The Pacific Ocean: Is It Really True That One-Third Of Young Americans Can’t Find It?

While reading fellow Gadling blogger Chris Owen’s post about a Twitter mix-up between Chechnya and the Czech Republic, I was horrified to read that one-third of young Americans can’t find the Pacific Ocean.

I was horrified, but not surprised. I taught for several years in a community college and no amount of public ignorance surprises me anymore – not after a student handed in a paper stating that Iraq and Afghanistan were cities.

But I’m always suspicious of statistics. It’s a well-known fact that 85 percent of all statistics are wrong, so I emailed Chris and asked for his source, which turned out to be the Around the World geography project. They cite a National Geographic study that found 29 percent of U.S. 18-24 year olds couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean on an unlabeled map.

Looking at the original study, it turns out they got it wrong. “Only” 21 percent of those quizzed couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean. The 2006 study quizzed 510 Americans aged 18-24 on a number of geographic issues. The one that concerns us here was a blank map test to see if the participants could correctly point out certain countries and geographic locations. Boundaries were clearly labeled; they simply needed to match the shape and location with the country or ocean.

The Pacific Ocean wasn’t the only hard-to-find location. A staggering 63 percent couldn’t find Iraq, despite near-constant media coverage. Closer to home, 50 percent couldn’t find New York state. Check out the link to read more disheartening statistics.

I suppose we could blame the educational system, but 48 percent of the participants said they had a geography class sometime between sixth grade and senior year, so I suspect the blame lies with parents for not instilling a desire to learn about the world and the young Americans themselves for not realizing this information could be useful.

When I was discussing this post at the breakfast table my7-year-old scoffed, “I know where the Pacific Ocean is!”

I decided to test him. He correctly pointed out the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean and Red Seas. I stumped him on the Sea of Azov, though. Can’t let him get too big for his britches.

Of course he enjoys a key advantage – parents who channel his natural childhood curiosity into learning about the world around him and foster an enthusiasm for exploration and discovery.

In other words, we give a shit about his education.

[Image of the Pacific Ocean courtesy NASA]

Americans Shouldn’t Be Afraid To Travel

Obama is a Muslim. The Moon landings were faked. The South should have won the Civil War.

People believe a lot of stupid things, and one of the stupidest is that Americans are somehow at much higher risk than other nationalities when traveling. Many Americans I know won’t travel to foreign countries, and I’ve even seen Americans wearing Canadian flags in the hope that it will make them safe. Many Americans seem to think they’re targets, especially in Muslim areas. My own personal experience says otherwise.

Although I’m Canadian, I lived in the States a long time and have an American accent. Most people assume I’m American, so I know what it’s like to travel as one. I’ve been to lots of places that my American friends think I’m crazy to visit, like Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine and Somaliland. Instead of being threatened or insulted, I’ve been welcomed.

Again and again I’ve told my American friends how surprisingly safe it is to adventure travel around the world, yet they persist in the belief that what I do is crazy or brave or just plain stupid, when in reality the only real threat I face is from the microbes. Oh yes, foreign microbes have kicked my Western ass on numerous occasions. Damn foreign microbes. The people have been much nicer. Here are two examples of “exotic” locations where I was assumed to be American and treated well.In Isfahan, Iran, I got into a conversation with a religious teacher at a madrasa. This guy decided to give me a driving tour of his city. I hopped into his car and we zipped around Isfahan to see the sights, including the many beautiful blue-tiled mosques.

At one point he asked, “Do you have mosques like this in America?” He seemed surprised when I told him I wasn’t American. His treatment of me after he found out I was Canadian was no better or worse than it was when he thought I was from the Great Satan. While he probably wasn’t terribly fond of the U.S. government, like most people he could distinguish between people and governments. Yes, I’ve said that before, but it bears repeating.

In the predominantly Muslim city of Harar, Ethiopia, I was a regular member of a daily qat chewing session. One of the younger guys there talked to me every day in order to improve his English. The Arab Revolution was all over the TV so we had plenty to talk about. Several weeks into my stay he asked, “You are a Jew, yes?”

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

“But you are American. Ninety percent of Americans are Jews.”

“Actually it’s more like two percent, and I’m not American anyway.”

So this Muslim guy not only thought I was an American, but a Jewish American and still had no problem hanging out with me.

That’s not to say that I’ve never had problems while abroad. I live part time in Spain, and four or five times I’ve had Spaniards start bitching to me about “damn Yankees” needing to go home. Every single time they’ve been lone, older drunk guys – losers, in other words.

And are you really going to shut yourself off from the world just because of a few losers?

For a slightly different take on this from a real American, check out Dave Seminara’s post on National Pride While Abroad.

Photo courtesy flickr user Cali4beach. One of these ladies is actually Australian. Appearances can be deceiving!

Photo of the day: behold the power of Cadbury chocolate

Depending on which side of the pond you hail from, you probably have a strong opinion on which Cadbury chocolate is superior. Americans live for the season when the Cadbury Creme Egg (now actually made by Hershey) is available to provide way more sugar in one sitting than is advisable, while Brits find the Yankee versions of their confectionary too sweet and consider the simple Dairy Milk bar to be perfection. Flickr user andreakw has introduced a third contender: Cadbury Australia, which offers a fairly dazzling array of flavors, from white chocolate (I personally find it an affront to chocolate, but others love it) to Turkish delight. Any Aussies want to compare their Cadbury to the American or British varieties?

Upload your chocolate or other sweet travel pix to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use one for a future Photo of the Day.

State Department website lists where American travelers have died abroad

The LA Times recently linked to a tool on the US State Department website that allows you to search by date range and country to find out where around the world Americans have died of “non-natural” causes.

The information goes back to 2002. No names or details of the deaths are disclosed, they are only reported as suicide, drowning, drug-related, homicide, disaster, or vehicle, air or maritime accident, and listed according to date. The disclaimer on the site states that the stats may not be entirely accurate however, as they only represent those deaths disclosed to the State Department.

So can this tool tell you where you should or shouldn’t go based on your likelihood of drowning, getting into an accident, or being killed as a tourist there? Not really. Circumstances of the deaths are, of course, not disclosed and there is no distinction between expats or people who have lived in the country for many years and those who are tourists visiting on vacation.

Even countries with high numbers of deaths shouldn’t automatically be crossed off your list. Mexico, for example, lists 126 American deaths in 2009. 36 of those were homicides. Sounds like a big number, but not as big compared to the 2.6 million Americans who fly to Mexico every year. As the LA Times points out, “the odds overwhelmingly suggest that your vacation will be nonfatal.”

Outback Australia: Where are the Americans?

Close to 300,000 people from outside of Australia visit the Northern Territory every year. And if I noticed anything about those tourists while I was there it’s that the vast majority do not speak English. That is by no means a judgmental statement. I enjoyed sharing meals and experiences with travelers from France and Germany. But I was often the only “Yank” for miles. The more time I spent in the Territory, the more I was taken by how I was a bit of a novelty there. “New York,” as most of the locals would begin their greetings, “sure is a long ways from here.” But is it that much farther than Paris or Berlin or London? Why don’t more Americans travel to the Northern Territory?

According to Tourism Northern Territory, 51,000 people from North American visit every year (details on travelers solely from the United States were not available). That pales in comparison to the 62,000 Brits and 136,000 residents of other European countries who make their way to the Outback every year.

Americans surely are traveling to Oz. Anyone who has spent time in Sydney or at the Great Barrier Reef can attest to bumping into American students, backpackers and tourists taking photos of the Sydney Opera House and snorkeling along the east coast. But Americans seem to be ignoring Australia’s Top End, which is odd since it is the region of the country that is most distinctly Australian.

By no means am I diminishing New South Wales, Queensland or Victoria (the more popular states for foreign visitors), but people who travel there often experience only a snippet of true Australian culture. Sydney is a wonderful city and one of my favorite places to relax with friends, but, for all intents and purposes, it feels like the United States. And while the Whitsunday Islands make up one of the most beautiful corners of the world I have ever had the pleasure of visiting, you’ll find people who can make a convincing argument that the Cayman Islands or Hawaii are just as, if not more, impressively gorgeous. There simply are a lot of places with crystal blue water and great snorkeling.

But the Northern Territory is unlike any place I have ever seen (granted, I have not been to the plains of Sub-Saharan Africa). From red rock outcrops to seemingly endless flood plains to the charmingly quirky Centralia town of Alice Springs, the Northern Territory offers a range of natural beauty and culture that simply cannot be found in the more “civilized” cities of Australia’s east coast. Things move slower in the Territory, as evidenced by a saying I heard repeated throughout my travels: “NT stands for not today, not tomorrow, not Tuesday and not Thursday.” Things get done in the Territory and the people who live there work hard on cattle ranches, in mines and on farms. But you won’t see a lot of people wearing watches, scheduling meetings or asking for the status of the last staff meeting’s deliverables. This is a place defined by seasons of the year, not by the time of day.

What Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane do have are direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco. And those flights are almost 15 hours long. For residents of America’s east coast, it will take close to five hours to get to one of those departure cities. Add in layovers and airport waiting times, and you’re looking at 24+ hours of traveling just to get to Australia. In other words, it can be a hard sell to convince people to add another flight across a country just as large as the United States when they’re already sick of recycled air and stiff legs. But believe me, it’s worth it.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle keeping Americans away from the Northern Territory is our culture. Americans do not typically take vacations that last in excess of a week. That is often because of both limited vacation time allotted by American companies and a culture that, unlike Europe, doesn’t consider month-long holidays commonplace. Thus, it becomes challenging to take vacations that require multiple days of travel just to reach to your intended destination. This often discourages people from even approaching their employers about taking an extended holiday.

When I landed in Sydney after more than a day’s worth of travel, I was actually eager to board my 4+ hour flight to Darwin. Sure, I’d been to Sydney before so I didn’t feel compelled to linger there, but I also was brimming with anticipation of the great unknown that is the Northern Territory for a first-time visitor. You don’t have to visit Sydney to picture it in your head. You do need to stand atop Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park to truly understand just how massive, wild and beautiful the Northern Territory truly is. And that’s why Americans should be going to the Northern Territory. If you’re willing to travel to Australia – to the opposite side of the planet – then you already have some sense of adventure. If you let that guide you, one more flight just seems like the next logical step.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.