Traveling is more than eating your way through a country. It’s not only about ticking off places, visiting tourism attractions, and signing up for spectacular tours. We often overlook immersing in culture while moving through countries. And that cultural immersion – the act of surrounding yourself with the culture of a place – is what makes a trip authentic and beyond the ordinary. It’s what gives depth to your travels and to your life.
However, it is easier said than done. Because how exactly do you immerse yourself completely in another culture? Leaving your prejudices and all that you know behind, even your feminism.
Let’s first introduce ourselves
We are Milene and Yuri from the Netherlands, also known as mygrations.nl. In the past six years, we have traveled to many on and off-the-beaten places. From South Africa to Tristan da Cunha and from the colorful jungles of Papua New Guinea to the white peaks of Svalbard. We traveled by boat, plane, and bicycle. Celebrated Easter with the Sami, danced with the Huli Wigmen, and battled snowstorms with the Nenets. From the cold tundra of Siberia to the untamed wild of Zambia.
In March 2021, we embarked on another trip of a lifetime. With our 45-year-old Volkswagen T2 (Alexine from here forth) we are driving the ancient Silk Road. Our route has taken us from the Netherlands to Venice, one of the Italian finish lines of the Silk Road. From Venice, we drove through the Balkan to cross into Asia via Istanbul. Here we are visiting some ancient sights that are important silk road spots like caravanserais. Already, we met the last silk weaver of Georgia and got to sleep at the last standing caravanserai in Armenia.
Throughout our travels, there is one very important aspect and that is cultural immersion. Without immersing ourselves completely into the culture the journeys wouldn’t be as thrilling and educated as they are.
Staying with nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia
While the world battled Covid-19 we battled a snowstorm in Siberia. Without any knowledge of what was going on in the world, we found ourselves in the white harsh tundra that the Nenets – nomadic reindeer herders of the Yamal Peninsula – call home. Flights were canceled, lockdowns were implemented, and we were keeping ourselves warm in the mya (tent made of reindeer skin in which the Nenet live) of a Nenet family. Playing with their children, building new sleds, feeding reindeer. There was no connection except with what was happening around us. The weather decided our schedule, the reindeer our plans, nature our mood.
We stayed with a Nenet family to really immerse ourselves in their culture, their way of life. This way I woke up with Tatiana at 6 every morning to light up the fire so the mya would get warm. At nights it cooled down to about -20 so in the mornings the mya was quite cold. After warming up the mya it was time to wash ourselves with melted snow, boil water for tea and get the snow off the reindeer skin the mya is built of. Then we woke up the kids, dressed them, prepared breakfast, and had that delicious cup of tea.
Everyday activities are determined by what you need. Running out of firewood? It’s time to chop down a tree. Thirsty? Get ready to go find a block of ice to melt on the stove. Baby on the way? Better make a new sled for your wife. Every day is full of purpose.
In many ways, there could have been no better way to prepare for what’s to come (e.g. lockdowns) than hanging out with the Nenet people. We learn so much by staying with local families, by doing what they do, by talking with people living a life outside the Western societies that are so known to us.
10 ways for immersing in culture
While traveling the Silk Road it’s a bit more difficult to completely immerse ourselves as we are in our bus. We have built our own life on four wheels that we know so well now. We do not often stay for weeks on one spot to take the time and learn. But, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. What do we do?
Here are our 10 ways to immerse yourself into a culture:
- The best start is to do research about a country, but not too much. Know what religion the main religion is, what the customs are and how the people are dressed.
- Before arriving in a country we always learn a couple of words of the local language. It is the easiest to break the ice when meeting strangers and it comes in handy. We have become very good at learning languages quickly, but also talking easy understandable English. It is often that people know tiny bits of the English language, meaning they know a couple of words: good, no good, problem, nice, bye.
- Whatever your parents told you not to do when you were young; do talk to strangers! Most people on this planet are good people. People with a good heart that enrich your life instead of taking it. Most people don’t steal, bother or kill others. When you talk to strangers you’ll get to places you otherwise wouldn’t, you’ll learn things you otherwise wouldn’t and you’ll make friends for a lifetime.
- Be open minded, curious, and leave your prejudices at home. When you are open minded and curious you learn more about a local culture. The best way to immerse yourself in another culture is when you leave your own culture and habits at home. It’s not needed to tell others how you think the world should be.
- When you travel by bus it is very easy to always sleep in the bus. However, when you get invited to join someone at their home, just go with it. You don’t have to sleep there but you can and why wouldn’t you? It’s a huge opportunity to see and experience how other people are living.
- What we often do when arriving in a country is visit a local café and ask the locals what we should do in a country. Not only do you get invited to whatever (sometimes even weddings) quickly, but you’ll also explore the country beyond the touristy attractions.
- Another thing that makes it quite easy to immerse yourself into another culture is using the internet. Via Instagram we often start following people who live in the country we want to travel to. We make contact and set up a meeting. It’s the easiest way to make contact and it already helped us a lot on the road. We not only made friends for life but they also were able to help us when we had mechanical problems.
- Of course volunteering is also a way to plunge into an unknown culture. However, we are careful with volunteering. When you want to volunteer somewhere do so with a local organization only, as they know best. Also, make sure you’re not just volunteering to make yourself feel better. Often, it’s better to stay for a longer period. Volunteering for a week or two won’t do much good. It’s way too short to understand the project and for them to gain something from you.
- Find a specific project on your travels. On the Silk Road we make it a goal to visit things that are related to the silk road. This way we visited the last silk weaving factory of Venice, the last silk weaver of Georgia and many caravanserais (a place where travellers had diner and slept on the road). It makes our journey more interesting but it also makes us visit places we otherwise wouldn’t. Another thing we focus on is migration along the Silk Road.
As a photographer I, Milene, focus on social issues, with a specific interest in migration. I do a lot of research before traveling to a country and almost always find a migration story I want to photograph. In Georgia this was about displaced Georgians due to a civil war in Abkhazia. For thirty years these people live in abandoned sanatoriums. These photo projects show us a different side of the country we are visiting. Therefore self thought projects or interests can make you immerse yourself into a culture and gives you a better understanding of a particular thing. These projects can be anything: documenting the number one export product per country, focusing on the most famous building/architecture per city or visiting a local dance in every country you visit.
- We all love to take photos of people right? The greatest thing is when you can give the photo back to the person you portray. Therefore, we always travel with a portable small printer. We can then print a photo right from our phone and give it to the person. Especially children love this. As we often don’t have things to give back this is a great way.
What not to do
Of course, there are many more ways to immerse yourself in a culture. The most important one is being curious. If you are not curious you won’t be able to plunge yourself into the unknown. And be open minded. Wherever you are from, leave your prejudices there. The things you’ve learned in school, the ideas your government put in your head, the opinions you have about things you’ve read online… it does not matter. You are not traveling the world to educate others about your upbringing.
So, what to avoid when you want to absorb another culture? Here are five things:
- Stereotyping. It’s something we all do, it’s what we are taught to do, but it’s also something we shouldn’t do. Every person on earth is different and that’s the beauty of humanity. Embrace the differences!
- Skip the big international food chains. You will never ever see us going to a big chain like McDonalds, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts when we are abroad. The local cuisine is often a lot better, healthier, and more fun.
- Isolating yourself. It is of course easy when you travel by bus to only camp in the wild where no person will find you. Which is great and awesome. But, don’t lose yourself in nature without visiting that tiny town. Do grocery shopping in that local shop and visit a cute café off the main street. It will enrich your life as it does your travels.
- Thinking you already know everything. Of course, we sometimes have our opinion about things we see and hear when talking to locals. From glorifying dictators as Stalin and Sadam Hussein to oppressing women. But instead of judging try to ask questions, try to learn. Why is he glorifying Sadam Hussein? What is her opinion about not looking men in the eye? Learn before judging.
- Being disrespectful. Sounds easy right? Still we see many travelers being disrespectful by the way they talk, eat or dress. Make sure you’ve done some research before traveling to a country so you know where you shouldn’t wear those hotpants, eat with your left hand or talk to a woman that you don’t know.
We believe diving into another culture enriches our lives, it brings us so much. Besides the joy of meeting people, it educates us that there are different ways of doing things and questions the things we’ve learned in our tiny perfect, and overly organized home country. Because not all that we learn at home serves the world the best.
Immersing yourself in a culture completely makes traveling so much more fun. It gives depth to your adventure. Traveling with an open mind, curiosity, and interests is the best education. We’ve learned so much from people living in isolation, jungles, poverty. Cultures show us ways of living more peacefully, embracing life more deeply, and living far away from the noise that we experience in daily life – the news, social media, the general hum of life swirling around us.
Our adventures on the silk road are in full swing. If you’re curious about our on-the-road projects, uncensored honesty of Buslife, and more check out our Instagram: @mygrations.nl or head over to our website: www.mygrations.nl Hope to see you there!