“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.” – Alan Keightley
Nothing is more true in a foreign land than the fact that you are a foreigner and everything is foreign to you. The food, the people, the culture, the language, the customs…they are all new, different and either terrifying or exciting depending on your point of view. The first time you experience this moment it will probably be sheer terror at finally stepping off the boat and feeling the water splash against your skin, but after you learn to swim that terror transforms into elation and excitement at broadening your horizons and expanding your life lessons.
The average tourist, and even many expats, lives a bubbled existence. They travel by the guidebooks, written by people sent in on location to do a short little two week or three week expose of a city. They go to the restaurants recommended on the Internet, via Lonely Planet or the travel wiki. They visit the monuments and parks recommended by National Geographic and they know of the basic transportation options and markets as listed on countless blogs and forums by short-term guests who are looking for the most familiar, the trusted name-brands they remember from home and the advice of the big names in the travel industry. And while that’s certainly sufficient to give you a passable experience in a destination, you are only scratching the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is truly available to you.
You are not a tourist; you are not an expat. You are a location independent digital nomad. You are an explorer, an adventurer, a wanderer. An international vagabond. Your way is off the beaten path, and the only way to get there is to immerse yourself in the culture.
Cultural immersion has long been touted as one of the most efficient ways of learning a language, although for language purposes it is known as language immersion. Because language is a social instrument the emotions and the motivations of the people you are living with are more readily evident because you are exposed on a deeper level than if you only learned the language from a textbook, and that transfers over onto the cultural level as well. As you immerse yourself in the environment you either sink or swim; there is no safety net of English-speaking expat communities and English-speaking restaurants and English-speaking police and English-speaking recommended places according to your chosen Internet website.
However, cultural immersion takes strength of character because you are literally throwing yourself into the waters in a sink-or-swim scenario. My second apartment in Cancun was in an outer barrio with mostly pioneers who came here 40 years ago when the city was brand new, so it was older people in their 60s as well as their families living together and none of them spoke English. I was only a few months into the basics of the language but it was a great learning environment not only for my language skills but also because it taught me the basics of the culture here in Cancun. The values of the people, what they appreciate, how their minds work and how the community is set up. I was immersed not only in the language, but also in the culture. If I wanted my laundry done I had to learn how to communicate with the owner of the nearest laundry place, and once I had been in a few weeks in a row we began to talk and she recommended several other apartments to me, three good restaurants, two good parks and a local salsa class that was a fraction of the price compared to anything I would ever find in centro because the prices were for the locals. Immersion at its finest level.
It goes beyond just learning the language and the culture, though. Cultural immersion takes you beyond the guidebooks, beyond the Lonely Planet forums, beyond the travel wiki and the blogs written by tourists on two or three week vacations. It is only through cultural immersion that you learn about the local festivals, the local watering holes, the local parks, the local plazas, the local shopping centers, the local bands, theater, grocery stores, farmer’s markets and beyond. It is only through cultural immersion and living like a local that you can stop to ask a question from a couple of security guards watching the parking lot outside of a restaurant and end up having a 45 minute conversation about life, beer, people, politics and finally a recommendation for a great place to get dinner for the equivalent of 2 dollars just around the corner in a place that probably only sees a foreigner once every five years, but because you speak the local lingo and are able to connect with the locals they feel comfortable sharing the information with you. You are no longer a foreigner, nor are you an expat; you are a resident alien. You are immersed. You have learned to swim, and the water’s just fine.
Or you can choose to travel via the travel wiki and various Internet forums. You can certainly do that but you are only going to be experiencing a mere fraction of what’s really out there, because the information available through most travel sites and the wikis are things put up by short-term visitors, not by people living on the ground for years at a time. The only way to truly live like a local and experience the location independent digital nomad lifestyle is to dive in and immerse yourself and go beyond the weekend warrior vacation advise listed all over the Internet. Once you do, your life will be forever changed by the uniqueness of your chosen destination and you will have transitioned into living like a local and enjoying all the things the locals enjoy.