Strange maps won't leave me alone. Last week I saw an outdoor showing of The Grand Budapest Hotel. What did Agatha, Young Zero Mustafa's love interest, have on her right cheek? A birthmark in the shape of Mexico. Not an approximation, but the country's exact shape. The birthmark's northern edge is the negative of the southern border of U.S. To the left, the spindly limb of the Baja California peninsula parallels the northern part of Mexico's Pacific coast. To the right, the Yucatan peninsula sticks out into the Gulf of Mexico. On an outdoor screen, that's a big strange map indeed.
But why? Saoirse Ronan, who plays Agatha in the movie, doesn't know either, she told MTV last year: “I never got an explanation. I read it, I thought: This is hilarious. I probably asked [writer and director Wes Anderson] when I met him for the first time. But, he was like, I dunno, I just wrote it, I guess. He probably said something like: I'm Wes Anderson; stop asking questions, Ronan. So I did […] It's lovely, it's mentioned in passing and it's forgotten about. Even when we watched it in Berlin [at the movie's premiere in February], a lot of people afterwards were mentioning [it], and I had completely forgotten that I had this birthmark on my face. I was so used to it, having to put the blooming thing on every single day.”
But country-shaped birthmarks also exist outside Anderson's imagination. In the imagination of the Daily Telegraph, for instance. On 1 April 2011, the British newspaper reported in its Travel section on a new trend in tourism called "shapecation" — visiting places because of their significant contours. The example provided was of Durak Aprel, an obscure archipelago off the Siberian coast, now a popular holiday destination because of its resemblance to the birthmark on the head of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet head of state. Unfortunately, the "Birthmark Islands" were the newspaper's April Fool's story for that year (Durak Aprel is the literal translation into Russian of "April fool").
But nature is at least as imaginative as Anderson (or the Daily Telegraph). Shapecations do exist (to Croatia's loveheart-shaped Galesnjak Island and others). And so do country-shaped birthmarks. As reported by the Singaporean website Stomp, this person has a birthmark on his back that is a mirror image of a map of China.
And here is a picture of a birthmark shaped like Afghanistan, on the body of a nine-year-old beggar in the Afghan city of Lashkar Gah. It features the country's distinctive Wakhan Corridor in the east, connecting it to China. The area was granted to Afghanistan in the 19th century, to separate then Russian Central Asia from then British India. The discovery made the boy a celebrity. The governor of Helmand Province called to congratulate him, and patriotic well-wishers have offered to pay for his education. Coincidentally, the article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 10 May 2012, just over a year after its own April Fool's birthmark story. They must have fact-checked the heck out of this one.
That, however, is all an extensive online search trawls up. Yet, according to the law of probabilities, there should be many more country-shaped birthmarks out there. Do you have one — or know someone who has one? Pictures, or we won't believe you. A selection of the most realistic examples will be posted here, decency permitting.
Jere Kittle was kind enough to send in a picture of his left foot, which is personalized by the addition of a fairly decent rendering of the map of Great Britain.
Mark Feldman was reminded of a similar example of body-based cartography, albeit involving a scar (and political satire) rather than a birthmark (and mere geographic resemblance).
In 1966, U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson rather crudely provided the press with an update on his recent gall bladder operation by lifting up his shirt to show a foot-long scar. Cartoonist David Levine transformed that scar into a map of Vietnam – and the image of the president revealing his 'weak spot' into a comment on the escalation of the ground war in Vietnam under LBJ's presidency. Outrage over the Vietnam War was a major factor in Johnson's decision in early 1968 not to seek re-election.
Strange Maps #724