Pack the suitcase: Ryszard Kapuściński

Guest Author: Mr. Shaw

"Pack the suitcase. Unpack it, pack it, unpack it, pack it; typewriter, passport, ticket, airport, stairs, airplane, fasten seat-belt, take off, unfasten seat-belt, flight, rocking, sun, stars, space, hips of strolling stewardesses, sleep, clouds, falling engine speed, fasten seat-belt, descent, circling, landing, earth, unfasten seat-belts, stairs, airport, immunization book, visa, customs, taxi, streets, houses, people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life."
– The Shadow of the Sun
Photo ©Mariusz Kubik,

No one caught the essence of modern travel like Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish master of reportage (March 4, 1932 – January 23, 2007). He is widely regarded as the founder of ‘magical journalism,’ the reportage counterpart to the magical realism of Marquez. Witness to 27 revolutions, often at the sharp end and in considerable danger, Kapuściński  wove together genuine experiences with a flair for language and, as some have pointed out, a liberal relationship with the truth. A lifetime of dialogue, exploring other cultures and simply living in interesting times produced a body of work which remains both valid and vivid to today.

Next time you pack your suitcase, make sure you take some Kapuściński. Here’s a sample of his books and quotes.

The Shadow of the Sun

Kapuściński’s definitive account of his travels and experiences in Africa, capturing the continent in its transition from colonialism to independence with his trademark flair and insight:

"More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere, the sun. Just yesterday, an autumnal London was drenched in rain. The airplane drenched in rain. A cold wind, darkness. But here, from the morning's earliest moments, the airport is ablaze with sunlight, all of us in sunlight.
In times past, when people wandered the world on foot, rode on horseback, or sailed in ships, the journey itself accustomed them to the change. Images of the earth passed ever so slowly before their eyes, the stage revolved in a barely perceptible way. The voyage lasted weeks, months. The traveler had time to grow used to another environment, a different landscape. The climate, too, changed gradually. Before the traveler arrived from a cool Europe to the burning Equator, he already had left behind the pleasant warmth of Las Palmas, the heat of Al-Mahara, and the hell of the Cape Verde Islands. Today, nothing remains of these gradations. Air travel tears us violently out of snow and cold and hurls us that very same day into the blaze of the tropics. Suddenly, still rubbing our eyes, we find ourselves in a humid inferno. We immediately start to sweat. If we've come from Europe in the wintertime, we discard overcoats, peel off sweaters. It's the first gesture of initiation we, the people of the North, perform upon arrival in Africa."

The Emperor

Kapuściński’s tour de force tale of the fall of Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, recounted through the eyes and words of those who surrounded the Emperor in his last days. Adapted into an award-winning play, it remains a startling account of the demise of a dictator and the relationship between power and the people.

“His August Majesty chided the bureaucrats for failing to understand a simple principle: the principle of the second bag. Because the people never revolt just because they have to carry a heavy load, or because of exploitation. They don't know life without exploitation, they don't even know that such a life exists. How can they desire what they cannot imagine? The people will revolt only when, in a single movement, someone tries to throw a second burden, a second heavy bag, onto their backs. The peasant will fall face down into the mud - and then spring up and grab an axe. He'll grab an axe, my gracious sir, not because he simply can't sustain this new burden - he could carry it - he will rise because he feels that, in throwing the second burden onto his back suddenly and stealthily, you have tried to cheat him, you have treated him like an unthinking animal, you have trampled what remains of his already strangled dignity, taken him for an idiot who doesn't see, feel, or understand. A man doesn't seize an axe in defense of his wallet, but in defense of his dignity, and that, dear sir, is why His Majesty scolded the clerks. For their own convenience and vanity, instead of adding the burden bit by bit, in little bags, they tried to heave a whole big sack on at once.” 


One of his later works, a compilation of 50 years of travelling and experiencing Soviet Russia, from his first encounter in his childhood home of Pińsk to the breakup of the Soviet Union. He captures the mentality of homo sovieticus to a tee and his travel advice remains indispensable nearly 30 years later. His description of the history of the USSR, with the metaphor of the train, is powerful, funny and tragic all at once:

“The train is speeding into a luminous future. Lenin is at the controls. Suddenly—stop, the tracks come to an end. Lenin calls on the people for additional, Saturday work, tracks are laid down, and the train moves on. Now Stalin is driving it. Again the tracks end. Stalin orders half the conductors and passengers shot, and the rest he forces to lay down new tracks. The train starts again. Khrushchev replaces Stalin, and when the tracks come to an end, he orders that the ones over which the train has already passed be dismantled and laid down before the locomotive. Brezhnev takes Khrushchev’s place. When the tracks end again, Brezhnev decides to pull down the window blinds and rock the cars in such a way that the passengers will think the train is still moving forward. 

Travels with Herodotus

His last major work and it is perhaps telling that he chose the father of history (and lies) for his muse – the Greek historian Herodotus. A fitting quote for IYP:

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.” 

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