A section from my soon-to-be-turned-in research paper. A little slice of life in Kagbeni and some more thoughts on authenticity. Next post will be on a new theme, I promise.
In academic discourse on tourism and authenticity, we often mistakenly assume that either tourists or local peoples can authoritatively define what is authentic. In reality, authenticity, of experience as much as objects, is a transient and ever-changing concept, different for everyone. True authenticity depends on one’s state of mind and openness to experience. It can be contained in a single apple, a single moment, or a single-minded willingness to engage authentically.
Less than a week into my stay at the Red House Lodge, I already had a Nepali name (Kalpana), a host of familiar faces in town, and essentially a Nepali family. One morning, upon returning “home” from a walk, Tenzin’s daughter and employees called to me from the picnic table on the flat roof where they were shredding apples to make juice. “Kalpana! Bosnus, Kalpana.” They made space for me and I sat down on the edge of the table, trying to avoid the sticky bits of apple scattered about. I insisted on helping, as by then they must have expected, picking up a hand-held metal grater (the kind I had only used to grate cheese), and joined my effort to theirs.
For more than an hour we worked in semi-silence, speaking to ask for more apples (apple, dinnus) or pass a bowl of browning mush to Ammis, who would squeeze it in handfuls to separate liquid from solid. The only other sounds came from the rasping of small, green apples against metal, the occasional cry of hawks circling the crumbling medieval fort across the alley, and the drip drip drip of fresh-squeezed apple juice trickling into a plastic bucket. It being an unusually still morning, the prayer flags adorning nearly every rooftop remained quiet and the strong Mustangi sun heated the air. I changed into a T-shirt, the first and last time that my arms would see the sun in Mustang. We paused sometimes to sample from the abundance of produce spilling from the deep wicker basket next to us, punctuating the music of shredding apples with the crunch of teeth on fruit.
Apples of every variety grow well in the region around Kagbeni. Marpha (elevation 2670 meters), a four hour walk south of Kagbeni, boasts the moniker “apple capital of Mustang,” but I preferred the tart crispness of the apples heaped around the picnic table that morning, harvested from Tenzin’s orchard in Pangling, just across the Kali Gandaki River less than an hour from the Red House Lodge. Though the climate and altitude of Lower Mustang are ideal for the cultivation of apples, it is only in the last few decades that an apple economy has developed there. Landowners have converted much of their farmland or unused property into orchards, and nearly every restaurant and guest house carries out its own small-scale apple juice-, cider-, and brandy-making operations. Small bags of dried apples and bottles of apple brandy satisfy the demand of Nepali and foreign tourists alike for edible souvenirs.
My skin warm and my hands coated with sticky brown apple remains, I smiled contentedly at the easy companionship of that moment, which transcended linguistic and cultural barriers. Shoulder-to-shoulder with my Nepali didi (sister), I grated apple after apple, as quickly and as diligently as the rest, working towards the simple common goal of juice. Moments like these cannot be manufactured, I remember thinking. In their beauty, simplicity and spontaneity, such instances of connection and, yes, authenticity, are precious in their inimitability. Isn’t that the conundrum of the tourism industry, which makes its millions by selling “real” experiences.
Some research on tourism today is employing the Heideggerian concept of existential authenticity to solve that riddle. According to Heidegger’s philosophy, inherent meaning and connection exist, and it is these qualities that make experience possible. In terms of tourism, when one approaches the world with “existential authenticity […], a state of Being in which one is true to oneself,” a unique experience of the world, understood from an individual perspective, becomes possible, and the tourist may experience that inherent meaning. In these terms, authenticity is not a fixed, objective quality, but rather a state of mind, rendering it nearly impossible to package and market. Taking the Maori’s staged cultural demonstrations as an example (which emerged as a response to non-Maoris producing cultural shows for tourists), “staging pseudo-events for tourists can, in fact, be expressions of host authenticity in deciding how to present themselves to others.” Whether a tourist witnessing this show finds it authentic is not the question here; the tourist who is attuned to his or her “existential self” will experience it authentically regardless.
At six o’clock, the night before apple juice-making day, I ate dinner with the group of Ukranian trekkers in the rooftop dining room. Candlelight cast faces and food into a dynamic interplay of shadow and warm glow, and we lingered over glasses of Tenzin’s mother’s homemade cider. My dinner companions struck me at first as naïve and impressionable— every monastery, every person they met, and every interaction with local people awed or inspired them, it seemed. They attempted to quiz their Nepali guide about himself through several layers of translation (from Russian to English to Nepali and back), saying, “we have been in Nepal trekking two weeks, but we don’t know any real Nepalis.” Predictably, the attempt at conversation faltered, yet the more I reflect on this group of trekkers, the more I appreciate their unusual and sustained efforts at making connections. Revisiting that evening through a Heideggerian lens, I wonder if their willingness to engage with everyone and everything they encountered and the sincerity of their desire to experience Nepal, uninformed and naïve though it may have been, might not have resulted in a truly authentic experience.
The philosophy behind existential authenticity may appear hopelessly complex, but its implications for tourism study and marketing are straightforward yet rich in possibility. If we admit that there is no objective authentic culture, that neither outsiders nor locals can make such a judgment, and we focus instead on individual authentic experience, existing mainstays of tourism marketing may prove misguided. The shopkeeper who insists that, “this bracelet is really Tibetan. Really” might realize that her neighbor who converses and connects with customers does more business. The tour guide offering to show his group the “real Mustang,” and its most meaningful cultural treasures, might lose out to the one who allows visitors to determine for themselves what is meaningful and seek for themselves authentic engagement with a foreign culture.
Apple juice perhaps can be bottled, mass-marketed, and sold at a profit (though I believe it tastes best in small batches), but the existential authenticity contained in a moment of shredding apples at a warm picnic table cannot. Experiences like those are invaluable, fleeting and individual; at best, a guide or tour might provide support for those tourists who wish to attain them.