Thoughtful Provocations (Part I) on “Through the Looking Glass: Encountering the Unexpected in Africa”

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 4: Through the Glass: Encountering the Unexpected in Africa.” In Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 89-115.

In Chapter 4, Mathers explores the barriers which tourists in the study abroad program experience in their attempts to have a serendipitous and unscheduled, authentic (perhaps even interactive) experience(s) with locals on their travels in South(ern) Africa. For many this is a sign of an authentic voyage to another world, beyond the confines of the façade of tourism and the staged performances put on by those employed by tourist companies. In many instances, these interactions are as much a dubious recreation of everyday life in another context, as are those constructed, packaged and sold by the tourist industry. At times, they may be instances where tourists are inadvertently provided a glimpse into the lives of the people of the host country they are visiting. The main difference though lies in the way these experiences are labeled as authentic. Understanding this as a catalyst to the tourist experience, tourism companies have tried harder to provide exactly these experiences to those traveling in their company. This adaptation has changed the way tours are operated, and now excursions to traditional “native” and “indigenous” villages are on many retinues, alongside cultural and religious (among other) landmarks. These are many times mixed in with a number of other activities, such as zip lining through sacred territories, kayaking and other action based activities, which are meant to amplify the experience, if not to simply create an initial appeal.

In this article, I hope to delve into some of the points made by Mathers pertaining to the role of tourist companies in constructing and providing the basis for these authentic experiences, how they are interpreted and negotiated by tourists and what results they incur upon the world views of those who partake in them.

Mathers uses the example of Global Exchange tourist company as her example of the sort of initiative to bring tourists into contact with a more authentic version of South Africa on their travels. Though as the author states, these experiences are by no clear manner defined specifically in such terms, but are rather “both unique encounter(s) and ubiquitous one(s)” (Mathers 2010: 101). Americans on these tours wanted to both experience a validating tour of South Africa, but were also troubled by much of what they encountered and were reluctant to conform to social norms and cultural rules. In a sense, they longed for a true cultural experience, but did not intend for that experience to require cultural relativism. Much of the problem inherent in this yearning for authentic travel experiences within a unique culture stemmed from their inability to grasp the concept that authenticity is largely a social fabrication and that to experience the authentic one must be open to its form being far different from what was initially expected. When expectations were met, only then were the experiences deemed authentic, when they were underwhelming and did not fit ascribed cultural traits (imposed by the travelers themselves) then they were deemed inauthentic. One such example is when South Africans were friendly to the tour group and one traveler asked if these encounters had been staged, not believing that such friendliness could be mustered without provocation and/or without compensation.

Therefore the authentic, serendipitous engagement with locals while on a tour may be quite a difficult experience to encounter for many tourists, whether this is due to the socio-cultural divides which exist between host and visitor (such as language barriers, gender segregation etc…), expectations on the part of those voyaging and/or the simply inability for people to find a common ground on which to build communication and rapport. In this sense, Mathers both applauds companies such as Global Exchange and explores their limitations. For all that such programs bring people together to experience a unique encounter with “Others”, they cannot predict, nor control the outcome.

Such was my experience on a recent trip to Cancun, Mexico, where I took an excursion tour to Coba during my stay. This day was filled with engaging in traditional Mayan rituals, swimming in a sacred underground river, kayaking, zip lining, visiting and climbing the Mayan ruins in Coba (“the oldest and the original” from a pamphlet provided by the tour company AltourNative) and a jeep ride through the surrounding jungle area. As a student of anthropology I realized how orchestrated this experience was, but at the same time, I was fully able to engage and interact with the locals who were also present on the tour. I had felt that this was a shared experience in which everyone in the group spoke, and became as intimate, with the tour guide and locals who were also on tour, as I had. In retrospect, simply looking over the pictures on my return, I was able to identify a visible “body space” between the tour’s Caucasian travelers and the local Mexican contingent there “on their day off” to “have some fun… with my friend”. Amidst the local contingent were two tourists (my partner and I), though we were the only ones, I had not even recognized the divide between the two groups myself, until later, but it was a perfect illustration of the different intents travelers brought with them to the excursion.

For my partner and myself, we were undertaking this excursion as a way to see more of Mexico than simply our resort, we chose it both because we enjoyed the activities involved and wished to visit the historical sites, but also, because we thought it would be a good way “to meet people”. What I mean by this is, we like people, we like many sorts of people from many different places and we knew (from past experience) that excursions such as these create smaller groups for a more intimate period of familiarization. These groups are usually made up of tourists and locals. By engaging in the excursion in this manner we approached it not simply from the angle of experiencing an authentic tour of Mexico, something we both knew this tour would not provide, but instead as a way to engage with authentic people in a unique shared experience.

The four friends I have made since this excursion (Omar, Suri, Marie & Stephan) are both Mexican and Canadian, though the way we came to know each other was in much the same way. We experienced things together, no matter how those things were produced and/or received; they were made authentic by our shared participation. This may have been amplified due to the bodily nature of the activities we were involved in which allowed us to share also in embodied experiences which we could all relate to and draw on. No matter the cause, by the end of the trip we were all very excited to meet again in the future, with each other as houseguests. Already, Marie and Stephan (Canadians) have attempted to have dinner with my partner and me, though we have been too busy on both sides. As for Omar and Suri (Mexicans), it is an affront to my sensibilities for anyone to even suggest that I was simply using them (in any meaning of the word) for my own ends. These two men are exceptional individuals and perhaps if they weren’t this story would read quite differently, but those are arguments better left to another day. The authentic experience for me was going into a place where I knew nothing of the culture, allowing myself to be ignorant and shown the reality of the world they lived in. To be with them, not in an artificial or inauthentic way, but as the only way I knew how, as myself, as a Canadian on vacation, as an individual of very little knowledge about Mexico. To be any other way would demand authenticity where it was already destined to simple failure.

In writing this piece, perhaps I had wished to convey some sort of substantial argument which truly exposed the shortcomings of searching for the authentic experience in foreign locals, but it feels instead as though the bonds made that day are forever crystallized in the moment in which they existed. To convey that, as I have come to realize, may be impossible, it even feels inauthentic recounting the experience. So on that note I leave you with a few words of wisdom, reminiscent of Mathers’ statement that “tourism or travel is, therefore, trusted to be the panacea for false images of the other” (Mathers 2010: 92). Travel was never the solution to deconstructing images of the Other, it simply realigns concepts and reorganizes the boundaries of stereotypical categorization, what is truly needed to achieve this sort of renegotiation of “false images” is breaking down social barriers, not being scared to put yourself in danger, not being inauthentic with those you engage with, and remembering that we all have much of the same basic needs and that we all want to be treated with dignity.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughtful Provocations (Part I) on “Through the Looking Glass: Encountering the Unexpected in Africa”

  1. The conclusion is particularly strong. I was also struck by “it even feels inauthentic recounting the experience”–that’s a very important point about our ethnographic writing, as well as that of Mathers. Additionally, I appeciate the point about not trying to be anything other than who you are while travelling, about the need to put one’s identity and sense of self at risk, and that the better solution is to break down social barriers.

    What I understood far less clearly was this passage:

    “Amidst the local contingent were two white faces (my partner and I), though we were the only ones, and this is not meant to be a tale of moral superiority (especially since I had not even recognized the divide between the two groups myself, until later), but instead an illustration of the different intents travelers brought with them to the excursion.”

    (a) I don’t understand why the note on the presence of two white faces should imply a tale of moral superiority. What do you mean by that? This could be understood in ways that you might not have intended, or like.

    (b) how does the fact of travellers’ different intentions follow from there being these two white people? Are intentions determined by race, and no two people with different identities can have the same intentions?

    This is what I mean by not following the passage well.

  2. I think I understand what you mean and I agree that it sounds wrong when you put it that way. I will edit it for clarity. I believe I was trying to do a little much with this piece, make it accessible, summarize Mathers chapter while simultaneously contributing top the discussion with a personal experience and keeping it to a reasonable length.

    What I had meant to convey was the striking effect the photos produced in their separation of the two groups, while also trying to convey that it was not a tale of moral superiority because some may consider recollecting a story of breaking down social barriers as self-aggrandizing, or of touting my own horn. On the contrary, what I had hoped to convey was that it was clear from the photos that some of the tourists on that excursion came with no intention of interacting with the locals, but were there rather to “consume” their culture, not interact (participate) with it.

    In retrospect, I realized that only my partner and I shared in any experience with the locals on that excursion, but it took the photo to truly make me reflect on how that day had gone. In doing so, I realized how little the other tourists had actually talked, shared and participated with the locals. However, it was not as though the locals were not welcoming. This is also alongside much of what went unwritten, such as the tourist group being uncomfortable with leaving belongings out of sight, participating in trying new foods and constant reluctance to sit, talk or engage anyone they didn’t necessarily have to. I preferred to see it as “different intents” of the tourists, which I mean simply to say, to greater or lesser degrees they all came on that excursion for a variety of reasons, and that for some this did not involve engaging with the Mexicans who also came that day.

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