The saga about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, United Kingdom, continues six months later.  Last week, the British government announced the identities of two Russian citizens, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as prime suspects in this case and members of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.  The Russian government replied that the two gentlemen were civilians and tourists visiting London and Salisbury for a brief weekend trip.

Petrov and Boshirov confirmed in a television interview their visit to Salisbury on the day of the poisoning, but only in the capacity as tourists.  Their explanation about why would someone jump on a plane from Moscow to London for such a short trip received mixed reception. Ongoing debates on the Internet range from discussing the most minute details of Petrov’s and Boshirov’s movement to why would someone waste time, money, and energy to travel somewhere for quick sightseeing.  The latter aspect caught my attention.

If a spontaneous trip to visit something because “it’s out there” and visiting places off the beaten path along the way, without any planned route, makes one suspicious in the eyes of authorities, I and many fellow geographers could easily end up on the list of international assassins. We constantly raise eyebrows of visa issuing authorities, at border crossings, checkpoints, and in front of anyone else in a position of authority in control of our movement while visiting nearby or distant lands.

Figure 1. My car after taking a “geographer’s route” through roads less traveled, arriving in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and being asked for my ID.  Dark colored car, check. License plate covered in mud to prevent scan, check. Driver speaking with Eastern European accent, bingo! (All photos were taken by the author.)

“Geography is What Geographers Do”

Three most difficult questions for me to answer are “What do you do?”, “What is geography and what do geographers do?”, and “Where are you traveling, why, and what are you going to do there?”  They are also the three questions most frequently asked during my travels and border crossings in often-remote places not many tourists visit.  The answers about my profession should be short and firm and the list of locations ready-to-visit presented in itemized form.  As such they satisfy an official and guarantee an entry (or exit) without any problems. But they are not. Short of saying “we make maps” [That is what cartographers do!] it is impossible to explain what geographers do in five to ten seconds at a border crossing or to an embassy official without sounding suspiciously strange or downright dishonest.

Can I say that geography is a methodology (a unique way if organizing and analyzing information spatially)?  Should I go into more detail and describe it as “The scientific study of Earth’s surface based on the spatial distributions, patterns, and interactions of its physical and cultural features?” and explain “What is Where, Why There, and Why Care?”(Gritzner 2002)?  Or should I simplify by quoting geographer Preston E. James “Geography is what geographers do” and expect and easy pass through? No, because I tried that approach with unsatisfactory results.

It may come as surprise, but the most unpleasant experiences were on the United States-Canada border.  They included complete car and/or motorcycle searches for drugs and other contraband, questioning in the form of interrogation, and officials’ demeanor of considering me guilty of something, whatever, that will be proven soon because of me making stuff up about my travel to “Nowhere in particular and just going for a ride.”

Fascinatingly, when I would answer with exactly the opposite of what it is that geographers do, usually with “We make maps,” and list a city that I may pass through as my destination to visit some historical object, I experienced no problems.  The officials want prepared answers they can log into a form, rather than genuinely learning about my intentions.  In less unpleasant situations, as in one instance of crossing from Canada into Idaho, a border crossing authority said “You drive so much that you don’t get to see anything,” reaffirming that to see something is, for many people, to visit a specific location, rather than the space between locations.  I smiled and replied with “That is what I do.”

Figure 2. Sometimes we do get to see something just by driving for no particular reason, or with no particular destination.

Guilty of Spontaneity     

The “Where are you traveling, why, and what are you going to do there?” question requires an answer about a final destination. A geographer’s route, however, seldom includes a final destination, because there is always something to see and explore along the way.  This is driven by a desire to understand spatial and cultural processes by analyzing a region as a whole.  Exploratory trips are of great value in understanding the lay of the land, and the local way of life in a spontaneous and uninterrupted way.  This, in turn, results in the emergence of “spatial distributions, patterns, and interactions of its physical and cultural features.”

Figure 3.  A dry riverbed in Albanian mountains eventually led me to a dead end in a villager’s front yard hosting free ranging pigs. The seemingly unimportant detour turned out to be one that answered many questions that would have remained unanswered should I not have taken this “road.”

A number of geographers, including myself, emphasize deductive reasoning in learning and understanding a region visited; in that context seemingly-unorganized roaming through countryside appears unscientific and difficult to explain to authorities.  Try, for example, to apply for a visa to Russia and explain that your desire is to rent a car and drive around the country exploring the land and meeting ordinary people.  “Because it’s there” is not a purpose for a visit to state on a visa application and expect it to be approved.

At the same time, try to fly to Dublin from Washington, D.C. via a connecting flight in London—hence a brief entry into the United Kingdom—by using the same logic and explanation.  It will not be an easy sell as my partner and I learned when trying to explain that we did not have arrangements in Ireland, other than a car rental reservation in Dublin and a first night hotel reservation in Kilkenny, and we simply plan to just drive around the island for the next three weeks. [If I mentioned that Prince William, who eventually will be his king, is also a geographer by education, my comment would have probably aggravated the situation even more.]

On the Other Hand…

Geographers only sound convincing to those border authorities who can relate to what we do and why we do it.  Of all countries I have visited, Israel has been one of the least complicated to enter.  No one was surprised that I, a geographer, would come to visit and travel around in a spontaneous manner visiting places at will.  In another instance, a fellow geographer decided to drive from Seattle to Point Roberts, a little portion of American territory most Americans know nothing about.  In order to arrive in Point Roberts by land, one can only enter it through Canada. As he arrived at the border crossing, an American officer asked him “Why are you coming here?” and my friend answered with “Because it’s here.”

That did not sit well with the defender of the American border and he replied with “Don’t be a smartass with me when I ask you a question.” My friend, probably twice the agent’s age, said “I am not being a smartass, I am a professor of geography and this is the part of the United States I have not yet visited. I ought to see it simply because it is here,” upon which the officer began to laugh and said “I have a degree in geography, too, come on in.”

The lesson here is that if a geographer “assassin” is up to something no good like driving around, he or she needs to travel to the most protected country in the world or find a fellow geographer at a border crossing in order to prevent the planned travels from meeting with failure.  In any other circumstance a geographer’s actions may be considered extremely suspicious in the eyes of authorities and the public—other than, perhaps, in Prince William’s eyes—for behavior uncharacteristic of the vast majority of travelers.

Figure 4. Hanging out way too close to the fence separating Israel and Gaza strip.

Ways Forward 

My recommendation to train assassins who may also happen to be geographers, in order to avoid detection is to

  • Join large groups of tourists,
  • Travel on tour busses with a dedicated tour guide
  • Detail your itinerary in five-minute intervals
  • Have a photograph of oneself in front of everything and anything that looks remotely historical or of some cultural importance
  • Keep your cell phone on during entire trip for tracking purposes

Otherwise they will be exposed.  Just in case, also make sure to answer everything with “I make maps,” but not in a Russian accent unless in Russia.  Over there it is advisable to not do it in a Chechen accent.

Geographers as International Assassins
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