Traveling and Glimpses of Authenticity
What I Learned Living in Colombia
Something appeared on my Facebook News Feed recently that made my eyes roll. More than if an old high school classmate referred to her dog as a “fur baby” with a #blessed caption.
The eye roll trigger was a long infographic illustrating the differences between a tourist and a traveler. One of the pictures showed a stick figure sleeping in a bed, then the same figure sleeping in a hammock. The former picture apparently represented a tourist, the latter was deemed a traveler.
My slight exasperation over this infographic was because that kind of content fits into a larger idea that there’s a “wrong way” and “right way” to travel. Plenty of travel blogs, books and Pinterest pictures imply the “wrong way” of traveling involves taking a week-long vacation, staying in hotels instead of hostels, buying guided tour packages and visiting popular destinations. While the “right way” to travel is taking long trips, only staying in hostels and always opting for off-the-beaten path destinations.
There’s a myth in the travel world that suggests staying in modest accommodations is the only way to make a trip feel genuine. You have to choose the hammock over the bed because you are not a lame tourist, you are a worldly traveler. The fallacy being traveling the “right way” is the only means of facilitating an “authentic experience.”
Well let me tell you, I have been living and working in Colombia for almost a year. I sleep in a comfy bed — not a hammock — and I’m having a more “authentic” experience than when I was traveling around the country sleeping in cheap hostels.
While staying in hostels throughout various Colombian cities, I crossed paths with 20-somethings who claimed to have “fallen in love” with Colombian culture but hadn’t actually managed to venture out of the tourist areas. One traveler in Medellin, Colombia boasted that he didn’t do any research or planning before arriving in Colombia, because that was the “best way to travel.” Yet when I returned to the hostel after taking a guided tour, there he was in the common area, poking at his phone and chatting with the other hostel guests while “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” blared on the television.
City after city, I met people who claimed guided tours didn’t show you “the real Colombia,” yet every night, they would chew on the bland pasta prepared in the community kitchen, then head to the hostel’s bar to gush about how they felt like a local while sipping on overpriced beers. As if that was the real Colombia.
I don’t claim to be an expert on Colombia, but I have learned a lot about the country, its people and improved my Spanish over this past year. Staying put in one place and building a life for myself here made me realize something that might disappoint those snobby hostel hipsters posing with prayer hands for Instagram: By its very nature, traveling only gives visitors glimmers of authenticity. Moving around locations and destinations can only reveal so much about a country’s customs and cultures, especially if you don’t speak the language.
Only when you start living like a local is when you will encounter more than just glimmers of authenticity. For example, when I first arrived in Bogotá, I asked various Colombians what they considered to be the city’s biggest problem. To my surprise, most people didn’t say crime or corruption, they said transportation. Now that I use public buses daily, I totally get it. Traffic in Bogotá is horrible and the public bus system needs improvement, but these weren’t sentiments I shared with others until I lived like a Colombian.
On a side note, I realize how silly it is to write “living like a local,” when citizens can live in radically different ways compared to their own countrymen and women. The life of a poor fisherman on Colombia’s Caribbean coast looks dramatically different than an affluent businesswoman who lives in a Bogotá high-rise.
By no means should people feel discouraged about only being exposed to glimpses of authenticity while traveling because those glimpses are windows to different norms, perspectives and ways of life. Those glimpses can aspire appreciation for a culture besides your own. And that’s why traveling is important.
But what people need to realize is there is no right or wrong way to travel. Just because someone spends less money on lodging accommodations, doesn’t mean he or she is somehow having a more authentic experience than someone sleeping in a hotel — because at the end of the day, true authenticity abroad is being invited to your neighbor’s barbecue where someone’s drunk uncle tries to get you to dance. True authenticity is dreaming in your new language. It’s knowing a cabdriver is taking the long way home and calling him out on it.
There’s nothing wrong with forgoing the annoying nuances that come with actually living in a country when you are only traveling. Fill your trip with the most exciting experiences and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for enjoying a country’s splendors while skipping over the mundane parts.
On the other hand, don’t expect to have a whole country or culture figured out just because you spent a month backpacking and crashing in hostels. If you are truly searching for an authentic experience — a holistic perspective on life in another country — consider living abroad for a while.
Pay your bills there, stand in line at the immigration office, buy toilet paper, learn the language, fall in love, go dancing. This is how you learn about a country and about yourself.