Some of the world's brightest geography students have gathered in Hungary for the National Geographic World Championship, which for the first time, is held within the former Iron Curtain area. The United States will defend its world title against teams of youngsters from 19 other countries.
Busy, badge-wearing, people are pondering over a power struggle in the Fiji Islands or the export of a spice in Zanzibar. Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking a high delegation of the United Nations is having a coffee break in the lobby of a five-star Budapest hotel.
But most of these apparently very bright people are in their early teens. These whiz kids have just done their first written test of the National Geographic World Championship.
The three teams with the highest scores will meet each other Thursday for the championship finals at the Budapest Palace of the Arts. There they are to answer questions in a game show format moderated by Alex Trebek, the host of a popular American television quiz show known as "Jeopardy!".
It will be a tough battle for four-time world champion, the United States, admits 15-year old Andrew Wojtanik from Kansas City, after finishing the written test. "Our country is defending our title. We were not competing in 2003, but it puts a kind of pressure on us. But we just try to do our best and hopefully this will be enough so that the next team will have to defend our title."
He said many of the questions were very difficult and included subjects such as history and exports. "There was an oil one where we had to name the five top oil producers in Africa and we could not decide which one it was," he said.
His team will face tough competition from several countries, including Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Taiwan, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom. Organizers also hope that students from African nations Ghana and Nigeria can compete in Budapest, but on Monday they had visa troubles.
The world championship is organized by the U.S.-based National Geographic Society, one of the world's largest non-profit scientific and educational organizations.
Geography Competition Director Mary Lee Elden says the contest is intended to create better students. "In the United States and other countries students are awarded and recognized for their sports and athletic abilities in soccer, in football and rugby or whatever," she said. "And my feeling is that all students cannot be good in sports, but they might be good in something else. And if they are good in geography they should be rewarded. And our reward is that if they do well in their national contest, they can get together with other geography students and take a great trip like this."
She adds, "What I realize, once students are exposed that geography is not memorizing capitals, but it is more about the world around them and it is about the connection to people, to places and things that are happening, than they are interested in it. And if we can make other students and schools realize they can make geography exiting than it will make a come-back."
She also hopes it will encourage girls to take up geography as a subject, as they are under represented at the championship.
For some participating in the competition, planet earth is not enough.
Sixteeen-year old German Erik Rautmann already plans to look beyond the skies once he finishes his high school. "At first I would travel around the world to make a picture of the world we live in. And after that I would like to study and to do something in space technology to plan missions to other planets, and to bring people up to space," he said.
He is confident that Germany will win the National Geographic World Championship, although organizers say host country, Hungary, has a good chance of taking the championship.