What You Need to Know About “Authentic Culture”

For many travelers, encountering another culture means more than visiting museums and famous monuments. World Heritage Sites are worth seeing — but maybe you crave deeper connections.

You might sign up for a tour that promises interactions with an indigenous tribe, and once you arrive in their village, notice villagers wearing bright traditional dress. They’re selling handicrafts that are so beautifully designed, you decide to buy a few to support them.

But then you see one of the teenagers texting on her cell phone — and you wonder: Is this “authentic culture”? Or a contrived tourist experience?

If that sounds familiar, here’s what you need to know about authentic culture:

Authentic Isn’t Always Old

A huge assumption you might make is that real culture is still steeped in verdant colored hills, where sun-weathered men in bamboo woven hats pull carts of goods. By thatched huts, children dutifully help their mothers hang laundry to dry in the sun, while the smoky swirls of lunch cooking crackle over a fire.

Sounds quaint — yet this lovely picture isn’t the reality in many developing countries.

Even though there might be agricultural practices within communities, many people combine farming with other jobs to support their families — such as in hotels or restaurants. Traditional dress may not be worn daily, but only dusted off for festivals and important occasions. Children are eager to attend school and forge dreams of their own.

It’s important to remember that “authentic culture” doesn’t necessarily equate to “historical culture.” A destination’s culture is often a fascinating combination of traditional customs and modern changes. Once you embrace this idea, you won’t be disappointed by seeing a television set in a thatched-roof hut.

Sustainable Travel Leads to Authentic Experiences

Want to experience authentic culture? You’re probably not going to find it on a tour bus. Sustainable travel — whether done independently or with a travel company — is a much better way to seek out authentic culture.

What is sustainable travel exactly? Simply put: a type of travel that doesn’t deplete resources, allows only a controlled number of tourists to experience an environment, and enriches but respects cultures.

We believe volunteer vacations are one of the best forms of  sustainable travel — especially if you want to immerse yourself in authentic culture. Our trips visit off-the-beaten-path destinations and allow you to have meaningful, everyday interactions with local people. Learning to make tortillas with a new friend. Playing soccer with the local kids. That is authentic culture.

Cities Have Authentic Culture, Too

Travel guides will tell you the truest experiences in any culture are found in rural surroundings. That only in the countryside can you see how “real” people live.

A good number of our volunteer projects are in rural settings — and while we endorse the immersive power of smaller towns or villages — don’t overlook the city.

An urban atmosphere allows you to witness a microcosm of that country — all its nuances and progress. City life is simply another perspective on a culture, and one that shouldn’t be missed.

Authentic culture is out there; you just have to know where to look.

 What do you think about “authentic culture”? Do you seek it out on your travels?

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