I live in Boston; to me the “real Boston” is my neighborhood, my neighbors, my local watering hole and the sushi place on the corner. To others it might be Faneuil Hall, Fenway Park, and the Public Garden. If you visited my city and saw only one set of those things by chance, I wouldn’t say that your experience was more authentic than any other. That said, as a traveler, I am still keen to stay with local friends (a feat greatly helped by being part of the Global Voices community), eat at highly-recommended restaurants (be they Italian food in Italy or Italian food in San Francisco), and see a mix of “the sights” and local oddities.

To me, authenticity is best found by following your own path.

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