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The Traveler’s Geography Class

Can you find Bali on a map? Or Bosnia? Or Boston?

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a journalist who was doing a travel story on destinations in Asia and we were making jokes about how tourists were probably avoiding Bali because they thought it had been hit by the tsunami in December.

Lo and behold, I’m reading the latest issue of Budget Travel and a reader talking about his trip to Bali comments that friends asked, “Wasn’t Bali devastated by the tsunami?”

Now look, I know most people aren’t real fond of studying geography in school, but GIVE ME A BREAK! As this “funny if it weren’t serious” press release reminds us, Bali is about the same distance from Aceh province as London is from Moscow, or as far as Boston is from Denver. Not to mention there’s a big fat island called Sumatra that stands between the two, and another skinnier one called Java.

These are the same people who wouldn’t go to Vancouver because there were SARS cases in Toronto. And the people who say “Which country?” when a traveler tells them they are from South Africa. And the ones who think Serbia is in the Middle East.

I know everyone doesn’t have a world atlas in their house, but they should. If you go into a store to buy a book about politics or religion, you should be required to bring proof you have a world atlas at home. “I’m sorry sir, but I cannot check you out with that Ann Coulter book. You have not yet purchased your first atlas.”

There are other things you can do to become geographically literate. Turning off US news and tuning in the BBC or NPR helps a lot. Subscribing to the Economist or The Week helps even more. The latter is especially helpful to us globe-challenged Americans since the world news pages have actual lines drawn to the country they’re talking about and have it colored in red!

But here’s the best way for anyone to really learn about geography: go travel. And I don’t meet take a charter flight to a resort in Cancun or Ibiza. Really travel. Go places, talk to people, visit history museums, take trains and buses overland–and absorb.

Then when you overhear some idiot asking if one can visit Rome and Amsterdam in the same day by train, you can lean over and kindly say, “May I suggest the purchase of an atlas…?”