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Published: December 9th 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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