Anthropology in ActionLessons Learned

Authenticity in a squat toilet

posted by Lauren January 22, 2016 0 comments

When I chat with my fellow wanderlusters, I find we have similar desires. We have this high toned and fancy to do ideas about how we want to be perceived. We want to be these hardcore, authentic, off the beaten path world travelers. That sounds pretty sweet, doesn’t it? To go home after months or years abroad, having experienced the real culture of the places we’ve been. To have lived with the people and felt their feelings. We’ve experienced their hardships and celebrated their successes. We return home victorious in our cultural understandings and endeavors.


So why do we want this?

Do we just want to be egotistical braggarts when we return to our sweet, simple homes? Do we actually want to see, live, feel and truly experience these cultures? What about the cultures that have been built for tourism? Are those any less authentic? I find myself asking these questions as I sit in Ton Sai, Thailand, sipping my coffee on a beachside patio. I am watching rock climbers from all over the world spider man up beautiful limestone. The foreigner to local ratio is approximately eight to one. Ton Sia was quite literally built to suit tourists.

I have spent the past four months in Senegal, West Africa. In Senegal, I lived with host families in the capital, and in remote, rural villages. More often than not, I was the only foreigner for miles. I stood out like a very sore thumb. It is one thing to travel from the States to Europe and kind of stick out because you have inferior fashion sense, it’s a whole other level of being conspicuous when you are the only ghost white thing is a sea of beautiful ebony skin. So there I was, living the real Senegal in all its authentic glory. And let me tell you, 80% of the time, I hated it.

Theis Market

  • I was overwhelmed and offended by how women and animals were treated.
  • I felt disgusted by the bacterial exchange of humans, animals, food and fecal matter I saw on a daily basis (hand wiping squat toilets, anyone?)
  • Not a single thing in the country ran efficiently (at least to my American standards).

But it was authentic. These people lived and loved and laughed and suffered and worked really, really hard. Except the youth that is, where there is a total unemployment rate of 14.6% according to the World Bank.

Life was tough in Senegal. Not for me, I had it pretty good compared to the vast majority of the population. It was merely my own expectations that caused me hardship. For Senegalese, life was gritty and real.

I learned just how good I had it as a US citizen.

In Senegal, I lived as authentic a life as a foreigner could live and I never questioned if this was the real Senegal. Even if I disliked my actual experiences, I felt vindicated in my studies because I knew it was real. (Whatever that means.)

I am now in Thailand. Staying at a beach resort with powdered sugar white beaches, lush green jungles, fresh fruit smoothies, and delicious Thai food to my hearts content. And I am bored. Life is simply too easy here. I get to wake up and go for a run, meditate, do yoga and eat a breakfast that has already been prepared for me. I’ve made friends with other Westerners from all over Europe and North America. I can hike, kayak, snorkel and dive any day, every day. Everyone speaks English and is ready to appease my every desire. And it’s cheap. An hour long Thai massage for $7? I’ll take two.

Ton Sai, Thailand

With Senegal and Thailand back to back, I have experienced a massive cultural shift. I have gone from everything I dislike:

  • huge cities
  • viral and bacterial filth
  • discrimination against women
  • inefficiency reigning supreme

Going from that to everything I love:

  • nature
  • yoga
  • great food
  • time and space to write
  • my boyfriend!

Yet, I feel less fulfilled here in paradise, because it seems fake to me. Why, when I travel to another country, do I sneer at all of the tourists and consider myself superior for getting off the beaten path? It’s laughable, actually. Here I am, being a tourist! With such a stark contrast between Senegal and Thailand, I have come to realize my built in bias for travel. After conversing with other wanderlusters, I also realize I am not alone in this bias.


We (as a species) hate being lied to. When we go somewhere that was built around tourism, we feel as if it’s a façade and we are not experiencing life as it actually is in that culture.

~Trevor Swiss Williamson


I think there is a lot of merit to that statement. I crave authenticity because it garners trust. It allows me to feel as if I need not peel back the layers of a façade, that I can see clearly into a new culture.

Now, I can play devil’s advocate and ask, what is any less real about a town built around tourism? Just because we have these preconceived ideas about what a culture should look and act like does not mean those notions are founded. Tourism is a strong component of the Thai economy.

In Senegal, I felt I was living the real Senegalese experience simply because I was often the only foreigner around and that made me feel special. In Thailand, I am surrounded by foreigners and don’t feel special. It’s ironic because I am one of those foreigners. I am contributing to the tourism industry. Tourism is just as real to the average Thai as rice farming. It may not adhere to my romanticized ideals of what life in Thailand looks like. But here, in this resort where I am sipping my coffee on a beach-side patio, tourism is the way of life for the people of Thailand.

This is their reality.

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