Sacred Extract

In The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Sydney, Authenticity by Avanty Kavi

I have to disagree with MacCannell’s proposition that traveling is essentially a modern day parallel to any sort of authentic sacred ceremony from primitive society, however at the same time there is undoubtedly a struggle for an “authentic experience” when traveling.

While sometimes when traveling, my goal is to experience the ‘authentic’; the life and people in this foreign place, this is not always feasible. When one has only a week to tour an entire country, is it really possible to notice enough little moments that give you an ‘authentic’ experience?

Perhaps the reason why many tourist sights and activities are so popular is because they allow those visiting to get a taste (albeit and over exaggerated, artificial taste) of the place they are in. For example, doing the cliché tea ceremony in Japan might be very touristy, but at the same time it may offer a glimpse into the rather traditional ‘peaceful’ aspect of some of Japanese culture. This is not to say that all Japanese people like tea or are peaceful-that would of course be an incorrect stereotype-however there is also a truth to this. There is something more reserved and formal and elegant in part of Japanese culture that is incredibly unique to it, and is one of the many charms that visitors and residents fall in love with.

Likewise the Bondi Beach visit in Sydney is also very stereotypical and clichéd, however there is also something quintessentially Australian about it. Healthy, bronzed bodies relaxing on a beach, with surfers in the front and barbeque picnics in the back-how much more Australian can you get?? There is of course, more to Australian than its relaxed and fit beach culture, however this is one of the amazing aspects of Australia that make it unique.

I often find myself drawing comparisons between these ultra clichéd touristy things and extract. Extracts might have at one point been carefully obtained from collecting plants or material, drying them, grinding them, crushing them, working with them, and straining them-all to get a small amount of relatively accurate extract. However now thanks to furthered chemical research and technology, almost all extracts are synthesized in large batches in a lab. The result: a concentrated, pure, isolated compound that is easily accessible. It is regulated and predictable and easy. However it can also be flat. Have you ever ground up and used actual vanilla beans, and can you accurately describe the flavor? How can you perfectly portray the precise amount of sweetness and the exact strength of the caramel or coffee notes? The creamy undertones, and any floral high notes? Each bean is different and complex.

Compare that to a mass produced bottle of McCormick vanilla extract. I can describe that in one word: 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldahyde (in alcohol). Sounds delicious.

And yet it is delicious. Its convenient and popular for a reason. It may be fake but it also captures the essence of vanilla. Cannot that be enough?

I think it is important to strip away this ‘sacredness’ that surrounds “authentic”, non touristy traveling. While that may have its merits, it can also be incredibly hard to achieve. That’s where the so-called ‘inauthentic” traveling comes in. Each have their merits, it is up to the chef and traveler to find a balance between them.

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