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It was the Buzzfeed quiz that started it all. One day it asked me, all innocent like: ‘How many countries of the world can you name in five minutes?’ And just like that I fell for it. Soon I was furiously typing out names to see how many of them I could indeed name in the given time.

Of course I knew the names of all my neighbors, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka et al, and most of them in the Middle East, as also quite a few from other continents. I could name quite a few of the new ones too, like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Serbia and so on which weren’t even countries when I was last in school. In spite of my efforts, I fell short of the required hundred when my five minutes were up. Sheesh!

I am not fast enough when it comes to typing, either on my phone or on the keyboard for that matter. I knew even before I had started that I was handicapped because my pace was that of a sixty-minus-one year old’s. But, I didn’t let that deter me and went on as best as I could to eventually reach the magic number of seventy-six, at which point, I was forced to give up. Not because time was up – there was still a minute to go – but because I had run out of names I could recall.

Tsk tsk tsk. You don’t even know the names of a hundred countries of this planet you call your home, Shail?! What a pitiful state of affairs.

I couldn’t believe it. Sixty years (just a couple of months to go to reach there!) on Planet Earth and not enough to show for it. What a shame! But,I was going to rectify things, pronto. It was a momentous decision. The result (of the quiz) had, very helpfully, showed me which were the countries I had missed out. If it was the last thing I did, I was going to learn the names of every single one of them!

That’s how it started.

I began going through maps diligently, continent by continent, picking up the names of countries from each. One thing good about the present times is how you can enlarge maps on your phone/tablet/ laptop without causing any strain to your eyes. Atlases on the other hand are such a pain and are useless without a magnifying glass. I am sure if not for the handy modern gadgets, I’d have given up my quest even before I started.

The first continent I chose was Africa. After all, that’s where all of us have originated from. Besides, I found it ‘called’ to me more than any other. May be it has something to do with my desire to go visit some of the places there and see the rich flora and fauna. Anyway, I was already familiar with the countries of Asia, so Africa it was to be.

Of the countries in Africa there were those of whose existence I knew already, some others I had heard of at one time or other (The show I watched last week on Amazon Prime, The Widow, was based in Kinshasa, capital of DRC), and others of whose existence I knew nothing at all. Take Lesotho for example. It was spang in the middle of South Africa. Ethiopia was somewhat more familiar, but Eritrea took me by surprise. Of Morocco I had found mention in many of the books I had read in the past. Oh look, there’s Tunisia! I remembered it from late 1970s when someone shared radio news broadcast from the country, taped on a cassette, because the music in between the news segments was too good. How many times had I listened to it without knowing or being curious about where Tunisia was!

Then there was Chad, Cabo Verde, Togo, Comoros, Gambia, Gabon and Burkina Faso from the (to me) lesser known ones; Tanzania, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, Libya and more from the more well known ones. Who doesn’t know of Madagascar which has lent its name to the set of animated movies? At the beautiful Seychelles I had made a brief stop on my way to lovely Mauritius. Can Mallus forget Somalia? Nope. The right wing leaders compared our small state of Kerala (whose development model is studied internationally), to the country Somalia, to our disadvantage. No, I am not kidding. Politics is indeed a dirty game. But I digress.

So yeah, in no time I could rattle off ALL the names of the fifty-four (the number according to the net) countries of the African continent. Next I moved on to Europe. That too is now, done and dusted. Time to move on to other continents. But, here’s something strange. Now I am not satisfied with learning the names of countries (or even their capitals), but want to know more about their history, the peoples, their origins, the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the seasons, the lands, the flora and fauna…. in short, everything.

And that, my dears, is the story behind how I am turning into a geography nerd.

You know, there is one thing that bothers me. Who were the people who set the geography text books that we studied in school? Who were the teachers who taught me geography? Whoever they were, their combined efforts sure did a wonderful job of scaring (and boring) me off the subject. How sad! Now though, I am my own teacher and student too, so the learning is pretty interesting.

© Shail Mohan 2019

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