Learning Geography has mostly been a pleasure. But I am glad that I finished school before the year 1991.
That was when the erstwhile USSR collapsed, sending forth such mouthfuls as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Enough to make even the most seasoned scholars jittery. Each a fiercely independent entity in its own right with a separate capital, flag and constitution.
Then there are the Guineas! There is one Equatorial Guinea, one Guinea Bissau and, of course the Guinea. All located roughly in juxtaposition rendering the situation even more hopeless.
Not to be confused with the two Guyanas, which are located across the Atlantic and were previously three (British, French and Dutch). They were thankfully reduced by one to British Guyana and French Guyana. The Dutch one was renamed Surinam.
Nor to be confused either with Guam, Goa, Gambia, Ghana or Gabon.
My Geography teacher made us appreciate the finer distinctions between the very confusing names by drilling the information during the very confusing one-hour period. We were fairly confused at the beginning. By the time he ended, we were still confused, but at a higher level!
Geography readers have to be robust enough to contend with such names as Bujumbura, Ouagadougou, Valparaiso, Titicaca and Timbuktu. If you aren’t blue in the face already from the effort, consider Garhmukteshwar, Pakshitirtham, Shravanabelagola, and Thiruvananthapuram.
Even more vexing is when the place changes its name just as you have finished memorising the quaint old one. Peking was always Peking since as long back as I can remember. One fine day it can no longer be found on the map as it has been replaced by Beijing.
Rangoon, the familiar old place, becomes Yangon, Persia is Iran, Siam is Thailand, and Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City! Madras is now Chennai, Calcutta is Kolkata, and good old Bombay is Mumbai.
Curiously, the name-changing exercises seem largely to be confined to the lesser-developed countries. It is almost as if their governments have nothing better to do than juggling around with names.
Then there are different countries with the same name prefixed with north, south, east and west.
Sudan was Sudan until one part decided to break away and what are we left with? A North Sudan and a South one.
We also have the two Koreas, see?
The Hong Kong folks had the peculiar experience of going to sleep in the United Kingdom one fine day and got up in China without moving an inch from their places!
Somewhat similar, I suppose, with those in Alaska, though that was much further back and no one seems to remember that. They stretched, yawned and dozed off in Russia and it was the US into which they blinked and shook off the slumber from their just-reposed eyes.
I bet you will swear that you have heard of Denmark and that it just is a small blob in the south of Scandinavia. That’s until someone points out that Greenland is also Denmark, as is Faroe Island, certainly an area to reckon with. The country thus spans two continents, just like Turkey!
Have you finished memorising the name of the mighty Indian river Brahmaputra? Good. Now begin memorising the name Tsang Po. That is what the same river is called when it flows through Tibet.
Seems the Geography scholars ran out of names. Why else would they call a peak K2? Why can’t it have a proper name like all others?
To escape from all this confusion and to get myself a well-deserved rest, I have already booked for a week’s vacation at a resort in Puerto Rico.
Or is it Costa Rica?
Dr Atul Kumar Mathur is a writer and specialist surgeon at Ahlia Hospital in Abu Dhabi.