"Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world."

— Malala Yousafzai

 

Looking at life from a new and different perspective takes a little effort.

I recently finished the book, "I Am Malala," the amazing story of Malala Yousafzai, a 13-year-old girl who took a stand for women's education in Pakistan and was shot in the face by the Taliban.

Now 16 and the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, living in England for her own safety, she continues to recover from her wounds but refuses to be silent. I feel sure her impact on the world is just beginning to be felt.

She was shot in Mingora, her home in the Swat Valley, deep in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Pakistan, an area beset by violence spilling across the border from Afghanistan. It is a place of extreme poverty, staggering illiteracy, Taliban bombings and drone strikes. In recent times, it has suffered a devastating earthquake and floods that swept away entire villages. Despite all that, despite threats on her life, Malala yearns to return, calling Swat "the most beautiful place in the world."

Somehow, the stereotypes in my mind fought with her descriptions, and I decided to check it out myself. I stayed up late, looked up the village online, watched online videos … and found the valley to be as beautiful as she said. However, I needed to know more and set out to explore … but not with backpack and walking stick. Instead, I would explore on Google Earth.

What I found in Mingora was a jumble of homes and compounds stacked tightly in a valley formed by the river. It was bigger, more crowded, less enchanting than I thought it would be. But it was real … and fascinating.

I don't think I'm alone in wanting to look down on life from above. I'm not talking about craning your neck to look down from the window seat of a jetliner as it banks and climbs to a higher altitude. I'm talking about exploration, visiting distant lands and remote places, familiar haunts and unfamiliar places beyond the skyline. Maybe it's lazy, but Google Earth allows you to do that without leaving your easy chair.

I checked out Google's super map years ago when it first came out and watched it get better with new, more detailed maps. I've crossed deserts in my stocking feet, looked into volcanoes without climbing gear, meandered down the Oregon coast, dropped into the Grand Canyon without benefit of a burro and gone over the falls at Niagara without a barrel. I've even booked a vacation stay at Letterfinlay Lodge Hotel on the south shore of Loch Lochy based on an aerial exploration of the Scottish Highlands. Come for a quick ride with me and I'll show you what I mean.

Growing up, I heard tales of Walker Air Base, where World War II pilots trained to fly B-17 bombers. I visited the "German caves" north of town, where legend said Nazi spies eavesdropped on training. But I never saw the base just a few miles west of my home. Even in my youth, it had disappeared from view, lost in the weeds. The massive concrete runways forming a huge triangle were shut down with the war's end, and all the hangars and buildings were gone. Empty spaces between the concrete were cultivated. Today, it's a pig farm.

But from above, via Google Earth, the north-south runways are obvious, as are the twin runways angling southwest by northeast and the taxiway across the top. Google thinks the massive triangular shape in rural north-central Kansas is still an airport — and labels it as such with a white jetliner logo. But pilots coming in for a landing would be in for a shock. Zoom in close and the runways are crisscrossed by rows of round hay bales, hog pens and rusting implements.

Another time, in 2011, I looked for what Marines patrolling Marjah, Afghanistan, referred to as the "murder hole." I was reading "No Worse Enemy," by journalist Ben Anderson about Marines fighting in Helmund Province. A small map of the village pinpointed the location of a compound occupied by the American patrol and a small hut across the fields they called the "murder hole." From there, a Taliban sniper took a lethal toll. By studying rooflines, walls and streets, I found it on Google Earth, and suddenly the book made more sense and became real. Today, new, sharper aerial photos taken in 2014 reveal a large military base, filled with bulldozers, bomb disposal trucks and Humvees. The "murder hole," for good reason, is gone.

Sometimes, like then, news and mapmaking intersect. Within six months after a tornado swept through Hoisington, Kansas, I was exploring the ruined north side of town on Google Earth. Neighborhoods I had explored as a child were gone — just streets, slabs and foundations. Blue tarps still covered a few damaged roofs and dump trucks were still backed up to piles of splintered wood near the hospital. My relatives had moved on long ago, but I spotted the familiar house of my grandmother, which survived, and the basement of my aunt's home, which hadn't.

I enjoy returning to places I have visited on the ground and exploring destinations to which I might otherwise not go. I've zoomed in on the volcanic crater at Mauna Loa on the Island of Hawaii, visited the ruins of Fort Augustus on Loch Ness, searched for the Maid of the Mist in the spray at Niagara Falls, traced boundaries of the Great Wall of China, checked out what's become of my office at U.S. Army Vietnam Headquarters Information Office in Long Binh, looked down on the Oklahoma City National Memorial and investigated glaciers in the Andes.

While newer maps of large cities provide amazing detail, on older satellite views people are just tiny specks. It's not perfect. Going in person, meeting people, mingling in the life of the community … that's perfect. But we can't always do that.

So we read, we learn, we talk to others about their lives … and we study their world from above. It's just one more perspective on a fascinating world.

From on high, you can't tell what's under each roof. You don't know if it covers a business, protects a family or shelters a clinic. Maybe it harbors a primitive school where young girls like Malala are defying the terrorists and striving to get a basic education. We can only hope.

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Dave Berry's is a retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.

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