One of the most enjoyable things about traveling are those beautiful, casual connections engaging with locals. The easiest way to jump-in is to join a program, or create an experience for yourself, that gets you involved in the everyday lives of people. (Speaking of talking to everyday people, I lost my wallet in a Colombian taxi two days ago, and yesterday, the driver drove back to my house and hand-delivered it to me! Score one for local connections!)
1.) Thai MMA Camp
To "kick" this list off is signing up for an MMA (mixed martial arts) camp in Thailand. This is an upcoming immersive trip I've been personally looking forward to for a few years now. Not because I’m a violent, blood-thirsty, alpha bro looking to one up my alpha peers in the streets of hard knocks. No. I’m a lover not a fighter. However, there are appreciable goals yet, in the field of mixed martial arts. The fact that I get to go to Thailand, eat their food, train with some people who will inevitably be my close friends for a chunk out of the year, and then compete, is bloody awesome.
Basically, you travel to an MMA camp (or perhaps Muy Thai, up to you) in Thailand, get your MMA game on point, and then have the choice of fighting in an amateur tournament or not. I’m just too competitive a person, and too much a lover of traveling and immersion, to pass up an opportunity like this.
And trust me, the Thais are serious about their martial arts. Here’s an article that Time wrote about prison inmates in Thailand fighting for their freedom against foreigners. Super interesting. The whole concept sounds wild, but there are actually a bunch of places to pick from, and I can almost guarantee you’ll come away with some wonderful stories and good friends.
2.) Motorcycle/Road Trip
My 20 year old baby, Delilah
It may be costly, and sometimes dangerous, but a legendary road-trip is just that-- stuff of legends. One time in Vietnam, I vividly remember, whizzing around this blind corner without a care in the world, exploring my new bike’s limits, and coming face to face with about 150 bulls galloping towards me--taking up the entire street. I slightly skid to a stop and was, stunned with fear. I had no idea what to think as I stared at the first one’s horns approaching me. Life was like “hey, here’s a huge wave of animals for you Daniel! Whattup now?”
So to get back to your potential story: the fact of the matter is there’s just too much time on the road, in far-off places, not to have some epic story to pick-up. To a truly exciting degree, road trips, in whichever vehicle you decide, are an amazing way to see a country up close and personal. Who knows, maybe you’ll be engulfed by some animals?
3.) Eating Food... Everywhere
The adventurous and hungry Vicky, from Avocadopesto, has been traveling the world whilst soaking up the various international culinary delights. She’s essentially eating/cooking her way through multiple continents! Vicky's been traveling for about 4 years now-- enrolling in culinary schools and getting down to business in whichever kitchen she can get her hands on. I love how she combines her love of food with traveling so perfectly. It’s glorious how almost any given hobby can be perfectly married with immersive traveling if you let it! You just have to want both!
Much like Vicky, Jodi, from Legal Nomads, also quit her job to “eat her way around the world.” On top of this, Jodi suffers from Celiac disease. Instead of the disease becoming an overwhelming travel burden, she’s, instead, chosen to compile resources for other gluten-free travelers (hell yeah!).
How fulfilling will it be at the end of her traveling days (if that ever comes?) when she’s left with a whole bunch of exotic, delicious international dishes she can cook for her loved ones! I’m imagining her grandkids now, asking grandma Jodi about the story that comes along with the spicy baked feta she’s cooking for them. And she might start, just like her recipe does... “When I flew from Vietnam to Athens, I found myself deep in the throes of culture shock...”
4.) Working Abroad
I worked as a mechanic and marketing guy for a motorcycle shop for about 6 months in Hanoi, Vietnam. Working abroad is the ideal way, in my opinion, to completely immerse yourself in a foreign culture. I mean, this has got to be something no one could have ever possibly imagined for life. Picture a skinny, pasty, American twenty something with a Philosophy degree, with no prior mechanical experience, approaching a Vietnamese motorcycle garage looking for work. It’s incredible that they even let me begin to work with them.
That being said, that’s exactly why it was so valuable to me. Nowhere else in the world could I have gotten this experience. Even larger than this though, was I wound up getting pretty close with the owner of the shop. I care, very much, about Phung, and am already planning to go back to see him and his family, and make sure his ridiculously sharp daughter is demolishing her university work. Stories like these are why working abroad may be the best immersion travel option for you. If you get the opportunity to work abroad (or can create it) in a culture you’d like to explore, I would take it, no questions asked.
5.) Marathons Abroad
Travel guru Chris Guillabeau is a beast. Repping “non-conformity” and traveling/living outside the norms of cultural standards, he’s been to every.single.country. in the last ten years. Yes, every one. Impressive, to say the least. During his adventurous travel lifestyle, he writes books/blogs, runs marathons, as well as, companies, and gives talks on how others can do the same--living life outside of the expectations of others.
One of the many things that makes Chris so unique is his pension for running marathons in unique places around the globe. In one such running feet (excuse the subtle pun, comment below if you caught it!), he ran a full-fledged marathon atop a cruise-ship in Alaska! The article title he used to write about this marathon was called How To Run 26.2 Miles on the Open Sea. Chris utterly smashes the notions of reinvention and immersion. Don’t be afraid to do something completely off-the-wall if you want to. It’s quite apparent that the expectations of others has never stopped him, and may never stop him, for years to come. What about you?
6.) Cooking Classes
Photo courtesy of Tiny Urban Kitchen.
Eating, and consequently cooking, is a part of everyday life for the human-race. No “buts” about it. When someone gets off a hard day’s work, whether it be in the US, or in India, having a delicious home-cooked meal will forever be a universal blessing among humans. Take advantage of this! I strongly recommend, if you’re even the tiniest bit kitchen savvy, to take some classes, or just hang around a kitchen, in a completely different part of the world. Especially If you’ve always loved Pad Thai, for example. Take a trip to Thailand to finally indulge in your Pad Thai dreams! (You can get street Pad-Thai with multi-noodle, all ingredient, dishes for about a dollar, it’s delicious and super cheap).
Another thing to think about is, there’s definitely a significant immersion difference between having touristy, perhaps shallow, formal cooking classes and chopping veggies, side by side, with your host mom in preparation for making the the family’s “secret recipe goulash.” Some may be more comfortable in a classroom setting, but, I would imagine amazing kitchen experiences can be find in a loving homestay setting, as well. I’d shoot for the latter.
7.) English Writing/Journalism
Much like teaching English, the art of English writing is in demand around the world. It’s a skill you might not attribute much value to, because you may be raised with it, but it’s a valuable skill nonetheless. Nothing you should write-off if you want to go abroad. Put it this way: there are opportunities to take advantage of, on every continent, solely due to your understanding of this very sentence. Trippy. If you think you may have the inclination to write, I would most definitely look into where in the world you can peddle your craft.
For example, be a journalist for a newspaper overseas. You may be paid “peanuts” to write for a local newspaper in Laos, for example, but, it would enable you to live on their local economy just fine. Eric Thiel has a write-up on How to Work As A Journalist at an English Language Newspaper Overseas. Of course, feel free to apply his principles to whatever country you may fancy. However, it should go without saying--do some research before you buy that one-way ticket to Ghana to make sure something’s there. The chances are good that someone will need your writing expertise, but of course, nothing in life is guaranteed.
8.) Paris Writing Workshop
The Paris Writing Workshop at the Paris American Academy is another strong example of following your passion into a fantastic travel experience abroad. If you’re interested in getting your pen game on point (in English, not french), and would love to explore Paris, this may be an ideal opportunity for you.
Professional writers are invited for readings and lectures, classes are rigorous and worthwhile and all types of writing are present--from poetry to travel writing to performance and presentation. If you’d like a sneak-peek into what to expect, check out Becoming Madame’s blog post on her closing day there. It includes some of her thoughts on the experience as a whole and is pretty insightful.
9.) Bike and Build
Bike and Build is an American program where you… bike and build! That being said, the biking is across the entire US (8 routes to choose from! 3000+ mile each! crazy!) and the building is for the numerous Americans without access to affordable housing. Basically, you, and a trusty crew of other helpful individuals, mount some road-bikes, and periodically stop and build houses on your way across the entirety of the US. Badass trip, badass purpose. If you’re interested but worried about either of the two B’s--don’t fret. The average rider applying has never ridden over 15 miles and the build partners who oversee the houses frequently come in contact with lesser experienced workers. The founder of Landmass, one Alfred Megally, has already bested this journey and recommends it to anyone interested.
10.) Learn How to Be a Mariachi in Mexico: Grants and Scholarship Opportunities
The Fulbright scholarship is a program designed to aid in international educational exchanges, and is awarded through a super competitive, merit-based application process. It’s serious business. This being said, just because the Fulbright is granted to future distinguished professors, governors, famous writers, and other super successful people, doesn’t mean you can’t follow your own true calling. Enter Katie Day Good, Fulbright scholar, ethnomusicologist and mariachi queen. Yes, you heard that correct. She applied for a scholarship through MTVu and was successfully granted the means to learn how to play the guitar in a Mexican mariachi band. Combining her passion to learn another culture’s musical heritage, with immersive traveling, sounds like a future dream of my own.
Volunteering programs are the epitome of starting from nothing and ending up experiencing something indescribable. Research wisely! This will enable you to have a better chance to immerse in the wonderful community of your choice. The possibilities are, literally, everything you can google. (And come on, if you’re like me, you’ve googled the dumbest stuff and got perfect results.) To get your internet search started though, this program directory site Go Abroad has a whole gaggle of programs.
Perhaps more importantly, check out this well written analogy about the fear of jumping into the unknown: “Grab a blank piece of paper and place your pen somewhere in the middle. The ink mark left behind could easily represent you, right now, about to embark on a volunteer abroad experience. Choosing the right experience is a lot like drawing on a fresh piece of paper: the world is massive, the future is a clean slate, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the different directions. But even the best-adapted traveler was once a beginner, an individual dot in a great big space, asking the same questions you have right now.” So, just jump in! Everyone had to decide to take their first immersion plunge at one point or another--plunge it up! (Can I say that?)
12.) Sailing Around the World
If you’re brave enough to embark on a journey around the world (and have the capitol or negotiating skills to get a boat and all the supplies necessary), long sailing journeys seem one part solitary, one part heaps of adventure, one part stress, and one part extraordinarily unforgettable. If you don’t believe me, check out this Aussie couple and their boat, La Vagabonde. They have super cool video series that I got lost in for a little, as well.
The couple embodies calmth and being down to earth, and I would imagine you would need a vast reserve of patience and caring for others to replicate their journey. I just love the happiness they exude. Much like a motorcycle/car road trip, you’re going to be completely free to go at your own pace and experience the sea, port cities, and dolphins, like you never have before. I’m personally considering an epic, Christopher Colombus-esque, sailing trip in the next few years or so.
13.) Bali, Yoga Retreat
The benefits of yoga are astounding; lowered cortisol levels, a decent workout, and an overall tranquility throughout your everyday life. Pair this with an immersive trip to Bali, one of the most serene settings in the world, and you have a yoga retreat and life altering experience on your hands.
Check out this paragraph on a what a yoga immersion program in Bali says: “A visit to Bali achieves for the soul what an exhalation does for the body.” How do you not want that? Between the swaying palm trees, warm locals, and gamelans (oh, you don’t know how tantalizing and mysterious gamelan music can be?) you may not want to ever leave.
14.) Language Immersion Programs-- Japan!
Language immersion is the tried and true way of immediately and effectively getting involved in the everyday lives of locals abroad. Don’t overlook a substantial immersion opportunity. I can’t think of a culture in the world that wouldn’t partially, immediately like you for at least trying to speak and learn the native tongue. From my own personal experience, Asia as a whole, opens their wonderful, giant Asian arms to foreigners trying to get in with the locals through language. I’ve never truly had a bad experience going into a city, trying to learn a language, and being shut down. It just doesn’t happen.
There’s a particular Japanese language program that’s piqued my interest in particular. You get to be in the heart of Tokyo, take solid classes, immerse yourself in Japanese daily life, and have a fun-soaked time in the process. I’m sure i’ll surface, months and months later, with a much altered appreciation for sushi and and plenty of meaningful connections with locals.
15.) Herbalism in Costa Rica
Some of these Herbalism programs, in the ridiculously picturesque Costa Rica, just look too good to not look into. For example, in one such program from Casa Ashe, they write about “spending your days where the jungle meets the sea, immersing yourself in tropical rhythms, exploring plants and learning from indigenous and traditional Costa Rican plant people.” Sounds staggeringly splendid. The brief promo video above gives insight into the laid-back, nature-filled, immersive standards of the program. If you’re interested in Herbalism and immersive traveling, this is a no-brainer.
16.) Capoeira Dance in Brasil
After some sweaty intro classes, Gareth Leonard gained a newfound respect for Brazil’s own dance/fight art form, Capoeira. Reading up on some of Gareth’s experiences, I’ve personally gained a respect for Gareth, as well. For these Capoeira classes, he made his way to Salvador, Brazil, stepped out of his physical comfort zone, and partook in some rigorous dance classes.
Capoeira, or the “Dance of War,” was developed as a way to fight amongst slaves whilst being disguised as a dance. You learn something everyday. If you’re interested in learning about a specific type of dance, I strongly recommend looking into local schools in the heart of the dances respective home-countries. For example, our own Alfred Megally went to Argentina for 6 months to learn tango. It’s a terrifically effective way to meet new people and immerse yourself into settings you otherwise would have only day dreamed of.
17.) SEEDS Photography Camps in Iceland
Although SEEDS has a variety of different volunteer projects in Iceland, the SEEDS Photography camp is a stand-out opportunity to hone your photography skills. It’s essentially a “photo marathon,” in the beautiful Icelandic capital, which aims to “draw the attention to the local population through pictures and photos made during the camp.” If you’re not immediately drawn to this program, listen to the words from the Italian Emanuele, tell you about it.
“About this experience in Iceland, there should be a lot of stories to tell, adventures lived, places visited, people met… there should be so many stories… It’s very hard now, to find one to speak about or a deep experience to share. I think this is a positive thing because when you are not able to find one thing to say it means that you’ve been completely absorbed.” Among Emanuele are many others also featured on the page about the SEEDS programs you should check out.
18.) Trekking in Mali
A trek through Dogon country can take two to ten days and winds itself through numerous cliff-side villages of one of the most secluded communities in the world. Escaping from forced Muslim conversion in the middle ages, the Dogon have had ample time to develop a unique and colorful culture. Known for their animist faith, mask and stilt wearing traditions, and surreal mud architecture, the Dogon trek is on many top ten "bucket-list" treks and for good reason. Nowhere else on earth can you expect to see the varying types of tradition than in Dogon country, Mali.
Reading up on trek information (there's almost no way getting around using a guide) you should take your time in hiring a seasoned guide. Many locals, some with experience and some without, will offer their trek services in hopes of tourist money. This blogger has it figured it out and is sharing his guide on "How to plan a Dogon trek" with others. Don't let the screening process for talented guides scare you from trekking through a culture, so far removed from your own, you might swear you were partaking in a hike through a vibrant fantasy setting from a movie.
19.) Woofing/Australian Fruit-picking
If you haven’t heard about woofing before, here’s the skinny-- a host family takes you in, gives you food and housing, and in return, you do various farm-related activities. After about two weeks or so on average, you move on to your next destination. The informality and kindness that innately resides in woofing is an experience unto itself. It’s entirely possible to do this anywhere you can imagine. An essential place to get started is the WWOOF site. There are thousands and thousands of farms that need work.
There’s also the possibility of fruit picking in various countries. Specifically, Australia has a crap-ton of people funding their travels through fruit picking. It’s ridiculously easy to get a year long visa (up to two years with picking) and it basically pays for your accommodation from the months of December to May. If you’re down for farm work to support your traveling, woofing and fruit picking are pretty ideal.
20.) The Trans-Siberian Highway
It’s the longest railway in the world, spans two continents, 8 time zones, and has the possibility to get you from London to Beijing in about 15 days. This is, none other, than the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. Nothing on-land can replicate these results as it stands alone as a testament to unbreakable human will and tenacious engineering. If that’s not impressive, you’re probably Amelia Earhart (or some other ridiculous explorer).
Think about it this way: there’s basically only one way to see the entire span of Russia; and that’s peering out of a train-window. Any other way through Siberia, head-on, may be pretty dangerous, if not suicidal. This colossal train ride is pretty much the only safe, land route through. If you’re looking for a solid intro-article to the Thomas the Train on steroids, I’d recommend checking out Katie Aune’s write-up of it. She took a year off to travel and volunteer through the former Soviet Union.
21.) English Teaching
And last, but definitely not least, is English teaching. If you were hoping that one of the previously listed immersive travel ways would touch on the country you’ve always wanted to go to, don’t worry! Chances are very high that you have the ability to teach English, live decently, and fully immerse yourself in your dream community/country. Of course, certain schools may require certificates, but some of them you can get online in only about 100 hours. If you’re set on a country, English teaching can get you there--there’s always a way.
Dave’s ESL cafe has a whole bunch of resources to get started. Even if you don’t think you’d make out to be a good teacher (maybe you don’t have a lot of experience with kids), you may be surprised. It was only a limited amount of time before I went from complete teaching newbie, to 28 dollar an hour jobs teaching UN kids my own personal curriculum.
There’s just too many fascinating, wondrous, things to do in the world. I hope this list overwhelmed you with the potential for epic travel happiness in the future like it did me. Go get buried in a culture somewhere! Even if you fail, failing is often times the catalyst for other, more positive, experiences. Buy that one-way ticket to Neverland!