Travel guides strive to get their readers to have the right experience. They must therefore distinguish between good and bad. A fundamental criterion in this issue is «authenticity». Whatever is authentic is considered right and good, whatever is not authentic false and bad. Authentic is, for instance, what the residents of a place require or do; unauthentic is what is there merely for tourists.
So street food, for instance, is considered to be authentic by almost all travel books. Anybody who buys a sausage-filled arepa (corn cake), wrapped in newspaper, from a stand in Cartagena and, after having taken a few steps, digs his teeth into the still-warm dough and immediately bends forward and spreads his legs (because it drips), bites not just into a piece of nourishment but also into a piece of the real everyday culture of the place. Such assimilative practices are readily indulged in by journeying cooks, too, whether they are called Andrew Zimmern or Anthony Bourdain: With their TV teams in tow they rush from one exotic destination to the next, only in order to dig their jaws, wide-eyed, into some runny sandwich here or a special burger there and then scream, with mouth full, «Oh my god!», or shake the head in disbelief – as if they, biting or chewing, had just had a vision of the craziest sexual practice: «That's so…».
In contrast to street food, the ride on a carriage is rated as the absolute opposite of authentic. For, in those places where there are still carriages in this world, they exist only for and because of tourists (disregarding extremely poor spots in the world where the carriages are nothing short of carts). No wonder travellers who are walking firmly on the path of authenticity with a copy of the «Lonely Planet» tucked under their arm, have just a derisive laugh for carriage riders. Yet, the sight of these petit-bourgeois passengers allowing themselves to be jolted through the streets by such tourist trappings, should serve to just intensify the true traveller’s hunger for a genuine experience.
Travel guides advise their readers about what is authentic in a particular place –and what is not. What they never speak about is the authenticity of the tourist who passes through these places. It appears that his genuineness is taken for granted. But how authentic is a traveller who bites into a runny arepa – even if he’d basically perhaps prefer to sit in a carriage and allow himself to be trundled through the streets?
First Publication: 7-3-2014