SANDY AND DARREN VAN SOYE began their campaign to improve geo-literacy years ago, when they took their daughters abroad to Europe. Now, they reach thousands of students in dozens of countries with their educational program, Trekking the Planet. They circled the planet three times in a little over a year, teaching grade-school children geography lessons that go beyond the standard paradigm of memorizing states and capitals.

When I was 17, I studied abroad in Riga, Latvia. During our talk, Darren and Sandy mentioned that they loved the architecture and vast forests of the small Baltic country. I had to admit to them that I had been ignorant of Latvia’s existence until I went there, and could have benefited from Trekking the Planet when I was in school.

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VJ: Why is it important for kids to care about geography?

DVS/SVS: The modern subject of geography goes well beyond the study of maps and the rote learning of the names of capitals. It encompasses Human Geography (History, Population, Ethnic Groups, Language, Customs, Migrations) and Physical Geography (Topography, Rivers, Oceans, Seas, Climate, Animals, Ecosystems, Sustainability). In today’s interconnected world, the study of geography is more important than ever.

Sadly, studies show that American knowledge of geography is one of the worst in the world. In one study, US young adults finished eighth out of nine countries; in another, nearly a third could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a map. How will the “next generation” be successful as heads of business, scientists, and political leaders without at least a cursory understanding of that which unites us and also that which divides? Trekking the Planet seeks to help students increase the scope of their worldview in a fun and challenging way.

The ongoing purpose of Trekking the Planet is to bring geography to life. 850 classrooms from 20 countries, representing over 50,000 students, followed us over the internet as we traveled to 53 countries on 6 continents. During our 14-month expedition, we traveled a total of 77,354 miles, or more than 3 times around the planet at the equator. Along the way, we introduced students to the people, food, music, and animals of many of the remote places we visited.

Was there ever an issue trying to enter a politically sensitive area?

Before we left Kathmandu, Nepal, to go trekking in the Mustang region, we took our passports to be processed for our group visa of two to Tibet. This part of China can only be visited with such a visa, and only accompanied by a government guide. However, we were told that the Chinese government had just changed the rules for the group visa so that the minimum group had to be five persons of the same nationality. Given this news, we were concerned whether or not we would be able to take our planned Tibetan tour.

After we returned from trekking two weeks later, there was still no word about our visa. We began to consider our backup plan for our onward travel into Central China and Kyrgyzstan, in case we could not go through Tibet. Finally, at 6pm the night before we were scheduled to leave, we received a call saying our visa had been approved. It was submitted with five US names and then the Chinese were told that three of them had become “sick” and could not go. By some miracle, our remaining two names were approved so we had our group visa to visit!

Tell us about a place you visited that exhibited a positive trend in sustainability.

While we were in Copenhagen, Denmark, we had the opportunity to interview the government official in charge of expanding their bicycle superhighway. More than 50% of the citizens living there ride bikes to work or school. And they have goals to increase these figures.

The city planners have done several things to prioritize bicycle ridership over the use of cars. In some situations, they have converted lanes over to bicycle use. Riding from the outskirts of Copenhagen, the traffic lights have been timed so that riders can maintain a speed of about 12mph all the way into the city center. What we liked so much about the bicycle superhighway is that it reduces cost, improves transit times, and supports an active lifestyle.

Was every destination on your trip planned? Did you ever improvise your route or discover a new place thanks to a local?

Because of our pace (nearly a country a week) and because we published education materials on the go, we had to have a pretty tight itinerary. Before we left home, we had all 60 educational modules drafted and the first 11 months of our trip fully booked, including all our hotels, guides, and most of our transportation. Needless to say, this was a huge effort that required months of preparation.

We created a theme (trekking) and framework for the journey (which continents and when), then broke it down into smaller and smaller tasks until each one could be accomplished in a couple of hours. Once we had the day-by-day itinerary, we were free to start on the education materials.

In parallel, we booked our shipboard transportation, guides, hotels, flights, trains, buses, and ferries. We basically booked everything we could before we left so we could spend most of the time on the trip sightseeing, writing articles, producing videos, and answering questions. And by using local guides in many places (e.g., Laos, Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, Jordan), we were able to go off the beaten path to locations that tourists rarely see.

You were communicating with classrooms via the internet, mainly with videos, emails, and photos. Any thoughts on ways to reach classrooms / communities with limited or no internet access?

We did visit 16 schools in 8 countries during our journey. In most cases they didn’t have internet access. So we used an inflatable globe, which we purchased on Amazon.com for US$2, to talk to these students about geography, learn more about their studies and activities, and answer questions about the United States.

Do you believe it’s as important to promote second-language acquisition as geo-literacy?

Absolutely. We met people that spoke 6 or 7 languages. I was so jealous. I (Sandy) know a little bit of German, and we both know some Spanish. Especially in South America, we needed the Spanish. I think it’s absolutely critical that people learn another language, although on the other hand English is becoming so much more prevalent everywhere…we tried to learn words in every country we went to.

How would you rate the success of your Trekking the Planet adventure?

Before we left, our goal was to have 100 classrooms following our journey. In fact, this was a stretch goal because at the time we only had a handful of subscriptions. But by the time we left on our expedition at the end of January 2012, we had over 50,000 students in 850 classrooms / schools following our journey!

Another way to measure the success of the project was to quantify the number of questions we received. At the end of every week’s education module that we sent to educators, we challenged readers to send us their questions. Some weeks, we received so many questions that we had trouble getting the newsletter out.

What type of encouragement or advice would you give to somebody who is intimidated or fearful of traveling abroad?

If you’re interested in traveling aboard, our best advice is to get as much information as you can on the places you plan to visit. Talk or email with other travelers who have visited that area. The more you learn about a place and how to cope with any dangers, the less intimidating it will be.

Any other adventures planned for the future?

We are currently on the speaking circuit, making presentations at schools and civic organizations. Sandy has started to write a book about our experiences. And Darren is working on a documentary, Half a Lifetime, based on the 70 video shorts that were published on YouTube during the trip (see the teaser below).

Who knows, there might even be a Trekking the Planet 2 in the future!