What does Authenticity mean to us?

When talking about authenticity, people usually refer to pictures or movies, showing a beautiful location. These pictures are a major factor in deciding to a new place, we see a beautiful picture and decide that we have to see it for ourselves.

This article is part of the blog parade about authenticity on the German travel blog Bamboo blog. We want to inform you what we think about authenticity.

After much preparation, maybe a long flight we finally get to our destination and see the place of our dreams with our own eyes.

“But what is this? There are people everywhere! And it looks totally fake! It looks so commercial and not at all like on Instagram! That’s totally inauthentic.”

But what is more authentic than the place itself?

What a lovely garden, the perfect place to relax, isn't it?
What a lovely garden, the perfect place to relax, isn’t it?

As you can imagine, a location that is authentic has to be natural, there shouldn’t be any companies or corporations behind these old walls and it should be similar to what you thought this place would be like.

Everybody has very high expectations when they travel, so let’s be honest: Do you know a really awesome location that is easy to reach and meets all of these requirements? No? I didn’t think so.

Obviously there are still many great places around the world, which are still said to be very authentic. For major tourist attractions it has to be said though, that the authenticity is often artificially maintained or simply nothing more than an illusion kept up by the local tourist industry. Obviously the success of this illusion depends on how well the local industry caters to our assumptions.

I don’t want to go so far to criticize tourist agencies around the world, they are not only doing an important job, they are also doing it quite well!
This whole illusion is not a bad thing. Illusion or not, a lot of these places are simply great and worth seeing. Even more important is, that in most places tourism is actually funding the maintenance of all these old buildings, monuments and natural sights. Visitors are therefore doing a major contribution to the preservation of history and culture.

So ... who of you will pay the construction workers?
So … who of you will pay the construction workers?

If you are just travelling to relax and enjoy yourself, hitting these sights as you go by is a great idea – who cares about authenticity if you have a great time and do something good for the conservation of this place?

If you are more interested in the place though, only visiting the place will not really cut it. There is a reason why travellers search so much for this authenticity. We want to know what a place is really like, without the interference of other foreigners. How can we accomplish this?

Obviously the authentic life of Germany does not take place at the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin or the Castle Neuschwanenstein, but in the small neighborhoods, towns and villages. Why should it be any different in other countries?

Despite all the beauty we have in our old towns, people should understand that authentic travelling is not to be mistaken with time travelling. You cannot find the authentic life of let’s say a small medieval village because it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Finding the authenticity in a place means finding the local life in this moment of time. It is a little bit like taking pictures: We get a glimpse into a certain location, at a certain point in time.

Just because your house is 500 years old, you will probably not want to life like people 500 years ago
Just because your house is 500 years old, you will probably not want to life like people 500 years ago

Obviously this is more complex than just the simple photo, it gives us a more accurate and comprehensive image. More importantly this picture cannot be faked through Photoshop or filters!
The fact is though, that places change over time. There is technological and economical progress, politics change or it might simply be that the bakery around the corner had to close or the nice neighbour had to move. The place will still be similar, but it’s not the same place that you left last time.

As you can see, authenticity is not dead or non existent, you can find it at the core of any culture, at any moment in time – it might not meet your expectations though and will always be different.

If you want to find this authenticity, you cannot expect to find it during a 2 week vacation in a resort. You will have to meet the local people, live like a local and accustom yourself to their life, to understand what the authentic life somewhere else is like.

You don’t have to go as far as to call yourself a slow traveller or even expat, to understand a foreign culture though. Our best hint to get into a foreign culture on a short stay is to use couch surfing. In difference to AirBnB, Couch surfing is not only about cheap and unique accommodations, it is a lot more. You connect with a local, stay with them and get first-hand experience of what the local life is like.

The view out of the window of our room at our couch surfing host in Puerto Princesa, Philippines. Living on a farm with about 30 chicken bred for chicken fights is not only unforgettable but also gives you a unique view into the Filipino culture. Before anybody asks: No, we didn't have a long sleep.
The view out of the window of our room at our couch surfing host in Puerto Princesa, Philippines. Living on a farm with about 30 chicken bred for chicken fights is not only unforgettable but also gives you a unique view into the Filipino culture. Before anybody asks: No, we didn’t have a long sleep.

Staying in a place for a longer time helps a lot though. As you can imagine, our most accurate view on authentic life in a foreign country is on China.
Even on a tourist tour, it won’t take you long to understand that China is much different and more diverse than the simple glimpse into the culture you can get at the local Chinese buffet. If you want to understand this giant country though, you will need to do a lot more than climb the great wall and watch some fluffy pandas. Get off the beaten track, try to talk to a local, try to understand why China is the way it is.

As a lot of other contributors to the parade already mentioned, the typical life in China does not necessarily take place in small villages. More than 50% of the Chinese population is living in big cities.

A typical, authentic day in the life of a Chinese starts early in the morning, he will probably stand in the metro for about one hour with his phone in his hand before he starts working. After getting a comparatively early lunch he might sleep for an hour or continue playing with his phone. Later he will probably work until 5 pm. In big cities, people usually get lunch in some restaurant before going out. As in the West, they could head for a bar, a club or the cinema but it has to be mentioned that there is KTV, a popular Karaoke bar and especially for male students internet cafes are very popular for playing games against your friends.

The authentic life in China therefore hardly takes place in the old tea houses but in the neighbourhoods of big cities, in the metros, the small, simple restaurants and so on. Unfortunately, uncomfortable things like the pollution of both the air and the environment belong to this image as well.

Clearly not what a lot of people would expect authentic life to be in China.

To describe the whole matter in a few words, authenticity stands for the real life of the local population. For us, there is no authenticity in big sights.
To answer whether authenticity is important to us: no. Obviously we enjoy authentic life if we get the chance to but the fact is, that even with Couch surfing it is sometimes hard to get into contact with locals because most of time you are only there for a short stay.

In the end it all just comes to the question, whether you enjoyed your travels or not. It does not really matter whether that is alone on the beach, in a group with people that become friends during your trip or in the small coffee shop looking over the village.

What are your ideas about authenticity? Does it matter to you? We are happy to discuss in the comments or just take part in the blog parade!

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