2001. I am sitting in a “classroom” in a monastery on the grounds of a 17th century hacienda in the Andes learning about Ecuador. We have a map and a stack of stickers. We’ve studied the geography of the country from the tropical Pacific coast to the Amazon jungle in the east and up to the snow and ice and glaciers in the central highlands. We located the spot on the map where, only a few hours earlier, we stood on the equator. There are stickers for the country’s primary natural resources (oil, timber, fish, and hydropower) to distribute amongst places with pretty names — Babahoyo, Riobamba, Milagro (Miracle). We’ve talked about the natural hazards that people here have always lived with, such as earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and floods. There are more than 25 volcanoes on mainland Ecuador, a country about the size of the state of Nevada, and several others offshore in the Galapagos Islands. Some of them we’ve hiked or enjoyed from a distance — Pichincha, Cayambe, Cuicocha, and Imbabura.
We are a group of parents and kids on an adventure. Outside our window Imbabura looms over this valley with its head in the clouds. At 15,190 feet it is not as high as several other peaks in Ecuador, but it is still higher than all US peaks in the lower 48 states. I will learn more today about the geography of Ecuador in this old monastery at the foot of a long-extinct volcano than I ever learned in a regular classroom.
Geography was part of the curriculum when I was growing up, but it seemed that we only got around to it when there was extra time. The other core social studies courses always came first. I read recently that, although geography is a part of the “No Child Left Behind Act,” it has not been funded like the other core courses. This is too bad as a keen knowledge of geography can enhance understanding of so many other aspects of living in this world. It’s easier to understand international politics, for example, if you know something about the geographic characteristics of a country and why that matters — whether it’s located on the sea or landlocked, traversed with rivers or barren desert, the existence of natural resources and/or natural hazards, etc. Geography is often at the root of problems among nations, including border disputes and war.
I grew up in Appalachia where land is almost sacred and plots are passed down from one generation to the next. I recall more than a few “border” disputes over the years. In my book To Come and Go Like Magic an elderly substitute English teacher is determined to teach students about the larger world instead of the smaller universe of adjectives and adverbs. My inspiration for Miss Matlock (the fictitious teacher) was my real fifth grade teacher who took our class on an imaginary journey across the US to Mexico in plastic dime store cars. We had a great time learning geography without even realizing we were doing school work. For some kids nothing beats hands-on learning.
What we parents and kids got that day in the old monastery in the Andes with our stickers and map was a great introduction to understanding the country and its culture in a way that would help us become a part of it for a short while and have a meaningful experience that would last for years. I still recall the small things, like the scent of the wood fires at night and the pretty blue Lily of the Nile flowers in the gardens and the first crow of the roosters at daybreak.
This past week I was reminded yet again of that country when 12-year-old Sathwik Karnik from Massachusetts won the 25th annual National Geographic Bee by correctly naming Chimborazo, a mountain peak in Ecuador, as the peak on Earth that’s farthest from the earth’s center.
After spending a few days in the Andes in the spring of 2001, we had flown from Quito to the Galapagos Islands and stopped enroute in the coastal city of Guayaquil. On a clear day from that city along the Pacific Ocean the summit of Chimborazo can be seen more than 100 miles away. I didn’t know that peak was the farthest one from the earth’s center. It’s a small world — and a large world — and I’m thrilled every day I learn something new about it.