Sunday, January 16, 2011

We've moved!

All of you who cheered me on when I started this blog, thanks so much for the encouragement. As you've probably noticed, I stalled after getting the idea. But now I'm forging full steam ahead with the project on my new website, Just click on "Year of Geography" to see the first few posts, on Albania, Algeria and Andorra (yes, I'm going in alphabetical order; Afghanistan will be the subject of an extended post later in the month).

I'll eventually close this Blogger blog, so please check out the new site soon. Thanks! I look forward to seeing you there.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Off to see the world, via atlas

clipart provided by:

So much for my grand New Year's resolutions. After I posted that long January 1 post, my wee blog has been moribund for a month. Part of the reason is that I've been focused on getting posts on my travel blog, Facing The Street. And partly, I've been travelling and swamped with work. Excuses, excuses!

Due to some kind encouragement from Vera Marie Badertscher at A Traveler's Library and Jane Boursaw at Film Gecko, I'm finally buckling down for my first update on my year of geography.

I began my quest by printing out the list of 192 UN member countries and a series of outline maps showing the countries with no names. Then I played a long game of match-up, with fairly predictable results.

Central America went pretty well, with a couple of lucky guesses, but I mixed up Honduras and El Salvador.

The Caribbean was a wash. I managed to get the big British Commonwealth islands, like Barbados and Jamaica, partly because I've visited them. The tiny ones utterly flummoxed me. Is this an excuse for another tropical vacation?

I had pretty good luck in South America, although the three small countries east of Venezuela stymied me. I eventually threw random guesses at Suriname and Guyana. (It turns out one of the jurisdictions marked on the map, French Guiana, isn't an independent country.)

Europe was predictably easy, though I did initially forget Denmark (oops). I missed Monaco entirely because it was too small to show up on my map. I managed to get Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic in the right order, but in the wrong places--I needed to rotate all four of them one country counterclockwise. And I mislabelled Crete as Malta, which is especially embarrassing because I've actually been to Malta. Duh.

Moving to the Middle East and Africa, I encountered my usual confusion. Is Bahrain in the Middle East and Brunei in Asia? I can never remember. I took my best guess and moved on. (And, yes, I guessed right.)

Then came Africa.

After filling in the easy countries--Egypt, Morocco, South Africa--I was left with a very long list and very few clues. In a number of cases, I could narrow down which area of Africa a country was in--Ivory Coast in West Africa, Tanzania in East Africa--but couldn't pinpoint a particular area on the map. By the time I got to the "S" countries, I was feeling monumentally stupid. I even forgot to mark Somalia on the map, even though Ottawa (where I live) is home to a sizable Somali community. Let's just sum up my dire performance on Africa by saying it was not my finest hour.

Moving on to Central Asia, I managed somewhat better, although I still made a number of egregious mistakes--the most embarrassing of which was mixing up Iran and Iraq. For crying out loud, can you think of two other countries that have been more in the news of late? I also managed to completely jumble up the Stans, and I had a big blank swath of unlabelled land east of Turkey.

One of the last stops was East and South Asia. Well, at least I got China and India right. Actually, I did better on this area of the world than on the previous two sections, although I got utterly confused in and around Cambodia, as usual.

I couldn't clearly print a good map of Oceania, so I'll have to wait until later in the year to visualize the locations of places like Fiji and the Solomon Islands. However, I did manage to correctly pinpoint both Australia and New Zealand--if I hadn't, I think it would have been time to quit this exercise and take up basket weaving.

In the end, what was the final score? Um, 108 out of 192 countries, or 56.25%. Ouch. Oh well, at least I know I have room to improve.

So which countries do you have trouble keeping straight?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A different sort of New Year's resolution

Last year, around this time, I got what I thought was a brilliant idea. Having observed other writers spending a year doing various things that interested them--from living biblically to buying nothing--I thought I'd spend a year learning at least something about every country in the world, from Albania to Zimbabwe.

I've always been fascinated by other countries. As a kid, I bombarded tourism bureaus with requests for information, resulting in a deluge of promotional brochures flooding my parents' mailbox. As an adult, I became a travel writer--supplementing that career with other types of writing to pay the bills.

And yet, there were embarrassing gaps in my geographic knowledge. Sure, I could rhyme off the names of most Western European capitals and identify, with some degree of confidence, the largest lake in South America or the highest mountain in Asia. But when it came to finding Niger on a map or knowing what the climate is like in South Korea, I was at a bit of a loss.

My curiosity extended beyond the standard high school geography staples of longest rivers and most important national resources. Mainly, I was interested in daily life in other countries. Are people in Mongolia and Paraguay as obsessed with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as we North Americans seem to be? (I devoutly hope not.) What do people eat for breakfast in Sweden and Cambodia? What pop songs dominate the radio waves in Lebanon and New Zealand?

Surely I wasn't the only person who wanted to know.

I thought immersing myself in world geography would be a timely project. After all, YouTube in early 2008 was alight with videos showing poor souls displaying their geography-related mental blocks, including a beauty pageant contestant from South Carolina who gave a very nervous response to a question about geographic illiteracy, and a contestant on "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" who thought Europe was a country and had never heard of Budapest.

There aren't links to those videos here because I think these poor women have already suffered enough for their televised blunders without me pointing more folks their way. But the two clips did shock me and got me thinking: Couldn't we all use a bit more information on the people we share this planet with?

Like any freelance writer, I immediately started pondering ways to turn my latest idea into a book, or at least a magazine article. I bounced it by my agent, but he wasn't sure it would work. I toyed with it for a few weeks, then laid it aside as other, paying jobs came along.

However, the idea just wouldn't go away. A year later, it's still niggling at the back of my mind.

Of course, it didn't help that 2008 gave us yet more public examples of gaps in geographic knowledge, including the allegation that vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin didn't realize Africa was a continent. (Again, Google it if you're keen--I'm no Palin fan, but she's already done her time for this one.)

Having started a travel-related blog in 2008 and learned the blogging ropes, it occurred to me: Why not just pursue the "Year of Geography" idea on my own and write about it online?

Amazing as it may seem to all you 20-somethings who have grown up posting your lives on the Internet, this was something of a revelation for a 40-something, dead-tree freelancer like me. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of pursuing something I was passionate about just for the love of it, without waiting for a publisher or an editor to give me permission.

And then, today, I stumbled on an inspirational New Year's Day quotation that writer Alison Stein Wellner posted on her blog, A Very Curious Mind. It comes from author Ray Bradbury, a guy who knows a thing or two about writing what he loves. Here it is:
If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don't even know yourself. For the first thing that a writer should be is--excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health.
Say it, brother.

When I first read that, it hit me between the eyes. Re-reading it now, I'm still struck dumb by the simple truth of it.

So that's it. I'm going to pursue my small project, despite the fact that it's rather nerdy, probably unmarketable and likely of limited interest to anyone else.

When I first had this idea, I downloaded the full list of 192 United Nations member states, which hasn't changed in the interim. I decided to focus on one country each month in some depth, and to divide the 180 remaining countries into 12 batches of 15 countries each (in alphabetical order), one batch for each month of the year.

My goal, by the end of the year, is to be able to do the following for all 192 countries:

* Find it on a map.
* Name its capital.
* State three other things about it: a famous citizen, the language spoken, the currency used, whatever.

I suspect I'll end up learning far more about many of the countries than that rather unambitious list would imply. We shall see.

But now, I suspect I've rambled on far longer than a typical blogger should. Forgive me--I can't quite shake my dead-tree heritage. So I'll close for now. I'll be back soon to share what I learn about Andorra, Angola, Bahrain and the other countries in Batch One. Til then, Happy New Year.