Are You Smarter Than A Congressman?

Are you smarter than a Congressman? Answer one geography question, and let’s see. Is Guam a foreign country? With a 50/50 chance of getting the right answer, let’s hope you chose wisely. The answer is a resounding “NO!” If that was your response (guess?), you are smarter than at least one sitting federal legislator.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican representing Georgia, learned a geography lesson the hard way. And by hard way, I mean she publicly made a geographic misstatement. Taylor’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (“CPAC”) in February included the statement, “…our hard-earned tax-dollars should just go for America not for what? China, Russia, the Middle East, Guam….” I’m not sure why little old Guam was lumped together with those large and daunting countries and a volatile world area, but Guam is definitely not foreign. Yes, Marjorie, Guam is part of the U.S.

Some folks may be scratching their heads and saying to themselves, “I know Guam is not one of the 50 states, so how can that be?” Answer? The United States is composed of more than just 50 states; in addition to states, Uncle Sam counts some territories, including Guam, as part of his homeland too. The island territory may not be a state, but its residents are U.S. citizens, and Guam sends a (non-voting) delegate to the U.S. Congress.

The current delegate from Guam to Congress is Michael F. Q. San Nicholas (“MFQSN” for short). Since he can’t vote, MFQSN has a bit more time on his hands than representatives in Congress. Accordingly, he arranged to provide an impromptu geography lesson to Rep. Greene. Accompanied by three dozen National Guard troops from Guam, MFQSN marched over to Greene’s office in the Capitol bearing a big basket containing cookies and guidebooks on Guam. The guidebooks, to no one’s surprise, made abundantly clear that Guam is a part of the United States. Unfortunately, Rep. Greene was absent from class that day, being out of her office at the time the Guamanians came a calling.

Although Rep. Greene has been criticized for her geographic blunder, I think she’s in a big boat of people who aren’t educated about Guam. My memory may have dimmed a bit over the years (OK, decades) since I was in high school, but I don’t recall ever studying Guam in geography. Additionally, I don’t remember helping my kids do geography homework concerning Guam. So, I think it is a safe assumption most Americans need a crash geography course, Guam 101. Guam, here we come!

How does one get to Guam? Westward ho! Guam is a jaunt of 5,800 miles from San Francisco to the western north Pacific Ocean. In fact, Guam is so far west that it’s actually the westernmost part of the United States. Due to its proximity to the International Date Line, this U.S. territory’s unofficial motto is “Where America’s Day Begins.”

The island, part of the Mariana Island archipelago in Micronesia, is volcanic in origin and is ringed with steep cliffs along its coast. Guam covers an area of 210 square miles and provides a home to an estimated 168,801 people and serves as the location for 19 villages. The capital, Hagatna (formerly known as Agana), is a bustling village of 1,051 residents. With a tropical rainforest climate , absolutely no one should be surprised that the territory’s economy is dependent primarily on tourism.

The indigenous people of the island are the Chamorros. Their language and English are the official languages of Guam. Presumably, the Chamorros are wonderful bakers as MFQSN filled his basket with Chamorro Chip Cookies to deliver to Rep. Greene. Baking supplies are not locally grown though; Guam must import most of its food.

Ferdinand Magellan, whom I am certain U.S. citizens studied about in school, arrived on Gaum on March 6, 1521. That day is celebrated as Discovery Day by Gaumanians. The Kingdom of Spain ruled Guam for about four centuries, but that European control ended when the U.S. occupied the island after Spain’s defeat in 1898 in the Spanish-American War. Japan occupied Guam during World War II.

Guam officially became a U.S. territory as a result of the Organic Act of 1950 (doesn’t that name make you think of food?), and its people were granted U.S. citizenship. As a result of Guam’s territorial status, its residents are U.S. citizens by birth. The islands’ official name is the U.S. Territory of Guam, and the U.S. dollar is its official currency.

Pouring big bucks into the island’s economy are the Department of Defense installations on Guam. The territory occupies a strategic location, and one-third of its land is owned by the U.S. armed forces. Military installations situated on Guam include Andersen AFB, which is the most important U.S. air base west of Hawaii, U.S. Naval Base Guam, and Marine Corps Base Blaz. Guam was a major base of operations for the Air Force and Navy during World War II.

Lest one think that Guam is nothing but tourists and military, think again. The island is home to the University of Guam, the only public university in the western Pacific. I’d imagine its students may be tempted to lounge on the island’s beaches sipping tuba, a local fermented coconut drink, rather than hitting the books though.

Tourists stream to the island through the island’s only public airport, the Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport. And no matter how many tubas a tourist drinks, they ought to easily remember the airport code of GUM. If they imbibe too many tubas, tourists can claim they were merely verbalizing the USPS abbreviation for Guam, GU, when speaking incoherently.

In the end, perhaps freshman Rep. Greene’s geographical gaffe was a good thing. It provided a teachable moment (or 5 if you read this whole blog post) for Americans to learn more about their country. Surprise! The USA is bigger than you thought and includes exotic and faraway locations outside the continental U.S. such as Guam. Perhaps Rep. Greene’s biggest contribution to her constituents and other American citizens is not serving them but spurring them to have a greater geographical grasp of the country we call home–one of which Guam has been a part for many years whether we knew it or not. Hopefully all of us in addition to an embarrassed member of Congress are smarter geographically now.

Just WONDER-ing:

If you were given a globe, could you pick out Guam’s location? Were you aware Guam was a U.S. territory? After reading this blog post, do you deem your geographic education adequate? Why or why not?

Wrapping Our Heads Around World Geography

We Americans like to think we are so smart. Why even tiny tots in this country know how to use a cell phone, change TV channels with  a remote, and play games on an iPad. Nevertheless, Americans are woefully deficient when it comes to knowledge of geography. We probably couldn’t figure out where Carmen Sandiego was on a map even if we were told the city and country where she was located.

My lack of geographical proficiency was brought to my attention back in April when I was in Washington, D.C. playing tourist. On my tourist bucket list was going down Embassy Row to check out all the foreign embassies. While I recognized the names of all the countries and could place them on the correct continent, I realized that I likely couldn’t point some of them out on a map or give pertinent information about them.

Let’s take Malawi, for example. Ding, ding, ding. Of course Malawi is in Africa. I knew that. OK, but what else do I know about Malawi–other than how to spell it? Um, nothing. Trying to rectify my ignorance, I pulled out a trusty geography textbook–not. I took a modern approach and did research about Malawi online. Perhaps one reason that I (and most likely you too) don’t know about Malawi is that it is among the world’s least developed countries; its economy is heavily based on agriculture. But surely you’re familiar with the country’s capital of Lilongwe. OK, OK. I didn’t know that either. Nor did I know off the top of my head that Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa. Hanging my head in shame.

At least if I am geographically ignorant, I am in good company. The younger generation has been documented to be appallingly lacking in general geographic knowledge. In fact, nearly 75% of 8th graders tested below proficient in geography on the 2014 National Assessment Of Education Progress exam. And why should they be proficient? A majority of states today do not require geography courses in middle school or high school. Who needs such classes? I mean we all have a GPS on our cell phone, right? Siri can tell us where a city or country is located if we must know.

Sure we can rely on electronic devices to give us needed geographical information. But our understanding of the world around us and what is happening in it is much deeper if we know where current events are taking place. A truly informed person will have a basic understanding of not only WHAT is going on but WHERE it is occurring.

Let’s look at some news headlines from the past week to see what geographical locations we might need to know about. Anyone know where Fukuoka is and why it is in the news? More basic than that–WHAT is Fukuoka? Well, it’s a city which, before this week, I’d never heard of. I might have guessed it was in Japan, and I’d have been right. To my surprise I learned that Fukuoka is the sixth largest city in Japan. It’s located on the island of Kyushu, one of Japan’s largest islands.

Fukuoka was in the news because it was the setting for a meeting of the G-20 finance ministers. These economic bigwigs, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, needed to put their heads together to discuss revisions to trade rules and finances in light of technological change and protectionism. Given clashes between the U.S. and China (which countries we can ALL find on a map or globe) over trade and technology, the finance ministers are concerned about upsets to the global economy. Not sure why Fukuoka in particular was chosen for the meeting venue, although finance and Fukuoka both do begin with the letter “F.”

Not interested in world politics? How about sports? If so, you should know about Reims. Again, this is not a city about which I have ever heard. Reims is located about 85 miles northeast of Paris and is the unofficial capital of the Champagne wine-producing region. While I’m fairly sure we’ve all heard about that area, I doubt many of us could mark the spot where it’s located with an X on a map.

Some champagne was likely uncorked in Reims Tuesday when the U.S. opened its defense of the Women’s World Cup title with a win in a match against Thailand. Hurray for the red, white and blue! They blew away their opponent by a wide margin–13-0. This score is the most lopsided victory in World Cup history for either men or women. Shall we say the Thais got reamed? Or maybe Reimsed?

For those interested in planning a trip, recent news stories would give one pause when considering the Dominican Republic as a vacation destination. Perhaps you might want to know where that country is located so you can avoid it. Since last year several American tourists have suddenly fallen ill and died while at resorts in this Caribbean location. Furthermore, Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz was the victim of an attempted murder Sunday night outside a popular nightspot in his hometown of Santo Domingo, the country’s capital and largest city.

Looks like this island’s life involves death or brushes with it.Other than that, an informed person should know that the Dominican Republic is on the island of Hispaniola, an island it shares with Haiti. By area, the Dominican Republic is the second largest Caribbean nation after Cuba.

Let’s face it. The world may seem to be shrinking because we can probably call anyone anywhere in the world on a cell phone, connect with someone in a foreign country via the Internet, and see what’s happening on another continent in real time on CNN. But the seemingly smaller world contains people with large gaps in their geographical knowledge.

Sure, we can’t know everything about every place. But a good start to becoming geographically proficient is to take the time to determine where a place in the news is and some general information about it. And if we really want to go all out, we might consider having our kids taught some geography before they are sent out into the big wide world as adults.

JUST WONDER-ing: Did you take a geography class in high school? Do you think that geography should be a required subject? How geographically proficient do you think you are?






Gastronomic Geography

Geography was never that exciting a subject to me. I mean, isn’t it all about studying maps and learning about the earth’s surface? Yawn. As a political science major in college, I thought taking political geography might be interesting. Double yawn. But there is one type of geography which I can get passionate about–gastronomic geography.

Never heard of that subject? Neither had I. As a matter of fact, I just made the phrase up after my recent trip to Budapest, Hungary. There’s much to be said for learning about a country based on taste. Yup. That’s an approach that you can really sink your teeth into–literally and figuratively.

As a first time visitor to Hungary, I noticed that the country has some things which remind me of home. To no one’s surprise, the most apparent reminder  was a food establishment. I mean, is there anywhere in the world that McDonald’s isn’t located? Lest you think that a meal at the golden arches in a foreign land is the same as one back in the good old USA, let me set you straight.

Apparently the current and heavily advertised specialty sandwich at McDonald’s in Hungary is the Goosey Gustave. Sure it’s a hamburger, but it is not the type of hamburger Americans eat. The sandwich does not come with special sauce, but it does have some special ingredients–two juicy slices of grilled foie gras. For those who are fine dining challenged, you should be aware that foie gras is fat goose liver. Hungary is the largest exporter of goose liver in the world, so it should come as no surprise that they use foie gras in their food. But in a fast food hamburger??? SMH.

The first floor of the Central Market Hall in Budapest is a produce shopper’s paradise. A quick walk through this vast shopping venue leaves no doubt that paprika reigns supreme in Hungary. Strings of the peppers hang everywhere, decorating the market area like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Bags of paprika of various varieties (hot, sweet, smoked, etc.) are artfully packaged in red, green and white bags (the colors of the Hungarian flag) to attract a shopper’s eyes and hopefully his money.

Not only is Hungary a major supplier of commonly-used paprika, but that spice is also the signature spice of Hungarian cuisine. My taste buds were tickled by the use of paprika in goulash soup and chicken paprikash which I consumed while in the Hungarian capital. Paprika is also an ingredient in Liptauer, a Hungarian cheese spread which I made prior to leaving on my trip. So pervasive is this red spice in Hungarian cooking that I am apt to believe that the red in the Hungarian flag stands for paprika rather than for blood shed for the country.

When tourists in Hungary aren’t saying cheese taking a gazillion selfies, they are often sampling Hungarian cheese. Probably the most popular cheese in Hungary is Trappista, a traditional Hungarian semi-hard cow’s milk cheese. This cheese is heavenly, and not just because it is made by Trappist monks.  Hungarians use turo, or cheese curd, to make cheesecake. Good thing the Turks were booted from the country after 150 years of occupation; they used to collect taxes partially in cheese. After trying both the Trappista  and cheese curd cheesecake, I would gladly hand over currency in lieu of Hungarian cheese. But we can’t be too hard on the Turks since they brought paprika to Hungary.

The Turks controlled central Hungary for about 150 years. Their influence can clearly be seen on the country’s eating habits. Budapest is teeming with Turkish eateries including the pervasive Doner Kebab Express. In fact, the first lunch I ate in Budapest was at a Turkish restaurant. Nothing says Hungary like a gyro. Or is that hungry? Pork is also common in Hungarian dishes thanks to the Turks. During their raids, the Turks carted off domestic animals such as cows and sheep but observed a hands off policy for pigs; pigs were left behind because the Turks’ religion forbid the eating of pork. Hungarian food clued me into the impact of the Turks in Hungary; that impact was a bit surprising to me since Turkey does not border Hungary.

Sadly, my trip to Hungary had to come to an end. But I was not sad that I had the opportunity to sample the beloved street pastry kurtoskalacs on my last day in Budapest. The sweet treat, known as a spit cake or a chimney cake, is cooked on a spit over an open fire. The sugar coating attracts bees, and the cooking cake’s aroma attracts customers. The spiral cylinder (which resembles a chimney, hence the name chimney cake) can be filled with ice cream or other treats to enhance the sweet experience. I chose chocolate ice cream as my filling. I figured if the Hungarian pastry wasn’t my cup of tea, I’d still enjoy the ice cream. Yum! Double jackpot!!

All this food sampling paid educational dividends, although it probably added to my waistline as well. I’ve learned that Hungary is a big exporter of paprika and goose liver, that the Hungarians love cheese (albeit different cheese than Americans use), that there is a Turkish influence on Hungarian cuisine despite Turkey not bordering Hungary, and that both Americans and Hungarians love sweet treats, especially if ice cream can be added.

I am a firm believer that gastronomic geography is the way to go. Why I can feed my brain and my belly at the same time. Forget the maps to study geography. Just pass me a menu!

Just WONDER-ing: Do you enjoy sampling the food of another country when you travel? Does the culinary experience teach you anything about the country you are visiting? Do you remember meals in a foreign country more than facts about that country?













Hungary For Information

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it makes my life much more interesting.  Curious George gets into trouble checking things out, but Curious Alice get more enjoyment out of life by looking into things.  Digging for information is particularly fun when planning a trip to a new place.  With a trip to Budapest scheduled for the fall, I am hungry for information on Hungary right now.

If you took geography while in school, at this point you are shaking your head.  What could possibly be interesting about getting the facts and figures about a geographical location?  So Budapest is, yawn, the capital of Hungary.  If Alice gets excited about that information, she’s the real life of any party, you are sarcastically thinking.

I agree.  What we learned in geography in school about far off places was pretty dull and lame.  But with a shift of focus on the subjects considered, learning about new places is pretty cool.

Take Hungary for example.  In preparing for my upcoming trip, I am writing down a new fact each day.  But these aren’t just any facts.  These are fun facts.  Let’s consider what I’ve learned and see if you view geography in a different light.

VAMPIRES!!!  Got your attention? Anyone who knows anything about vampires knows that Dracula was from Transylvania.  Transylvania is a historical region in today’s central Romania.  But Transylvania was formerly part of the Kingdom of Hungary.  Romania borders Hungary on the east, so it’s entirely possible that vampires reside in Hungary or at least visit Hungary from neighboring Romania.  Good thing to keep in mind if I am checking out the nightlife in Budapest.

GYPSIES!!!  The Roma (Gypsies) are an officially recognized minority in Hungary.  In fact, they are the largest minority in the country and make up about 5% of the population.  Several hundred thousand Roma reside in the country.  The Roma are renowned musicians, but their music hardly uses instruments at all.  Thus, Cher’s  #1 hit “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” is not a traditional Gypsy song and unlikely to be heard being performed by Hungarian Roma.

BAR ETIQUETTE!!!  Yes, that phrase sounds like an oxymoron as the social graces are typically not a top priority in a bar.  But there’s at least one social rule to be sure and observe while in Hungary.  NEVER clink glasses full of beer.  The alleged historical reason for this prohibition is that the Austrians celebrated their victory over Hungary in 1849 with a few mugs of beer that were clinked together.  Should you ignore this bar etiquette, rude stares or a bar fight might be on tap for you. Not a problem for me–I don’t drink beer.

DRINKING BULL’S BLOOD!!!  Since I don’t consume beer, perhaps I should order Bull’s Blood instead.  Don’t worry.  No livestock would be slaughtered to fill my order.  Surprisingly, Hungary is a large wine producing country with 22 official wine regions.  Bull’s Blood of Eger is a famous red wine produced in Hungary’s Eger region.  The wine gets its name from something that happened in Eger in the 16th century.  Hungarian troops, who were defending the town of Eger from a Turkish siege, were fed local food and wine.  That wine included the red wine produced from nearby vineyards.  Rumor had it that the dark red wine had been fortified with bulls’ blood to give strength to the small band of Hungarian soldiers facing a much larger Turkish army; this provision saved Eger from sacking at that time.  No bull!

YOU’RE IN HOT WATER!!!  Budapest is only one of two capital cities in the world which has thermal springs.  Hungary’s capital boasts approximately 80 geothermal springs.  The Szenchenyi thermal spa bath complex with 18 pools (3 indoor and 15 outdoor) is the biggest in Europe.  Thermal baths differ from normal baths or swimming pools in that hot water is drawn up deep from the earth’s surface where temperatures are higher.  Think of them as a natural hot tub.  That’s the kind of hot water that I want to be in!

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING COUNTRY!!!  Hungary has literally shrunk since its inception.  Its current borders were set in 1920 by the Treaty of Trianon following World War I.  As the result of that treaty, Hungary lost 71% of its territory, 58% of its population and 32% of ethic Hungarians.  Clearly the losers took a figurative bath causing territorial shrinking.

HOT AND COLD!!!  No matter how you like your soup, you can get it in Hungary.  Some like it hot.  One of the hottest dishes on the European continent is a Hungarian soup called Halaszle, a spicy paprika-based river fish soup.  Some like it cold.  At the other extreme is a summer delicacy, chilled sour cherry soup (megyleves), made from the fruit of the sour cherry tree which is found in abundance in Hungary.  Eating megyleves would be the cherry on top of your dining sundae.

SEEING RED!!!  Hungary is a major source of commonly used paprika, a ground spice.  This red powder seasons many Hungarian dishes, including Hungarian goulash, a soup of meat and vegetables.  Paprika comes from a word meaning “pepper” and is a symbol of Hungarian cooking.  Nevertheless, Hungarians cannot take credit for initially cultivating the plant from which the spice comes.   The Turks grew that plant in 1529 in Buda (a city later combined with the city of Pest to form Budapest), and are likely seeing red at paprika’s association with Hungarians.

See how much fun you have had learning about Hungary by reading this post?  Geography can indeed be entertaining and educational at the same time.  You’ll be hungry for information on Hungary and other places as well if it the facts are presented in an appealing and palatable manner.  Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it was a boring lecture on dry geographical facts and figures that killed the cat’s curiosity.

Just WONDER-ing:  How much do you remember from taking geography in school? Do you think you will remember some of the fun Hungary facts from this post?  What fun facts would you want to know about a place where you intend to travel?