Whether it is in my day to day or in my travels, I often find myself yearning for an authentic experience. What exactly is an authentic experience, and why do I keep digging for these moments? In an age where everything feels saturated and commercialized, I wonder if authenticity is still alive.
So what is an authentic experience? I had this fantasy before my trip that the lands would be laced with true and authentic experiences devoid of tourism and commercialism. I imagined I would feel connected to people and places in ways that felt absolutely true. I thought that if truth lived in moments, that I would find them, feel them, and share them. But as a tourist and as a stranger to distant lands, I wondered if it would be that much harder to find the scraps of truth.
I think back to a moment that comes to mind when I think about authentic experience. The first time I rode a horse was in Mongolia as I helped a nomad herd his sheep in a landscape that was straight out of The Land Before Time. Needless to say, all other horse rides in my lifetime will pale in comparison. Thank you Mongolia for single-handedly ruining all future horse rides and giving me one of the best experiences of my life.
The nomad rode the horse as if they were connected. They were one symbiotic, beautiful beast, and while I was holding on for dear life, he casually smoked a cigarette while navigating the land and his livestock. We didn’t share language, but we shared this moment. It was so beautiful I could cry at the memory of it. It was beautiful not only because it was an objectively impressive scene, but the physical memory and the emotional impression is engraved into me, onto me, and all over me. I argued with myself over the authenticity of it. Mari, you are only having this experience because you paid for it and this tour was set up for tourists to make money. I previously had such strict authentic experience guidelines… anything commercialized and driven by tourism and money could not be authentic I would argue. But I cannot deny the truths I felt in those moments. Yes, I had paid for a tour which I knew included horseback riding. What I didn’t know was that I would actually be herding sheep with a nomad. It felt more like he needed to get his sheep back to base and also provide a horse ride and that he was killing two birds with one stone. I was happy to be a bird because then I was flying in his authentic air space. He wasn’t simply taking me for a ride, I was riding in his world, and I actually did feel as free as a bird. I was soaring.
I realized that authentic experiences cannot be achieved by checking off a near impossible list of rules. There’s actually nothing authentic about boxing in moments with a checklist. An authentic experience comes from within. If you experience truth in a moment, whether it’s on a tour or on a solo wander, it IS an authentic experience.
While my extravagant fantasy of living in continuous authentic moments while traveling was not achieved, the reality was that I found pockets of authenticity that live inside me in brilliant ways. When I think back on other such moments, I realize the common denominator is shared human experience. When we connect with other people, it’s magic.