Guest posting -Allan Herle
Laura and I agree on many things (key to staying married). But we value certain experiences differently – more on that shortly. We both love travel and seeing new places in an ‘authentic’ manner. Until recently, I didn’t know that “authentic” was code for avoiding tourist schlock and seeing things like a local, but I do now so let’s go with that.
Valuing the journey
My latest trip reveals a different aspect of travel authenticity – how your mode of travel affects your authentic experience. I went by motorcycle from our home to a place with the catchy name of Deadhorse, Alaska –and back.
It amounted to just over 10,000km in 3 weeks through all kinds of weather and over all kinds of roads, 500 km north of the Arctic Circle and right to the Arctic Ocean. For some reason this did not appeal to Laura, so she chose to sit this one out. Chacun son gout, as my Francophone friends say.
Aside from it bringing me to Deadhorse, why was my motorbike trip authentic? And why should you care? Because it’s a chance to reflect on another aspect of authenticity: how we first access a place impacts the fullness of our experience with it.
Let me explain.
Of course air travel is often the easiest, and sometimes only, way to visit a faraway place. But it can make arrival jarring. I’m not just talking about jet lag, but the cultural shock of boarding a plane in the familiar surroundings of your home town, and disembarking hours later into a different world with maybe a different language, different climate, different food, different customs, etc. Your first human encounters on the voyage are with professionals who specialize in handling travellers like you. They tend to be courteous, efficient, and – well, bland.
But with self-guided overland travel, you have human interactions when you buy fuel, eat at a café, or stop for the night. People you meet are living their normal daily lives –and you get a window into that. A short chat with a server or hotel clerk reveals regional insights which may never arise in the heart of the city and certainly not in the airport. You glimpse the daily lives of the people who don’t live in the shadow or the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum but do have other, richer local community ties.
The pace of overland travel also lends itself to appreciating the context of the destination. As you approach, things change gradually from the familiar to the novel. Your perspective shifts once you realize the obvious – the surrounding countryside affects the big city, and vice versa. What do you see along the way? Picturesque, prosperous towns surrounded by productive agriculture? Imposing mountain ranges that isolate your proposed destination from its neighbours? Reminders of past greatness? Abandoned factories and boarded up shop fronts? When you cross a border, does the language and culture change immediately or is it more gradual? All these things will help you understand your destination and its inhabitants.
The places in between
This became vivid a few years ago when I read The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart. It documents his trip walking across Afghanistan in 2002. Amazingly, he walked across the entire country –a country without any tourist infrastructure– relying on zakat (charity, one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith). Among other things, zakat requires all devout Muslims to provide food and shelter to travellers. Stewart would simply approach a house anywhere, knock on the door, and ask to stay the night. This is expert-ninja-level authentic travel. Not surprisingly, his experiences were authentic and entirely different from any other traveller to that troubled country. By the time he arrived in Kabul (his destination) his cultural immersion was complete.
So back to my trip. Deadhorse, Alaska, isn’t anyone’s idea of a holiday getaway. It’s a collection of prefabricated industrial buildings thrown together to serve the Prudhoe Bay oil fields at the start of the Alaska Pipeline and to house the workers. If you aren’t in the oil biz , the main draw is that Deadhorse is the furthest north that you can drive in North America, and the only place where you can drive to the Arctic Ocean.
And so it attracts a motley collection of adventurers, including long-distance motorcyclists, German tourists, retirees, and a surprising number of eccentrics starting or ending epic journeys from Deadhorse to Tierra del Fuego.
You could fly in to Deadhorse, have a quick look around, dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean, take a selfie, and fly back to whence you came. Tick that item off your bucket list and move on to the next one.
Or, you can drive the 800km north from Fairbanks and experience the changes as you move north – the trees shrinking then disappearing entirely, the temperature dropping, the space between signs of habitation increasing. The wildlife changing from deer, moose, and black bear to caribou and muskoxen. The traffic on the road changing from family cars and motorhomes to purposeful transport trucks carrying oilfield machinery.
The Alaska pipeline. Allan Herle photo, August, 2016
And the camaraderie you share with fellow travellers and locals alike that you meet along the way. When you finally arrive, the destination is all the more special. You feel an understanding and kinship with the people who live and work there – and isn’t that what authentic travel is all about?
My trip was by motorcycle. Compared to travel by car, bus, or train you have yet more immediate contact with your surroundings. But even that level of contact isn’t enough for some people. Some of the aforementioned eccentrics on epic journeys were doing it by bicycle or even on foot. I can only imagine the experiences they must have, taking in even greater detail –thanks to the slower pace and even more interactions with people on the way.
The next time you want to experience a new destination, consider travelling at least part of the way by your favourite overland means – car, train, bicycle, local bus, or (my personal favourite), motorcycle. It may take a little longer but that’s okay – it’s all about the journey.