Sacred Extract

In The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Sydney, Authenticity by Avanty Kavi2 Comments

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.

Comments

  1. Hi Avanty!

    I completely agree with you that even though some touristy experiences are clearly fake and cliche, they still give us a glimpse into the real culture of the country, which therefore makes them kind of authentic in their own right. At least more so than not doing them at all. I also really liked your analogy to creating vanilla extract in a lab as opposed to with natural vanilla beans, because you cannot deny that both have the essence of vanilla even if you go about getting them in different ways. I definitely feel the same way about traveling. Of course we should and do strive to get the truly authentic experience without any of the contrived aspect, but in my own experience sometimes doing the cliche, stereotypical things can be fun and rewarding as well. All in all, like you said, it is all about balance. Good post, I really enjoyed reading it!

    Best,
    Kaylyn

  2. Avanty- I really enjoyed your post. I feel that this desire for authenticity and the judgement that comes to those engaging in such touristy activities is similar to the type of facade of the hipster. Of course not every cropped jeans wearing and greasy long haired hipster is a pure facade, but the trend to be grungy has completely disregarded the truth of grunge. Spending hundreds of dollars to look like you just rolled out of bed is silly, and even worse, they judge those who sport collared shirts and khakis.

    I love you extract analogy. It really summed up your point perfectly. The only lack of authenticity that lays within all of this is the act of judgement. True authenticity is being how you want to and allowing others to be the same- as cliched as it might sound.

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