On existential authenticity


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North America » Mexico » Distrito Federal
December 7th 2014
Published: December 9th 2014
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Guava and view
Buenos dias cabrones, before we start our wannabe discussion of living room philosophy I need to tell you why I do not have a lot of nice pictures of Mexico. Actually, the country is amazing and its just picture-perfect. In 7 days I snapped about 200 pics but on the way back to the States my camera got lost. Yes, you heard that right. It was not stolen by tattooed Mexican narcos, I just lost it. Don't know where, don't know how. Presumably at the hotel or in the airplane. So what you see now is the few snaps I took with my mobile phone to send back to my friends at home. I guess sh@t just happens.

Today I wanna get a tiny bit intellectual in this entry as I would like to discuss the issue of authenticity in tourism. More specifically, I would like to discuss the feeling of existential authenticity, a topic often mentioned in philosophy and (as it appears to me) a driving force of the tourism industry. This issue has been in my mind for a long time and it had a full blown relapse during my trip in Mexico, probably because it is a
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Gotta love the colours
developing country and these seem to be a major trigger of (presumably) existential authenticity. More in detail, I would like to discuss the concept in relation to backpackers and what has emerged as "backpacker culture" during the last years.

Mexico City is an extraordinary place in about every sense you can imagine. It was not only the world's most populated city for quite some time, but it also lies on an altitude of 2.000 meters and hosts the Zocalo, the world's third biggest square after Tienanmen and the Red Square. The Zocalo lies in the heart of the city, where the ancient Aztecs saw the eagle holding a snake (as seen on the Mexican flag) and thus built a major pyramid which was restored by different emperors throughout the years. When the Spanish moved in they decided to flatten the whole thing and built a cathedral on top of it which still lies at the center of the city today. Spain 1 - Aztecs 0 I suppose.

Back to the issue of authenticity, on the Zocalo there are several street stalls selling souvenirs, some of them quite nice and others obviously targeting "worldy" travelers. Everything is there, the
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Streets
colorful bracelets, the embroided man-purses, big-ass necklaces and only my favorite baggy pants with Indian god color prints and Hmong coins dangling seemed to be missing. Of course the backpacker crowd is omnipresent and dreadlocks, meditations and walking without shoes are as fashionable as ever. What has this to do with the issue of existential authenticity? In order to understand more of this we need to look deeper into what we mean with existential authenticity.

Contrary to objective authenticity (is this object real?), existential authenticity is a philosophical concept which is, as the name says, highly concerned with existential issues. Being a kind of existentialist myself and (by the way) being a fan of Sartre I also admit that the issue is central to my life and has inspired me to travel, rather than the other way around. In simple words, existential authenticity means to be "true to oneself" or "trying to become who one really is". This means also to overcome external forces (facticities) by transcending them. For example, one should not be fully bound by his/her own culture, background and external forces such as people trying to influence you, although one can definitely not ignore these factors
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The Sun Pyramid I guess
completely. As such, existential authenticity is concerned with absolute freedom, a style of living inherent to every separate individual and developed independently from external forces.

Especially backpackers seem to travel in order "find themselves", or to discover who they really are. As such, they always look for places and experiences which help on this path of self-discovery. Getting away from home, from you culture, family, jobs, people trying to influence you. This does sound like the absolute scary freedom that Sartre talks about, right? The point that I want to make is that it is unfortunately not all that simple. I have met lots of people on my travels, less than 10 of them I still occasionally stay in touch with because I find them interesting characters. I think these were the only people who could use traveling to discover who they really are.

About 90% of the backpackers will tell you the same stories. Always and anywhere. Got tired, left it all behind. The "western" world is too material while developing countries are not. You need to love everything. Never try to talk about places you don't like with one of these guys. It would be disrespectful
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Teotihuacan, Mr. Machismo, me, Aurelie and Babyboy
to the all-loving backpacker. Never talk bad about Buddhism and never tell the story that I almost got raped by a monk in Thailand (see my earlier entry). Never say you wish that the streets in Vietnam or Laos would not be that full of potholes to shake you brains up every time you take a bus. Well, I have got news for you my friends: the point of existential authenticity is that it should be YOUR OWN and that it should not be IMPOSED by a culture you perceive as being authentic. You want authenticity, talk to locals and I don't mean hostel receptionists. Work in a country. Talk to the middle class and the rich. Don't ignore them because you think they are sell-outs. Find a partner from a developing country, get to know what people really think.

Back to Mexico, I had my very own experience of existential authenticity, in the way I understand it. For me there is a feeling of "this is the place I want to be right now, all my worries are gone and I would not want to be anywhere else". This happens when you are in the arms of a
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Marachas
loved one but also when you travel. At least to me. It happened when I first saw the Hong Kong skyline, climbed up a carving site in Hangzhou, and it happened on a little balcony in the colonial town of Guanajuato Mexico. When I climbed to the rooftop I was just smacked by one of the best views I ever had. And I mean ever. Colorful houses, beautiful hills and Spanish churches. All my worries fell off from me and I was truly happy to be alive and have the possibility to be there while most of my friends can't. This is my understanding of existential authenticity, it is not a culture which wants to impose their own indiscussable concept of what is authentic and how you need to feel. My old friend Nietzsche especially emphasized that one must avoid "herd mentality" in order to create his own values if one wants to be authentic.

Last, I want to mention that this blog is my opinion only on an important philosophical concept that profoundly shapes 21st century tourism. You want to wear baggy pants, wear them. You want to sit on a mountain in Bhutan with other 200 westerners
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Chicken with mole and beans
and meditate, I won't stop you. My problem is that you should not go around trying to impose your view on others, especially if you travel motive is to be authentic and to find yourself. We are not all the same and we never will be. Mexico was amazing and I am sure that my week in the country was by far not enough. I really loved it. A mix of Italy and Spain with a huge splash of color and salsa verde on the omnipresent tacos. I will be back in Mexico and wherever I go, I am sure to meet you, my existentialist backpacker. Whatever makes you happy, but an advice from a friend: try to think for yourself, even if this means being inauthentic for some people. Travel is about discovery, why not discover ourselves beneath all the stereotypes? Have a nice day ppl!


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Walking area in downtown
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The Zocalo
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A present in a restaurant...


9th December 2014

Theory Meets Travel
But can we ever escape the influences and confines of our culture and our experience? Even our definition(s) of "true" and "authentic" have been shaped the philosophers we've read (or haven't). As we break out on "our own" we are doing say in the way our particular circumstances define as "breaking out," which is, as you suggest, why at some level the anti-conformity of backpacking culture begins to confirm to its own norm. Of course, those aware of that conformity then also begin to cluster into recognizable patterns, citing the same theorists in their blogs and ever on the brink of an existential crisis in their travels ;) That some see the beach as "relaxing" as opposed to "barren," that climbing a mountain provides us with a sense of accomplishment as opposed to meaningless energy expenditure, that chatting solely with fellow travelers and barmaids could be seen as a less 'real' experience than speaking with strangers on the street - these activities and places do not have qualities inherent to them - we bring those qualities with us, and the valuation we bring is not ours alone, but those of the social group we belong to, or aspire to belong to. Certainly, travel allows us to see ourselves in a different way, and to learn things about ourselves of which were previously unaware (that perhaps those close to us already knew). But I suggest we are no closer to truly being as to suggest that we were formerly being falsely. Thanks for the thought-provoking blog! Will enjoy reading and thinking about your travels and musings.
9th December 2014

Thanks for jumping in :)
Wow this blog is taking a whole new turn haha. I was worried to start with this but why not get our brains squeezed a little. Ok so lets see what I have to add. I guess this all has to do with how we define existential authenticity. Does it even exist? No idea, if I would know I wouldn't write stuff on this blog, haha. I do believe that some people can experience this, but I also believe that the majority of people can not. I also believe that the concept is definitely different for every individual and that it is hard to generalize. According to me anyhow, travel can help with this because by isolating oneself from our daily surroundings we have more time to look inwards and understand who we are and where we come from. We might also understand where we really want to go. It is a feeling of inner peace and acceptance for me. This is my understanding of existential authenticity. Now, the proving I was raising is that the existential question of being authentic has been transformed in a mass culture which, with a little arrogance, assumes to be more understanding of and true to the culture of travel. The few things which are commonly accepted about existential authenticity are anyhow that (1) it should be personal, (2) it should not be influenced by a herd mentality and it should be a balance between (not a rejection of) our ego and our facticities which, again, are subjective. So the few things which I understand about existential autenticity are totally missunderstood, although propagated, by backpacker culture. Wow :) Thanks for this discussion@
11th December 2014

Squeezing your brain
As always we enjoyed your well thought out and composed blog. As you said one needs to be true to themselves. We believe no one kind of travel is "good" or "better" than another. People who leave home should be applauded for taking a step. Each of us having different lessons to learn and adventures to have. On occasion I hear bloggers spouting about this kind of travel or that....and share a feeling that "their" kind of travel is the best or the only kind. Not so in our opinion. We agree it should be personal. But I will say I've worked with people who go on the herded trips and have a great time. I don't go in for those but won't judge. They always seem to be having a great time. Glad you found Guanajuato Mexico sounds perfect.
11th December 2014

Very well said! It's about what works for the individual and it shouldn't be biased by peer pressure! Thanks for reading!!

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