The smartest investment I've ever seen wasn't made by Motley Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner. (Sorry, guys.)

It wasn't made by larger-than-life venture capitalist Bill Gurley -- lead analyst on the Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) IPO -- whom I recently had the pleasure of interviewing at his Menlo Park office.

And it wasn't even made by legendary Vanguard founder John Bogle, who came to visit us last month -- though he did share plenty of brilliant investment insights.

Bring on the crazy talk
Believe it or not, the smartest investment I've ever seen was made by my girlfriend's brother, John. And I say that without knowing a single stock in his portfolio.

You see, about 10 years ago, after finishing up a lucrative sales gig in Asia, John found himself back in Washington, D.C., with a pile of cash and no place to live. So he bought one.

Crazy like Donald Trump!
He could have opted for a cozy row house in upscale Georgetown, or a luxury condo in the ultra-hip Dupont Circle area. Either would probably have provided him with a pretty nice return on his investment over the years.

But John was cunning and highly ambitious -- so he went out on a limb and snagged a fixer-upper east of 14th Street. That probably doesn't mean much to you. But let's just say that, when he bought his place, you'd have been considered crazy just to walk down 14th Street, let alone live east of it.

Now, however, that same neighborhood is home to a brand-new Bang and Olufsen, a swanky grocery store, a dozen art galleries, a handful of luxury furniture stores, a smattering of wine bars, and even an upscale purveyor of designer outfits -- for dogs! And John -- and his investment -- are sitting pretty.

Why? Because he got in on a hot property when it was still stone-cold.

Getting ahead of the global development wave
Remember that Cher song, "If I Could Turn Back Time?" Wouldn't it be nice if we could go back in time to get in on the ground floor of such amazing long-haul investments as Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), AT&T (NYSE:T), or GE (NYSE:GE)?

Well, by investing in well-run, cash-generating businesses operating in emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil, we can do precisely that.

These rapidly developing economies are following closely in the footsteps of the United States -- or at least, the United States as it was several decades ago. That means investors have the opportunity to get in early on what could be some of the biggest growth stories of the century.

Obviously, this opportunity comes with its fair share of risk -- and the more you know, the more you can assess that risk. John, for example, lived in DC before betting on an emerging neighborhood, but most of us have never even visited these emerging markets -- myself included.

And that's exactly why I asked Tim Hanson -- co-advisor for our Motley Fool Global Gains service -- if I could buy him a cup of coffee yesterday afternoon.

A modern-day Magellan
I fancy myself a pretty well-traveled guy, but Tim puts me to shame.

Over just the last year, he and the Global Gains team have flown to China, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, and Mexico. In their travels, they've met with top brass at well-known companies such as Mexico's Cemex (NYSE:CX), and not-so-well-known companies like Argentina's MercadoLibre (NASDAQ:MELI) -- an online auction site whose largest investor is eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) (go figure).

Tim and I inevitably talked about the Enron of India. But we also discussed what China's $586 billion stimulus plan means for U.S. investors, and what companies are positioned to profit from this incredible investment.

 The companies Tim suggested for my further research include the following:

Company

Industry

Reason to get interested

CNOOC

Energy

This cash-rich company owns the rights to drill offshore China, and it's snapping up assets to satisfy China's growing energy needs.

Cogo Group

IT

This electronics manufacturer stands to profit from the rollout of 3G phones in China.

Homex

Homebuilding

Though the mortgage market has been crushed in the United States, a government program called INFONAVIT has given it more stability in Mexico.

Time to walk the walk
I wouldn't suggest that you invest in any of these stocks -- or even ones like them -- until you've done your homework on the companies, the countries, and their governments.

But I would suggest you follow Tim's lead and seek out well-positioned, steady-growing companies operating in markets that are on their way to becoming strong, developed economies.

If you'd like to pick Tim's brain about great international companies and foreign investment opportunities, it won't even cost you a latte. All you have to do is accept a free 30-day guest pass to Motley Fool Global Gains.

You'll get full access to all of the research from prior Global Gains trips, regular updates on every company on their scorecard, plus full write-ups of their top two picks for new money now. Not to mention, you can interact with thousands of other like-minded investors -- including Tim and me -- on the members-only discussion boards.

This offer is risk-free, and there's no obligation to subscribe. All you have to do is click here. We hope to hear from you soon.

Austin Edwards owns shares of AT&T. Cemex, CNOOC, and MercadoLibre are Motley Fool Global Gains picks. Amazon, Cemex, and eBay are Stock Advisor recommendations. eBay is also an Inside Value selection. Johnson & Johnson is an Income Investor choice. The Motley Fool owns shares of Cemex. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy has traveled around the world twice -- once just to count the cats in Zanzibar.