Mark Twain said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Sometimes, reading travel blogs on the web, it seems like the converse is true.
If I see one more article about how obnoxious holiday makers are and how popular resorts are ruining travel for real adventurers who want to truly experience foreign countries, I might scream. The online definition of true experience varies but the overall litany is the same: tourists who are not travelling the way I am are wasting their time, should just stay at home, are to be pitied. I understand that as visitors to a foreign place, we’d like to feel special, as if we have a special connection. But honestly, a tourist is a tourist is a tourist – there is no special brand of travel that is somehow elevated from the rest.
And yet, the litany continues that somehow other people are not experiencing the trip the way that they should. Somehow, they are doing it wrong.
I’ve been tempted to comment on these travel pieces, pointing out that the only “real” way to experience authentic travel is to fly yourself. If you’ve flown commercial, you’ve had a layer of red tape between you and the people who live and work in your destination. Herded from one building to the next without the chance to walking around the plane or seeing the details of the airport, limited by a schedule devised by business men in starched suits who have probably never even made the journey.
And then I take a deep breath and reach for my blood pressure pills.
I live in a resort town – we have beaches and mountains and ancient cities and Moorish forts. We have had a huge influx of tourism over the years and there are times when I shake my head in sadness at the loss of the village that I knew. At the same time, I recognise that the same instinct which drove me here is driving the other tourists: I am not somehow special nor more deserving of the delights of this place. Arriving early isn’t clever, it’s simply presaging the changes to come.
I do understand the frustration of watching people close themselves off from the local experience and ask for home delights, telling locals what they think should be there. We have the Irish pub and a fish-and-chip shop and an Indian restaurant and, most recently, kebab to take away. The Andalucians, eager for an income, have always tried to deliver what the tourists expect. In recent years, the tourists themselves have become residents, the ex-pat population swelling and providing for itself. Slowly, my favourite comida casera disappears in favour of fake tapas and international cuisine, my dusky shops are replaced with beach gear and flamenco skirts in toddler sizes.
I sympathise with the people who arrive only to discover this display of tourist kitsch. They complain, “I want to see the real Spain.” My response varies based on mood: “if you want to go there, you shouldn’t be starting from here, your real Spain is not where the cheap flights go.” But really, what, exactly, is fake about this place? Do you mean you want to see what it was like before people like you arrived? It was wasteland with a few fishermen trying to scratch a living. The Spaniards who live here welcomed the tourists for a reason and funnily enough they aren’t interested in staying poor for your viewing pleasure.
I’m not usually that bitchy. I do understand the dilemma and usually I’ll offer an alternative: – come with me inland. Lets go to one of the white villages off the coast, in the farming area, and get something to eat and I’ll show you a different Spain. But these authentic restaurants, they may leave something to be desired.
“It’s so loud in here,” is the most common complaint – a good Spanish restaurant is one full of people shouting across the table at each other. Not one for passive gestures and gentle smiles, you can spot the “real” Andalucian restaurants by the level of ambient noise. If it is quiet, perhaps with gentle music in the background, then you have gone astray.
“Is there a vegetarian option?” This area is built on agriculture: the Andalucians love their olives and aubergines and firm salad tomatoes and green peppers. They also love their cured ham and sardines in vinegar and deep-fried delicacies of the sea. You can have a salad if you wish (you may have to ask them to leave off the tuna) but if you have a restricted diet, then a land based on subsistence farming is perhaps not the place for you.
Sometimes it seems that adventurous travellers looking for authenticity are most likely to try to bend local cuisine around their personal dietary requirements. I respect the social decisions that people have made to reduce their impact on the world. And if you have a special diet, your requests will certainly be catered to … but this is not the “real” Andalucia you are tasting, any more than the burger and chips that you sneered at.
And then there’s the accommodation snobbery: staying in a campground is a completely different experience from staying at a four-star hotel but neither is traditional. I have a soft soft for the Paradores, hotels situated in interesting old buildings, castles and monasteries, but they’ve been rebuilt with central heating and en-suite toilets, with restaurants featuring top-quality dishes from all over the country. Life was never like this in the ancient buildings until tourism arrived with a healthy cash infusion. None of this is really Spain.
I have to remind myself that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the local market, I wince with embarrassment at the things people say (at full volume, as if the locals couldn’t possibly understand English) but then I look at the stall owners, smiling patiently, cracking jokes to one another, always happy for a chat. They greet me, offer me almonds to taste. The toy-stall owners shout at my son like an old friend, “Tío! Come look at this.” They are selling junk, plastic guns and knock-off laser lights but my boy loves the attention, enjoys feeling a valued customer – a feeling he never gets at Toys-R-Us.
And I realise I’m wrong to get wound up at the friendly Spaniards at the market – who am I to tell them not to pander to the tourists? That’s the same implication: that they aren’t being real Spaniards, this is some fake version of their home. What the hell? This is their life.
An authentic destination is like Schroedinger’s Cat, once you’ve arrived, it probably no longer exists. But it’s not a stage set, pulled down as soon as you have boarded your flight and filed away your passport until next year. They are still there, standing at the market, living their life. It’s not just for show.
I like to camp, my best friend likes sheets and a double bed. If staying at a hostel makes him miserable, who am I to tell him what his experience should be? This is a man who talks to everyone, who will get the chef out of the kitchen for a chat and a drink. He’s as happy to talk to the farmer in the hills as the owner of a restaurant chain all along the coast. And not one of them think he’s a fraud for staying at a hotel. His views of comfort don’t interfere with his experience of a place. His refusal to view a particular aspect of a country as “authentic” is much more telling.
This post was sponsored by jet2.com – Leeds Bradford flights.