Twenty-two years later, and it still makes me nervous. Just watching the young contestants at yesterday’s preliminary finals of the National Geographic Bee was enough to make me sweat and tighten my hands into fists—to hope and to cringe with every question asked.
Back in 1989, I participated in the first ever National Geographic Bee. I won for my school, then for my city, and (almost) for my state of Ohio—in a tie breaker, I took third place and walked away with my consolation prize: a $50 savings bond.
I was crushed not to have won, but I used my prize money to buy my very first passport. I have been traveling ever since.
My love for maps led to my love for travel and today, the two go hand in hand. Not only did studying for the National Geographic Bee give me a boost in geographic knowledge—it filled my mind with vivid dreams of fascinating places and I set my heart on seeing as many of them as possible.
Sitting through yesterday’s rounds of the Bee offered a nice shot of nostalgia but also made me very glad that I was not competing this time. I answered all the questions in my head and was so proud of myself for getting through Round One, but let me tell you, I’m pretty sure that Round Seven would have knocked me clean out of the competition. Cape Touriñán is the westernmost point of which country? Exactly.
It is harrowing, and I am so impressed by the stamina of these 54 young people who compete for the title. The winner takes away a massive scholarship and the glory, while the rest of us—the losers, what do we get?
Well, we get to travel. I did. As I sat through yesterday’s questions, I realized that the answers I did know were because I had traveled to those places—not that I have spent far too much of my life with my nose in an atlas, or that I have a degree in geography. Patagonia, Switzerland, Lake Eyre, the Dutch town of Delft, the Berezina River in Belarus, and the Khmer in Cambodia—I know all these now from personal experience.
When I was a child, the National Geographic Bee fueled my wanderlust. Now that I’m an adult, my wanderlust gives me a continuing geographic education. For that reason, I believe the National Geographic Bee is one of the greatest legacies of the Society. It helped me dream of the world and learn the earth intimately. Today, as a travel writer, I am fortunate enough to keep learning.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
I spoke with this year’s contestants. I wasn’t so interested in how they studied (they are all brilliant) or what they want to be when they grow up (petroleum engineers, Supreme Court justices, scientists, linguists, geographers)—I wanted to know only one thing, “Where do you want to travel?”
Their answers were as diverse as the questions asked of them, but there were a few clear travel recommendations: Peru, Norway, China, Italy, Australia, Singapore, France, New Zealand, Arizona and New Mexico.
I may just have to follow their advice—these kids know what they’re talking about. They know the world better than most. Also, Anthony Cheng’s “I like all water features,” is probably the greatest quote ever. I completely agree, Anthony.
P.S. If you are as big a map nerd as me, I highly recommend downloading the National Geographic’s GeoBee Challenge App (free today and tomorrow). I dare you to get a higher score than me.