The cliché is that most people think geography is about memorizing state capitals and the primary exports of countries – and that is in fact where my journey with geography started, in 7th grade. We would sharpen our pencils and get ready for yet another quiz, trying to remember if Togo is between Ghana and Benin, or the other way around…

When I arrived at UC Berkeley to start college, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, so I picked up the catalog and started thumbing through it, looking for classes that sounded interesting. For those of you that know what these were like, the catalog was just like a telephone book – thick, heavy, dense and printed on newsprint.

As it turned out, many of the classes that attracted me were in – of all things – the Geography department. Geography offered an incredible diversity of topics. I took classes on the shape of rivers, the migration of species, why windmills are where they are, making maps, and the economics of cities, just to name a few. I learned that geography covers, well, just about everything – and that it is a highly integrative was of looking at things. Geography is about the shape and phenomena of the earth, its inhabitants, and how they interact. It’s about how everything is connected.

Geography isn’t just about capitols. It’s a lens to look at the world. You can think about the geography of anything: where languages are spoken, mapping the Internet, the rise of the “creative class”, sacred geography, or maps as an art form. In many ways I am a geographer at heart, and this way of thinking informs many other parts of my life.

Read my posts on geography for more!

Situational Awareness

One of the first things I remember learning from my father is that you don’t stop in the middle of the trail. If you need to stop to drink some water or tie your shoes, step aside so that people coming along behind you aren’t forced to stop along with you. 

This was a basic lesson in situational awareness and respect for others. In adult life I am always surprised when I see someone thinking far enough ahead to accomplish these simple acts of respect. Surprised that is, albeit pleasantly, because it’s so damn rare. In the States we’ve become resigned to the fact that everyone drives in the left lane, seemingly without a thought to the long-lost rule of “keep right except to pass”. In markets and trains and on trails and sidewalks I constantly encounter others simply standing in the middle of the way – and not always because they are staring into their smartphones. Just now I was moving down the aisle of a train with my rolling bag in tow and a woman leaning out into the aisle several rows up saw me approach, looked me in the eye even, and then turned her back to me and continued with whatever she was doing. Now, I’m sure she had something important to do, but when I reached her a few seconds later I had to stop, ask her to move out of the way, which of course caused us both some minor frustration, and then continue on my way. With a little bit of situational awareness she could have simply tucked herself into the row for a second as I passed, which would have given us both the satisfaction of a job well done (on her hand) and being noticed and cared for (on mine).

“Way” means road (check?). It’s impossible for me to imagine really, how one’s brain could operate in a manner so disconnected from others, from one’s surroundings. It’s also one of the basic building blocks of civilization – that is, giving a shit about someone other than yourself. This is part of what makes life better, and in many ways we’ve lost it.

Not perfectly informed

I like being informed but not perfectly informed.

These days it’s very easy to get nearly perfect information. Google Maps is comprehensive and up-to-the-minute. TripAdvisor covers the planet, as does AirBnb and Uber. If you’re just about anywhere you can buy a local SIM card, turn on cellular roaming, and never get lost or have a bad meal.

It’s no accident that some of my best travel experiences have been guided by crappy, out of date maps. I do read guidebooks and use all the online services, but I also like to leave something out. Read up, and then leave the data at home. Ask around. See what you can figure out from something in another language. Turn left three times. Have fun!