by Hannah Nevitt, Greenheart Travel Volunteer Abroad Participant

Throughout the months I have faced a number of cultural “learning moments,” but none so defining as the day we debated the question of “How many continents are there?”

It started out as a normal day at the project site. I had arrived around 8 a.m., had chatted with some of the current volunteers and had gotten them started on their projects. We had just received 14 veterinary students from colleges across the United States for a week long program of volunteering.

My Costa Rican boss, Alvaro, had just returned from dropping them off at the airport, when he came into the office baffled. He asked me to explain how it was possible that these bright, young Veterinary students could not properly know, “how many continents there were in the world.”

My initial thought was, “uh oh, what did they say!”

He then accounted to me that the students were adamant that there were indeed seven continents in the world, saying that “They think that North America and South America are separate continents!”

I immediately thought back to my grade school world geography class, counting quickly…confirming. “But Alvaro,” I said.” There are 7 continents; North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, & Antarctica.”

At this, both Alvaro, and the office secretary (who had now joined the conversation) were shaking their heads in what appeared to be disgust in my ignorance (or therefore the ignorance of the U.S. education system) and said to me, “No Hannah…there are only 5.”

Alvaro then began his explanation that there were only 5 continents; Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. He explained that the “Americas” is one whole continent, including the North, Central, and South. Being that Costa Rica is in Central America many people, especially here, do not associate it with South or North America. They were taught that are three separate regions, connected to form one continent. They argue that since Central America is its own entity, how could it possibly be included into the South American continent? Oceania, is made up of Australia, New Zealand, and the surrounding islands. They were taught that Antarctica is not a continent.

At this point I am very confused. I need to make sure I am not losing my mind and therefore decide to ask around. I approached one of the current volunteers, Kate, from New York who immediately confirmed with me that she was taught seven. However, when I went home for the siesta, I asked my host mother and her relatives who all confirmed that there were five. Only one Costa Rican, my host-mother’s brother in-law, paused for a short while and thought that there might be seven…but he wasn’t sure.

I even asked one of my friends from New Zealand how many continents there were and what he believed his country to be associated with. He agreed with me that he was taught that there were seven, however, he told me that his country was associated with Oceania, and not with Australia. (New Zealanders’ are always defending their country as separate from Australia so I am not surprised by their not wanting to be associated as part of the Australian continent).

In short; There definitely seems to be some variation in answers to this question! Wondering now if we had been taught wrong all these years I decided to do a little more research; I went online. After searching Nations online, Wikipedia, and finally consulting the National Geographic website: a source I would trust to be unbiased. The Answer is exactly that…varied. It turns out that there is no right answer to this question and that the answers vary from 5 to up to 7 continents!

It all depends on your cultural perspective. In many Latin countries it is culturally accepted that the “Americas” is one continent. This is also why it is possible to “hit a nerve” with people from “the Americas” when for example, individuals from the United States exclusively identify themselves as “Americans;” As someone from Central or South America could also consider themselves an “American.”

As I related my findings back to Alvaro, that indeed, according to sources like National Geographic, there was no “right answer” and that it was a matter of cultural perspective, he was still quite skeptical. Just as I imagine there are those people out there who are adamant that there exist not five continents…but seven.

But whether there are 5, 7, or even 8 continents, the lesson learned here is about perspective. Being born in a different country carries with it a different culture, and different theories of belief. Therefore, the answers to many of life’s pending questions can be accounted for in different ways.

For example, here in Costa Rica the flooding beaches are accounted for by “full moons” and crazy weather by the “uncharacteristic chirping of birds.” They also believe that sprinkling “holy water” around your house will cure internet problems as well as heal the sick.

Whether I believe these things or not, it is a matter of cultural perspective and I have learned to respect that.

Once again. It is not wrong…just different.