I was in a beach town on the south coast of Sri Lanka when an Italian traveller sat down and told me he was looking for the real thing.
He said this in such a way, with a dismissive sweep of his hand, that I understood our current setting had failed to pass muster. In the Italian's view the bungalows and bar and fairy lights were phoney; this was tourist Sri Lanka. He went on to say that he'd been searching for the real thing for weeks now: "I look all over but, no, nothing." I pictured him as Percy Fawcett trudging through the Amazon on a futile search for El Dorado.
Still, I understood what he was saying. As a professional traveller I'm always looking for the real thing, though I use the word "authentic" hesitantly, because what does it really mean? Is the real thing the not-yet-photographed-thing, a prelapsarian paradise devoid of cruise ships and souvenir stands? Is authenticity hiding in those corners of the world such as Burkina Faso, Nizhny Novgorod or Staten Island?
Christopher McCandless, the American adventurer, went searching in the Alaskan wilderness and died in an abandoned bus; for years the Park Service rescued hikers looking for that bus. People seem to lose their senses when it comes to the real thing, perhaps because a world where nothing is quite real enough becomes unbearable.
"No matter how much we crave it, authenticity is hard to come by in this country," writes Reed Tucker in an article for Time magazine 50 Authentic American Experiences.
"The problem is that so many of the famous destinations listed in guidebooks don't have anything to do with the local culture or the people who actually live there."
In trying to define the real thing, I think this is a good place to start.
Imagine a hypothetical market somewhere in northern Vietnam: mounds of vegetables, engine parts, Pho stalls and flayed carcasses of pigs draped across the backs of motorcycles. One day some Australians arrive and buy decorative hats. They pay too much but shrug it off as loose change. Some of the vendors take notice. Next time the market convenes they're selling decorative hats, too. Australians continue to come, more hats are sold, word spreads. Eventually the market has changed tenor completely, transformed into a decorative-hat extravaganza - or, as visitors come to lament, something "Disneyfied".
Our hypothetical market has become less traditional, but does that mean it's also less authentic? The two are often conflated, but walk up to those Hmong vendors and accuse them of losing their way: most would probably scoff. From their perspective nothing has changed at all. They're just trying to feed their families; the merchandise they sell is a means to an end.
I sketch this scenario because it seems that questions concerning the authenticity of a destination has more to do with travellers than the people they often focus on. As Paul Theroux notes, "Travel is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with distance or the exotic. It is almost entirely an inner experience."
This raises a slightly different question: Why do we yearn for the original market after it's gone? Why care about "the local culture or the people who actually live there"?
I think about this often. In some ways it's the grand question of travel, the cosmic why of the road. The best answer I've found paraphrases Joan Didion and her famous line that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live". People travel for all sorts of reasons, but I believe a major one has to do with broadening horizons. We travel to learn other peoples' stories and we want to learn these stories in order to live better, more enlightened lives.
The more a place comes to reflect our own desires - the more it morphs into something catering to visitors, like that market, the less it has to say about anything original. A tourist town is like a hall of mirrors, fun for a moment and then empty and narcissistic. The authenticity we "crave", as Tucker puts it, is the thing that has nothing to do with us at all.
But how depressing, because you may as well stay at home. It sometimes seems that travellers are everywhere now, even in the Congo.
The real thing is lost, colonised by backpackers and the globe-trotting cast of Getaway. (I was once hiking on Kauai and my guide turned and said, "Kate Ceberano and her film crew came through here last week". I threw up my hands.)
This is ridiculous, of course. We travel more voraciously than ever. We search, harder than ever, for the real thing, a glimpse of something so sublime we can pull the story out at parties or simply for ourselves when we worry that we haven't seen enough, and life is so short.
That night in Sri Lanka the Italian finished his tirade and turned to his beer, looking despondent. What I said to him then occurred to me out of the blue, but it has hardened into conviction. Perhaps the real thing rarely exists as a place, and if it did few would have the courage to go there. But authenticity can be found if you're willing to engage people across the cultural divide, showing an interest in their lives beyond their dress and chosen professions.
In fact, it can be found anywhere.
I told him about another beach town along the coast. What Lonely Planet describes as "sleepy Mirissa ... a place so idyllic that only a fool would ever want to leave", is actually a string of built-up hotels where German visitors dine on over-priced jackfish under the stars.
Still, I decided to stay for a few days, so I deliberately overshot the main drag and found a quiet homestay by asking a young boy for help. He led me to a gate, and through it was a tropical arbor, tucked behind the house of a man named Kumara. I could have taken his guest room and hit the beach immediately, but I stopped to talk for a while. Later, at sunset, we talked over tea, as his wife arranged a vase of fabric flowers on the table.
The next night, after more talking, Kumara could see my interest was genuine, so he asked me if I wanted to see something strange.
When it comes to travel, the answer to this question is always: Yes.
We drove away from Mirissa Beach with its coloured lights and reggae music, deep into a part of town where visitors rarely venture. On a quiet backstreet we pulled up alongside a crowd of Sri Lankans corralled on picnic chairs. There were decorations made from banana leaves, the tang of incense in the air. A girl sat on a white mattress slightly to the side. "She very sick," Kumara said, as we stepped from his tuk-tuk into a sea of curious stares. "Fever and pain. Bad dreaming. This very dark man comes when she sleeps."
"Who is the dark man?" I asked.
"Look," he said, gesturing to a painting on a thatch of palms. "That man." It was a demon. The evening was sanni yakuma - an exorcism. Its purpose was to dance the sickness out, reducing the girl's monsters to harmless echoes. At first I worried about being here, but people made room and I was handed sweet tea as a gesture of welcome. When the dancers began to move, spinning into circles of ecstasy, all my bashfulness fell away: I was caught in the moment. The drums were intoxicating. The medicine man shouted out in Sinhalese.
After an hour or so I noticed a dancer disappear into the dressing area, so I followed. Behind a banana-palm screen he pulled on a black cloak, a dark mane, and a ghoulish mask of a black dog with its teeth bared and tongue lolling. This was Maha Sona, "the demon of the cemetery". The drums swelled and he threw himself out, shaking across to the sick girl, sniffing her wildly, throwing his head back in a silent howl. She stared him down in a sad sort of way and I wondered what would happen to her tomorrow if the demons hadn't left.
Suddenly, a young man leaned into my ear. "This is one of the most amazing things you see in your whole life, no?"
I told him it was amazing, just as I would tell the Italian a few nights later. Amazing because it was unexpected in Mirissa, a town now marked for visitors; and because it had come from nothing - a simple show of interest in a stranger.
Amazing, above all, because it was the real thing.
- Sydney Morning Herald