Three Keys Will Completely Transform the Way You Travel––and the Way You Live
“I really want to go to ______, and just immerse myself in the culture there!”
You've probably heard at least one of your friends mention this feeling. You may even share it yourself!
And why not? There are so many captivating travel destinations in the world, it's easy to want to see them all.
But what if one special place holds a particular fascination for you?
This is a spot you don't just want to visit. You really want to soak up all of it. The people, the language, the food, the arts, and the life of the community there. Everything.
But what does it really mean to immerse yourself in a foreign culture? How do you know if you're approaching it the right way?
First, let's imagine a scenario.
Let's say that we have a traveler who returns after spending an entire summer in another country.
He raves about the place. Had a great time. He made some great memories. Even met some fun people.
But most of his stories are of hotels and tourist traps. Golf courses, beaches, and meeting other people just like himself, who were also there on vacation.
(Now just to be clear, we have nothing against that first traveler. Or a good hotel, or a beautiful beach... those trips can be great. Sometimes you just need to get away from the grind and unwind! How true that is…)
But when your goal is to immerse yourself in travel, you are taking part in a different kind of process.
But how do you actually do that?
What steps should you take? And what makes the difference between “going on vacation” and truly immersing yourself in another way of life?
TO IMMERSE, GET ACTIVE!
Immersion isn't about relaxation. It's active.
Specifically, it's an action. It's the action of surrounding yourself with something. Jumping in with both feet and letting it envelop you, and risking letting it change you.
Cultural immersion means that you're surrounding yourself with a particular culture.
How do you go about taking these actions to begin with?
Maybe you already have a particular foreign country that intrigues you. A language you love, a culture that you find fascinating. You want to immerse yourself and soak up all this corner of the globe has to offer… but how do you know when you're doing it right?
You Gotta Connect with the Culture
The novelist E. M. Forster famously gave this advice to other writers: “only connect!”
He meant that a novel is only doing its job if it “connects with the reader”. Because if a novel can't do that, it isn't much good.
It's good advice for writers but every bit as good for travelers. If you're looking for a chance to immerse yourself in a new country's way of life, let this be your motto.
“Only connect!” and see where that takes you.
So what does this look like?
Take an active step and get involved! Are you traveling to Argentina? Maybe take a class in Argentine Tango.
Or maybe cooking is more your thing?
Learn to prepare sushi in Japan, or take a French cuisine course in Paris.
You can also get your check out Tours By Locals. This company will help you immerse right as soon as you arrive at a new spot. Get the full scoop on a place from the people who actually spend the most time there.
Whatever you do, be more than a passive observer… if you want to connect, you've got to get involved.
Connect With the Individuals of that Culture
Every culture is made up of individual people. We all know that, but sometimes it's easy to forget.
It's super easy to think about other countries being made up of people who are all alike. (After all, people from other places can sometimes seem very different from us. They speak a different language, wear different clothes, and celebrate different holidays…)
But when we stop treating people from other cultures as a monolithic entity, and instead connect with them as individuals, we quickly remember the obvious truth. The simplistic answers aren't always a good indicator of reality.
Go to another place, and you may find that some inhabitants are very critical of their own governments, while others aren't. Some may not participate in local customs they don't enjoy. When we immerse ourselves in a culture we start to experience the richness that comes from it. Culture is not a label, but a product of millions of individual people living in a shared space.
So while you're busy getting involved with the culture, also connect with people as individuals! Your experience will become even more enlightening as you do this.
Connect With a New Part of Yourself
Lastly (and this is a part that people sometimes forget) you also immerse yourself by opening yourself up. You open yourself to new ideas. And you also open yourself to being interesting to others, by sharing some of your own insights and experience as you travel.
If you don't share from yourself, then the experience of the culture will mainly one-directional. It's primarily a consumer relationship. But if you are offering your authentic self to the culture you're visiting, then you have a two-way exchange.
Not every country welcomes complete freedom of speech. And in some places saying certain things or sharing certain customs can be against the law. If you are heading to such a place, make sure you know the rules beforehand so that you don't get yourself or your hosts into trouble.
Quick tip: just keep in mind that in some places, being too "authentic" can get you into trouble.
But as much as you can, try to share from your own experience. Make it a trip your hosts will remember fondly, too.
This is the key that makes it cultural immersion: it's the difference between consuming culture and participating in it.
Why Does It Matter?
When you treat travel in this way, you also participate in the process of making the world a more loving and understanding place.
Immersion Helps Promote Trade of Goods and Ideas
Throughout history, the exchange of goods has brought the opportunity of sharing new ideas as well. In order to make this happen, it requires for at least some people to get to know another culture exceptionally well.
Immersion Helps Facilitate Peace and Understanding
When we see why people make the choices they make, we can avoid serious conflicts when things get out of hand. And that's good for everyone involved.
Immersion Keeps Things Interesting
Variety is the spice of life! How lucky are we, to be living in a time where traveling to the other side of the globe is possible? It would be a shame not to take advantage of this gift.
What Are You Doing for Me? (How Immersion Will Help You)
Immersion may be good for the world, but it also has many benefits for the person brave enough to undertake it.
Let's say you are known for a particular skill or interest at home, practicing this in another culture will add to your credibility. It tells people that your own experiences and skills transcend the boundaries of your immediate environment.
It will boost your confidence, and make your past experiences more interesting and well-rounded.
People will love to hear stories of your adventures, or about learning new skills in other countries.
It will give you a broader view of the world and see how we're connected.
Perhaps you'll run into someone who barely speaks your language, but you grew up loving the same classic movie. The world is incredibly big and small, all at the same time.
It will give you a more informed view of your own home - both an appreciation and the ability to see its flaws.
You'll look at things differently when you come home after an immersion. This might not happen as a result of a vacation. But if you really got away from home and out of your routine, then you'll start to see many of the things you took for granted (the good and the bad) in a new light.
What If I Don't?
Then you're missing out, bigtime.
If you're planning on spending any significant time visiting, studying, or living in a foreign country, your appreciation is going to be severely limited if you only keep to yourself and don't get involved.
Not Immersing Will Help Make You See Your Own Problems as All-Consuming
It's easy to get bogged down in the troubles of life. But when we see that everyone is involved in their own personal struggles, it makes us feel less isolated. It may not solve our immediate problems, but it does remind us that we're not alone.
Not Immersing Will Help Make the Foreign Seem Frightening
We are naturally more anxious about things we don't understand. The more we know about something, the less likely it is that we will harbor unfounded worries.
Not Immersing Will Make You Miss Out On Having a Good Adventure (and the Stories That Come with It!)
Great travel stories are usually about things that happen unexpectedly. If you spend all your time in a bubble, you may be safe from surprise. But wouldn't that be a shame?
So you gotta get out of your comfort zone, at least a little. Obviously, make sure you're not going to specific places that are very dangerous… you do want to be aware of what's safe for travelers and what isn't. But if traveling interests you as a way of connecting with people, then missing out on that dream could be a surprising regret.
In order to help you get started, we've broken it down into this quick guide. Here is where you'll learn:
• What steps to take before you go.
• What steps to take once you arrive, and how to connect with the locals.
• A few tips for those there for the extra long-term, whether studying or living abroad.
• What steps to take when it's time to find your way home.
• “Some Do's and Don'ts.”
• And lastly, a few of our favorite “travel hacks” to keep your expedition running smoothly!
So let's check it out, shall we?
WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOU GO
Learn The Laws Before You Go
Do your research ahead of time. Every country is different. You might be surprised at what's legal and what isn't… just make sure you're not surprised by local law enforcement when you're there!
Study Local Customs
Even if something isn't illegal, it still may be socially unacceptable. Table manners are a big deal, but they vary a lot. In many places, it's rude to eat with your left hand. In Morocco, India, and much of the Middle East, doing this will get you a disapproving reaction!
Learn Local Languages
Study the language before you leave. You may not have the time to achieve total fluency, but don't assume that everyone speaks English. A few key phrases will go a long way. Check out duolingo, anki, and italki.
Make a Plan...
Put together a list of things you'll want to see and do. See the famous sights on your list, but also think about what will really let you immerse yourself.
...But be Flexible.
If there's one rule about traveling, it's that the unexpected can occur. Be ready to alter your plans if the need arises (and it almost certainly will!)
Don't Stay In Hotels
Depending on your comfort level, you will get more out of staying at a local's home than at a hotel. Check out Airbnb or Couchsurfing apps to immerse yourself at a whole new level.
Meet the Locals
Another advantage of staying at a home address: you might find it's easier to make friends and meet locals when this is your starting point.
Try New Foods
Eating is a key part of every culture. It's necessary but it also expresses the region's unique personality. Don't assume you know a cuisine simply based on restaurants in your own country. Going to the source will introduce you to dishes you've never seen before!
To Immerse Completely, Travel Alone
This is another one that depends on your comfort level, but if you travel with a group, you'll typically spend a lot of time with that group and learn less as a result. Going solo is the best way to make sure that you immerse yourself.
“Let's Keep In Touch…”
(But really). If you're lucky enough to meet the right people, ask if you can send them a letter even once your trip is over. See if you can keep the connection going. If and when you go back, you'll have someone there who knows you, and a second trip can immerse you even more.
Studying Abroad: Get Involved!
If you're a student and you've been buried in your studies, make sure you take time to soak up the culture. Otherwise you'll head home having missed out!
Studying Abroad: Ditch the Side Trip
During your school year, you may have a break of a week or two. Sometimes students use this to go partying on a fun getaway. But if you want to immerse yourself as well, it can also be a great way to explore your host country in greater depth, without the burden of homework hanging over you.
Moving to Live: Study Up!
If you're moving to stay, pay lots of attention to how incomes and taxes work in your new country. This can be a big source of worry when starting life in a new place, so get ahead of the curve so you can plan ahead.
Moving to Live: Befriend the Locals!
If you're moving to stay, make friends with locals as soon as you can. Get into the swing of life there!
Moving to Live: But Also, Befriend Folks From Home
Although we've advised travelers to go solo or avoid relying on their comfort zone, a long-term or permanent move is a different process. Sometimes homesickness can get very strong, especially if you don't know anyone from your home. If you're there to stay, see if you can find other expats who will help smooth the transition.
Do's and Don'ts
You don't want to be that traveler. You know, the one that sends the locals running so they don't have to deal with you? Check out these quick tips to make sure your time abroad is hassle-free!
“TRAVEL DO'S & DON'TS”
Try to speak the local language
Plan everything down to every detail
Eat a variety of local foods
Leave your stuff unattended
Research the laws before you go
Insult your host country's customs or government
Visit the Tourist Office for Info
Brag about ways your home might be better off
Take lots of pictures
Don't take pictures of people without permissiont
Observe local manners and customs
Dress inappropriately or immodestly
Get travel insurance
Exchange money at the airport
Backpacks & Life Hacks
We do love our shortcuts. And why not? When you're on the go, a minor annoyance or inconvenience can turn into a major bump in the road.
What if you can't charge your phone for days, and it's how you've planned your trip? What if unexpected fees and charges drain your budget? Or if your card suddenly stops working because of a bank error?
Unfortunately, you never exactly know which curveball life will throw at you. But you can eliminate a few of them with our travel tips and life hacks chart.
Check out this quick advice to ensure smooth sailing as you traverse the globe…
“Life Hacks for Tourists & Travelers”
Download Your Location
Google Maps has a great feature that lets you download a map for a specific location and save it onto your phone. Type “OK Map” in the app search bar, and select what area you need. That way, if you lose your internet connection, you'll still be able to get around town.
Protect Your Cords
If you have a bunch of electronics (laptop, phone, tablet, etc) you may have a variety of electrical cords as well. Try putting some of them in an old eyeglasses case. This will prevent them from getting all tangled as a result of clothes and other items getting mixed up with them.
Bring a Binder Clip! (or 4)
Binder clips can be used on much more than a stack of papers. You can cover the head of a shaving razor so you don't cut yourself while rummaging around in your bag. You can wrap your headphones around it to prevent tangling. Or clip things together in a pinch!
Power Up with TV
If you wind up landing in a country without the appropriate wall charger, you may find your phone running low very quickly. If you remembered a USB charger, though, you can often plug it into the back of a TV and give your phone a bit of extra life.
Book on the Weekend
Although airline prices fluctuate based on time of year and where you're going, it's almost always best to book your tickets on Saturday or Sunday. The best departure days are in the middle of the week, and Monday is the best day to return.
Call Your Bank!
Let them know when and where you plan on traveling. This is especially important if you're heading overseas. If your bank sees that your credit or debit card is being charged in a foreign country, it may think it's fraud (and freeze your card, hampering your ability to access funds.)
Don't Just Sit There!
Whatever you do, don't miss out. Maybe you don't feel totally ready to take the plunge, but it's never possible to be 100% prepared for everything. At some point, just do it and enjoy the ride.
Don't try to control everything when you travel. Don't spend all your time at hotels and tourist traps… embrace the unknown.
But go. Even if it scares you. There may be the opportunity now, but don't assume it will always be there.
In the words of the wise Ferris Bueller… “life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Don't let that be you. Get some sturdy shoes, put on your travel hat, and see what's out there.
The Three Secrets
So you're ready to dig deep and find out all there is to know about your dream destination. Just remember our Three Keys:
1. Jump in with Both Feet
Engage with the culture enthusiastically and respectfully.
2. Make Meaningful Personal Connections
Make connections with individuals and form friendships.
3. Share From Your Own Experience
For a truly transformative experience, give something back.
Annnnnd... We're Off!
So there you have it!
You are ready to travel like a pro, and really immerse yourself in another culture. And your life won't ever be the same!
Have fun out there… and don't forget to take a picture every now and then. You'll want to remember and savor all the good times you had for years to come.