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

Pacific OceanWhile 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]

Not Constantinople: 9 Misconceptions About Istanbul, Turkey

Misconceptions about Istanbul and Turkey
The country of Turkey has been getting a lot of bad press this year, due to the tragic disappearance and murder of American Sarai Sierra in Istanbul, and the suicide bombing at the U.S. Consulate in Turkish capital city Ankara, which was quickly linked to a Marxist group protesting the Turkish position on the war in Syria (a Turkish security guard was killed, no Americans were harmed). Both events are scary and horrible, but their discussion in the news highlighted a lot of ignorance and hate about Turkey and against Muslim countries, women and solo travel.

As a as a female traveler, mother and former Istanbul expat, Sierra’s disappearance especially resonated with me and many of my friends. I arrived in Istanbul for a visit the day her body was discovered, and the Turkish and American press were full of rumors and speculation for weeks following, with no real evidence or leads at solving her case. Several fellow expats – all women who have spent plenty of time solo in Turkey – have responded with their feelings about being female in Istanbul, writing about relative safety in America vs. Turkey, the greater issues of domestic violence and sex trafficking and the risks all women of the world face. We feel disturbed that such a thing could happen in a place we feel safer in than many other world cities, defensive about our adopted country, its people and their faith, and disappointed in the misinformation and bigotry about Turkey and the Muslim world.

If you have reservations about travel in Turkey, alone, as a woman or both, please look beyond the hateful and incorrect comments to the many people who have happily traveled and lived in Istanbul and Turkey. In case you read no further than this paragraph, I will say that in my three years in Istanbul, I never felt unsafe, harassed or threatened, and in traveling in 13 countries with my baby, Turkey remains to me the most child-friendly in the world.Based on what I’ve read in online discussions, and have heard from friends, these are the common misconceptions about Turkey:

1. Turkey is part of the Middle East – Geographers may quibble, given Turkey’s borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, but it also borders EU members Bulgaria and Greece, as well as Central Asian countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, so it could claim membership in several regions. Politically, many of the people of Turkey would rather align themselves with Europe, and they have been bidding to get into the European Union since 1987. Better to say it is part of the Muslim world (which includes counties in Asia and Africa) than to lump it in with the Middle East.

2. The women all wear burqas – A little background: when Mustafa Kemal (aka Atatürk, the most recognizable man in the country, whose face you’ll see in every Turkish business and on the money) founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, he made it a strictly secular state. One of his reforms was to ban religious headgear from state universities and public buildings. This is now being contested as a point of religious freedom, but in essence, Turkish women are not required to cover their bodies or hair, and many dress the same as women in the U.S. or Europe. You will see some women who wear a headscarf and long jacket, but you will also see women uncovered, even dressed immodestly. After “East meets West,” one of the biggest cliches in Istanbul travel writing is to mention the contrast of “miniskirts and minarets.” Often, the women you might see on the streets in Istanbul wearing a full black hijab or burqa are Arab tourists, or immigrants from the East. The headwear law also applies to the fez hat, so that red tasseled hat you bought at the Grand Bazaar would actually really offend the founder of modern Turkey.

3. You can’t drink alcohol, find pork or eat during Ramadan – In addition to being a secular country (there is no official religion, and the 99% Islamic demographic includes the many non-practicing Turks who might only culturally identify as Muslim), Turkey is very liberal and lenient. While the country has many observant Muslims who do not drink alcohol or eat pork, there are plenty of others who enjoy their Efes beer and a pizza with prosciutto. I’ve heard the explanation from many Turks that the Koran doesn’t say not to drink alcohol at all, but rather not to become intoxicated (though you’ll see plenty of drunkenness around Taksim on a Saturday night). I’d rather not try to dissect or debate religious doctrine, so just know that Istanbul has a thriving nightlife scene, and while alcohol is becoming more expensive due to increased taxes, it’s readily available. Turkey even produces many beers, wines and liquors, like the anise-flavored raki, also known as “lion’s milk”, of varying quality and price points. Pork is harder to come by, but you will find it in many larger supermarkets and some upscale restaurants, usually at a high premium. I’ve found fewer Turks who eat pork than drink alcohol, mostly because they haven’t grown up eating it, but they won’t begrudge you a bacon craving. Finally, if you are visiting during the Ramadan holiday, you’ll find it mostly business as usual in Istanbul and other major tourist areas, and unlike other Muslim countries, foreigners are not expected to fast and are often invited to share in the nightly iftar feasts.

4. It’s a hot, desert climate and everyone rides a camel – Possibly due to the Middle East connection, people seem to imagine Turkey as a desert with hot weather and no change in seasons. Istanbul is actually on the same latitude as Chicago and New York City, with similar weather patterns; winters are cold, even snowy, and summers are humid. The country has nearly every type of climate, and there are many bodies of water around and throughout, including the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas (and the Bosphorus Strait, dividing Europe and Asia, of course). Not sure where the camel idea came from, likely the same misguided idea that it’s a desert country in the Middle East, but I’ve yet to see any camels in Istanbul. You might find them as strictly-tourist photo ops in Cappadocia, or even camel-wrestling matches on the Aegean coast, but you aren’t likely to see any ambling down Istiklal Caddesi.

5. The food is spicy – Possibly all those pictures of colorful saffron piles at the Spice Market (actually called the Egyptian Bazaar) have given many the impression that Turkish food is very hot and spicy. While there are many varieties of dishes, and some can pack quite a punch, most of the popular foods are rather mild: roasted lamb or beef kebabs, kofte meatballs, grilled fish, manti ravioli and the many varieties of pizza-like fast foods like pide, lahmacun and the like. Compared to the hot spices of Morocco or Southeast Asia, Turkish cuisine is downright cool, but still totally delicious.

6. Men have harems – Assuming that Muslim men have many wives is about as offensive as assuming Mormons all live like the TV show “Big Love.” Again, you can thank Atatürk for making polygamy illegal back in 1926, and it’s a jailable offense. While it’s possible that you might find a few rogue polygamists living out in the far east of the country, the only harem you’ll find in Istanbul is at Topkapi Palace – which has been a museum for nearly 100 years. Turkey has come a long way from the days of the Ottoman Empire, and likes to distance itself from the old ways of the sultans. Women are highly respected in Turkey, and afforded all the rights and privileges of “Western” women.

7. They speak Arabic – In case the above points haven’t made it clear, Turkey is a country of Turks, not Arabs, and the language is also distinct. With a few additions and subtractions, Turkish has a Latin alphabet, thanks to yet another Atatürk reform (see why they love him?), and while it has some “loanwords” from Arabic (it also has many from French, Persian and English), it’s closer linguistically to Mongolian, Korean and Japanese. The concept of vowel harmony and subject-object-verb grammar have confounded many new speakers like myself, but you’ll have a much easier time reading Turkish than Arabic. At the airport, will you hail a taksi or a تاكسي?

8. It’s a war zone – Turkey has had a few small-scale bombings in the past decade, which are scarily detailed on the U.S. State Department’s page on security threats. This has resulted in increased security in large hotels, malls, museums and office buildings, and it’s common (if a bit jarring) to see metal detectors and car trunks checked on entry in such public spaces. All that said, you aren’t going to see tanks rolling through Istanbul, and you aren’t likely to be in danger unless you are in the far east of the country. How about their neighbors in conflict? Turkey is a huge country, slightly larger than Texas, and Istanbul itself is closer geographically to Athens, Milan, and Zurich than it is to Tehran, and over 500 miles from Syria. The possibility of terrorist attacks are, unfortunately, a part of life no matter where you are, and Istanbul is as safe as any major world city (and with lower street crime than most other European capitals). In many ways, I feel safer in Istanbul than New York.

9. They hate Americans – Despite the above mentioned security threats and February’s embassy bombing in Ankara, the U.S. State Department does not warn against general travel to Turkey, and Turkey is considered an important ally of the United States. You are advised to “stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times” in Turkey, as with anywhere in the world. Turkey does not condone the actions of Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organizations. On a micro level, you will rarely encounter anti-American sentiment in Turkey, and you will find most Turks to be friendly, helpful and big fans of American culture (“Mad Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” are quite popular).

Of course, it’s impossible to make blanket statements about any one culture or country, and many of the current events and issues happening in Turkey are beyond the scope of a travel blog, but we hope more Americans will discover what a safe, modern and hospitable country Turkey is and plan a trip there themselves (Turkish Airlines is one of the world’s best airlines and has some great deals this spring).

Any other myths or generalizations you’ve heard about Turkey? We’d love to set you straight! Share your experiences traveling in Turkey with us.

[Photo credit: Flickr user James Cridland]

US Government Denies Existence Of Mermaids


The U.S. National Ocean Service has released a statement confirming there is no scientific evidence for mermaids.

Interesting – I didn’t realize this was a subject of debate.

Apparently it wasn’t until Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet network ran a spoof documentary titled “Mermaids: The Body Found.” The channel’s own press release labels the show “science fiction.” This wasn’t enough for some viewers and according to the BBC, the National Ocean Service received a couple of inquiries about the fishy folk. To keep the public from reviving the superstitions of illiterate 19th century sailors, they made a public denial of something they never thought they’d have to deny.

When I read this I went through the predictable range of reactions. First I laughed, then I felt smugly superior, then I said, “Hey, I need to write this up for Gadling!” Then I did something I didn’t expect.

I got very, very afraid.

The public dialogue is awash with ridiculous assertions: Obama is a Muslim, the Moon landings were faked, all foreigners hate America, aliens regularly visit Earth to anally probe drunk farmers, etc., etc. Last week we even learned that some radical ultra-Orthodox Jews believe Hitler and top Zionists plotted to create the Holocaust so the Jews could create Israel. I’m still shaking my head over that one.

This level of ignorance is the result of many factors, but one cause rules over them all: a complete lack of context. Our schools teach us so little about the world that it’s easy to believe anything. Even the most basic knowledge of history, biology, evolution, oceanography, or folklore would guarantee that someone wouldn’t believe in mermaids, yet some people who went through the educational system of the most powerful country in the world lack this knowledge.It’s easy to laugh this off when it’s about mermaids. It’s not so funny when educated people seriously ask me if I had to pack a two-month supply of food to live in Ethiopia, or if Spain still has roving gangs of bandidos.

And if you think nobody is encouraging and profiting off this rampant ignorance, think again. The Republican Party of Texas included as part of its 2012 platform that it opposes the teaching of critical thinking in schools. And no, I’m not picking on the GOP. All politicians manipulate public ignorance to further their own ends. With elections coming up, it’s time to get educated.

This is why I love travel. It gets rid of my ignorance and teaches me that I’m ignorant about things I didn’t even know I was clueless about. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it changes unknown unknowns into known knowns. Example: five years ago I thought all of Somalia was in chaos – then I learned about Somaliland. OK, I thought, it’s safe for Somalis. I still assumed that it was too dangerous for foreigners. Then I actually went there and checked. Guess what? I’m still alive!

Knowledge is the great weapon of national freedom and personal liberation. If more people got out of their comfort zones and investigated their assumptions, maybe the American public would never have been convinced that one group of people were ignorant savages and needed to be pushed off their land, or another group of people were too stupid to take care of themselves and needed to be enslaved, or that another group of people had more loyalty to the old country than America and needed to be forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II.

This ignorance of “the other” is still rampant today and can turn ugly at any time. It’s in our own best interest to get out of our comfort zones. We don’t have to leave the country to travel. Our comfort zone ends at the other side of the tracks.

Always question, always be suspicious of an authority’s motives, and keep exploring.

Photo of the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Montana, courtesy Flickr user vsmoothe. That woman is a human actress in a mermaid suit, in case you’re wondering. And yes, I totally want to go swimming with her.

Pittsburgh restaurant features ‘conflict cuisine’

Most American travelers will never set foot in Iran, but at least now if they make it to Pittsburgh, they can enjoy some of the country’s delicious cuisine. It’s the idea behind a new take-out restaurant called Conflict Kitchen, a new eatery that’s attempting to feature cuisine from countries the United States is in conflict with.

Conflict Kitchen might serve food, but it’s hardly your normal carry-out joint. The project, which was started by artist Jon Rubin, will regularly shift themes to feature a different “conflict country” and promote cross-cultural understanding. The first four months are devoted to a collaboration with Pittsburgh’s Iranian community. In addition to delicious food like the Kubideh Sandwich, Conflict Kitchen also plans to host events, performances and discussion surrounding this much discussed Middle Eastern country. Though there’s been no announcement on the project’s website, chances are good that other “rogue states” like North Korea, Venezuela and Afghanistan will get similar treatment.

The Conflict Kitchen project raises an interesting question. Who are we demonizing when we disagree with a country’s politics? Is it the government of that country? Or is it also the people who live there, many of whom have nothing to do with the policies we dislike? Perhaps by traveling and through projects like Conflict Kitchen we can learn to better differentiate between the two.

Kellie Pickler and some insight into America’s geographic ignorance

I had a good laugh this morning when I saw that World Hum had created a category on their weblog entitled “Hot Americans on Television Botching Geography Questions”, thanks to Miss South Carolina and more recently American Idol Kellie Pickler. She appeared on US television game show “Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader” and was asked what country Budapest was the capital of. She had never even heard of Hungary, and she thought Europe was a country.

Out of amazement and sheer shock, I decided to dig around a bit to get some sort of explanation for the general level of geographic ignorance in America — the world’s most powerful, ethnically diverse and wealthy country.

I came across a report on the American Geographical Society’s website addressing this issue in the US and it all seems to boil down to the American education system that doesn’t pay much attention to geography as a subject of study.

According to the paper, the ranks of Americans who have ever taken geography class in high school or university is low; most of the people who teach geography and set the content standards haven’t studied geography at a university level and don’t understand why they are even teaching it (!) Although the paper doesn’t give more details, it is an interesting read and talks about how the American government needs to embark on a “No American Left Geographically Ignorant” campaign.

I don’t have the answer, but something definitely has to be done. Do watch the video when you get a chance.