I went to a terrific talk this week about what makes an ‘authentic’ travel experience. (I spent half of it jealously scowling at the panellist who said he’d been snowboarding in Kashmir and ended up on a mountain in a snowstorm, sharing his lunch with some misunderstood militants. I don’t have a single anecdote that’s even a quarter as adventurous as that one.)
An ‘authentic travel experience’ often seems to mean a gritty, everyday experience that is supposed to capture the ‘true’ essence of a country. Where’s the fun in that? Surely the great thing about being a tourist is that you’re in the privileged position of getting to see the absolute best of places. Does it matter if you’re only doing it because you’re on holiday? When I’m abroad, I want to taste the seafood, gawp at the Taj Mahal, take the two-minute camel ride, buy the postcard, snap a picture of the monkey – whatever’s going, really. I mean, I’d rather not spend my fortnight in Nepal shelling peas.
My favourite memory of being in Shanghai a few years ago was taking some Chinese friends to a pub called British Bulldog so they could see what a ‘real’ English meal was like. We ordered pie and mash, about which they asked me hundreds of excited questions. Could the gravy mix in with the mash, or was that the wrong way to eat it? Do the English prefer to tip the baked beans from the little pot on to the plate or keep them separate? I’ve never had such a blast eating lukewarm pub grub and later my friends told everyone they’d had a ‘proper taste of England.’ My point? It didn’t matter that the mash was lumpy and the pub full of the weirdest of British expats. Sometimes the most inauthentic experiences are the best fun.