Friday, 3 July 2015

The Authentic Traveller

Mural.  Havana. Artist Unknown. Photo: Andrew Holman 
What is authentic travel?  And what is an authentic traveller?

I've been writing about an amazing trip to Cuba with Andrew, my photographer husband, for weeks now and there are so many more fantastic photos and experiences to share.  Today though, I'm pausing for thought.  

My friend and travel writer, Louise Vargas, wrote recently: 'Why I Hate The Term 'Authentic Travel' 

She challenged travel snobbery and got me asking myself the question 'What is authentic travel?' Unusually for me, because I do love to write reams - my texts look like emails - I came up with a short answer. 

Authenticity lies not in the travel but in the traveller.  It's a state of mind rather than a destination.

Probably, feeling rather pleased with myself, I should stop there, but off I go!  Is it that simple?  

So, I could travel into my nearest town right now, strike up a conversation with the woman whose apples have just fallen out of a hole in her shopping bag as she got off the bus, discover that she wants them to paint a still life so she doesn't mind that they're bruised, and then be delighted when she invites me to her art exhibition next month.  Or, I could travel to the other side of the world, lie on the beach all day, speak only to order food, and not do or see anything else.  Which is most authentic?

My instinctive answer is the first scenario, even though I might not usually consider going to the nearest town as 'travelling'.  The idea of going somewhere 'just' to lie on the beach challenges me and, blush, my own travel snobbery.   On the other hand, which is more 'authentic': to spend a fortnight on the beach, listening to the ocean, feeling the sun on my back and reading some fantastic books or, to trail around 'sights' because I feel I have to, and hate every minute?  On the other hand ...  I could push at my boundaries, go and see that ruined temple, although I'd rather stay on the beach, and discover, even amidst the crowds of other tourists, something that speaks uniquely to me.

'Authentic travel' happens anywhere, any time.  I think it's about embracing what you're experiencing: it's not about the destination but the traveller.  

But in the context of this discussion, it's perhaps mostly about marketing.  Louise talks about travel companies using the word 'authentic' to promote holidays.  And I guess it's at the root of all of this: an attempt to get you 'seeking the new buzz', the 'inaccessible to most other people', the 'special if you go right now and with us'.  Authenticity or one-upmanship?

Another of Louise's points really struck home: "Often people mean 'evidence of poor people' when they say they want 'authentic' travel.  I think that's often true and it's curious.  Do we feel, deep down, that our consumer society is less than authentic?

You see!  Perhaps I should have stopped with my short answer: Authenticity lies not in the travel but in the traveller.

My own mission, my personal answer, is to try to travel with an open heart and an open mind, to try to be spontaneous and enjoy the moment.  Oh, and to try not to get too pretentious!  To travel, anywhere, is a privilege.

Meanwhile, I'm off to buy Alain de Botton's 'The Art of Travel' for more erudite philosophising and then into my garden: there's a whole universe out there and summer has arrived in the UK.

See you in Cuba again next time.
Head in the clouds: Vinales, Cuba


  1. Nice post Kelly - thanks for the mention! --- Lou

    1. Thank you Lou and you're welcome. Thank you for the inspiration x