Every time I return home from a trimester abroad, I find that some mischievous hands have misplaced a couple pins on my big world map. All of the pins on the Caribbean will be scattered on the carpet below, a region equal in size and elevation to a baby's hand. There will be a few pins in the middle of the ocean, adjacent to the sea monster or the three-masted ship that make this modern map look old and nostalgic.
I mounted this Barnes & Noble purchase from 2007 on foam core with the hopes that, some day in the near future, I would have it hung predominantly on my bedroom wall, with little red pins pimpling every continent denoting the lands I knew firsthand.
I'm no Columbus. Why a map?
I had high standards when I bought this map. It couldn't look like it belonged in a 5th grade classroom, with excessive labels and primary colored-countries; it had to be a little antique in appearance and visually pleasing to the eye – something I could stare at for decades.
When not tampered with by my niece and nephews, the map and its pins act as a visual reminder of the journeys I've taken that I never thought were possible, ones formerly seen as too formidable or expensive. The blank spaces on the map inspire what newspapers now often fail to evoke: a curiosity for lands and cultures that dip below our usual radars.
Wait...where'd this desire even come from? Did I watch too much PBS as a child? Why and how did we get embedded with an attraction to maps and a desire to view ourselves as scurvy-infested navigators of the world? Do we all have the cartographer's gene?
How do maps, things we've recently revolutionized with satellite mapping and mobile advancements, still have a hold on us?
At the root of wanderlust
While in Costa Rica, one of the TGS students gave a presentation on eco-conscious travel and posed a question to the audience that made everyone wriggle on their wooden benches:
Do you travel because of interest or to make yourself interesting?
I certainly started with motivations rooted in both camps. I really wanted a bangin' photography portfolio, one with lions in the savannah and flowing saris in front of the Taj Mahal. I thought it would make me a more intriguing option in a sea of people who love snapping photos for a living.
While I did want to expand my small town persona, I also found the prospect of experiencing those places firsthand too exciting to handle. I actually had to take sleeping pills every night for weeks prior to my first global circumnavigation.
On Semester at Sea, I loved watching our closed circuit TV with the GPS location of the MV Explorer, especially on the day we did a figure 8 and sped away from pirates through the Straits of Malaca. Every morning, I plotted our coordinates on this fresh world map of mine, mounted with magnets on the wall of what we called "The Dungeon Layer" on Deck 2 by the engine room. My blog entries all started with "Day" and the appropriate number.
Captain's Log: Day 19 ...Lat. -16.67, Long. -27.74 ...still wet out there
Having never watched Star Trek or read books on the great nautical explorers, I'm not sure why I felt the urge to plot our course, log my experiences spatially and daily, and obsess over the jagged edges of borders and coastlines on my antique-looking map.
It was also perplexing to learn, in my Oceanography course, that 71% of Earth looks essentially the same–the way Pi Patel viewed it for 227 days alongside a hungry Richard Parker–and that so little of that oceanic coverage is charted.
We spend most of our time and attention on the lands that sprinkle the planet, especially the ones we inhabit or visit.
Maps and my world view today
I'm a little sheepish today about stating my "country count" for fear that keeping one implies that I view countries like beers on a Century Club checklist. But I really believe this insatiable urge to crank up that number comes from mild OCD and the mental world map that lays the foundation of my global understanding.
Countries start off as blank spaces with crisp and defined borders on my mental map. Prior to visiting that place, I cannot visualize the landscape, even the well-documented destinations of coffee table books. I don't know what its people look like or where they buy their food. I can't imagine the terrain between its cities or villages. It's hard for me to connect and therefore empathize, a global citizen essential.
As soon as I land in a new country, though, that blank space begins revealing the faces and places that are quickly accumulating in my mind. Those new scratch-off world maps come close to what seems to go on in there. Today, that mental map looks like this (now including Costa Rica), and it still gets me excited.
Years of travel later, that fascination for maps has gone nowhere but up. I just threw a party for a friend of mine with a global travel theme and bought a similar map for her own wall, to help her plan a four-month globe-spanning honeymoon. Maybe it's just an inevitable extension of my interest in travel, like claiming I love breathing because it keeps me alive. But I don't really believe that; there's something that sparks the imagination and promises endless stories and opportunities to feel alive.
This man explains it well...
Simon Garfield's On the Map gobbled me whole, from the moment I spotted it on the bookstore shelves and immediately justified its bulk on my next trip, a trimester in Greece. After all, I was headed to the near center of the Earth, according to Mercator, and I felt like I needed the background knowledge to be able to explain why maps intrigue me so.
Garfield filled in every angle on the mapping topic with thorough research and lovely storytelling. There's far more to it than the discoveries of a round planet and a new world: he explains that California once looked like an island, tells the story of the first treasure hunt, and shows the London-based maps that halted Cholera and the second World War. He's an entertaining speaker as well.
I started reading this book on my parents' couch in Indiana and ended it while sipping a freddo latte in the sun and eavesdropping on a spirited conversation in Greek, having traversed the very globe whose projections I was studying. Upon flipping to the Acknowledgements page, I returned to the start, hoping that the book magically transformed into part 2 of itself.
But alas, I am only left with a deeper admiration for cartography, a better understanding of the accessories of my life, and an awareness of the things that evoke my cherished memories and imagination.
Those are some solid takeaways.
I didn't realize companies made book teasers, but here's the "On the Map" teaser, made by Penguin Books. Give this a read and comment below if you also get inspired by looking at the world's reflection.