#61 (Part of the Africa series)

As this post goes live, I am hopefully somewhere between Dallas, Texas and Cape Town, South Africa. Hopefully I am moving, rather than sitting in an airport wondering when (or if) I will move.

U.S. students are really bad at geography, as evidenced by articles like this one, entitled “U.S. Students are Really Bad at Geography” and a hundred others with similar titles over the years. We read them and think, “Wow. U.S. students are really bad at geography,” and then we go back to watching Survivor XVVXI, which is happening on some island, in some ocean, somewhere in the world, because figuring out where is just too much trouble.

One of the things that has slowly dawned on me as we have had the opportunity to travel is that my knowledge of world geography is totally awful; if I drew out where the continents are, my map would look like it was drawn by a fifth grader (in case you haven’t heard, U.S. students are really bad at geography). They are even worse at writing, but that’s a teacher’s rant for another day.

We who dwell in the state of Texas are particularly bad at this, as evidenced by our experience when we returned to visit some of my relatives after moving to Indiana in the 1980’s. They asked, somewhat skeptically, if we liked it ‘up there’ and then added helpfully, “We visited Vermont,” which suggests that some school systems may in fact be using the map below, which I had always assumed was just a joke. The students who are terrible at geography apparently don’t get any better at it as they age.enhanced-buzz-wide-23907-1332793031-6

So here are a few quick items for you to test your own geographic expertise. These are true/false. No cheating.

  1. If you board a ship in England and drive straight west (left on your 5th grade classroom map) across the ocean, you will land in New England, just like the pilgrims did.
  2. Moscow is much colder than Scotland, since it is much farther North.
  3. South Africa is a country, while Africa is a continent.
  4. If you fly straight east (to the right) from the southern tip of South America you will arrive first in Africa, and then in Australia.
  5. If you visit South Africa you should go ahead and visit Antarctica as well, since you are practically there already
  6. Africa is large.

OK, let’s find out how badly you did.

  1. If you leave England and head straight west you will wind up in Canada. England is way north of us, which I learned my first day in Oxford when I woke up at 4:30 with sunshine coming in the window. Trivia fact: if you have seasonal depression you might not want to move to a country where winter days are very, very short. But summer there totally rocks.
  2. Edinburgh, Scotland is actually slightly further north than Moscow, which means it gets really cold there. Makes the whole kilt thing even stranger, but those Scottish men just gotta have their “FREEEEEEEEEEEEEE-DOM!”
  3. South Africa is a country, North Africa is a region, and Africa is a continent full of countries (and regions). Given how often governments change in Africa, there could be a new country called North Africa at any moment, though as of right now there is not.
  4. If you fly east from the tip of South America, the first major landmass you will reach is…the tip of South America. South America stretches so far south that is has penguins. Seriously. People are all alone down there, flying repeatedly from place back to the same place for no obvious reason.
  5. I thought South Africa must be close to Antarctica, since they are both way, way down there. Nope. It’s actually another 4,000 miles to Antarctica, which means that from South Africa it’s actually closer to fly to Brazil (in South America). Is your mental map getting all jumbled up yet?
  6. Africa is not large; it is gigantic, as in large enough to hold the US, China, and all of Europe. On my mental map it was kind of a mirror image of South America, which is actually its scrawny cousin, at roughly 60% the size. Just for reference, I assumed our current trip would consist of a long flight from Dallas to London, followed by a shorter hop down to South Africa. In truth, that second leg is a third longer than the first. Londoners can reach Los Angeles more quickly than they can reach Cape Town.


How did you do? I began realizing all this many years ago on my first trans-Pacific flight. We were 40,000 feet up, which means you can see more than 200 miles in every direction, and I saw nothing but water. We were traveling around 600 miles per hour, which means we covered close to 600 miles every single hour (just checking to see if you’re paying attention) and for ten straight hours we flew and flew and flew and I saw nothing but water. And on that flight I began to realize how incredibly brave (or foolhardy) the early explorers in their tiny wooden boats were, and I began to grasp how huge the world really is. Once we reach South Africa we can’t really go much farther. The farthest possible earthly location from Texas lies in the Indian Ocean, midway between South Africa and Australia, and we would be wet and cold there. So we’re going about as far as we can without a seaplane and a wet suit.

One of the 3 P’s of happiness is perspective. As a lifelong homebody I have slowly concluded that it’s tough to really understand just how little you know without leaving home. Malcolm Gladwell paraphrased an old Yiddish proverb this way: To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish. If you only ever see one tiny slice of the world you will not only assume the whole world is that way, you will assume that you know way more than you do. Kind of like the city official in Lubbock, who confidently asserted after a rare snowstorm that the city didn’t plow its streets because, “Plowing doesn’t work. It just makes huge piles of snow,” a statement which makes perfect sense in dry West Texas, but which seemed like lunacy to me after having spent just one winter in a region with actual snow experience and literal fleets of snow plows.

Until you go, you don’t know how much you don’t know.     ~Mark Phillips, 2017

Finally, that first trans-Pacific flight did something to me that rarely happens: it made me feel small. And while I am totally down with good self-image, and confidence, and all those nice pop-psych ideas, it’s quite freeing to realize that ultimately the world will spin merrily on regardless of whether you get the promotion, or score the touchdown or ace your world geography test. And oh by the way, while we are stressing about which $5.00 coffee drink to choose, the average wage earner in Africa will take home $2.00 today. Africa is not just geographically far from where you and I live.

So travel, physically if you can, and definitely by reading good books and watching Planet Earth instead of The Bachelor Season 35. Start noticing and exploring the lives and places that you pass every day while you are engrossed with your phone. People who see themselves as big and other people as small, tend to see all their own ‘stuff’ as huge, and all their decisions as critical, and they tend to stress over every single one of them. And they often view the world through some pretty dingy, unhappy glasses.

If you can realize that you really are small, and the world really is huge, it will make a lot of your life worries smaller as well. After all, if you can come to grips with the fact that you’re not really all that, then your problems will shrink commensurately.

Let’s get small.             ~ Steve Martin


Visit MarkAndLauraPhillips.com to see posts from both of us as we travel.