Geographical Ignorance

by Ekua on January 27, 2010 in general travel,rantastic

When I was preparing to leave for South America last July, I stopped by the grocery store to pick up anti-malarial tablets for an Amazon Basin excursion. I had this conversation with a pharmacist:

Pharmacist: Where are you heading?
Me: Bolivia and Peru
Pharmacist: You’re going to have a great time down there!
Me: Oh, Have you been there?
Pharmacist: No, but my nephew visited Costa Rica last year and had a fantastic time!


Sadly, she was just one of a few people who referenced someone visiting Costa Rica when I told them I was heading to Bolivia and Peru. To me, what’s most disturbing about people’s lack of awareness of country locations is the underlying inability to discern cultural differences. It seems that lumping Costa Rica with Peru and Bolivia is part of  an idea some people have that beyond the United States’ southern border is a homogeneous expanse of brown people “down there”.

And of course it goes beyond Latin America. There have been many times when an upcoming trip to Ghana or a discussion of my Ghanaian heritage has brought on such eye roll inducing questions as: Ghana, is that in the South Pacific? How can it be that English is the official language of Ghana? (Surely they must speak African there.) People don’t celebrate [insert holiday celebrated solely in the United States] in Ghana?

I’ve realized that my desire to travel fuels my desire to acquire geographical knowledge and vice versa. I know that not everyone gets as hot and bothered about thumbing through a gigantic atlas as I do. But it seems that increasing your knowledge of the world and the intertwining factors of it makes sense in a country and time where opportunities to stick to your own kind and avoid the issues of the world are decreasing. The National Geographic Education Foundation sums up more eloquently than I can why geographical literacy is important:

“Geography is about more than place names and locations. It analyzes and illuminates interconnections between people, places, and environments. In a world increasingly defined by a global economy, cultural migration, and mounting environmental challenges, geography is an essential prerequisite to citizenship and success in the future.”

Also, check out this interesting article: Geographical Ignorance is Bliss?

What are your thoughts on this subject? Does it frustrate you as well, or do you think I’m being too harsh? And I know I’m not the only traveler out there with sad but true tales of geographical ignorance. Feel free to share your own anecdotes!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lola January 27, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Haaaa. The pet peeve of most travelers. As frustratingly frustrating 😉 as it is, over the years, I’ve begun to realize (and accept) that everyone’s priorities in life are just inherently different.

As travelers, we must seek to educate and enlighten (and we should at every opportunity) others when they spew ignorance.

Hopefully you gave that pharmacist an impromptu geography lesson.

It’s the same reaction I got when I was asked by Nicaraguans why Africans were so violent and if we slept with animals. True story.

I seized the opportunity to teach a full-on “Geography of Africa” course, which touched on all aspects of its political, cultural, human, physical, religious, and social geography.

Needless to say, they went home enlightened, and they also begged for maps of Africa and the rest of the world which I left behind.

Long story short, your sentiments are definitely shared.


Ekua January 29, 2010 at 12:13 am

Haha, I wish I’d had time for Latin America 101, but I was pretty busy running around with last minute errands! Wow, Africans sleep with animals? It’s good that they were interested in hearing the real deal though!


Fly Girl January 27, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Nope, I don’t think you’re being harsh. It’s just the reality. Americans generally don’t learn or care about geography for the most part. I’ve learned not to react when post office clerks and random people don’t have a clue about the world. I think Lola is right, it’s not a priority for most people, eventhough it makes you a much more enlightened person. I’ll never forget when I visited Austria and a popular t-shirt explained “This is not Australia, it’s Austria!” Can you imagine? It boggles my mind how you can travel to a country and not even know what continent it’s on but that summs it up pretty well.


Ekua January 29, 2010 at 12:17 am

Yes, I’ve definitely heard the Austria and Australia mix up! And people seem to mix up Sweden and Switzerland as well.


Mary R January 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm

You’re right that people just don’t get that foreign countries are distinct from each other… maybe they sort of think of South America or Africa as a conglomeration of states like the US, and figure they are generally the same?

I think many people also just don’t understand the scale of how big the world is. When I was in Namibia years ago and there was an outbreak of ebola virus somewhere else in Africa, friends and family really thought I was threatened!


Ekua January 29, 2010 at 12:35 am

I guess when I look back at my high school history classes, what I remember of our study of Africa and South America was memorizing the country’s locations on a map and then having a quiz on it. People would make up rhymes to remember everything and then forget right after the quiz. And except for a outspoken old US History teacher, it was all presented from a “US is the best” one-sided view. Pretty sad. I went to a “good” high school and I’m sure many others in the US had similar experiences which is probably a huge part of why people view those continents the way they do.


Nancy January 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm

I totally feel you on the travel ignorance. I agree with Lola that it’s a great time to enlighten others (as long as the subject is willing). I can’t think of any specific anecdotes where people have some majorly stupid things about geography, but I know they’ve happened. 🙂


Ekua January 29, 2010 at 12:58 am

Haha, “as long as the subject is willing”… some people do revel in ignorance! I don’t mind sharing, especially when it comes to Ghana. People’s misconceptions about Africa are often the most disturbing!


Lauren Quinn February 1, 2010 at 11:03 am

So true! But to tell you the truth, I can’t really get down on people (Americans) whose knowledge of foreign countries and basic geography is woeful, or non-existent. Until I started traveling, I couldn’t tell you where anything was on a map. I remember being shocked that there were all these huge, million-person cities in Latin American that I’d never heard of. And I agree about education: I had to do the memorizing of countries and quiz thing in sixth grade (oh, California public schools), and retained about 0% of it. Guess that’s what happens when educators are forced to teach to standardized tests (but that’s another subject.)

I’d like to say I’m beyond geographic ignorance, but I still really only know the geography of places I’ve been. The Midwest remains an indiscernible, nebulous region between the last stop on the BART line and the westernmost reaches of the NYC subway system… “Where did you say you were from? Iowa? Arkansas? Same thing…”


Ekua February 1, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Hahaha, good points! I think I could now fully label the countries in South America, but not sure if I could label some of the states in the midwest. I guess I’d say that I’m best when it comes to the countries I’ve been to or want to go to.


Reannon February 6, 2010 at 4:56 pm

American’s geographical ignorance can be shocking, but mostly it just makes me sad. Sometimes I feel that being semi well-traveled is so isolating. I’ve lived and traveled through many places that people not only couldn’t find on a map but have never even heard of. When I came back after having this profound, life-altering experience in Nepal for example, I’d try to explain a bit about what it was like there and about one sentence in, people would interrupt and ask me if Nepal was a city in India. I gave up after that…

Sometimes I find it hard to even engage in a normal conversation with non-travelers. It’s like my travels have so far skewed my perspective that it’s become impossible to relate to people who’s version of reality is so limiting. Like at work, for example. My co-workers were interviewing this new guy who was from Georgia (the country), only they kept getting it confused with Russia. Furthermore, they asked him if “Russia was anything like the movie Anastasia” and one of my coworkers even said: “I could never live in Russia because I wouldn’t be able to handle not having a TV or a blow dryer.”

Ugh, I feel like such a snob for even writing this…But it’s definitely something I think about ALL THE TIME.


Ekua February 7, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Yeah, I felt like it might be stuck up to point out geographical ignorance, but screw that. I think the leaders of the Bush era were pretty successful at turning high knowledge or cultural standards into something “snobby” that one should feel guilty for having. In day to day matters, it might be simply frustrating or amusing, but on a larger scale, it’s potentially dangerous for mass amounts of people to be so unaware. And of course, that’s what some people want.


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