Travel Comment

Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

The search for authenticity

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It may be put on solely for tourists, but a yak polo match in Mongolia is a heap of fun. Photo / Jim Eagles
It may be put on solely for tourists, but a yak polo match in Mongolia is a heap of fun. Photo / Jim Eagles

The chance to watch a cultural performance in a foreign land can have the sensitive traveller in two minds.

On the one hand it's always exciting to get a taste of ancient cultures that somehow seem more real than your own. On the other there are often lingering doubts about how authentic it really is or whether you're responsible for the performers prostituting their traditions for money.

I remember during a trip to Mongolia, for instance, being taken to a camp outside the capital, Ulaan Bataar, to watch a game of yak polo, followed by a performance of traditional throat singing.

Similarly, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea a Huli wigman gave a demonstration of the magic used to make hair grow fast for use in wigs, and I was allowed to wander round the property of an elderly couple still living in the traditional way.

The yak polo was clearly made up for tourists, though it was great fun.

The throat singer we saw was among the finest in Mongolia. I suspect the wigman gave me a Disneyfied version of his magic ceremony. And I had to wait outside the traditional couple's compound while my driver used a mobile phone to check they were ready. So a bit of a mixed bag really.

Canadian writer Andrew Potter argues in his new book, The Authenticity Hoax, that - like traditional cuisine, organic bakeries, yoga or handmade furniture - this search for authentic culture is really just another face of the shallow consumerism we're trying to escape.

Cultures, he points out, are constantly evolving. So the music produced by the modern oil drum band I saw a few years ago in Port of Spain is every bit as authentic as the music that would have been made on bamboo drums by Trinidadians of yesteryear. And in a real world, unaffected by tourist demands, the kava ceremony with which I was welcomed to the island of Naviti in Fiji would have evolved into some other form by now.

Maybe. It's an interesting argument. But personally I can't get too bound up in that sort of thing.

If some of the performances I've seen over the years were artificially frozen in time like exhibits in a museum then surely that has a place? If others were adapted or even invented to meet modern demands then what's wrong with that (especially if there was no pretence of authenticity)? The locals involved gained some much-needed income from their efforts, I was entertained and (except for the yak polo) educated, and I don't really see how their culture was hurt either way.

- NZ Herald

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