I had saved for six years and, when I was 29, I quit my job, sold most of my possessions and took off on a trip around the world.
But beforehand, I went into -- and out of -- about a dozen travel agencies in Austin, Texas, where I lived, seeking advice. My first words would be something to the effect of, "I want to begin my trip in Africa, but I don't want to go on a tour. I need information on how to get around."
And the response would be something to the effect of, "Are you sure you don't want to go on a tour?" I would say I was certain, but the agent would nonetheless hand me safari brochures and suggest I look them over.
My luck changed when I walked into B. Barnes Travel and sat across from Gerald Fuller. The son of a wealthy man, he had personally been to most of Africa (and most everywhere else) and said he'd be happy to help.
He asked a lot of questions.
And then recommended a tour.
But not just any tour. It was a 100-day overland camping trip through 10 countries. It predated glamping; there were no porters to set up tents, no cooks to prepare meals, no knowledgeable guide. It was basically transportation from Nairobi to Tangiers that passed through interesting places.
Provisions included well-worn pup tents, uncomfortable folding camp stools and bench seating in the back of a Bedford truck. It was up to passengers to find water sources and purify what we found and to locate markets and buy and cook our food.
We began the trip with 15 passengers and ended with 10. It was simply too much for some people, and they bailed along the way.
Travel advisor Fuller, who had done a similar trip, had told me that he wouldn't do it again for a million dollars tax free, but nonetheless recommended it. I was glad he did.
The route passed through Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. We hiked to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda. In the Congo (then Zaire), we climbed Nyriagongo volcano and hunted with Twa pygmies in the Ituri Rainforest. We crossed the Sahara.
I got dysentery. I got malaria.
So how "authentic" was this experience? It was intense but shallow. Given the amount of time we were on the road, we had many interactions with local people, but the encounters were generally superficial and brief; we were just passing through. The group I was with -- mostly 20-somethings -- were intelligent and curious but generally ignorant about the places we stopped. As was I.
It was the beginning of a journey that lasted 18 months, taking me through the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia after Africa. Only once, on my birthday, did I pay more than $15 a night for accommodations. Other than booking the initial overland tour, I had no interaction with the travel industry as I now know it.
At that level of independent, budget travel, one interacts frequently with host cultures by necessity. Generally speaking, you have to figure out everything yourself. For the most part, I enjoyed doing that, but I also met budget travelers who resented the difficulties presented by navigating unfamiliar terrain and processes. For them, "authentic" became a negative.
This week's cover story looks at authenticity through the lens of experiences that travel advisors might recommend and sell. It reports on basic accommodations as well as ones that include some upscale features.
Over time, I've concluded that although money is often used to spin a cocoon of isolation from a host culture, it doesn't have to. Sometimes, it can buy guidance that helps penetrate cultural barriers. It can explain mysteries. It can steer you away from street food that might give you dysentery.
I still enjoy going to little-visited places and am willing to put up with discomfort if I'm rewarded with enlightening encounters. But I'm no longer convinced that paying less guarantees the deepest insights.
With time, I've also come to understand that authenticity is, more often than not, accessible in aggregate rather than through specific experiences.
Host cultures are not monolithic. The point of view expressed by someone you meet -- perhaps in a discussion about local politics or religion -- might be fascinating and informative but not necessarily representative.
In this way, authenticity is, oddly, subjective. It's as rooted in the observer as the observed, the result of a traveler's cultural baggage repeatedly colliding with multiple hosts' points of view. What I perceive as authenticity is actually the result of several experiences that, together, have reoriented the way I see the world.
And in the end, that reorientation typically encompasses a deeper appreciation for what one has in common with a host culture rather than identifying what's different.
"Different" is the easy part. Uncovering what's similar can be profound, regardless of travel style.