Matthew Teller explains how finding authenticity in travel is fraught with difficulty.
I’ve just finished writing the Rough Guide to the Cotswolds, due out in May. I loved the challenge, but it was sometimes quite a struggle to maintain a focus on what the place is actually all about, in the midst of all that heritage-industry guff about the Cotswolds being so “typically English”, full of “authentic character”.
Authentic? Bah! Why is the Cotswolds any more “authentic” or “typical” than Peckham, Wolverhampton or the Mersey Tunnel?
It’s not, of course. That quest for authenticity in travel is a red herring. When you’re staying with the Wadi Rum bedouin in Jordan – out in the deep desert, sitting in a black goat-hair tent or round a campfire of twigs in the sand – it feels genuine, like an insider’s cultural experience. To a certain extent it is – hospitality runs deep in Arab societies – but these guys rarely host foreigners for fun. They are businessmen. And canny businessmen at that. They’ve very successfully adapted their culture for foreign consumption. It works well, but our presence has forced that adaptation.
Amman’s super-swish malls, or a night of cocktails at an uptown bar, say just as much about Jordan as Wadi Rum does. Perhaps more. When we travel in the developing world we so often fall into the trap of tagging certain places “Western” and then dismissing them, but they frequently represent a deeply authentic, entirely valid expression of local culture.
Dubai is another place that suffers – as if all those fancy designer boutiques aren’t authentic, but the grungy old souks are. The truth is one fits with our image of Arabia, the other doesn’t. It’s the pictures we carry in our heads that are the problem.
For destinations that have had a lot of exposure – such as the US – we can select any number of mental images of what’s authentic. The US is one of the very few destinations where we might deliberately choose “boring” travel to get an authentic experience – taking the Staten Island Ferry, for instance, or staying in a cheap motel off the interstate.
But who would eat at a motorway service station in Italy, when there are all those wonderful mamma-and-papa village restaurants to choose from? What traveller would go all the way to Delhi, only to sit in Costa Coffee with a cappuccino?
I confess. It was me.
And what guidebook would claim, “The best of the Cotswolds lies in the gaps on the map”?
I couldn’t possibly say.