‘Tourist’. That dirty blasphemous word! Surely not us? Ogling, colonial cameras on legs that doof on ancient Mayan land with half a bag of ketamine up each nostril, leaving a crumby trail of Pringles as they stagger from van to Destination to hostel bunk. Wait, what’s this I hold? A selfie stick? The externalisation of my ego, a phallic bayonet that asserts my overpriveleged claim to this alien terrain? I’m on a colonial quest to find myself, I paid $2000 for a return ticket so I’ve got more right to this bus seat than you. Feed me a taco and pop me a pinger, senorita, because I’m here to party and learn some shit.
We came to Central America for an authentic experience. This isn’t Disneyland, we’re not Eurotrash gap-year twelvies on a Contiki tour, we’ve been to India, we came for the real deal. Central America. From Australia, this mythic middle earth was shrouded in mysterious mists that don’t often appear on our Facebook feed. “The southeast Asia of our parents’ generation.” We were buying into a warmer #americabutsouth – smoking volcanoes, chickeny villages and smiley locals ready to feed us corny corn for less than the price of a shittyrail train ride. Not as touristy as Bangkok or Paris, far away enough to feel like an odyssey, we boarded our flight keen and clean and ready to drown in the dirt of a third world entirely different to our own. Two months later, we are reflecting on the journey and realise we haven’t been able to totally refrain from buying into the tourist package that Central America sells on every corner with a side of taco and a sprinkling of fake cocaine.
So, what is an authentic experience?
How have we come to value couchsurfing as more ‘authentic’ than a Contiki tour? How do you dodge ‘tourist traps’? What makes a trip ‘worthwhile’?
An ‘authentic experience’ is a truth – it does not pretend to be something that it is not. As per manifesto item #6, the truth is cool but it is unattainable (keep on looking).
The first thing that comes to mind when we say ‘authenticity’ is an off the beaten trail struggle through mountains with nothing but a rucksack, and shacking up in a shanty town where you need to bribe vigilante policeman to enter an occult treehouse you heard about from a gypsy who sold you a beaded necklace made from the ashes of her Mayan ancestors. And sure, that’s a unique and authentic experience – if that’s what you signed up for. However, experiences can be authentic in their inauthenticity. Can we really argue that a Contiki tour is inauthentic if it fulfils all the promises it makes on the brochure you were given at your uni open day? Tulum, a town constructed entirely for the purposes of tourist activities (diving, ruins, margaritas) does not advertise itself as an ‘undiscovered gem’. Signs are in English, activities are accessible, the tourist gets what it came for and is satisfied with minimum fuss. Tulum’s gringo culture is honest and observable. You will not find Mexican culture therein, but it makes no attempt at hiding that. It’s just as truthful as the roadside puebla that wasn’t listed in Lonely Planet.
Couchsurfing, one surefire way of getting down and dirty with the locals, is inauthentic if your friendly 25 year old host Josephine turns our to be José, 40 year old Redditer with one bed ‘to share, no?’. Elitist travel snobs like us can’t make snide comments on the genuineness of different trips – hitchhiking vs shuttlehopping – if the traveller is satisfying their own expectations. Travelling is selfish, after all. We’re all here to enjoy our time off, and our time off includes techno and street food. If your time off includes five star hotels and prepacked lunches, good for you. We all seek authenticity, and it delivers in different forms.
One question we’ve struggled with on this trip is whether it’s fair to pigeonhole more arduous travel experiences as ‘better’ than accessible tourist hotspots? Why does ease and accessibility relate to ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Machu Picchu in Peru is a must-see for all South American adventurers. However, the ultimate question about the M.P. experience is how you got there: did you purchase the one-stop train ride up the mountain and then wander around with an audiotour, or did you fork out for trekking boots and hike the four day Inca Trail to arrive at the Sun Gate in true intrepid style? Which journey is more valuable? Do we have to endure a ‘rite of passage’ to legitimise our awesome experiences? Is it really important to trudge through mud and wreck your knees in order to experience the same overrun ancient city as the traingoers? Is a third world trip a trip if you don’t get Bali belly? Travel is a leisure activity, the point is to enjoy yourself, so… why not order another piña colada and pay for a donkey to shepherd your bags up a volcano so you can enjoy the view at the top without the arthritis?
BUT. Those of us who come home harangued, intestinally damaged and culturally brainfucked assure those clean-fingernailed pussies that ‘it was worth it, man.’ After all if you’re going to seek out homely comforts abroad, why leave home in the first place? Yet we’ll be the first to admit that we happily welcome an hour-long instagram sesh in the comfort of a hostel bar after an eight hour chicken bus ride.
‘Comfort zones’ are another buzzword for the First Worlder abroad. A bit like ‘tourist’, it’s a pejorative term we love to sling at other gringos, particularly Americans. We saved up in Sydney so we could enjoy our time overseas, and part of that includes wifi (dnms with mum, sharin pics with homies, consulting Resident Advisor) and clean bedsheets (we have asthma and Ella grew up in Bronte). An authentic experience doesn’t have to mean living like a refugee, so if we’re going to Lesbos, we’ll be taking the yacht option over the Syrian raft. Therefore, accessibility and comfort (much like authenticity) are standards to set for yourself. Ella once met a dude walking from England to South Africa. We’d label him a sadistic traveller: he finds pleasure in the painful journey, rather than the comfortable destination. We merely dabble in the BDSM travel lifestyle. Bad Decisions & Silly Memories. We’ll climb the volcano but whinge for a hot bath at the end. We’ll eat pig’s tail in a roadside tent, but Ella has a first world pussy and it demands a toilet seat to perch on.
If authenticity and accessibility are variable and subjective, what defines a good trip? Can we imagine a universal barometer for measuring the worth of different journeys? Travel is inherently selfish, but it shouldn’t be thoughtless. Every tourist, regardless of mode of travel, needs to consider what they want to get out of a trip and their footprint on the culture they are guests in. Are we remembering our manners? As we interact with foreign cultures we simultaneously imbibe and vomit out our own preconceptions and new perspectives. What are the effects of this double-ended digestion? How can we qualify it?
What makes a good tourist, if there is one?
If we can agree that travelling is a fundamentally selfish hobby (you have saved up the money to pick a trip of your choosing where you will be master of how you spend your time and your money) then we can establish that the ultimate goal of a trip is self-enrichment. Rephrase this however you like: ‘education’, ‘finding yourself’, or ‘gaining experience’, or ‘being inspired’; we all hope to come back home with our brains and backpacks a little more full. Knowledge is the noblest pursuit: learning should colour every moment of a trip. “I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” (Bill Bryson, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe). intelligent traveller (read: wanky first world student) makes interesting guesses and interesting conclusions, absorbing their experiences passively and then thinking about them actively to determine some greater meaning and discover the poetry in motion. (Did you know we write a blog?)
One doesn’t learn the definition of difference until you live it. You can watch films about Nigeria, read articles on Iraq, but you don’t become aware of your first world privilege until you’ve seen a line of limping lepers in the flesh…or lack thereof.
Something as menial as ordering a taco from a street stall can quickly become a crash course in cultural difference. One begins the lesson by navigating a menu aplomb with foreign ingredients, equally difficult to pronounce as they are terrifying to taste. Said traveller then proceeds to order randomly chosen dish in the foreign tongue they should’ve spent more time studying on Duolingo. This is lost in translation but thankfully an eavesdropping expat intervenes. Señora Masterchef is in no rush to cook; conversing with the regulars comes first because ‘to lunch’, almorzar, is a verb, not a one-stop fuel-up. You’re pissy but you have no reason to be because the office isn’t waiting and as you sink your teeth into señora’s mystery dish your palate is schooled in the wonders of spice, grease and colourful condiments. Later, as you shit lava into the seatless toilet and dispose your toiler paper into a nearby bucket because in 2016 this country hasn’t yet worked out its plumbing you grimace and reflect: Lunch has not only given me diarrhoea but a little more faith in strangers, a big lesson in patience and a lotta love for the luxuries of my life back home, which is something you don’t get at Guzman’s.
This passive absorption of knowledge and accompanying (albeit accidental) self-enrichment is the best thing about travel. And the growth is two-way: as you sponge up cultural capital you become aware of your own footprint and consider ways to reciprocate this education. An informed traveller doesn’t blunder by giving to Indian begging rings or American-run travel tours; they source locally and therefore link globally. Tourism can leave a positive footprint on a country if the traveller is sufficiently self-conscious. By buying a streetside taco I’m supporting an industry that wasn’t constructed to cycle into itself (unlike chain hostels) – I’m helping Señora Masterchef put her little señoritas through school and participating in the local economy.
But even the best-intentioned traveller’s footprints tread dogshit over foreign carpet. Particularly at natural wonders, the environmental damage of tourism is ugly. It’s amazing that one can admire the pristine beauty of a crystal clear cenoté, or marvel at hundreds of manta rays gliding through lilac Belizean ocean, and still butt ciggies in the sand presuming that WALL-E will rock up and clean up after you. Don’t be a tosser, it’s a dirty look.
Litter thoughtfully to the side, our very presence inevitably dilutes the ‘local culture’ of a place. There’s nothing worse than walking into a town where all you can hear is English, and as you think ‘fucking tourists’ you realise you’re part of that very problem. But fellow tourists are inescapable because at the end of the day, hotspots are hot for a reason. You can spend your whole trip trailing from blip-on-map to unknown village, but you aren’t going to get any good selfie stick footage out of that. If you didn’t get it on film, it didn’t happen… Was your whole trip a dream? Refer to your snapstory to verify.
We personally experimented with ‘veering from the path’ by throwing warnings to the wind and stopping at a middle-of-nowhere town in rural Belize, Orange Walk. There was nothing there (not even tourists). We left photoless. Was Orange Walk a worthwhile stop? We have nothing to frame this measurement of worth with; it’s not in the guidebook and we have no proof we even went there. But it was part of the story, with no TripAdvisor recommendations to fill up our day with five star activities we resigned to mandatory meditation (aka doing nothing) and this lead to some deep epiphanies about shit. Worthwhile! Like the above arguments regarding authenticity and accessibility, ‘worthiness’ cannot be charted on an Excel graph. Memories of a trip are more akin to a Pollock painting; a mesmerising mess of colours and shapes. You don’t know why, but it’s pretty to look at. ‘Art’ or ‘accident’? You decide.
People don’t recommend that you visit towns such as Orange Walk because they have all they need, and without superfluous additions (ancient sites, galleries, museums, jewellery shops) there’s nothing for a tourist to ‘do’. Tourism is an active verb, so it implies doing and not just allowing things to happen around you. “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to the experience: stop, take a photograph and move on.” (Susan Sontag, On Photography).
Here is the difference between tourism and travelling: you do tourism, while travel happens in and around you. Sitting in a bus watching at least 100 messy-haired, brown footed kids waving at the passing traffic from the roadside is travelling, enjoying a fresco within visiting hours is tourism – we need both. We struggled with travel in Central America because it doesn’t integrate the two things together very well. Actual physical travel is hard (shit roads, mountains, bad public services) and therefore Destinations have been created and shaped and shined and curated into easy spots (and therefore good spots) to go to. Compare this with India, where an excellent train system connects the tourist-traveller from Delhi to Bikaner, if they so choose, and most locals understand at least some English, and every second, even the shit ones, are so foreign and delightfully disgusting that you are accidentally learning while touristing and travelling (and eating, sleeping, shitting, etc).
We caught glimpses of the ‘real Guatemala’ from behind the tinted windows of transport shuttles, TURISTICO blazoned across their bonnets, which safely deposit blinkered herds of gringos from Destination to Destination. The biggest culture shock we’ve had is from other First Worlders and how they interact with and occupy a foreign space. Hostels! The closest relative to this strange modern invention is a boarding school – irresponsible, smelly kids sleep in bunk beds and think about fucking each other. You play getting-to-know-you games and have the same conversation with every headliced, beaded runaway you come across. Hostels are a melting pot of distinctly identifiable cliques. It’s as awkward as a high school formal until everyone gets enough happy hour drinks into them to loosen up, at which point you find yourself speed dating between dnms and saying “Sydney or Melbourne?” a lot. These gringos are a race of their own, as observable as Mayan indigenous groups. They – we – are a nomadic tribe crawling across the planet from beer pong tournament to book exchange, losing ourselves to find ourselves and all determinedly pretending real life isn’t waiting for us back home.
Organising gringos into their separate subgroups is a form of bitching we’ve very much enjoyed on this trip. Five minutes of observing your clothes, tattoos, language, food choice and smell can categorise you into Boys on Tour (matching hats, rarely sober), Basic Bitches (friendship bracelets, move in impenetrable groups), neo-hippies (psytrance, delusionary definitions of drugs as ‘medicine’, uniform of hemp), old-timer runaways (divorced, likely reading Eat Pray Love), and general sickcunts (us, and more often than not, fellow Aussies and Dutchmen). The different forms of tourism can also box you into a clique: voluntourists, drug tourists, sport tourists, photography tourists, gap yearers,
Another lesson from Central America we’ve come home with is that at the ripe age of 21, we’re too old for hostels. At times we’ve felt like grandparents interacting with tweenieboppers, and now that we’re in a relationship we’re kind of uninterested in the ‘never have I evers’… two months of 24 hour contact have dissolved all remaining notions of privacy. Ella shat the bed, Thors copped two needles up the arse, and we give each other fart ratings out of 10.
On that adorable note, this long-winded whinge should probably wind itself up. Conclusion: Tourism is weird, but as the greatest artist of them all said, ‘Turn, and face the strange (ch-ch-changes)’. Travel changes you in obvious and subliminal ways, and you won’t be able to recognise them until you’re back home searching for the non-existent bucket to deposit your toilet paper in. Turn, and face the strange. If you don’t let life affect you, you’re not evolving.
xx Ella & Thorsten, wanky bloggers/tourist extraordinaires
“who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind
nothing but the shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of
poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago…”
– ‘Howl’, Allan Ginsberg