Cultural immersion is the best part about traveling. Leaving behind the comforts of home and really experiencing a new place will pay you back tenfold.
But cultural immersion travel requires the traveler to get acquainted with the food, the people, the religion, the customs and the language.
Only until those key areas are addressed can the traveler inevitably have a deeper understanding but ultimately an appreciation for the country itself.
Here are a few tips on how to practice cultural immersion travel
1. Get out of the city and into the village
When I travel I usually steer away from crowded tourist traps. This also includes hostels that seem to always be inhabited by Westerners who just want to party with other Westerners. I am all for partying, but I like to party like a local.
I also try to avoid places where there are Range Rovers or tour buses parked out front.
I find that exploring the back dirt roads in the village gives me a better sense of life in that country.
Instead of reading about it or having someone tell me about it I can get the raw, uncensored version of what life is really like in that country. (Check out Hayley’s post on living and volunteering in a Brazilian favela here!)
2. Be Your Own Guide
We publish guidebooks for women and are the first to say, get a guidebook. But to really be a traveler, you need to get a feel for your surroundings, and a guidebook is not going to tell you where your adventure will begin.
Instead, open your eyes and open yourself up to what is in front of you!
The best travel moments have happened very naturally; chatting with someone at a café, on the bus or on the street have led me to my own adventures. Be open and the adventure will find the traveler.
3. Talk to Everyone
Pick up a few basic phrases in the local language and start greeting people.
Just making a simple gesture sometimes sets the tone for the kind of trip you’re going to have. Talk to your hotel staff, the bodega man, the locals on the street. They can also tell you what is happening in town whether there is a film, a town meeting or a common place where locals like to hang out.
(Here are some tips for breaking the language barrier!)
4. Check Out the Markets
The local markets are usually the heart of any community.
Even if you are not fluent in the local language anyone can speak through food. It doesn’t get any better than street food fresh from the market and it is usually kinder on the travelers’ budget.
I always find interesting people at the market and the shopping is pretty amazing as well. The main reason I love markets so much is that they may be filled with Mamas who are most likely going take you home and feed you!
5. Attend Church
This probably is not what most people want to do or think about doing when traveling, but religion plays a major role in many communities worldwide.
Weekends are pretty quiet in the village so church is something to do, as well as experience.
Community members such as the mayor and village leaders are usually in attendance and they are in the position to officially welcome you to the community. They can be key players in not only introducing you to the community but will more than likely invite you to tag along with them to some of their own events.
6. Utilize the Expat Network
These days, there are tons of ways to practice cultural immersion — by utilizing the networks of those who have come before you. Check out Facebook searching “Expat” and the name of the country you’re in, and start interacting with the community. Ask if there are any other women around who would want to meet up.
Check out if Peace Corps Volunteers or other expats are in the country you are visiting.
Many expats write blogs now and post their contact information for travelers who are passing through. They can recommend where to go, eat and sleep throughout the country.
Even though Peace Corps Volunteers are Westerners, they are also honorary villagers. They are posted in remote villages where they will know the local language and culture.
They are trusted among their communities so they bring a unique insight to the culture and can help to further enrich your immersion travel experiences.
I am by no means saying that cultural immersion is an easy process. It takes an immense amount of courage and, in my experience, a lot of luck from being in the right place at the right time.
I am fairly certain that in the two years I was in Africa I must have looked like a complete idiot 90% of the time but that is what being a traveler is all about. The rewards of what you get out of immersion travel outweigh looking foolish any day.
Once you take the plunge into immersion travel, you will see that there is no other way to travel.