I'm sure I'm not alone in my love of maps. I can be just as happy with an open atlas as with a fine novel or newsy magazine. Talk about getting lost in a book: Once I commence my journey through the world of maps, I become irretrievably consumed, oblivious to the world around me.
I'm not sure what exactly it is that draws me in. The color-coded countries? The shapes of the land masses? The exotic place names? Surely it must be some alluring combination of all these.
The thing is, can there be a better way to indulge one's wanderlust short of hitting the road in the flesh? Here, then, is my perfect evening: I pour a mug of hot chocolate, adjust the pillows on the sofa, turn on the reading lamp, curl up in my quiet corner, and open an atlas. Where shall I commence my journey this time? Australia? The American South? Myanmar? It really doesn't matter, for despite my chosen trajectory, I always get diverted into interesting byways, backwaters, and vest-pocket principalities.
As I said, the colors themselves offer one aspect of the attraction, but the place names give one much more to chew on. Just listen to this pleasant poetry: Gulf of Bothnia, Andalucía, Sevastopol, the Cheviot Hills, Kandahar, Elbasan, the Tunguska ... and on and on.
And then there are the – to English speakers – unpronounceables: Kyzyl, Bydgoszcz, Hódmezövásárhely, Nyainqêntanglha.
When I delve into a map, I feel as if I am sinking my arms up to the elbows in one of those proverbial chests of jewels Middle Eastern folk heroes are always chancing upon – so many riches, so much color, and so many worlds within worlds.
As I run my eyes over the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the Hungarian plain, the endless Siberian forest, or the tiniest of islands in the South Pacific, I find myself considering that there are lives being led in these places. At the very moment I am looking down at Bhutan and running my little finger over that tiny Himalayan state, I imagine a man – a farmer, perhaps – carrying his young son to bed and pausing to whisper a few last loving words to him in a language indecipherable to me. Then it's lights out in Bhutan, and I am off to another wonderland where dawn may be breaking.
Living in a university town, I often bump into people from far-flung places. When I do, I invariably follow up our meeting with a visit to a map. Such was the case recently when I was introduced to a student from Moldova. I immediately realized that I knew very little about Moldova, except that it was in Eastern Europe. After leaving the student, I made a beeline for home and seized my atlas. Ah, there it is: a tiny place wedged between Ukraine and Romania. Capital: Kishinev, my atlas said (sometimes it's spelled Chisinau); languages: Russian and Romanian.
I felt better for the effort.
A lot has been made about the poor reading habits of American college students. But this pales when one considers their almost total ignorance of geography. Years back, during the turmoil in Nicaragua during the 1980s, I recall a survey of university students showing that most of them had no idea where Nicaragua was. Some put it up near Canada. Likewise, a large number of students at a Florida university couldn't find Miami on the map.
This, to me, was unfathomable. I had always thought that the need to know one's geographic position vis-à-vis other towns, states, and countries was innate.
I realize that I am not going to change the ways of the world in this regard. But I do have it in me to influence my little corner. In our living room we have four atlases and a globe. Whenever my 10-year-old son and I learn of an event in some part of the world, I challenge him to find the place on the globe. As long as we make a game of it, he's enthusiastic. I admit to a modicum of pride as I watch him spin the orb with a practiced hand, braking at the appropriate hemisphere, and homing in on the site in question.
Last night we saw a report on the evening news about a South Pacific nation, Kiribati, that is being consumed by rising sea levels. Within a generation it will disappear, its hundred thousand residents dispersed to other lands.
It's a sad story, and Anton was sympathetic to the place and its people. He dutifully went over to the globe, ran his finger between Australia and Hawaii, and then, "Ah! Here it is."
Even when Kiribati is no more, my son may be one of the few Americans who knows that it once was.