How to travel: my rules

by Simon Kuper

The ideal – admittedly impossible – is to arrive fully informed yet with no preconceptions


I’m about to get into a flying metal box in São Paulo, and get off it (with luck) in Miami. This sort of abrupt relocation is still pretty rare in human experience: a few years ago the World Tourism Organization predicted that by 2020, 7 per cent of the world’s population would be travelling internationally. But it’s becoming more common. It’s likely that more people will travel abroad this summer than at any other time in history.

I have spent my life learning how to travel. From my birth in Uganda onwards, I have always lived abroad. As an anthropologist’s son in a permanently expat household, my home life was a daily study of foreign cultures. I’ve now tried to formulate a kind of anthropologist’s guide to travel.

The most basic rule: don’t go abroad and complain it’s not like home. One afternoon in Brazil I listened to a German journalist ranting about Brazilian infrastructure and organisation. If you travel around Brazil expecting German logistics, you are going to end up disappointed. Instead, try to understand how a native sees the place. As the great Bronislaw Malinowski put it, the anthropologist had to “come down off the veranda” of the white man’s house and pitch a tent in the village.

Any anthropologist going somewhere to do fieldwork reads up on the place first. But there’s a trap: you arrive so stuffed with information that you can see only what you already knew. The ideal – admittedly impossible – is to arrive fully informed yet with no preconceptions.

Another rule: don’t go searching for authentic “traditional culture”. Some travellers think that if you see natives dancing in grass skirts at a rainmaking ceremony, it’s authentic; whereas if you see them eating at McDonald’s, it’s inauthentic. The problem with that is that cultures change.

I learnt this from a South African anthropologist named Isaac Schapera, a little man who spoke in a whisper and (perhaps because he drank whisky all day) lived to be 98. In about 1930 he had gone to Bechuanaland (now Botswana) to study a Tswana tribe. He learnt their language, and lived among them for years.

In 1938 he wrote his Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom – partly at the request of local chiefs, who worried that younger chiefs didn’t know Tswana traditions. “Schap” thought he’d documented a traditional culture. But then he started to get letters from Tswana people. Decades later, he recalled a request from a chief: “He said he was doing a history of his people, and he had a sticky point about who was chief at a particular time, would I please tell him.” Schap was becoming the guardian of Tswana tradition.

Another time, a Tswana regent quarrelled with his sister because she wouldn’t give him her rainmaking pots. He ordered her divorce. Her husband wrote to Schap, asking, “What do we do?” Schap didn’t know. But, he thought, “When your informants start asking you questions something is wrong. It shows tradition is slipping.”

In fact, Tswana culture was changing. Schap saw people going to church or listening to BBC radio. That’s normal: all cultures change, and take on foreign influences. Wealthy travellers enjoy sampling foreign cultures: Peruvian food, Senegalese music, Buddhist philosophy. That’s partly why we travel. We can’t then tell other people, “You stay in some imagined traditional version of yourself of 300 years ago, dancing in grass skirts.” If you do find locals dancing in grass skirts, they’re probably doing it for tour groups. Watch them in McDonald’s instead. That may be more authentic.

An ethnographer works like a detective, sniffing around and interviewing natives to discover their codes. You can’t be accepted without knowing the codes.

In France, for instance, you start a conversation by saying hello. In some parts of Africa, you then ask about the health of various members of your interlocutor’s family. If you stay somewhere long enough and learn the codes, then – like Schap, or millions of immigrants – you can end up understanding the place better than many natives do.

A paradox of travel: it also helps you understand home. You come to see your country as just another place, with its own haphazardly arrived-at set of codes that are forever changing, not as the inherently superior place against which all other places must be measured. You see that your hometown’s status ladders lose all meaning abroad. In Brazil, nobody cares where you went to school. The obvious conclusion: in the great scheme of things, it may not matter much.

Each place has its own codes and hierarchies. But beyond these differences, people everywhere have pretty similar instincts. One day, as a young anthropologist living in the Kalahari desert, my father heard on a BBC broadcast on a crackling shortwave radio that John F Kennedy had been murdered. My dad was distraught. He needed to tell someone. He ran out of his hut, and told a passing Kgalagari goatherd.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “Was he a friend of yours?” The man reflected, then asked, “I suppose his brother will succeed him?”




简艺:拍摄影片之前,我开始茹素才一个月。这个时候纽约公益环保机构Brighter Green的创始人Mia MacDonald通过纪录片发行商Karin Chien找到我,希望委托我拍一部有关肉食产业对环境影响的纪录短片。开始的时候,我没有给Mia肯定的答复,因为我自认为刚开始茹素,对此议题没有深入的思考或者体会。接下来,Mia陆续给我发来了他们的研究报告,我认真读过之后大为震惊。之前没有仔细想过,”吃”这样一个最基本的生存行为,可能会如此严重地影响到我们自身的生存。如果我们再不反思并且采取行动做出改变,大自然迟早要报复我们的。于是我决定接拍这部纪录短片,希望借这个机会,去探索这个议题,并且将这些重要的信息传递给更多的人。这个议题太重要了,我无法假装它不存在。



















在两次吃素之间还有一次经历让我几乎决心吃素。那次是2008年在纽约,当时是和其他国家的朋友一起聚餐。鸡肉端上来,朋友说了一句:This chicken is really good. (这鸡肉真不错。) 我当时不知为何产生了一个奇怪的念头。因为chicken在英文里面既有”鸡肉”的意思,也有”鸡”的意思,我突然想:她说的是”这只鸡真不错”吗?从我们人类看来,一只鸡”不错”是因为它把肉给我们吃。(那人们会不会通过品尝自己朋友的肉来判断朋友好不好呢?)对于人类来说,鸡和鸡肉是同一个词汇。对于食客来说,活着的鸡的生命是没有价值的,有价值的是它死之后奉献出来的那一盘肉。这个想法让当时食肉很多的我很震惊。





- 李宣龚《兆丰公园晚坐》

„Gdy czujesz się samotnyOderwij się od tego okrutnego świataTwoje instynkty podpowiadają Ci, aby uciekaćPosłuchaj swojego sercaTych anielskich głosówOne zaśpiewają dla CiebieBędą Ci przewodnikiem w drodze do domu’’


„Gdy czujesz się samotny
Oderwij się od tego okrutnego świata
Twoje instynkty podpowiadają Ci, aby uciekać
Posłuchaj swojego serca
Tych anielskich głosów
One zaśpiewają dla Ciebie
Będą Ci przewodnikiem w drodze do domu’’

(via bookporn)

"入定的心,我們將來學 “定品”也好,或者《廣論》的“毗缽舍那”那一章也好,這個心要很厲害。如前面說的龍泉寶劍斷物一樣, 用這樣子猛利的心才能斷煩惱, 才能起那個空性的觀。如果心裏糊裏糊塗的,你觀啥東西?那就是無想定,那是外道的,不行的。所以一定要身心輕安,不要身心重性。"
- 修白骨观、不净观(不净观以无贪心所为体)能得四沙门果
2 Russell Norris, 15, of Tylertown, Mississippi, dives into the chilly Swift River at Coos Canyon in Byron, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) #

2 Russell Norris, 15, of Tylertown, Mississippi, dives into the chilly Swift River at Coos Canyon in Byron, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) #