Five Ways to Find Authenticity on the Road

In the travel industry sense, ‘authentic’ has devolved into little more than another hollow buzz word, rendered almost meaningless in a world where the lines between authenticity –by definition simply something that is genuine– and modernity have become impossibly blurred by the expectations marketers thrust our way and the lack of knowledge about the world many travelers have.

The examples are numerous and I won’t spell them out here. Let’s just get to the list.

No. 1. Leave your expectations and stereotypes at the unclaimed baggage counter.

Vietnam 109Better yet, dump them in the non-recyclables bin before passing through security. Because if you arrive at a destination with some vague notion of authenticity in mind, it’s quite likely that your entire journey will be shrouded by a dark cloud of disappointment.

Unfulfilled expectations always suck, but they can be painfully brutal when you’re traveling. One brief vignette from a visit to Sapa, Vietnam, a few years ago as a case in point:

I was sitting at a restaurant waiting for a glass of a local wine described as ‘Good for Men’ when a group of half a dozen twenty-something American English-speaking travelers entered. They hastily claimed two tables, spread out and sat down.

“Sapa is bullshit, man,” one said as he leafed through the extensive wine list. “This isn’t Vietnam. There’s nothing authentic about this place. What a freakin’ joke.”

Sapa is northern Vietnam’s thriving gateway town for day trips and overnight treks into the area’s highlands and visits to its more remote mountain ethnic communities. They had just returned from a trek to the summit of the 3,148m high Phang Xi Pang, the country’s highest mountain, and were clearly disappointed that Sapa fell short of their preconceived notions of precisely what a 21st century Vietnamese highland tourist town should be.

A friend agreed. “Yeah, this just isn’t real,” he said. “Totally sucks.”

A few moments later he connected to the restaurant’s free wifi and began tapping on his iPhone in search of a proxy server so he could break through Vietnam’s Facebook block to presumably tell his friends just how unreal and sucky Sapa was.

Just as his medium rare Australian strip steak and small Chef’s salad –he asked for a light dressing on the side—arrived, so did success.

“Ha! I got through.”

So by allowing themselves to confuse modernity with their personal notions of what was or should be ‘authentic’, they contributed to the ruin of what should have simply been a memorable once-in-a-lifetime experience in a strikingly beautiful corner of the planet. I can only hope that broadcasting his disappointment via Facebook helped him reach some closure.

5 Ways to Find Authenticity on the Road - From Piran Cafe
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No. 1 above is the only one that really matters, but since blog readers like lists here are four more ways –plus a bonus!– to help you have an authentic experience, in no particular order:

  • In cities, check out immigrant neighborhoods. The best meal I ever had in Brussels was at a modest family-run west African place with the finest jukebox on the planet. Brussels is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. That meal was a helluva lot more authentic than the dime-a-dozen over-priced mussels joints near the Grand Place.
  • Go to a local dive bar. The kind you wouldn’t go to at home. Preferably one that doesn’t sell t-shirts. Although those are authentic, too.
  • Don’t go to malls. Not because they’re not authentic (they are). Just because you shouldn’t.
  • Sharpen your senses. Free them to work over-time. Taste the dust. Smell the diesel.

In short: Ignore the marketing hype. In one way or another, it’s all authentic. Let your mind be blown.






  1. I really like this post! You would certainly one to know what to do and what not to do while in transit!

    you’ll laugh to know that i was having scrambled eggs w/shrimp at exclusivo yesterday when a fisherman came in peddling a 9-kilo corvina.. he mentioned as he was stepping toward the sidewalk, that he was on his way to manta….

    five minutes later i was part of a human sardine packaging in teh back seat of teh truck (five of us back there til bahia – three on to manta!)… ah, seize the moment!

    am in tarqui now and on my way to portoviejo for floor finish to protect the most-recent work at the house!

  2. This post is awesome. I admit, I really like lists. You’ve inspired me to write a post about how authenticity changes when the local people develop cultural programs for tourists to help increase their businesses. There is a fine line they have to balance between authentic cultural programs and what tourists really want.

  3. “Taste the dust. Smell the diesel.” That should be a t-shirt or a catchphrase or a tattoo. My friend, OU alum, and Brusselsite at Solamente 55 can make it happen.

  4. ah, so glad someone has written this. I’ve been contemplating the idea of authentic travel for awhile–every time I see some blogger write “an authentic experience,” I cringe a little bit. Authentic to who? So often authenticity is a PC way of saying “exotic” or “timeless” and we westerners have these unrealistic expectations of developing nations…like they should be “quaint” and “traditional.” The reality–most of the world has cellphones and internet and washing machines and THIS IS A VERY GOOD THING and also we should stop seeing poverty as something to ogle at or admire. It’s the whole noble savage, happy native trope and it makes me sick. If I can add something to your list–take the time to really make friends with locals. Not as something to check off your list but for the same reasons you make friends with anyone else. See them as friends, not your “local friends.” Do what they do. This might involve going to McDonald’s in Argentina. That’s the thing with authenticity–it so rarely lives up to our Western ideals.

    1. Thanks, Syd. I was with you until the ‘going to McDonald’s in Argentina’ part. 😉 I don’t go to McDonald’s anywhere, but I understand your point. 🙂

      1. haha yeah me neither, but not because I think it’s inauthentic, more because it’s just generally shitty.

  5. Great stuff, Bob. “Authenticity” has gone the way of “Paradise” – empty marketing slogans, shoved down the throats of whomever is too lazy to realize it. Since I’ve already had my rant on “Paradise” a while back, I’m glad someone else tackled “Authenticity” 🙂 Also, everything Syd said.

  6. Stay with people, enjoy their company, know what they like to do, their favorite places; go to the local market and eat at street food stalls, listen and dance to local music; go for a walk and start trekking in places meant for that when you didn’t know a thing about it before; that’s authentic!

    you’ve started your list with the most obvious thing people should do when they leave for a beautiful trip outside of their home. If they’re not ready to discover something completely different than what they already know, they should stay home. Abroad will never be like home because it’s somebody else’s home and their habits are different. Learn them, live them, love them and ENJOY THE ROAD!

    that’s the best!
    Cheers and Happy New Year to all!

  7. Now, this is one kind of travel writing I really enjoy – hints for the jaded. And the spoiled. And the bloody damned boring. Personally, I think travelling in groups kind of leads to this sort of behaviour.

  8. A man after my own heart! I might add to your list, shun auto rental. Public transport is the best venue for meeting people and dispelling any preconceived ideas of what the local population is like.

    1. Absolutely. Long-distance buses are also quite inexpensive in many places, and surprisingly comfortable these days. There have been times where I did wish I had a vehicle –especially in Patagonia a few years ago– but in those cases it’s simple enough to find someone to take you and pay them a fee.

  9. I love this! I think you hit the nail on the head and I love your conversational writing. Tweeting, Stumbling, Blogloving and Facebooking the hell out of this post!

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