Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Tourist's Constant Search for Authenticity

I found Karen Robinson's blog about the Pan-Am Games interesting. Not for the review of the games themselves, which I care little about. But rather it's a solid example of the search for authenticity among tourists when traveling in the developing world.

Robinson chooses to avoid the Hard Rock Cafe and other tourist traps. That's good. Instead, she did this:

"Friday night we opted for the authentic Rio experience rather than the touristy (and perhaps non-existent - I don't think our jumpers were there) party at the Hard Rock Café. Our trusty taxi driver Edmar, after giving us each a hand-made fridge magnet as a souvenir of our visit, dropped us off in the Samba-friendly neighbourhood called Lapa. We had an incredible evening of eating, drinking and absorbing the scene, which I have to say ranks up there with some of my most memorable cultural experiences. The street life was everywhere abundant: people dancing, live music inside and out, and guys walking around the sidewalks selling Tequila shots to anyone sick of Caipirinhas. We particularly enjoyed staring at the transvestite prostitutes, and bless their kinky little hearts, they appeared to enjoy our stares too."

I've been to Lapa, and it's really cool. The music is hot and it's a lot of fun. I'm sure she had a great time. However, the text is interesting for what it tells us about tourists' mentality. First, I'm not sure how "authentic" it is to be receiving refrigerator magnets from your taxi driver. But more importantly, what is authenticity anyway? Doesn't your sheer presence at Lapa change the place? Hasn't the fact that thousands of tourists go there every year had an effect? Was it ever an "authentic" thing? Doesn't that assume some sort of solid base of fact?

The answer is within the text itself. The tequila shots show how Brazilian culture has changed. I don't know if the tequila was introduced for the tourists or if the Brazilians like tequila over caipirinhas themselves. It doesn't matter. What matters is that at some point, alcohol from different nations have been introduced to Brazil. That's fine. Music from around the world, including modern American music, has affected Brazil. So has clothing, food, and speech from other nations. Brazil does things differently than other countries, as do all nations. They integrate those foreign influences into their own culture.

But let's stop pretending that something is authentic, as if we have discovered this untouched thing that helps regenerate our souls. Because that's what the search for the authentic often comes down to--westerners trying to find something real in their lives. Brazil is a great place. Rio is an awesome city. Lapa is a really cool neighborhood. Go there. Enjoy it. Have your tequila or your caipirinhas. But let's stop pretending that we are discovering something untouched in other cultures.

I should say that I don't mean to pick on this particular writer--you see this everywhere, not only in music, but in religious ceremonies, food, drink, clothing, customs, etc. And I find it really annoying and deeply condescending to people.

Via Global Voices Online