Sometimes you can come home from a trip abroad having enjoyed the sun, the food, and the sights, but with a guilty feeling that you still don’t know much about the country. It is true that there is frequently a language obstacle and often a fear of giving offense through inappropriate words or actions, but these should not stand in the way of you getting a true experience of the country you visit.
The first job is to decide if you really want to do the immersion thing. In principle, it seems right, but it may not be right for you. It will demand a lot of your attention and if you are traveling with a young family it may not be fair to divide yourself like that. It takes time and you may not have the resources of time and money available, even if you are prepared to take out a loan to finance it—read here for more about personal loans.
Once you have decided that your next trip will involve more immersion in the culture, you need to get ready. Don’t wait until you are in line for the immigration desk.
The quickest way into anyone’s culture is through their language. That’s a tall order, but at least you can learn the words for “please,” “thank you,” and numbers up to ten. The more you can learn, the better your experience will be.
Those back pages in your Lonely Planet are very useful for discovering some basic things about how things work (like how to order drinks in a bar) and what actions to avoid (like eating with your left hand in the Middle East).
It is not easy to make genuine friendships unless you have a lot of time available. Get into the habit of asking for help. At worst it wastes a few minutes, but at best it can open the way to conversation.
Gen up on the politics of a country, and find out if it is acceptable to discuss them. Know something about festivals or national sport obsessions. Above all, ask questions.
Sleep and Eat
Go as local as possible. Stay away from western style hotels and look for smaller family run businesses. Airbnb properties are often in less frequented parts of cities. By definition, they are more likely to be the sort of homes that local people will live in, and you will usually meet the owners in person.
Try local foods in local eateries. Eat what other people are eating. In some countries, street food can wreak havoc with the western stomach but, unless you are warned against it, you should definitely try it.
Open a Box of Treats
Taking the trouble to immerse yourself in a foreign country takes courage and hard work, but those who try it will nearly always find that they come home with a richer experience (and better stories) than those who play safe.