this part of the interview called out to me:
Q: In the introduction to “Marco Polo Didn’t Go There,” you note one of the major themes in your writing: “The challenge of identifying ‘authenticity’ in post-traditional settings.” How should travelers go about identifying authenticity? Or, at this point, is the search for authenticity just a fool’s errand? If so, what should travelers be seeking out?
RP: I can’t help but think of what Thomas Merton said when people asked him if he’d seen the “real Asia” when he was in India and Thailand in the late 1960s: “It’s all real, as far I can see.”
I think that part of the challenge is that by nature we seek out cultural differences as travelers, yet we tend to project Platonic ideals onto what other cultures should look like and how those cultures should operate. This is nothing new. The ancient Greeks and Romans who traveled to Egypt projected their own exotic fantasies onto Egyptian religion and society. In turn, the young British aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries went to Greece and Rome and were disappointed to find unwashed peasants instead of the classical magnificence they thought they’d find there. As I say in the very first chapter of my book, “it’s the expectation itself that robs a bit of authenticity from the destinations we seek out.”
In his 1961 book “The Image,” Daniel Boorstin compared foreign countries to celebrities; we feel that we know them already, in a way, and that familiarity skews our notion of what they are supposed to be like in reality. “The tourist seldom likes the authentic (and to him often unintelligible) product of the foreign culture,” Boorstin wrote, “he prefers his own provincial expectations: The American tourist in Japan looks less for what is Japanese than what is Japanesey.” In essence, what we think is authentic is often less authentic than what we might identify as inauthentic.
Tourists aren’t the only people who fall into this pattern. In the endnotes to chapter 15, I describe meeting a Lebanese guy who, when he found out I was from Kansas, expressed a desire to come to the prairies and “ride horses with the Indians.” When I pointed out that the Native Americans I knew didn’t ride horses, he insisted that they must not be real Indians, because real Indians ride horses.
So obviously, a sense of fantasy is at the heart of most everyone’s impressions of faraway places. The only real way to get away from those fantasy-driven expectations is to try and drop your self-consciousness as you travel, to simply accept each moment for what it is. It’s something of a spiritual exercise, and—as I show in my book—it doesn’t always come easy.