When you travel to an unfamiliar place, you will likely face barriers to an authentic experience unless you choose a tour operator well-versed in cultural immersion.
You’re unfamiliar with the basics, like how to get around, how to speak the language, which restaurants serve the real deal, and which serve a touristy rendition of local food. So you hop on a bus or walking tour, and hope that the person in charge will give you an authentic interpretation of things. But when you’re an outsider, it can be very difficult to understand the bigger picture.
What are the people of this unfamiliar place passionate about? What are their lives really like?
Cultural immersion is the act of surrounding yourself with the culture of a place. It might mean living with family and helping out on their farm, or simply sharing a meal with a local.
Cultural immersion is a unique experience that can open doors to a deeper understanding of an unfamiliar place. You’re never going to know a place as intimately as the people who live there, but through cultural immersion experiences, you can begin to understand it all a little better.
Travelers are increasingly seeking these authentic, immersive experiences in new places. It might seem like calling an experience “immersive” or “authentic” is just another way to sell tourists on an activity. But there are benefits to cultural immersion that go far beyond the tourism dollars.
Trips through Discover Corps provide culturally immersive experiences because we see the benefits for both travelers and the locals they interact with.
Sharing a culture is a way of preserving it.
Many of the places where we base our volunteer vacations are struggling to preserve indigenous cultures in the face of modern technology and globalization. By creating immersive experiences for travelers, locals have an opportunity to celebrate their culture while educating visitors.
Think about something from your own culture that you really love. Perhaps it’s a certain holiday, or a special dish. Have you ever shared that with someone who was unfamiliar with it? Did you feel even more enthusiastic about that piece of culture as you shared it? This enhances the experience for both parties.
The more we share our cultures with one another, the more we understand the significance they place in own lives. So while travelers are benefiting by learning something new, the locals are also working to preserve these customs, crafts, and traditions.
By celebrating cultural traditions that are important to locals and indigenous cultures, and educating more people about those traditions, these cultures are more likely to be shared with future generations.
Travelers can share meaningful connections with locals.
When travelers and locals have the opportunity to interact over something they’re passionate about, meaningful connections ensue. People are passionate about their cultures, and travelers are passionate to learn about new ones. It’s the perfect combination for a meaningful connection.
Typically it can be difficult to meet and interact with people in an unfamiliar place, especially with a language barrier. But witnessing the passion with which a Bolivian woman weaves a traditional tapestry, or watching a restaurant owner in Colombia prepare a dish passed down through his family? Those are the kinds of experiences that break through language barriers. Through cultural immersion, we can connect with each other through genuine emotions and shared experiences.
Volunteering while traveling is another way to connect over shared experiences and genuine emotions. By helping to clean up a beach in Bali, or working with a classroom of children in Guatemala, you’re not only helping a special cause, you’re also glimpsing a part of their culture that may not have been accessible otherwise.
In Xela, Guatemala, Discover Corps has dedicated years to improving the infrastructure of a local school. This extended project has allowed volunteers to spend time with the local community and really get to know them. The cultural exchange that has occurred around this project has been wonderful for both volunteers, school children, and the local community, who are all working together to help preserve the local Mayan culture.
The cultural immersion that occurs through volunteering is the perfect environment for special bonds that transcend our differences and make us realize how similar we all truly are.
You can learn about new art forms, foods, and more.
Learning to craft traditional Indian dishes by hand is a favorite activity in our Heart of the Himalayas tour to India.
India can be an overwhelming place, with so many people, so much food, and so many beautiful places to explore. A traveler who has just touched down might not know where to start. But our tour takes the guess work out, providing culturally immersive experiences such as cooking and making handicrafts from local materials.
Travelers can consume these types of culture, simply by eating and purchasing local goods. But to truly understand the significance of the cooking, art, and crafts that are unique to a place, you have to get your hands dirty. You must taste and smell the ingredients that come together to make that delectable dish, and witness the artistic process from raw material to completed projects.
Cultural immersion will give you skills that you can take back home and share with others. If you love to cook, then what better way to experience a culture than by immersing yourself in the food scene and learning the skills and ingredients that are unique to that culture?
This kind of cultural education and immersion can give us something really special to take with us, while allowing us to celebrate the culture of the places we visit.
We gain so much by immersing ourselves in new cultures. We become more understanding of different people, better connected to the lives they live, and we learn valuable skills that we can take back home with us.
But it’s important to remember that cultural immersion isn’t just about what we can take. It’s about what we’re giving back as travelers, too.
Cultural immersion is a great way to celebrate the people and traditions that make every place special and unique. It’s about connecting the dots between traveler and local, and the exchange of ideas and experiences. It’s about making travel better for everyone. –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.