© Luis Grañena

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?”

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustration by Luis Grañena

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