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How to tell a true travel story

The stories we tell ourselves about why and how we travel

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
14 min read
How to tell a true travel story

Have you ever struggled to tell someone 'what it was really like' after returning from a trip? Re-telling travel is a delicate balance. There's the socially polite aspect of storytelling—trying not to bore the audience with your own navel-gazing while simultaneously cultivating in them an excitement for the journey, and then there’s the narrative—what actually happened? Do you exaggerate? Leave out some parts? What's the director's cut of your experience?

Anthropologist and cultural tourism researcher Ed Bruner claims there are three narratives to any trip:

  • The trip as lived (what’s actually happening).
  • The trip as experienced (how you perceive the trip as it happens).
  • The trip as told (how we retell our experience after the fact).

All three are changing, and all three are 'true' in their own sense. With a certain level of self-awareness, we may be able to see all three narratives simultaneously—like viewing parallel universes. These narratives may also conflict.

In the decade or so I've been thinking about travel, I've realized there is rarely one 'truth.' Merely a million mirrors to see a place through.

I was first introduced to the term ‘zuihitsu’ by Khadijah Queen in her beautiful piece ‘False Dawn’ in Harper’s Magazine, reflecting on the early months of the pandemic.

The zuihitsu is a sort of diary-scraps form of Japanese literature, where you meander through the author's experiences as if jotted down in a journal. The pieces themselves might not connect narratively, but when put together say something larger about the whole.

The idea of authenticity in travel and culture is slippery at best and malevolent at worst. It is the truth, but it is not the truth. It's as solid as morning fog, obscuring the view yet impossible to touch—parting just at the right moment to let us glimpse a small picture of the world before closing back in. It fools us into thinking what we’re seeing and how we’re thinking about it is the real.

I went through my notes from the road and gathered a few anecdotes about times where travelling brought some unexpected (sometimes sad, ironic, annoying or inconvenient) revelations. And revealed something of another nature about authenticity to me.

There are lots of genuine, beautiful, human travel moments, of course. You don't have to look further than the literature or possibly your own memories to confirm that—a purple and yellow sunset over a rice paddy in the Philippines with a cow grazing nearby.

That chat with the Bosnian tea shop owner about cats.

Walking in rural Japan at night and linking arms with your fellow exchange students along the dirt road because it's so dark you can't see one another, and there are no lights save the stars above and the fireflies below.

That time you chased a German dermatologist-turned-monk through a bamboo forest in search of a mysterious 'silver plate' you're not sure actually ever existed…

But this piece is not about that type of story. This piece is about the weird in-betweens of travel. The memories we don't quite know what to do with. The uncomfortable and unexpected. The conflict that comes with being a privileged traveller and the inheritance of imperialism. The complicit con of being a tourist. Our quests for authenticity. We've all been there and had those awkward situations. Here are a few of mine.

How to Tell a True Travel Story

Two middle-aged, middle-class American women sit at a checkered table outside a café in Paris, France, dressed in neon and eating a meal they can't afford.

They are enjoying their time frantically. Although the women adopt the local laissez-faire attitude, each one is secretly totalling up the bill every time the waiter revisits their wine glass. He comes again, and a small tic is visible in the jaw of one woman, even as she smiles and says, "Sew-par. Mare-see!" They preen and look around to see who is observing them. They are surrounded by an aura of anxiety, like a dam about to burst. Then the waiter brings the bill around to the table.

"That'll be credit," one says as she slides over her shiny AMEX, running her fingers through her equally shiny hair and winking at her bestie with a look that says, 'you and I both know I can't afford this and will need to work for months to pay it off - but we will never acknowledge it out loud. Isn't this fun???'

They ask the waiter to take a photo of them with two magenta pink cocktails. Immediately after, heads down and eyes dead, they scroll through their phones and post leurs affaires.

"What are you putting in your caption?' one deadpans.

"I only put it on Stories," replies the other, taking a beat to scroll. "Oh-em-gee. Love this city," she reads.

I watch them from my table across the street. People are their most authentic when they show you what they're trying to become.

As a traveller, you are a yo-yo on a string.

Escaping mundane life, we arrive at our destinations and feel instantly lighter, believing, for a moment, that we've escaped the gravity of our daily lives and are out in orbit.

The yo-yo at the furthest reach of its tether is momentarily suspended between heaven and earth, floating like the astronauts who train in planes that fly up and then dive straight down to earth, granting momentary weightlessness before slamming you into the ground.

Returning from vacation often feels just like being pulled at the force of gravity backwards through the tourist shops, through the airport, past security, back to your airplane seat and finally—home. Jerked back into regular life. The framed photo on your desk the only evidence that you once inhabited this other space, floating.

Once I joined a group of eco-minded travel writers on a trip north of Manila to an 'enchanted' compound deep in the jungle where I was told we'd meet local Filipino entrepreneurs hard at work with their own 100% Filipino businesses and farms. The tour was run by the NGO that owned the compound. The primary goal of this NGO is to reduce poverty in the Philippines.

We arrive and are led to a cool, covered concrete gazebo, out of the air's humid boil.

Our guide pours soothing words into our ears, "We are going to meet the entrepreneurs!" She says. I'm excited.

Later, I learn the 'entrepreneurs' we met don't own their businesses but work at their business stands, like Disney employees manning the rides for foreign tourists who come through. They sing praises of the millionaire NGO founder who built this place and has continued to seek foreign investment, notably from France and large automotive companies.

"Everyone here is an entrepreneur!" the tour guide repeats again for the group. "They have their own businesses!"

"But they don't. If the workers want to leave the compound, they can take none of it with them. They work for you."

I get a few glares from the group. Looks that say, 'why do you have to be like this?'

Does it matter if it's a lie? Does it matter if these locals aren't entrepreneurs but employees who work for French investors? Does it matter if the real way this place makes money is by selling tours to foreigners? It should be clear what the actual business model is if the villagers' products are maybe a few bucks apiece, but the price of a tour group stay in the village is hundreds of dollars per night.

In the distance, an excavator is digging a trench where another guest house will go.

I interview one of the women. She lives in housing provided in the compound. She makes barely any money, but it doesn't matter because she has a place to sleep and food for her children to eat. She is happy and better off than she was before living in the slums of Manila, so what good does my white guilt do for her? I am conflicted. The guide smiles again, "This is the power of entrepreneurship."

On the concrete wall of the gazebo, there is graffiti art depicting scenes of life at the 'enchanted farm.' In one: a benevolent older man dressed in white and smiling, like a depiction of Santa Claus, cartoon white God, Colonel Sanders, John Hammond. The benevolent patriarch in white. "That is our founder," says the tour guide. He looks like a Buddha. Happiness achieved through eternal cash flow.

When I get back home, I write a positive piece about the transformative power of social entrepreneurship and travel, the moving transformation that happens when people have work to do. But I still turn everything that happened over in my head, like a smooth stone.

In 2015 I worked for an agency that specializes in travel marketing. I specialize in social media—my workdays sometimes feel like an endless list of ideals and positioning statements turned into hashtags. One day, a client based in Florida calls me in a panic.


"What? Did something happen?" I ask. Frantically opening multiple browser tabs and navigating to their social media pages—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, where things are cross-posted, and begin hiding the content. In another tab, I start searching for local weather events, school shootings, anything—it is Florida, after all.


I find the post in question. Some UGC, or 'user-generated content' we've taken off someone else's Instagram and reposted. It's an alligator eating a hot dog at one of the theme parks. There was nothing brewing in the comments. Alligators do well on social. Nothing was obviously amiss. I shrug and delete it.

Afterwards, I e-mail her, "Did something happen?" Instead of writing back, she asks me to call her. Is it too seditious for e-mail?

We talk. She tells me, "Today is the one-year anniversary of a little boy being eaten by an alligator at a Disney World Hotel." A beat. "So, we can't post about alligators today."

Oh, wow. "Oh, um. Okay." I say. Wait a beat. "Should we… cancel all of our gator posts?"

"No. Tomorrow is probably okay to post," she says. Click goes the phone.

Later, I get a message in Slack. Too bad we had to get rid of the gator today. He was so cute! Gator emoji. Frowny face emoji.

A few years later, I'm in a tea field in Japan being filmed for an episode of reality TV. I've been told the show is allegedly about me learning about tea in Japan. However, so far, the camerawoman seems more interested in how I can possibly be living here for three months' away from my husband.' She's taken several dramatic close-ups of my wedding ring. I picture myself like the Bill Nye of tea and focus on excitedly telling her about tea's chemical properties, how it's grown, and why I love it.

She nods and then asks me, "But aren't you sad not to see your husband?"

On the morning of the third day following me, she sits me down at the low kitchen table where we sit on our folded knees. She has a strained look on her face.

"Meru-san…" she says, using the polite suffix for my name. "I think we have a problem."

"Oh, really?" I say. My Japanese is basic. Painful to listen to, really. I think it's probably why they chose me to be on TV. "What is the problem, Reiko-san?" I say, returning the honorific to her.

"Ah, I have asked Matsu-san to come." Matsu is the tea farm owner. His translation skills are much, much better than mine. Great, he will make sure we understand each other.

Matsu arrives.

"Ah, Meru-san." He too, makes a face like he is pained.

"What is it?" I ask.

Reiko speaks to him in rapid Japanese. He nods. "Nnnn. Nnnn. Soooou. Sooooou desu."

This is the Japanese equivalent of, "Ahhh, ahhh. I see. I see."

He looks back at me, "You are not suffering enough."

"What?" I look incredulously between the two, seeing if I understood. "I'm not in enough… pain?"

"Yes. You are having a too-good a time."

To be clear, dear reader—I don't have it hard. I'm privileged and happy to be here. I'm not saving lives. I came here for my own enjoyment and pursuit of something I love. The work's not particularly hard (sweaty, sometimes, but not mentally taxing), and I've spent months away from my husband before while working abroad, so while I'm looking forward to seeing him again, it's not killing me.

I pause, "I am… too happy?" I say. Slowly.

"Yes. That is the problem," says Matsu, eyebrows drawn.

Reiko, the camerawoman, bows at me from behind Matsu.

"Reiko-san wants to show your great struggle!" he says, raising his fists to the ceiling. "So that people on TV will cheer for you!"

"Ah…" I say. Wanting to be a good sport. I look at Reiko, "I will struggle harder," I say, making a pained face.

"Yes," she smiles large. "Shank you."

Every time she thanks me, it's like a tiny knife stabbing me in the side.

On another day in a different country, I forget my cell phone in the back of a taxi cab at the foot of the mountains. I'm in the middle of nowhere. I don't speak Korean. The sun is going down, and it's getting dark.

In a different taxi on another day on Jeju Island, South Korea, our driver sees me eyeing the golden canola fields and stops by one on the highway.

"You want to take a picture?"

"Yes, please!" I say, already halfway out of the car. I hop down the three-foot stone wall that separates the highway from the pit of bright yellow blossoms.

My partner, Rob, gets out, nervous. I'm running around taking shots of all the flowers. All our bags are still in the taxi. Rob is lagging behind.

"Come on, Rob!" I yell and wave, gesturing that he too should dive into the canola.

"Yes, you go too!" Says the taxi driver. Rob hesitantly climbs in but sticks near the wall. I'm in the middle of the field.

"Come on!" I say, "I want to take your photo in the middle of the field!"

Rob glances back at the taxi driver, who says, "Yes! Go on it! I can take the photo."

I cry, "Excellent!" And hand my expensive DSLR camera over to the taxi driver. Rob walks stiffly beside me in the field. I ham it up, doing super cute peace sign poses and giggling.

"Let's do a kissing one!" Rob obliges.

It's not until our impromptu photo shoot is over and the taxi driver has dropped us off at our destination that Rob finally exhales. "I thought he was going to take our stuff and leave us." He says. "I was memorizing his license plate number, taxi number, everything." He is shook.

"What? In Korea? No way." The thought hadn't even crossed my mind. This is the country where grandmas literally have pulled me off the road to feed me oranges, kimchi, and acorn jelly. "You know…" I start to consider. "Yeah, he could have totally fleeced us there."

I never would have let a taxi driver in Canada, Europe, or America do that. But somehow, on Jeju Island ('the Hawaii of South Korea' as every guide will tell you) I was totally fine with handing all my possessions to a taxi driver and jumping into a field of flowers.

On a related-unrelated note: we left Jeju by ferry on April 12, 2014. Four days later, on April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry (the same one we'd taken) sunk with 476 people on board. 304 people died, including around 250 students who were on a school trip. It was a tragedy. Knowing we had been so close gave me an eerie feeling, like passing death in the hallway heading into the same room you just left.

I'm grateful we weren't on that boat.

We are looking over a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Philippines—the beautiful, terraced rice paddies of Ifugao. Outside a souvenir shop near the attractions, a man who looks old but is probably middle-aged poses for tourist photos in his traditional headdress. I chat with a local guide whose guests are in the shop. He explains most of the Ifugao men make a living posing here for tourist's dollars. What they can make in foreign currency especially outweighing anything they might earn farming or working another local trade.

People come up and put a bill or two into his bag in exchange for taking a photo with him. His eyes are downcast. He doesn't speak to them. Whether it's just hot or if his body language is a reflection of his feelings, I can't tell. Some people ask if they can wear his headdress for the photo—my stomach squirms. I think of human zoos and all the baggage and sordid history linked to that.

I pick a spot in the shade on a nearby hill and drink some Coca-Cola bought in the shop, and people watch. As I look at the man and tourists arriving by the truckload, my mind flashes back to a class where we studied Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. In his essay, Baudrillard examines the relationship between reality, symbols, and society. In it, 'simulacra' are copies that depict things that have no original, or no longer have an original. Simulation is the imitation of something in the real world over time.

I look at the Ifugao man and wonder if he is still 'real,' still authentic, or if he is a simulacrum. If his tribe no longer exists in the form he is mimicking, then is he a simulacrum of his tribe? If they still exist out there, is he a simulation? Or is he something else entirely? If he is acting, is his acting its own form of reality? If performing his culture is eking out a living for him, then does performing his culture become his culture? Who decides what is traditional for them to wear? Who decides what is authentic? How has the pressure of tourism changed the path of his culture?

This Ouroboros logic spins me round in circles and gives me a headache, or maybe it's just typhoon season humidity.

Hot, flustered, and with no answers, I buy a wooden ox figure from the shop and then leave.

One spring, I stayed with some friends at a Buddhist temple. It was on a mountain thick with sweet cherry blossoms and chilly air that burned your throat like vodka.

The head monk took a handful of us foreigners to have tea with him. He sat cross-legged in a burgundy robe on a rough, straw floor. We sat with him and drank the hand-rolled tea grown on the temple grounds from coarse clay cups.

Very good. Our minds said. I can't believe I'm right here with this traditional monk! This is so authentic.

We meditated, chatted and finished our tea. Then, without blinking, the monk pulled out his iPhone from the arm of his robe and opened Facebook, "Oh, look at the time! I need to go. I'm meeting someone in town. Please enjoy the fresh temple air at night." He pulled on a Nike beanie over his shorn head, stepped out into a BMW sedan and sped down the mountainside, straight through the 1,500-year-old gates and into the city below.

In Iceland, we are driving around the Ring Road for our honeymoon. There are signs everywhere warning tourists to be careful between ethereal landscapes and moody golden light and that the 'perfect photo' isn't worth their life.

This January, two tourists were found dead on Sólheimasandur beach near an #instafamous plane wreckage. The wreck became extra popular after Justin Bieber's 2015 music video "I'll Show You." Search #solheimasandur, and you'll see what these two died for.

People used to make pilgrimages for religious reasons. Then again, maybe the pursuit of that Insta-worthy moment is a new kind of religion. Ecstasy and a sense of belonging. Oblivion and validation. Instagram is global, after all. And people spend more time there now than reading the Bible or going to church. It creates its own logic and language. It has rituals.

Doesn't that make it authentic? If enough people buy into it, what stops it from being real? Some people collect and trade colourful shells. Some go to concerts. These people collect souvenir photos of themselves posed in a certain way – colonized yoga poses, arms outstretched backwards, immersed in a field of flowers. Afloat in a field of their own digital dreams. These are the codifications and intertwinings of travel and spirituality in the 21st century. You don't have to like it for it to be real.

At Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, I see a girl walking backwards, trying to get into the frame with the waterfall while her friend holds a camera. There is no railing here, and a false step would dash you on the rocks below. The ground is slick with icy spray from the roaring falls as more than 190 cubic metres pass over it and drop 40 metres into the canyon below. The girl in yoga pants is facing the wrong way and walks too far back. She slips on the icy rocks underfoot—rocks backward, forward, and then goes down. Someone lets out a small yell as one of her feet goes over the edge of the cliff, but she somehow manages to catch herself. Her friend shouts, "are you okay?"

A nearby middle-aged couple in matching Patagonia watches her. One of them grabs his husband's arm and says, "Oh my god, did you see that?"

The girl knows she is being watched, yet she stands there unabashed. She is mid-ritual and can't stop, won't stop. She's waited for this moment and takes a deep breath, having faced death, and goes back to work. She can already imagine the likes and comments—the holy vindication.

She says, breathless, "Can you see it over my shoulder now?"

Blanket Fort

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