My fiancé Steve and I have completely opposite travel styles. While he’s at home on a crowded, dirty Indian train, I’ll be the one hiding on my bunk having a panic attack and dehydrating for fear of having to use the bathroom during the 14-hour journey. I prefer a boutique hotel with a decent wine list, while he’s happy to have the top bunk in a roach-infested backstreet hostel if it only costs him $5.
Despite our drastically different preferences, we both adore traveling, and do so at every chance we get. But which of us is having the more “authentic” travel experience? Answer? We both are.
While on a trip to India last fall, I got to thinking about the latest travel buzzword: Authenticity. With borders blurring and Starbucks’ popping up in places like China’s Great Wall, people are becoming concerned that the once unique, dynamic cultures of the world are becoming as ancient as the pyramids. Traveling authentically, therefore, has become a sort of Holy Grail, and people are going to greater length than ever to achieve this state of travel nirvana.
But what does it actually mean to have an “authentic travel experience?” Is it where you stay? The food you eat? The people you encounter? Strangely, some seem to think that it’s how little you spend. I’ve met plenty of people who feel that traveling on a shoestring, taking third class trains or bone crushing shared taxis, and staying in dingy hostels somehow makes their experience of a place more authentic and more real than someone who shells out a little more for the creature comforts.
Well my friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to travel authentically is to be honest with yourself. If you are comfortable with the 10-peso bus ride crammed with chickens, or it’s all you can afford and you’re willing to travel no matter what, then that is your authentic experience. However, if you prefer (and have the cash) to take the first class train with the plush seats and plate glass windows, that too is yours.
As for me, I experienced four LONG journeys on Indian trains, the hours of which I count among the worst in my life. Yes, that is the way the locals travel in India, yet I couldn’t relax enough to take in the experience and thus my travel dreams turned into nightmares. I couldn’t marvel at the scenery, read a book on my Kindle or even enjoy a chat with Steve or the locals sitting next to me because my body was so extremely tense. Being reasonably comfortable with your surroundings is essential to experiencing a place at both your and its optimal levels, and that is where you can truly absorb the wonders and charms that a new city or country has to offer.
“What about trying new experiences,” some might say, “living outside your comfort zone?” These are some of the reasons people travel in the first place. But what if going so far outside your zone means you can’t relax enough to take anything in, or worse, causes you to have a negative experience? In this case, you may never even have the opportunity for an authentic experience to unveil itself to you. You have to be true to yourself and know your travel limits. Accept challenges, but maybe not those that make you want to pop a Xanax or three. Open your mind, while at the same time being kind to yourself – you’re not a bad traveler if you eat at McDonald’s once in a while or occasionally splurge on a five-star hotel. (By the way, Steve has learned to appreciate the benefits of hotels with stars!)
After having visited 35 countries on five continents, I have discovered that the key to experiencing a place authentically is to maintain your own comfort level, whatever that may be. Then, let the authentic experiences organically unfold.
In other words, just because everyone else is riding that train, it doesn’t mean you have to.
What do you think makes an authentic travel experience?