WASHINGTON D.C., U.S.A. I was trying to discover the “real” DC. Beyond tours of the White House and nighttime walks to the monuments, past the expected trips to Chinatown and the Georgetown Waterfront, I wanted to see what the city was really like. It took a relatively short period of time, and some maturing on my part, to realize that this quest for authenticity was a little misguided. It seems very absurd to imply that the Washington Monument and the National Mall are imaginary entities. They are very large and tangible structures whose presence and symbolic importance can not be denied. You also shouldn’t look down your nose at a “hipster” neighborhood like Adams Morgan with its wide array of “ethnic” cuisine, even if you don’t understand why “ethnic” in America refers to anything that belongs to a culture shared by any non-white people. Who in DC can be said to be living an authentic life? And who gets to rubber-stamp this authenticity?

There are different kinds of visitors. There are those who have no problem subscribing to the image sold to them by travel agents and guidebooks, going home satisfied with bags full of souvenirs and an ill-suited and possibly culturally appropriative hairstyle to provide physical evidence of their travels. I can’t condemn those people, as everyone embarks on a trip with different motivations and expectations. However, a group of adventurers exists with the primary aim of finding the authentic experience behind the glossy polish of tourist brochures and state-sponsored commercials and jingles, complete with grinning locals and perfect beaches. They abhor anything that is too “touristy”, and are determined to live “like the locals do” no matter what.

The problem arises when you take into account the fact that it is impossible to condense an “authentic” life experience into a trip of a few weeks or months, and attempting to do so essentially trivializes the lives of those who don’t have the luxury to simply visit. The search for authenticity may be well-intentioned, but speaking from personal experience, I am sorry to report that integration into another society cannot be forced, neither can it take place over night. Your attempts to do as the locals do may originate in a desire to blend in and to enjoy all that a place as to offer. Beware that they may also end up making a mockery of people’s reality, if you approach situations with voyeuristic curiosity rather than respect and openness.

By all means, strive to depart from the beaten track, make local friends or find a guide who knows the area as well as he or she knows the lines in the palm of his or her own hand. Dare to explore places that have not been mentioned in any tourist guidebook, especially since you’re likely to have a more enjoyable time without the need to fight for space on a narrow pavement with camera-wielding tourists. I must warn you, that you shouldn’t go looking for the real Africa in mud huts, or the real America in the “ghetto”, because in so doing you would have reduced the diversity and dynamism of human character and experience to a badly drawn caricature popularized on TV, or some equally unreliable source. What makes a place real is what’s in front of you- the combination of what is staged and performed, and what is natural and spontaneous. Understanding both sides will still give you only a preliminary understanding of the complex landscape of the place. Bon voyage!