I can´t really remember when my passion for maps started, but it is definitely a long time ago. I am not talking about Mercator´s distortions and eurocentrism, nor about the arbitrary carving of the colonizers, but rather of that curiosity that emerges from seeing the name of an unknown city, river or mountain.
My mother always loved maps. She had different kinds and they were hanging on walls all over the house. Just as she would never let an unknown French or English word in a book pass without looking them up in a dictionary, she would not let the name of a city, region or river she did not know go by without finding out its exact location, latitude etc…
Still quite young , in the French school where I studied, I remember hearing my classmate Jerome say that he knew all capitals in the world. I found that to be absolutely impossible. That he would know all European and South American Capitals was fine, we all learned them, but all capitals in the world was unheard of. I still remember searching for the hardest place I knew and only being able to come up with Sri Lanka. To what he responded with ease: Colombo. It is true that at that time it was much easier with most of the ~istans~ still being part of the Soviet Union.
Later at university, Joss, my ex-flatmate, enrolled in a geography of Africa class, and she had to learn all kinds of information about the African countries. Since I was in charge of asking her questions I ended up learning a lot about it myself. Then I decided I should at least be able to place all countries in the map, and know their capitals, and for some time I even knew all Pacific Islands.
Then Joss and I decided that knowing capitals and countries was not enough, but that every week we should learn about a different place, about the governments, about the cultures, about the food etc… And in fact, while we lived together we learned a tremendous amount about different countries, not so much in the formal way we expected, but by reading novels, taking classes, and especially by meeting friends from abroad. And it still amazes me how some people get happy realizing you know something from where they come from. In the beginning, you expects a lot, and have grandiose dreams about what people should know about where you come from. They should know more than Rio de Janeiro, carnival and football; but when someone from Bishkek or Bandar Seri Begawan, knows three things about your country while you do not know where his country is (or that it even exists!), ytou become more humble.
I have a friend who says that you only actually learn about places by travelling. And I do agree that travelling helps, but i do not feel it is fundamental, nor that it guarantees you will learn about that place. After all, there are many who travel without wanting anything to change, and without learning anything at all.
Last night, I accidentily stumbled upon a site called Amores Expressos ( Express Love). It was a project by one of the most important Brazilian publishers to send writers to different cities in the world to spend a month, and later write a short story about love. I was outraged by one of the writers who was sent to India. She was discriminating, generalizing, and offensive; so ironic for someone who is supposed to write about love.
Later on I read about a 5 year old boy in Paraisópolis ( a slum in sao paulo), whose father taught him about numerous countries and its capitals. And the only thing the father had to teach his son was an atlas, a little blackboard and his good will.
And by reading that article I suddenly realized that my passion for maps comes from willing to learn about the other. My fascination for maps took me to study anthropology, to travel as often as I can, and to learn about different cultures. The maps, just as novels, and languages awake us for different lives in different places. And traveling, it is true, emphasizes that learning, but I do not think it creates the interest, or the desire.
I do not know where the interest for the world, for the other comes from. But I see it in the father, who shows the map to his 5 year old son. He shows his 5 year old the atlas of different ways of life, of different opportunities. This interest for the other is what seems to me the writer that got sent to India is missing.
And I do understand it, since not all trips are all that easy. Some take us to our limits. When I was in Hong Kong, for instance, I came back mentally exhausted, the synapses only started to happen when I was on the plane. Morocco took my body to rebel, but I soon realized that it was not against me, but in my favour. It was in name of a better integration between my body and mind, versus the old way of mind over body. And it is a pity that we so often close ourselves to the different, to the other, without ever realizing that we are in fact afraid of ourselves. Scared of letting go of concepts, habits, and ideas that we are used to, but that, in the end, are not even that much truly ours.