Tourist trash versus 'real' experiences

03:37, Aug 28 2013
Tamsui Landscape
SO TOURISTY: Fisherman's Wharf in Tamsui, just north of Taipei.

The room is cavernous, like a beer hall at Oktoberfest.

The ceilings are high; large round tables stretch off towards the horizon - which is probably the back wall of the restaurant, but it's hard to tell from here.

One of the differences between this place and Munich, however, is the people.

It's the lack of them that's the issue here.

There's basically no one eating - just a lonely couple occupying a small corner of one of those tables, the lazy Susan in front of them idling superfluously.

Every other seat is empty.


I'm in a big group, however, and we're about to change things. There's about 26 of us, all foreigners, all journalists, all here to try the local Taiwanese cuisine.

We pile in and occupy a few tables, taking in the view over the sea from our second-floor position.

The restaurant is part of Fisherman's Wharf in Tamsui, just north of Taipei. It's touristy, there's no doubt about that.

Huge places like this often are, set up to handle big tour groups, catering for the travelling masses.

Only the masses haven't arrived today, so we take our seats and look around the empty interior. One of the other journos isn't happy. She takes in the cavernous space, and the food being brought to our table on huge plates, and winces.

"Why did we come here?" she asks. "This isn't the real Taiwan. I wanted to eat real Taiwanese food."

Everyone at the table nods their agreement as they get the chopsticks working and fill their bowls with local cuisine.

This isn't real. But hang on, what is exactly is "real Taiwan"? What's the real version of any destination in the world? Most travellers would be quick to tell you that they're looking for the "real" experiences when they're overseas, but what is that?

Mostly, it's nothing but an idea in your head. The definition of something "real" is generally the scenario that you had in mind before you visited a place.

My friend the journalist didn't picture gigantic, empty restaurants when she thought about real Taiwanese food. She'd thought about tiny little streetside places, the cheap noodle joints with a couple of tables and a single surly waiter.

When the reality didn't match up with her fantasy she automatically assumed she wasn't getting the real thing. We're in Taiwan, eating Taiwanese food cooked by a Taiwanese person in a Taiwanese restaurant.

What's not real about that? But the nagging feeling remains.

It's the fact that this place is designed for tourists. Doesn't matter what the food tastes like - we've been brought somewhere that's made purely for, well, people like us.

For most travellers "real" things are the ones that don't involve any foreigners - apart from you, of course. It's a paradox of travel that often a tourist's ideal experience is one that isn't aimed at tourists at all.

I get that. When you're doing something in another country you want to do it while surrounded by people who are from that country. Not by people from your own. That's what travel is about, surely - experiencing life as other people live it.

That's why the tourist-focused travel experiences make me shudder. I can't stand the staged productions of culture that you're sometimes forced to watch when you travel, the native dances or the demonstrations, the watered-down presentations of local life.

I'd much prefer to discover that stuff organically, to stumble across it or just catch a glimpse of it and persuade myself that I was the only one who did.

Take the Pacific Islands as an example. One experience you could have is in Rarotonga, where a fabricated theme-park-style place called Te Vara Nui Village puts on cultural demonstrations for busloads of tourists each day.

There's fire dancing and palm tree climbing, then traditional food with 50 of your new tourist friends. Some people loved it.

I ... didn't.

Want something different? A few months ago I was in Fiji, and went to Natalei, a homestay in a little village on an isolated beach in the middle of nowhere.

There I slept in a shack, went hunting for freshwater prawns, swam in rock pools, and played rugby with the local kids. No one danced for me, and no one climbed a tree. But I loved it. It felt "real".

But that concept of "real" is in the eye of the beholder. One person's touristy trash is the next person's experiential treasure.

There's no such thing as "real" when you're travelling - only what you like and what you don't.

And I don't really like big restaurants.

What do you consider to be a "real" experience when you travel? What's the most touristy thing you've ever done?

The Age