What is Immersive Travel?

A friend quizzed me recently on the differences between immersive travel and standard-issue travel. I said that immersive travel allows you to see a place for the values that shape its culture, while simply visiting a place shows you only the well-manicured, postcard version of it.  That makes sense though. If you are only travelling to a place for a short amount of time, seeing the highlights will be the best use of your time.  But if you have the time, or the chance to work or study abroad I highly recommend the experience. In doing so, you will begin to peel back the layers of a culture and learn to live real life in a foreign place which is an adventure in and of itself.
making local food in Mali
Making local food in Mali

Living Abroad is Living Real Life


One of the biggest misconceptions about immersive travel is that it is an extended vacation. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Immersive travel, whether it’s a study abroad or work abroad experience becomes real life. 

If you move to France for work or school, your days are not an endless Carrie-goes-to-Paris-in-Sex-and-the-City movie reel. Rather, they include such glamorous activities as  figuring out how to recycle without hearing from 5 different neighbours that you did it wrong, or trying to decipher the grade you received on your paper in the Lycée‘s strange marking system where everything is out of 20, and 10 out of 20 is an average grade, 12 is good, 14 is great, and almost no one ever gets a higher than a 16 out of 20 grade.

In Mali it means doing everything that you would normally do in a day, but without a sink. Worse, it can entail figuring out how to get rid of your monthly waste in the absence of well-functioning garbage removal like we get in the global North. Seriously, my neighbours would rifle through my garbage there so I was hesitant to broadcast my time of the month to the whole street.

streets of Bamako
Busy Bamako life

Since my first immersive travel experience more than a decade ago, I’ve maintained that one of the easiest ways to get a feel for the local culture is to do something mundane while you’re there, like renewing a license or paying a bill. In France for example, their bureaucracy rivals Canada’s in its seemingly endless and not always sensible layers. Whereas in Mali, if you need anything, you just have to know a guy. You’ll have a go-to taxi driver, a security guard, a doctor, and even a bureaucrat who is more than happy to expedite things for you for a fee of course. 

Indeed, moving abroad for work or school is simply living real life in a strange place and that can present daily challenges for even the most mundane things. Despite these challenges,  I still believe that it is one of the most eye-opening, character-building, educational, and rewarding experiences that you can have.

rock climbing in Mali
Travel makes you stronger in more ways than one!

Travel Doesn’t Automatically Take all Your Worries Away

This in depth article in Medium explains how a change of scenery can increase happiness and a sense of wonder for a spell in the same way the same way buying a new car might. But soon enough, your new car just becomes your car. You stop caring about whether or not it’s clean all the time, the compliments stop rolling in, and you drive your car to and from work without thinking about it just like you did with your old car. They call this the “Box of Daily Experience”.

Similarly, when living abroad your new home simply becomes your home. You can just as easily slip into auto-pilot while on a work-away as you can while going through the daily drudgery in your home country. This tendency to normalize is so hard-wired into our brains that even a dramatic change of scenery will eventually become mundane. The pull to complacency is so strong that Alistair Humphreys has made a name for himself by encouraging people to break up their daily monotony with “micro-adventures” as a way to re-inject wonder in and amusement into their lives, wherever they may call home.

Celebrating Cross-Country Skiing at the Great Divide
Trying out a new trail can be a fun micro-adventure!
Does this mean that shouldn’t try moving to a new country? Not at all, there is a special kind of joy to be found in discovering your new hometown favourites. The coffee shop that you stumbled into with wide-eyed wonderment when you first touched down becomes a local haunt that you revisit with comforting familiarity. The people who stared at you without saying anything when you first walked down the street you lived in Bamako become your neighbours who wave hello. It’s a tremendously enriching experience to learn to love a new place and make it feel like home.
Nevertheless, in doing so, you are assigning meaning to your daily experiences which is what Alistair Humphrey recommends as a way to find more excitement in your life, regardless of where you are. As for the Medium article, it recommends practicing deep gratitude (not the phoney, showy, social media “#blessed #gratitude” kind) to break out of the box of daily experience.
kids playing soccor in Mali
Goofing around with local kids is a highlight of living abroad!

It’s Not all Good Times

Building on the point that living abroad is not one big highlight reel, it’s important to remember that when you put down roots somewhere you will start to see what is bad about a place too. In France for example, I loved my time there and was shown the epitome of hospitality, but was shocked by how a place with such refinement in terms of food and the arts, could also be so casually racist.

In those situations, it’s rather tricky to talk to a local about what you don’t like about their culture, and the people back home can’t relate to what you’re going through either, so you’re often left to deal with those complicated feelings alone. The French even have a specific term for this phenomenon, it’s called being dépaysé, or that lonely feeling you get when you’re outside of your home country.

fish head on plantain
Malian food was rarely a highlight

Even worse, if something tragic happens when you’re living abroad, it can feel extra awful. You may not have your nearest and dearest by you to offer you support, and the locals may cope in a way that seems incomprehensible to you, which can only worsen your dépaysement. To illustrate this point, during my time in Mali, I witnessed a horrific vehicle accident that where there was a fatality. That is never something anyone should have to see but I struggled with how many of my local friends and host family responded to them.

Many of them just shrugged their shoulders casually and said “it must have been God’s will.” I was a wreck after seeing it and wondered if I was overreacting by being so upset considering how cavalier my Malian mates were being. I couldn’t help but feel like in if this accident had happened in North America, people would be demanding answers as to why this life was lost. Someone would be held accountable.  Someone would have to pay. But there are just so many challenges in Mali that people view death as commonplace and something that can’t be prevented at any stage in life. Their seemingly callous attitude wasn’t a reflection on their character; rather, it was a reaction to the daily difficulties that someone living in one of  the poorest countries in the world must face.

So far from being an extended highlight reel, living abroad can be both challenging and rewarding. I’ve always felt that it’s more like a roller coaster, where your highs are really high, as in awe-inspiring, take your breath away, stay with you forever high, but your lows can be really, really low. Talking about the lows with family and friends back home is never easy.

Sunset in Pays Dogon
I still get goosebumps thinking about this sunset in Pays Dogon, Mali. But the bad times have stuck with me too.

So How Much did You See?

If you’ve ever done an immersive travel experience, you will have undoubtedly been asked a question like “since you were there for XX months/years, how much of Country YY did you see?”. It’s a fair question, but I think it also stems from that misguided notion that when you live abroad, you’re spending all your time there with a backpack on hitting all the notable tourist sights in a country. If you are working or studying, you are bound by the same limitations of real life the same way that you would at home.

Living abroad means learning the familiar rhythm of the city as it comes to life while you walk to work, or experiencing a collective hangover after a big holiday. It means taking pride in your new home and loving it through your own eyes.

Most importantly, living abroad is about making good relationships with the people who live there, whether developing a rapport with the person who sells you fresh fruit on weekdays with such regularity that she quizzes you about where you were when you miss seeing her for a few days travelling for work, or going to dinner at your colleague’s house. It’s forming relationships that will last with you for a lifetime. It’s seeing the kind man whose shop I visited for months say goodbye to me with tears in his eyes when I told him that I was making my last purchase there.  When I realised how much our seemingly trivial interactions had meant to him, I too felt tears swell in my eyes. Perhaps unsurprisingly,  it’s the relationships that we have with the people in our lives that matter the most, whether at home or abroad.

My Malian host family. Miss them so much!

So what is Extended Travel then?

If immersive travel is not extended travel, then what exactly is extended travel? It’s when you leave home for a long period of time without settling down and living real life like you would if you were involved in an immersive travel experience.  Some people call it Round-the-World (RTW) travel and you can move through a place as quickly or as slowly as you would like. If you enjoy slow travel, you get more of an immersive experience, but it’s not quite the same as putting down roots to do a job or attend a local school. We will be spending a little over a year travelling, but will be moving from place to place at a pace that will not allow for many truly immersive experiences.
That said there a still a few ways that you can get a taste for local culture while only visiting a place for a short time which are as follows:

Try a Local Market

I’m not talking about a super market or a corner store, I mean the local food market where farmer’s bring their produce and ladies try to sell you all kinds of wares. Not only will you see which agricultural products are in season and what is the typical local lunch, you will also get to see how the locals interact with each other and organize themselves. If bargaining is a game, you can learn from the experts. If you don’t begin a transaction without asking how the person’s family is doing, take note. There is so much more to markets than food!

Food market in Pisac
The food market in Pisac, Peru is as much of a place to shop as it is a place to socialize.

Do as the locals do on a Sunday

Sundays are great day to simply walk around a place, enjoying a quieter pace, and observe how the locals spend their downtime. In La Paz, Bolivia for example, people head to the Plaza Murillo to feed the birds and enjoy some family time outside. It’s a simple and low-cost way to spend some time with the people that you care about and reminds me of how we used to go feed the ducks at the park near us on weekends.

Plaza Murillo
Feeding pigeons at the Plaza Murillo for some Sunday fun.

Take Local Public Transit

Whether it’s the sotramas of Mali, métro of Paris, or the collectivos of Peru, taking local transit can be a very eye-opening experience. It tells you how a place runs as well as how people relate to each other while going about their daily business. Do people wait and chat pleasantly with each other while waiting for the bus to fill up, or do they shove in on the train platform to make sure they get a spot? Do people offer to put someone else’s bag or even a kid on their lap to help make room for others, or do they sit quietly facing ahead not saying a thing while clutching their bag? These collective behaviours can tell you a lot about a culture, so take a ride and see what you can learn!

La Paz cable cars
The public transit cable cars of La Paz offer a unique perspective of the city!

In the end, travelling abroad is no replacement for living abroad, and living abroad does not guarantee a life of non-stop excitement. Instead, immersive travel experiences allow travellers to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and a broader appreciation of the new places they call home by learning to love the little things.

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