One morning on Ko Chang, Thailand, while sitting by the sea and preparing to breakfast on a pineapple pancake and a pineapple shake, I read a puzzling line in Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. Winchester pointed out that the 1969 film Krakatoa: East of Java contains a glaring geographical error in its title. Krakatoa, you see, is actually west of Java.
More recently, while reading Anthony Beevor’s book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, I read another, more consequential, account of a geographical error:
On 10 June, the 3rd Company of the division’s Führer Regiment surrounded the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, fourteen miles north-east of Limoges. Its officers and soldiers shot the male inhabitants and herded the women and children into the church, which they set on fire. The village also was burned to the ground. Altogether, 642 people died in this massacre. Some of the victims were not even locals, but refugee children from Paris and passengers from a train halted nearby. None of them were members of the Resistance.
The SS had even chosen the wrong Oradour. The company commander, whose death they were avenging, had in fact been killed in Oradour-sur-Vayres, fifteen miles away.
The National Geographic Society has defined geography as “the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” Geographers are people who “explore both the physical properties of Earth’s surface and the human societies spread across it.”
National Geographic has also illustrated how Americans struggle mightily with geography. A 2006 survey found that despite extensive media coverage of Afghanistan during the preceding years, nine out of ten Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map. Three out of four couldn’t find Indonesia despite the widespread tsunami coverage a year earlier, and the same percentage was unaware that most Indonesians are Muslim (Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country).
One of the benefits of travel isn’t just that one can read a book while drinking a pineapple shake by the sea; it is that one can grow in geographical awareness. I consider myself knowledgeable when it comes to geography, but with each trip I learn something new and feel a sense of wonder as my mental map — and ability to spell certain places! — expands.
Here are some examples:
- On a visit to the Baltic countries I finally nailed down how those three nations are arranged: alphabetical order from north to south (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).
- A few days in Kyrgyzstan taught me how to actually spell “Kyrgyzstan”.
- A couple days in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, taught me how to spell that, too.
- Visiting Panama enlightened me to the fact that when one enters the Panama Canal from the Caribbean Sea, bound for the Pacific Ocean, he’s not actually traveling east to west but rather northwest to southeast.
- Two Caribbean cruises taught me where several of the smaller Caribbean islands are located in relation to one another. Perviously they had been mere names floating out there in no particular order.
- Visiting the West Bank showed me the network of Israeli roads and checkpoints, and the close proximity of Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages, so that the conflict would never again be vague or abstract in my mind.
By the way, if your travels ever take you to my town of Johnson City, Tennessee, don’t get your directions from the “Wagon Wheel” song by Old Crow Medicine Show. It’ll tell you that we are “west from the Cumberland Gap.” We’re in fact a two-hour drive to the east.