A Little Musing… On the Art of Cultural Immersion

Last updated on February 20, 2013

Moments and anecdotes from my travels flutter into my memory at the most random of moments. I’ve talked about this feeling in the past on A Little Adrift, in my post on “How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me,” the most seemingly odd smell or sound triggers the memory of a conversation had over dish of Thai curry, or a bag of pumpkin seeds shared in the bed a bumpy pickup truck, some without a common language, but with shared smiles. Memories bubble to the surface every day, and I think now, looking back,  it’s the small moments that I recall most often that would have surprised the Shannon of four years ago.

indian chai tea
An Indian man enjoys a chai tea on the street-side in Udaipur, India

Before I left to travel, I had grand plans for the major wonders of the world I would see, and the adventurous activities I would do. I would dive the Great Barrier Reef, see the Himalayas, teach English in a monastery, stand in awe of the Taj Mahal … I filled the list with things to do, things I am so grateful to have now already done and seen some of the awe-inspiring things in this world, but I had little concept at the time that the sites and activities were the backdrop to my travels. Living on the road for four and a half years meant four years of eating three meals a day, talking, reading, doing laundry, travel days, and thousands of hours of shared conversations.

If you had asked me in 2008 what the term “cultural immersion” meant, I would have likely honed in on the fact that I planned to travel through countries and would thus meet locals, ask questions, and learn more about each culture’s nuances and peculiarities. The reality of traveling comes down to much more than that, in many ways, my emphasis on doing things has now changed a bit. If you are open to learning you can’t escape cultural immersion, it’s in every facet of the culture and the way people interact with me, even in the most touristy of places.

Now, I travel to learn more, to observe, and experience the story of a new place, and many times this is easiest when I slip off the tourist trail, grab the local bus in the wrong direction and simply allow the travel experience to take over. But that’s only one aspect of it. It’s a bit of a romantic notion for me to say that my most enriching experiences happen in rural areas on buses in the middle of nowhere, because although I learn a lot during those parts of my travels, it’s often the times in cities that add context.

Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite little cities, and I wrote a post about why I love that little town, and as I thought about immersing, it called to mind my conversations over chai and the hilarity that ensued in the most touristy, backpackery part of Kathmandu.

Though I would deeply love to know every language on earth, I barely know three. English is not always widely spoken in the rural areas of the world—in fact not a single restaurant owner or shop in my tiny volunteer town in Nepal spoke English. Fantastic for immersion, not so fantastic for answering questions about what I was seeing around me each day. And so, it’s both the immersive and the “touristy” experiences—the interplay of the two—that form my most memorable moments in travel.

san pancho mexico
Snapshots from my last two weeks living in my tiny Mexican town.

I thought a lot about cultural immersion and traveling recently because I settled into a tiny expat town in Mexico this past week. And I surprised myself with the decision to stay here. I came to Mexico partly to polish off my Spanish—it’s been years in the making and I am ready to just dedicate the time and effort to feeling more fluent.

Not that I need too much Spanish here. The town is tiny—one main road that leads straight to the beach. And as I said, it’s full of expats. It’s so small in fact, that there is only one coffee shop in town. Yes, one. That was very nearly a deal-breaker, but it makes a kick-ass Americano and I was appeased on that front.

But for some reason I felt guilty when I first chose to stay here, I felt that I should “go more local” and set up shop in a more “Mexican” town. As if that would make me more of a traveler maybe? I am here though, and I want to stay. I have friends in this town, fellow travel bloggers Steve and Victoria from Bridges and Balloons, and an instant community of locals and expats alike because in a town this small the divide between the two is almost negligible. There is also a wonderful community center here, EntreAmigos, which runs classes for all the nearby children, creates art from the town’s recyclables, and is just outside my doorstep—I started volunteering there yesterday and will continue tutoring and doing after-school English lessons over the next several months.

palm trees and sky
Palm trees and blue skies on the quiet streets

Cultural immersion can mean so many things, and there are those who think you have to abandon the mainstream tourism path to experience travel, but there are moments and opportunities everywhere to dive into the culture. I’m still learning this. And some places, albeit, are easier than others, but I am happy here … and after just two weeks the shop owners give me a wider smile when I walk in the door—the hello of recognition, that beginning sign of belonging somewhere, even if it’s just for a few months.

More reports will be coming in the months to follow on food (expect many taco photos in your future … and mine), volunteering, life here, and—as always—I will continue to play catch-up with all the stories and memories over the past four years that haven’t yet made it onto this site. A friend from Florida asked me last month why I have never shared on my blog some of the anecdotes I tell over the dinner table when I am back home with friends, and his question struck me as true. Sometimes in search of a good travel story, I forget to share some of the random moments on the road, some of my personal journey. Working on that, and other things, and simply enjoying my new little Mexican town I am calling home for the next few months!

13 thoughts on “A Little Musing… On the Art of Cultural Immersion”

  1. I have been doing some thinking about this since I arrived in Thailand. I too enjoy getting immersed in the culture but in Bangkok the “mall culture” is very much a part of being there. I have eschewed things pop culture but I am starting to expand my thinking.

    • You do present a bit of a conundrum there that I understand — the prevalence of the huge malls as a central hub in Bangkok always seemed odd (though I was grateful for them on the super hot days!). Sometimes if you find a good coffee shop inside the mall you can people watch — that way you’re not joining in on the consumerism but still out there mixing. And, lots of little markets too though, my friend lived near Victory Market and I loved the bustle of life in that area when she showed me around. Hope your Bangkok travels go well (and include tasty food) :)

  2. This post struck a chord with me. Some of my best travel memories when I’ve meet locals because I had gotten completely lost. This are the moments I find that I cherish the most.

    • It’s so true, you can’t predict or plan what will resonate with you most. Sometimes it truly is the beautiful landscapes or natural wonders, but often it’s the unexpected and quiet conversations that make an impact.

    • He he he, he does doesn’t he — a shame that when I took that photo I was a much more shy traveler or I could have sidled up next to him for a chat! :)

  3. In my eyes, one of the best aspects of cultural immersion is internalizing a positive part of the culture to improve your own perspective, wherever you may go. I’ve especially found this to be true as I’ve lived in Turkey the past 8 months. The people are incredibly hospitable and warm, and I’ve noticed a significant change in my own personality as a result.

    • A really wonderful point Paul, and something I found true a lot in Thailand — because the culture has a hierarchy of respect (monks, teachers, elders, etc) it really allowed me to focus outside of myself and become more aware of respecting those around me on buses, at meals, and other times when there is a slight cultural divide. Thanks for sharing, I have yet to make it to Turkey but look forward to traveling there :)

  4. What’s the name of that little Mexican town? And where is it. I reminds me of Zipolite on the Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.


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