My Failures in World Geography

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I love to travel and I plan to share my adventures on this blog, but before I do, I need to come clean about my shortcomings in geography. You then can decide if you want to follow the travels of a less-than-perfect past student of geography.

When I plan any trip out of the country, my first stop for preparation is in the pages of my well-worn atlas. I have an idea of where most countries are but not all of them. A new conflict in the Middle East almost always requires me to pull out the atlas.

A few years back, when a friend started talking about a trip to New Zealand, I knew we would be in the Australia part of the world but I didn’t know exactly where. I retrieved my trusty atlas, found the country, and studied the cities and regions we would visit. While we were on this trip, I discovered my first geographical misconception. It dawned on me that every island doesn’t have to be designated as part of a continent. I thought the continents made up all the land on the earth. I wish I could explain where this idea started. The definition of  a continent clearly defines it as one of the seven main landmasses of the Earth.

My next mistake came to light when I was preparing to go to Ecuador. In my geographically-challenged brain, I pictured Ecuador in the Pacific Time Zone. I imagined South America straight down the North American Pacific coast. My father-in-law, who has been to over 100 countries, gently informed me how wrong I was. I needed to leave the West coast and look straight down the East coast to find Ecuador.

I really did study geography in school. I remember enjoying it. We did reports on South and Central American countries in junior high which was 7th and 8th grade in my school district.

For anyone reading this who was not alive during the 1970s, a report was ordinarily double-spaced in cursive writing on notebook paper. It wasn’t typed because, unlike today’s fast-fingered youth, most junior high students didn’t know how to type. I took a typing class in the eleventh grade to prepare for college. I never touched a computer until I was in college.

Back to my story-

My classroom teacher assigned us our country to research. The favorites went to students with last names starting with letters from the beginning of the alphabet. My maiden name begins with a ‘W’. In my school days, end-of-the-alphabet students, like me, sat in class and listened as students with last names like Armstrong and Baker got all the choice assignments.

I didn’t get Peru with mysterious Machu Picchu or Brazil with exotic Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t get Ecuador with its controversial Darwinian legacy in the Galapagos or Columbia with its scandalous drug cartels. It was the 1970s.

The teacher called my name, followed by the words Trinidad and Tobago. I believe she was now creatively improvising for end-of-the-alphabet students. The Armstrongs and the Bakers smirked because they, like me, had never heard of this little Caribbean group of islands.

I went home a little disheartened, but I got the ‘T’ encyclopedia and started  on my report. In the 1970s most homes had a set of encyclopedias and no computers. I learned about the capital, Port of Spain, and I learned of the diverse population. I’m sure I studied the history and politics. My paper probably sounded like an encyclopedia entry but when I gave the report, I was proud. Trinidad and Tobago was fascinating. I don’t remember all the reasons I loved it but possibly because it’s the birthplace of steel drums, the limbo, and calypso-style music. Who wouldn’t love this gem of an archipelagic republic?

I’ve never traveled to Trinidad and Tobago, but if I ever do, I won’t have to look in the atlas. I know where it’s located thanks to my Geography class. I was a bit of a daydreamer and not as interested in geography as I should have been but I’m grateful for studying the world. One day, I hope to go to Asia and visit Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. I know to see the Great Pyramid of Giza, I better head for Africa. I’ve traveled in part of Europe but there’s still Scotland and Ireland and many more places I hope to visit. Geography class sparked a desire for travel in me.

Recently, I read an article that stated America is failing in teaching geography. I hope this isn’t true. Out there somewhere is a student studying geography (not staring out the window and daydreaming) who will help save the world. We need to know about our fellow inhabitants of the blue planet because we’re all connected. The  more we learn and interact with one another, the better this world will be.

So, little explorers of the world, look down the West…I mean the East coast, and learn about the continent of South America or head in any other direction and see what’s out there. Like me, you may grow up and make a mistake or two when it comes to geography or you may absorb all  the facts and never falter, but what I hope you learn is that knowledge about our little planet is an important part of  moving into a brighter future.

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