I travelled very little when I was growing up. When you haven’t travelled, other cultures are purely hypothetical. NatGeo and history books don’t cut the pedagogic mustard like soil and cobblestone. I imagined that travel must be a life changing thing, and yet my more well-heeled friends often returned from their sojourns kinda samey, with dull stories and duller snaps. They didn’t seem as though they were in the country, but rather in front of the country, like it was somewhere else whilst they were there.
Some ingratiating internationalists even talk of having “done” a country, as though travelling the world was some kind of cosmopolitan completionist obligation. Pinging between whatever landmarks are visible on a half-zoomed Google Map constituted completion in their minds, when all they’re really seeing is the washed about-face of a culture put forward for the tourist dollar. The real culture, I reasoned, must be in the dark alleyways and wild woods — places that nobody I knew had visited.
Of course, this view was mostly due to a prickly, resentful, sceptical-of-everything attitude. Bitterly jealous of my more adventurous and/or affluent friends, I resorted to this kind of mental contortion to denigrate their experiences to the level of my own. I don’t think I was able to entertain that tourism made people better and more well-rounded because I was, therefore, denied my own personal development.
The key operational word for my mental contortion at this time was “authentic.” I figured there existed something of a continuum bounded on one end by the inauthentic Seven-Day Nature Safari Feat. Air-conditioned Huts, the Eighty-Eighth Floor Observational Deck with Worlds Fastest Accelerating Elevator, the Double Decker City Bus Tour Departing at 10, 12:30, and 2:00, the Parisian Scene With Holes Where Your Face Goes (With Implicit Opportunity to Invert Familial Roles), the Four Hour Arduous Hike Where There Are Fit Locals Who Will Carry Your Gear and Probably You if Necessary, etc. etc., and then bounded by an ill-defined, amorphous Authentic Travel on the other.
Not to bind myself, my cynicism needed some kind of release valve, and I had at this time idealised — or at least experimented with the idealisation of — the bonhomie of the backpacker tribe. I envied their cultivated, worldly indifference, their being of many cultures rather than just one. I figured this was Authentic Travel or at least pretty close.
My first experiment with Authentic Travel was on motorcycle, circumnavigating the north island of New Zealand towards the end of winter. It was my transmogrified backpacking experiment. Motorcycling is a bodily form of travel, a way of experiencing space and time in relation to one another. I wanted to identify with the rugged New Zealand landscape by braving it’s hills and elements (admittedly with the assistance of a 600cc Suzuki V-Strom). I wanted to be, as Robert M. Pirsig put it, “in the frame,” of reality.
Two days in to my trip around New Zealand, after having chased some ferocious corners around the edge of the Coromandel Peninsula, I stopped by a youth hostel to get internet access and plan the next leg of my route. As I clomped inside in my heavy cycle boots, the man behind the wood-veneer reception waited patiently as my gaze shifted to the eight or so backpackers in an adjacent room.
I saw the authentic backpacker experience: Watching Judge Judy repeats at 3:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by other 20-somethings in ill-fitting clothes and mottled tans, sheltered from the world outside. It was a huddled, boring vignette. I wondered what they were here for. They had come so far only to be in such a mundane place, on a rare sunny day with rivers, mountains, and new people everywhere but where they were.
I came to conceptualise the backpacker experience (and it’s uglier, more on-rails cousin — the Contiki experience) not as a way to experience a new culture, but as a totally separate international sub-culture of it’s own, one that has a measured, deliberate, and particular (and therefore inauthentic! aha!) relationship with the host culture outside. Just like the Museum of Selective History, the Art Gallery of Stuff From Everywhere Else, or the Facile Walking Tour that Grudgingly Acknowledges Indigenous History.
In truth, my motorcycle journey was pretty similar too. The short winter days meant I had a lot of ground to cover each day and the landscape of New Zealand whizzed past like a flip-book. I pretty quickly traded in my tent for cheap motels. It was a fun and exhilarating trip where I confronted my own mortality far more often than I’d like, but the road could’ve been anywhere in the world — Turkey, California, Japan — and my experience would’ve been the same. I had an authentic connection with asphalt, rubber, and unleaded petrol, but not New Zealand. My quest for Authentic Travel continued.
I had a drink at the Arusha Backpacker’s Lodge last week, and it had that same absence of place I saw in the New Zealand hostel— no Africans in sight, just a smattering of tourists in misappropriated Maasai shukas, rasta braids, and lurid Africa pants. One guy nearby slouched on a soft, yielding couch, angled such that only arse friction was keeping him from the floor. He was staring at Tinder with that insensate velleity that typifies our digital age. The room and the people in it could have been anywhere in the world, just like the asphalt and diesel of my motorcycle trip.
I can’t afford to be judgemental: I was there too.
When I arrived in Arusha, I thought I’d try to live in a way that allowed me to collide with the local culture. Over eighteen months I was assured a Totally Authentic, Like Real Identification with Culture if only I put in a modicum of effort. You know: Shop at The Local Market and Haggle Like You Mean It, Walk Everywhere (Because You Can, Not Because You Have To), Ride the Public Bus That Costs 25c With a $1400 Laptop In Your Bag, Chat With Locals On the Street (In English, Which They Have to Learn Because Colonialism), and so on and so on.
The locals have so far been totally against my noble quest for an authentic Tanzanian experience. On the street, I get bombarded by solicitous men desperate to sell art and trinkets. In the markets, I’m never really sure if I’m being overcharged 1000% or 700%. In local bars, I’m seen suspiciously, fearfully, and in some cases creepily idealised — and this is even worse for women. Seeking an authentic experience comes with the corollary of loquacious locals being preoccupied with everything about you. If you are “in the frame,” the frame immediately changes. It’s quantum tourism. The pursuit of authenticity produced inauthenticity. Shit.
Some of these experiences involve the term “Mzungu,” meaning white person. I should point out Mzungu isn’t inherently a racist term here, though it can be used that way. Offensive or not, it does serve to draw attention to your skin: The supple, porous barrier that separates us from everything else in the Universe. The discriminant behaviour of the locals serves to clearly define my sense of boundary and being — that I, Aden Date, very firmly end where my skin does. I am not an authentic traveller, blending seamlessly in to this new culture. My bonhomie aspirations and inarticulate, vaguely eastern quasi-religious beliefs are quaint. I feel trapped within my skin, thoroughly an individual divided against the rest of the world. Authentic connections be damned.
It doesn’t take long to realise this is a lonely feeling, the kind of loneliness that you can only really feel when you’re surrounded by other people. I suspect it might be connected to a lizard-brain level existential fear of being trapped inside ourselves, or perhaps more accurately, trapped inside a self, a particular self at the confluence of a particular history, genetics, and personal circumstance. We’re reminded of the many lives that could be lived if only we weren’t doomed to live our own.
And here is the literary Yoda-esque inversion: Perhaps, in a place like Africa, that sense of being trapped inside our history and unable to make real contact with another culture is the most authentic experience you can have. The search for Authentic Travel assumes that inquisitive, non-judgemental openness can bridge the gap between cultures that have a violent and ongoing colonial history. There’s a jaunty optimism in the quest for authentic travel, a Love Fixes Everything kind of disposition, which I think is a total lefty thing that gives me the fucking fantods.
One of the most important rights a community has is the right to practice exclusion. Here in Tanzania, dire economic circumstances in remote Maasai villages are forcing some to grudgingly open their doors to the new authentic tourist, who has had their fill of elephants and curio stores. In a more just world they would be able to exercise their right to exclude the tourist. It’s not nice to say, but “community,” cannot exist without exclusion. Communities are defined by the boundary that separates a member from a non-member. The gay community generally doesn’t have straight people, bowling clubs generally don’t allow tennis, and so on. Even our vaunted “global community,” excludes the gentle Tralfamadorian.
We can also have empathy for the pejorative tourist. The Africa pants, rasta braids, and Maasai shukas in the hostel represent a very noble and human longing to escape ourselves, identify with another, and tear down the walls erected by history. As for the 20-somethings in the hostel, or fellow mzungus chasing a quality coffee at Msumbi Cafe — they may be recuperating from the neurasthenia that results from this challenging existential task. This totally legit other-identification that we seek with Authentic Travel is one of the starkest ways to confront the walls erected by history and privilege, and it may even be productive in their dismantling.
I was hiking a few weeks ago, tramping through the kind of mixed rural, wild, and shanty landscape of greater Arusha to a place called Wedding Hill. There, a mzungu is a real sight to behold. The youngest children may be seeing a white person for the first time. They run at you and want to show off their limited English, chase you down the street, and try to touch your skin. The vast majority of young kids do this, and even the older ones are still friendly and will wave from afar.
There was one boy, though, about three years old. He stood in the archway to his house, his two earthen feet firmly planted in the splayed stance of a dead-lifter. When he saw me, he was interested but not enraptured, cool but not chilly, cautious but not alarmed. His stance clearly defined where my space ended and his began. He locked eyes with me. I smiled, and he didn’t smile back. He just kept looking without staring, and with his eyes he spoke words those of us from the developed world rarely hear: You Don’t Belong Here.