You have a choice when you head out the door to explore the world. You can be the typical backpacker making your way place to place, staying for a few days or a few weeks at a time, taking lots of photos to share on your Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest/Flickr/chosen social media platform, and you’ll certainly rack up a slew of cool travel stories you can tell your fellow road warriors at hostels around the world. And you’ll certainly see and experience things that most people living back in suburbia never will. But there’s more ways than just one to see the world, and not all of them revolve around an endless stream of photos and hostel-hopping.
Known as slow travel to some, the cultural immersion route is the full-on expat version of traveling around the world. Rather than skim reading a destination like a book, backpacking your way place to place and only staying for a few days or weeks at a time, you are instead choosing to pour over every single word on the page, seeping yourself in the traditions and the language and the culture and the experience of who and what the country really is. You don’t just flip the pages to get the gist of things; you immerse yourself totally and completely and go native for months and even years at a time.
Backpacking is traveling. Vacationing is traveling. Immersion travel is experiencing. You aren’t merely a visitor passing through; you become a resident expat, a foreign national, with the respect of the locals and the rights of the citizens if you choose to stay on long enough to become naturalized. You go from being merely a weekend warrior to being an expert veteran of your chosen turf.
Rather than stay in hostels or hotels or rely on people you’ve never met through CouchSurfing or TravBuddy (both great services in their own right, and handy tools to keep at your disposal), you opt for long-term, fully furnished accommodations where instead of paying $25 or $30 or more per night for private accommodations in places where you have spotty Internet at best, limited hot water, shared kitchens and no real sense of privacy, you can rent a place out for six months or a year and pay a mere $10 to $15 per day on average.
Or you can go the house-sitting route or a work-exchange program and stay for absolutely nothing as long as you are flexible with the when and the where. Or you can pick up a cheap piece of real estate (two bedroom apartments, condos and houses in Colombia, Mexico, Bulgaria, Uruguay and similar countries can be found for as little as 20,000 USD for example) and use it as a base of operations for a couple of years and then either rent it out when you leave and hold onto it for future use and residual income, or sell it on your way out of the country to get your investment back.
Going the immersion travel route allows you to set up a base of operations that you can use for true cultural exploration. You can travel light rather than having to lug all of your stuff around with you. You can take day trips and weekend treks with a day pack rather than a full-on travel pack, allowing you to avoid the hassles of long-term backpacking and all the associated gear required. Not to mention when you have a base of operations you can ensure your things are secure, far more than in a locker in a hostel, because you can rent fully secured accommodations with guards, alarms systems and more.
You can establish lasting relationships that lead to real estate deals, business opportunities, partnerships, friendships and beyond, much more than the fleeting and temporary nature of hostel friends and fellow weekend warriors you meet along the way. You will learn the language and go native through your immersion, allowing the destination you are living in to become like a well-worn sweater or your favorite pair of shoes; they fit just right and you know every little crease because the memories are ingrained into your mind as a result of living the experience rather than just passing through it.
There’s also more to it than just the cultural experience. Immersion travel also gives you access to residency status in your host country, should you opt for it, either through a pensioner’s visa or a freelancer visa, both of which will eventually lead to residency and eventually naturalization if you stay on long enough. This can lead to things like the opportunity to open up foreign bank accounts, thus leading to investment opportunities that were previously inaccessible. It will also give you access to universal healthcare systems and secondary passports that can be used for future investments and traveling off the grid to keep your investments and activities abroad completely safe and secret, away from the prying eyes of governments and financial institutions.
But going the immersion travel route takes a certain amount of dedication that most weekend warriors don’t have, either as a result of a budget or limited time due to vacation days, plus it requires that you have a firm grasp on your finances with a passive income stream of some kind, either in the form of a pension or an active residual income from a business, such as day trading or rental income or a website business. It’s not about saving up for six months so you can go visit a country for a few weeks or months; this is about living in another country as an expat, and that means providing proof of income and stability to the host government so you can stay on with a residency visa.
Immersion travel is the ultimate cultural experience, and it is also one of the ultimate ways to achieve the most financial success as a professional expat. The reduced cost of living associated with having access to things like nationalized healthcare as well as the ability to make offshore investments and commodity purchases with secondary passports means you can do things that most other travelers cannot, simply because you’ve taken the time to unlock the doors that most people merely pass by on their way through on a budget backpacking adventure.
If you are truly dedicated to exploring everything the planet has to offer, if you truly want to be a global citizen, there is only one option: cultural immersion through slow travel as a permanent expat moving country to country and exploring the entirety of Planet Earth. If you are someone who appreciates connecting with the people and places around the world on a more than fleeting basis, exploring the breadth and width of The Human Experience, this is the ultimate way to travel.
About the author: T.W. Anderson has been traveling since 1999 and living abroad full time as an independent international citizen since January of 2008. He has established residency, opened businesses and lived long-term in four different countries and visited over 20 since first starting out. He is the founder of Marginal Boundaries, a company dedicated to cultural immersion and long-term, slow travel as a permanent expat. He is the author of The Expat Guidebook as well as immersion guides for Sofia, Bulgaria; Bogota, Colombia; and Cancun, Mexico. For more information on how to live a life of continual travel on a passive income, visit www.marginalboundaries.com.