Authentic? Tourists, you're kidding yourselves

02:59, Jul 31 2014
IN A BUBBLE: Tourists walk on Caracol beach in Cancun.

It's beautiful in Oaxaca City. The Mexican town so easily charms you with its colonial architecture, its paved streets and brightly coloured buildings.

I'd been having a ball there, drinking in the bars, hanging out in the town square by the church, wandering the narrow streets, drinking in the flavour of the place. I'd never felt threatened or unsafe. I'd actually been wondering what all the fuss was about.

Gang warfare? Drugs and guns? Not in my Mexico. Definitely not in peaceful Oaxaca.

So it was kind of a shock when I found out about the shootings. I'd been chatting to a local woman, talking about the happenings in the town, when she mentioned the two teenage boys who'd been shot and killed - basically executed - in the town square a few nights ago.

They were random targets, she said, unknown to the killers. It was an act of revenge by a drug cartel after police had earlier arrested two of their members.

Two innocent kids gunned down in the streets, and it had happened about seven or eight blocks away from my hotel. If I hadn't spoken to that particular woman, however, I would never have known about it. I would have left Oaxaca and left Mexico convinced that the place is not nearly as dangerous as everyone says.


But that's the thing about travel: you're in a bubble. You can convince yourself that you're getting the authentic experiences, that you're mixing with the locals and taking in the culture and learning about a society, but if you're only doing the normal tourist thing, coming in for a week or two and checking out the sights, then you know nothing.

Iran. I absolutely loved travelling in Iran, had a fantastic time and met hundreds of the nicest, friendliest people I've ever come across. I never felt unsafe. I never felt threatened. I experienced an ancient culture and in the process knocked down pretty much every stereotype that there is for the Middle East.

And yet people are fleeing Iran. They're taking incredible risks by jumping in boats to try to make their way to a better life. You'd think that after two weeks of moving through a country you'd at least have some inkling of why that is, but I didn't. I was in a bubble of beautiful mosques and winding bazaars and friendly people and piping hot tea. I knew nothing.

I've had a great time in plenty of countries that have a dark underbelly that you can completely ignore when you're in the travel bubble.

I love Zimbabwe, but that's because I get to go out to expensive safari lodges and look at amazing animals and drink coffee around the campfire at dawn. I don't have to struggle through life in Harare, or battle starvation on a rundown farm in the countryside. I just touch down in Victoria Falls, get whisked off somewhere nice and enjoy the good stuff.

Same goes for Colombia. The country has improved significantly since the bad old days of Pablo Escobar, but there are still issues there with roving militia and drug cartels. As a tourist, however, you'd never know it. You're drinking cocktails on the city walls in Cartagena. You're feasting on seafood in Barranquilla. You're not tackling social issues or tangling with gangsters.

This, of course, is ultimately a good thing. It's great to be able to visit a supposedly dangerous country and experience it at its best. But you're a fool to think you suddenly know a place and understand a culture just because you've been a tourist there for a few weeks.

You're barely scraping the surface. You're floating along in the ideal world, sampling great food and chatting to friendly people and experiencing the absolute best that a country has to offer.

You don't understand its layers. You're barely peeling away the skin of the onion.

That's just the way it is. But as long as you understand that, it's still better than not going at all.   

Do you think you can fully understand a country after having been a tourist there? Or are you in the travel bubble? Which "troubled" countries have you enjoying travelling in?

Sydney Morning Herald