The map changes

I have a friend who is trying to visit 30 countries before she turns 30. Since I’ve already turned 29 for the second time and am only sitting at 9 countries, I’m fairly impressed. As we sat and talked about numbers and places, I wondered what people do when a country they’ve visited gets split or is absorbed into another. For example, if you had traveled through Sudan from north to south prior to 2011, could you now up your count by one?

And if you’re traveling with your Chinese friend from Beijing down to Taiwan, would you dare boast to him about hitting a “new country?”

And don’t forget the Central Asian conundrum. Having declared into being the new country, “Kyrzakhstan,” American Secretary of State John Kerry in a word docked the lists by one of any traveler to these two, unique countries. (If nobody’s heard of the countries you’ve been to, do they still count?)

My friend is counting Scotland even though it’s not technically a separate country, although it could become one after a referendum to be held this September. (By then my friend will be 30 anyway!)

It’s strange, this shifting and changing world. For all of human history we’ve physically only added and lost a few islands, but think of the millions of miles of arbitrary borders that have bobbed and weaved over mountains, along rivers and across valleys for millennia! It’s a strange concept, that borders change, because we’re used to living in the present and at any given moment (the miles of disputed borders aside) there is one lay of the nations.

I was one who used to think the world stayed the same. I had a printed map, after all, and Mr. P, my seventh grade teacher, expected me to memorize the names inside all those squiggly lines or else I’d fail the class. To me countries were green, yellow, purple and orange and smaller than my hand.

But rivers shift. New presidents are elected, or generals usurp control. And the ideas of these leaders shift more than rivers. Some start to think that maybe the grass really is greener on the other side.

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 Hanging out in Transnistria. Wait – does that put me at 9 1/2?

The recent news about Crimea has most of the western world up in arms. (And let’s hope they don’t accidentally fire one of them.) But think about it—if you were learning geography in 1958, you’d say America has only 48 states and it wasn’t until various referendums, acts and contentious votes that the president finally signed the bills that joined two new states theoretically to America’s shores.

And if it’s Putin’s military presence we’re upset about, it was only a couple generations ago that Great Britain—still today America’s biggest ally—ruled an empire procured through decades of bloody campaigns across the world.

The world changes. That is a fact. Whether it should or not is another debate, but we can’t be surprised when it happens. Rulers of nations and peoples have been changing borders since the beginning of history and aren’t going to stop anytime soon, no matter how many Eurovision concerts are held or joint space flights are launched.

Sunday’s vote by the citizens of Crimea to join Russia plus Putin’s signing of the annexation today proves that. I’m not defending nor decrying the legitimacy of these actions. I’m just saying it happens all the time and we shouldn’t be so surprised.

So add another question to the list: should you have happened to visit Crimea in the past and counted it for Ukraine, do you change your mark for Russia? What’s the call now?

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