What Defines a Culture?

cusco peru cultural travel tourismOn a recent trip to Jamaica, I found myself annoyed when the group I was with stopped at the local Margaritaville to get a taste of the “real” Jamaica. The beach was packed with beach chairs and cluttered with tourists who shelled out bundles of cash for slushy alcoholic drinks in plastic cups and strings of beads being sold by local hawkers.

I looked up and down the beach. Resorts lined the beach as far as I could see. Buildings that were several stories high faded into pools faded into beach bars faded into beach and then into the ocean.

After our stop at Margaritaville, we made our way to a tour operator that offered an array of activities, which included zip lining, horseback riding, quad tours and dog sledding. Though I enjoyed our dog sledding excursion, I pondered the absurdity of the experience. I could have been in any place in the world doing the exact same thing.

As we drove back to our own resort, I looked out the window at the passing homes and storefronts. People spilled out of the open-air bars and sat on the steps of the small shops.

That’s where I wanted to be: In the “real” Jamaica. I wanted the authentic experience.

The area with the local shops gradually faded into the stretch of town that housed the local bars and clubs and that slowly turned into the stretch of resorts in Montego Bay. I began questioning my desire to visit the “real” Jamaica and started to wonder what the “real” Jamaica really was.

I assumed that Jamaica as a whole was an “authentic” place with a culture defined on its own terms that has since had to accommodate the influx of fancy lodgings and expensive excursions that people need to entertain themselves. However, many of the people who work at and promote these places are Jamaican themselves. Does being affiliated with these seemingly “unauthentic” experiences and influences make them any less Jamaican? Their lives undoubtedly took a different path because of these resorts and tour providers. The island could have remained a void in the Caribbean Sea, but like many nations in the Caribbean, development and the resulting tourism has become extremely important to Jamaica.

Huatulco Mexico CultureSure, their lives are different because of development, but does that make the country and these people any less Jamaican and any less “real?” Are Margaritaville and zip lining tours as much a part of the Jamaican culture as reggae and Bob Marley are? Do safaris through the Maasai Mara make Kenya any less of a nation or has the country and its people simply redefined themselves to incorporate the experience? When tourists are charged one price and locals another, has a distinction been made between one culture and another, or is the elevated price just a part of the ingrained culture?

I’ve explored the effect of cultural tourism on local communities in the past, and it continues to be a topic that haunts me as I travel. Because I am always an outsider when I go somewhere else, I always wonder if what I’m experiencing is real or simply a façade designed to make me feel like I’m witnessing something authentic.

I’m curious to know how others feel about this issue. What defines a culture to you, and is any experience an authentic one, regardless of how tacky or touristy it seems?

 

23 Responses to “What Defines a Culture?”

  1. Jill

    I wonder if perhaps your hometown (Las Vegas) isn’t caught in the same bind. The tourists visit 1 or 2 streets and pay prices for shows, etc., that the locals don’t (they know better…and when they can get in cheaper). What is the “real” Las Vegas? Would tourists even visit if The Strip and big casinos didn’t exist? The tourist industry is what keeps people employed and brings in the money…do people who work in that industry feel exploited and wish it would go away? The same is true for any small nation (or even state..Hawaii..that caters to tourists for a large part of their income) What would the place be without the tourist industry? The fact is Money is crucial in today’s world….the “traditional” culture is, by default, a secondary concern.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I agree that Las Vegas wouldn’t be the same without The Strip, which is very much a part of the local culture. Las Vegas wouldn’t be Las Vegas without its over-the-top casinos and hotels. And that’s my point; maybe culture and tourism are two things that mold each other. Without an interesting culture, there is no reason for tourism, but without tourism, there wouldn’t be the kind of culture that makes a place attractive to some people.

      Reply
  2. Gray

    Great question, and I’m not sure it has an easy answer. For instance, I’m often fascinated by subcultures within larger cultures. When I think about it that way, it becomes a bit easier for me to verbalize. It’s when a group of people share commonalities that are distinct from other groups of people. These commonalities may include rituals, unique ways of doing things, and specialized language. I’m sure it can be defined more deeply than that, but how’s that for a start? When we see touristy stores, restaurants and activities (like ziplining) that can be shared among many different regions of the world, in a way, we may be talking about a “tourist culture” rather than Jamaican culture or Mexican culture. These are ways of making a living, rather than actual culture. Okay, I’m starting to babble now.

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    • JoAnna

      Okay, so there’s the “real” culture and then the culture defined by tourism. But both really are a part of the culture. It is one big catch-22, isn’t it?

      Reply
  3. pam

    I suspect that folks who live in these places don’t care one whit if what they’re experiencing is “authentic culture” or not. We project “authenticity” on to experiences and people as travelers.

    We might take things at face value more. Dog sledding in Jamaica, yeah, that’s pretty weird, but so was the Jamaican bobsledding team. Culture is, by nature of its very existence, continuously changing, absorbing, rejecting, evolving.

    I’m a big fan of using the word authentic to describe things as real as opposed to fake, not to ascribe some kind of cultural purity to them. Cultural purity gives me the willies, big time.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      “I’m a big fan of using the word authentic to describe things as real as opposed to fake, not to ascribe some kind of cultural purity to them.”

      I think you bring up a good point, Pam. We, as travelers or people not living in a certain place, try to define it, but those who live their daily lives there are just living. It is what it is.

      Reply
  4. Emily

    How disappointing that they used Margaritaville as an example of real Jamaica!!! That is just absurd.

    I got the same impression when I was there. We stayed at a resort in Ocho Rios, though it was about a two-hour drive from the airport through small, bumpy roads in the Jamaican countryside. We took a rest stop in a rural area overlooking the water, with locals selling jerk chicken. Felt very authentic. But the resort itself was teeming with mostly American tourists, many who weren’t very classy (I guess that’s what happens when you’re at a place with unlimited booze and food), and it definitely felt inauthentic. We also visited a nice “tourist mall” that was lame. But then one day, my dad and I went out into a real part of the village together to get a taste of real life there. To be honest, it was a bit scary. A Rastafarian approached us and tried to sell us mushrooms (the drug kind). We walked through the markets and people leered at me, trying to pull me into their booths. We saw real bars, real restaurants, and real poverty. It wasn’t nearly as safe or friendly as the resort, but I felt like it was real Jamaica. I think sometimes you have to get away from the tours and explore on your own (or hire a local driver and go on your own private tour rather than a group tour).

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      How fascinating to hear about your experience in Jamaica. That does sound a bit sketchy, but I think I’d like to experience it myself. Then at least I’d have a well-rounded view of the country versus just one definition of it.

      Reply
  5. Katie Pickard Fawcett

    Jamaica is probably not the best example of a cultural experience, at least in terms of what most tourists get. Jamaica, like a number of other places, cater to the all-inclusive set. One big reason is safety. Some islands/countries are not nearly as safe “off the resort” as other places. There are many places, however, that make it safe and easy to immerse oneself in the local culture. The Ecuadorian Andes, for example, or many of the little villages in Costa Rica or the mountain towns of Mexico. Some do have an American or international element, but the local culture still thrives and you sort of know it when you feel it. The most rewarding part of travel, in any case for me, is the people I meet and trying to look at the world through their eyes for a short while.

    Reply
  6. Keith

    This issue is the thorn in my side, and I’ve tackled it from a few angles on my blog. The simple answer that I’m living with is to try and just accept the experience at face value. The world is what it is today. Though I’m guilty of it, I think questioning the authenticity of everything will only make me paranoid and unhappy.

    I think this problem appears mainly in people seeking a foreign experience, whereas much of tourism is dedicated to presenting the comforts of home. There is room in the world for tourism and non-tourism experiences. Ultimately, it’s on the individual to make something real.

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  7. pam

    @Keith and Joanna: Also, don’t you think we pressure ourselves something fierce to find the “authentic” instead of just rolling with it? It’s almost like a competition we create for ourselves, this need to find something that we can perceive as genuine, when global/modern – ization means that all around the world, you can get awesome Thai food in strip malls and native cultures drink their coffee from Starbucks branded paper cups. I stay sane by thinking of it as adding MORE to culture rather than as a destroyer and homogenizer. Hey, it’s a coping strategy. Plus, when that native bead artist told me she, too, though Hugh Jackman was totally smokin’ hot, I just started to laugh about what ties us all together.

    Reply
    • Keith

      Yes, I do think we pressure ourselves, but not always for the same reasons. I have no desire to “one-up” anyone, I simply seek the feeling of foreignness. While it’s true globalization has made our favorite foods (for example) available in many places, for me that’s a non-starter. That’s not what attracts me to travel and I could easily live without it.

      As I said, I’m trying to roll with the punches and just accept the experience at face value, but it would be nice to connect with people at some level deeper than American pop culture. But I’ll give and take what I can.

      Reply
      • JoAnna

        “I’m trying to roll with the punches and just accept the experience at face value …” – I think this is an important point, Keith. As I travel more, I try to maintain a relatively “normal” travel perspective – what would the average person enjoy? Am I thinking too much about this experience because I do travel more than the average person? I need to remember that travel and vacationing are luxuries, and overthinking those luxuries can really take away from what would otherwise be a very enjoyable experience.

        Reply
  8. Trisha

    Very thought-provoking post. The sad truth is that *most* travelers aren’t looking for an ‘authentic’ experience, they’re simply looking for some fun and relaxation – beaches and umbrella drinks, and a few activities that make them say “woo hoo!”.

    And the fact is that many places cater to that demand by providing a resort experience and shopping opportunities that maximize the tourism dollars brought in to the destination. It’s sad but true that in many places – Jamaica in particular – you’re not as safe when you seek out the non-tourist areas……but then the same can be said for many large cities in the US – when you head out in search of the areas that don’t directly benefit their economy, you’ll run into poverty and crime.

    People don’t go to Las Vegas for the ‘locals’ experience, they go to gamble in the casinos, see the over-priced shows, and eat in the buffets. Likewise, people don’t go to Jamaica to stroll through the ghettos, get hassled by shopkeepers desperate for a sale, or mingle with the many unemployed young men who have little to lose by selling drugs or mugging (or worse) female tourists. Many of them are also rightfully resentful of the tourist trade for taking away much of the best resources that they used to freely enjoy (off-limits to them now) and for reaping billions while paying only a pittance to those fortunate enough to have jobs at the resorts.

    I do think it’s a worthy effort to try to seek out a more authentic experience when you travel by mingling with locals and learning about the culture, but it’s important to avoid putting yourself into an unsafe situation when pursuing that goal.

    Reply
  9. Carlo Alcos

    It’s that romantic notion that tourists/travelers want to pin on a place…they see pictures of “traditional” clothing, dancing, rituals, etc and think that’s the “authentic” experience when traveling somewhere. There’s also one-upmanship involved sometimes between travelers…who’s gotten farther “off the beaten path”, therefore experienced more “authentic” experiences, and who is the “better traveler.”

    Notice the use of quotation marks.

    How much of travel is really selfish? Not feeling fulfilled when we don’t get that experience we expected. That’s selfish. I like what Pam said about just rolling with it. Travel is great for seeing how other people around the world live, even when they’re part of the “inauthentic” experience. Make connections, give to the community if you can, and be sensitive and compassionate. Just be an authentic human being.

    Reply
  10. Jen Laceda

    This is a tough one. I have lots of Jamaican and Chinese-Jamaican friends who say that to get the “authentic” Jamaican culture, go to Kingston. Don’t stay in a resort, they say, because the Jamaica presented to you there is, obviously, a watered-down version. But then, they also warned me of the many dangers a solo woman traveller can encounter in Kingston (unless you have a local with you). So, don’t even go to Kingston on your own…But I argued that I’m from the Philippines and I know how rough it can get: I’ve been robbed in Manila in broad daylight and have not been emotionally affected (It’s a common occurrence for Manila folks). But my Jamaican buddies tell me that Kingston is worst!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thank you @Jen and @Katie for bringing up the fact that Jamaica isn’t the best example for this piece. I guess I didn’t even realize how sketchy Kingston was, and maybe that’s the point. In order to share a part of the country with tourists, they have to make it safe and sheltered – sharing the best parts of the island and hiding those that are a bit unsavory. Let’s fact it: Jamaica is beautiful. The ocean is warm and the beaches are beautiful, and those are probably the parts of the country people really want to see anyway.

      Reply
  11. Shannon OD

    I really like Gray’s point about a tourist culture residing all over the world and some of the activities prescribing to that culture.

    But at the same time, there is authenticity and truth in every circumstance – they’re people running these tours still, Jamaicans behind the “inauthentic” touristy guise…so although the activities may not be traditional to the area, if the idea is to go and find amazing people and experiences in any situation.

    Some of my best conversations in Guatemala came at a tourist bar in Antigua where the Guate City locals came on the weekends – their insight and thoughts on the country were as valuable to understanding the culture as my volunteer work “off the beaten path” in the rural areas.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Whether people are working in a “touristy” part of a place or not, if they’re representative of the country and the culture, I think you’re absolutely right Shannon: You can find authenticity and truth in every circumstance. I’ve often learned the most about a place from drivers who get me from one place to another. They might be working in the tourist industry, but they know so much about a place, the people and the lives of those people, that these short drives often turn into learning experiences as well.

      Reply
  12. kay

    I’m a born and bred 1st generation Canadian (Toronto) but my background is Jamaican. Agree 100% with what Jen said above and was going to write the same thing. For a “real” Jamaican experience go to Kingston, or Rocky…but be safe! Or go to a local run resort instead of these big chains. My family owns one in Negril and you get an authentic experience (complete with home cooked meals!) without all the watered down stuff of big resorts.

    Jamaica, like every other country, is beautiful – it’s knowing where to go….or having someone who can show you around 🙂

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thank you for your comment, Kay. I wonder if the fact that Jamaica is the topic of conversation here is part of what led me to write this post. I imagine that every country has its well-manicured, good-to-visit spots and then those places that are maybe a little more shady. I know that can be said for the United States, each state individually and even most big cities. I do appreciate that people who are familiar with Jamaica, like yourself, have taken time to share a little bit more about Kingston and the places that aren’t considered tourist destinations.

      If you wouldn’t mind, I would love to know the name of your family’s locally run resort in Negril. I would definitely like to check it out when I have the opportunity to return to the country someday.

      Reply
  13. Claire

    I travel to find and experience difference, not to seek more of the same or what I am used to. For example, I avoid cruises. For me, and to answer your question-it’s not authentic if I find myself in “Margaritaville” and doing what I might do at home. I always forget that I went to Mexico, mostly because the Cancun/Playa del Carmen area is rife with tourists and all the trappings of home-MY home. Excellent post, thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  14. Andi

    This is such a good question and 1 that continues to haunt me while I travel as well. Great post!

    Reply

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