Travel Lens: Juan José Valdés’s World

Juan José Valdés puts our travel destinations on the map, literally.

Is it Phnom Penh or Phnum Pénh? Cape Verde or Cabo Verde?

As the lead geographer for an organization that has the word in its title, Valdés has his finger squarely on the pulse of our constantly changing world, guiding the Society’s map policy committee as it navigates hard questions such as where to draw borders, how to deal with disputed territories, and which names to include in the maps and atlases for which National Geographic is famous.

But make no mistake: Valdés’s curiosity about “the world and all that’s in it” (a phrase Alexander Graham Bell, one of the Society’s founding members, used to describe the scope of the organization’s mission) isn’t purely cartographic or limited to his desk. An avid traveler, Valdés is also a frequent expert guide for National Geographic Expeditions. 

Here’s a look at the world through Juan José Valdés’s unique lens:

Christine Blau: You grew up in Cuba. What inspired you to become a geographer? 

Juan José Valdés: Many things inspired me to become a geographer when I was a young boy in Cuba. Most significant of all were my visits to the airport in Havana. It was there that my interest in geography came to light—watching people arrive from around the world and wondering what far-away places they had come from. At home, I would study maps and atlases, trying to figure out the most likely routes their planes had taken to get them to Havana.

CB: You recently completed the tenth edition of the Society’s Atlas of the World. What’s changed since the last edition was published? What’s next for you?

JJV: With over 17,000 editorial revisions, a thesis could be written as to how the tenth edition tangibly reflects our rapidly changing world. Among its most significant changes are the inclusions of the world’s new administrative divisions, such as Telangana­—India’s 29th state­—and a map of the Arctic showing a greatly diminished iced surface.

My next big project is updating our World Atlas app to conform to tenth-edition standards.

CB: What process do you go through when you’re adding new countries to the map?

JJV: We have a set of criterion for recognizing independent nations. Once met, we need to carefully assess how their international and administrative boundaries should be portrayed and delimited as well as how place names should be spelled on our maps. Last but not least is selecting a map color that will complement the newly created state with those surrounding it. Sixteen of the world’s disputed or specially administered territories are portrayed in the new atlas as “Areas of Special Status.”

CB: How has your job as a cartographer changed since you started in the field four decades ago?

JJV: The most obvious change is computer-assisted cartography. When I became a cartographer, everything was done by hand, with pen and ink. But it was an easy transition to digital, since we still work with a layering system. The medium has changed, but the process only slightly.

CB: What’s been your favorite “Nat Geo moment” over the years?

JJV: After nearly 40 years of service, I have many favorite “Nat Geo moments.” However, the ones that stick out the most are those times when our readers compliment us on our hard-won cartographic works.

It has also been fun to produce the maps for incoming U.S. presidents. Picture the roll-up maps that you might see in a school. We put together an impressive box with world, regional, and country maps to send to the White House. We try to customize it for the particular president, so for President Obama, we included detailed maps of Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia.

CB: Where do you call home? Why, out of every place in the world, do you choose to make your home there?

JJV: “Home is where the heart is,” so if that’s the case, Havana is my home. However, Potomac in central Maryland—where I‘ve lived for over 50 years—is where my family and I reside. We chose to live there at first because of its proximity to the old National Geographic office building. They needed extra room for the warehouses of books and magazines, so I worked there from 1977 to 1983 before moving to headquarters in downtown D.C.

CB: When someone comes to visit, where do you like to take them?

JJV: When visitors come, I usually take them for rides in the countryside near my home. Some of my favorite green spaces in the Baltimore-D.C. area are the C&O Canal, Sugarloaf Mountain in upper Montgomery County, and Federal Hill Park in Baltimore.

CB: What’s the biggest misconception about the place where you live?

JJV: People who have never visited the Washington metro area always assume that it’s a large and densely populated urban agglomeration devoid of any green space. But I actually live surrounded by horse farms, with beautiful rolling hills and grassy knolls.

CB: What’s your favorite local expression/custom/quirk?

JJV: My favorite local “Bawlamarese” (Baltimore) expression is “Hey, hon!”

CB: Is there a place/country/region that draws you back again and again?

JJV: Switzerland! In just three words: people, scenery, and chocolate.

CB: Why is travel important? How has it changed you?

JJV: Travel takes us away from our insular lives to unfamiliar worlds. Be it different customs or rituals, language or scenery, travel has broadened my mind and made me better understand that we live in a complex, multicultural world—a realization that I try to always be mindful of when I interact with people, wherever I may be.

CB: If you could only recommend one place in the world to visit, what would it be?

JJV: San Francisco. The sheer beauty of this place—with its hills, bayside views, and many amenities, from food to mass transit—reaffirms the lyrics in the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

CB: How do you plan for trips? What’s your process?

JJV: I tend to plan trips on the spur of the moment. Once a destination is selected, I research what there is to see and do and prepare a travel packet containing maps of all of the localities I plan on visiting.

CB: Is the whole world discovered already, or are you still learning of new destinations through your work?

JJV: It depends on how you define the word “discovered.” In a cartographic sense, it could be said that the world has already been “discovered,” but in a geographic sense there is much of the world that most people have yet to discover, including myself. I’m fortunate enough that I learn about many places on a daily basis. Earlier this week I learned about one such fascinating place–the Rabban Hormizd Monastery–while working on a map of Iraq.

CB: In your opinion, where is the world’s most underrated travel destination?

JJV: Belize. I have been there several times and always leave amazed at the physical beauty of this little-known country.

CB: In a digital world, why is geography education still important?

JJV:  To give an example, I was just reading how the Ebola virus could impact the cocoa industry, perhaps making it more difficult for us to buy chocolate. Sometimes places that seem far away are closer than you might think. It is important to be aware of spatial relationships and to acknowledge that geography is part of our lives—politically, economically, and socially.

The world will always be a complicated place. Therefore, it is crucial that geography remain a significant part of our education curriculum. Today’s digital world is rife with discrepancies, ones that can easily be accepted as fact if young and old users alike do not have a sound knowledge of geography.

CB: Finally, tell us the best travel advice that anyone’s ever given you. Do you have any tips of your own?

JJV: Don’t drink the water! [That’s] my number one rule wherever I travel.

Christine Blau is a researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Connect with her on Twitter @CEBednarz and Instagram @christineblau.

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