Where it All Began: It’s Carmen Sandiego’s Fault

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I sat down not long ago and decided to try and pinpoint where it all began; to try and figure out what first sparked the wanderlust that oh-so-often flares up inside of me.

I finally came to a conclusion: It all started because of a mysterious woman in a red trenchcoat.

That’s right — Carmen Sandiego. Remember her?

I didn’t have cable growing up. I lived out in the country, on a Christmas tree farm with a gravel driveway a quarter-mile long. Aside from Saturday morning cartoons on the major networks, most of my television entertainment came from PBS.

Ah, PBS. “Sesame Street.” “Nova.” Telethons where you could donate money and receive giant stuffed Elmo dolls in thanks.

After school each afternoon in elementary school, I would do some homework, and then my babysitter and I would sit down for an episode of “Wishbone” (where I learned all the important things about classic literature from a spunky Jack Russell Terrier), followed by my favorite show on TV: “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

I loved that show with unmatched vigor, from the opening song sung by Rockapella, to the trivia challenges the gumshoes faced, to the last segment starring a humongous map on the floor.

My love for this show, I think, should have been the first warning sign.

In case you aren’t familiar with the educational game show, participants (potential “gumshoes” for the ACME Detective Agency) were charged with helping track down a rogue agent, Carmen Sandiego, who had defected to V.I.L.E. (the writers sure did love their plays on words).

Gumshoes competed in three rounds to test their worldly knowledge and detective smarts. But it was always the third round that I remember: The round where the winning gumshoe had to pinpoint all the countries on a continent within a set amount of time as the host named them at random.

I can still picture the large, multi-colored maps of Africa and South America that would be laid out on the floor. I can remember biting my nails and rooting for the last-standing contestant, hoping he or she would know where such exotic-sounding countries like Namibia and Uruguay were located on the map.

I wanted to be on that show so badly.

The winner — if he or she correctly identified all the countries within the time limit — got a free trip to anywhere in the United States. To my 9-year-old self, this sounded like the greatest thing in the world.

When my babysitter graduated from high school, she actually gave ME a present — a Carmen Sandiego “spy kit” that she’d gotten at Pizza Hut. Inside it were a faux-passport, along with fake money from various countries around the world. I remember it being one of my favorite things to play with that year, imagining myself in Italy or Russia or Brazil, tracking down bad guys.

Without even knowing it at the time, my sense of adventure and wanderlust was already in full swing. Perhaps, even at the age of 9, the travel bug had already given a little nibble.

I wanted to know all those places on those maps — Venezuela and Germany and Kenya and more. And that desire went beyond mere geography. I wanted to actually KNOW them. The blinking beacons that indicated a correctly-identified country in that third and final round became like a roadmap of all the places I hoped to see in the world.

Carmen Sandiego was a villain, indeed. She stole my travel ignorance, and made me want to see the world.

I suppose I owe her a lot of thanks.

Can you pinpoint the time in your life or specific influence that sparked your own wanderlust? What was your travel catalyst? Who/what do you blame?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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43 Comments on “Where it All Began: It’s Carmen Sandiego’s Fault

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  1. Ohmigod, I loved Carmen Sandiego! (I took grew up cable-less as well). Ghostwriter (YES!) and this math/crime show (can’t remember the title) were also PBS favs.

    The one thing I HATED about the end is that the map was backwards to the contestants (but forwards to the viewers) and even though I was never officially confirmed dyslexic, I knew I could never beat that part of the game (so why bother getting that far). And the kids that got the US map, won more then anyone else. Africa and Asia were the worst because they were so big. Even back then, I could spot the sort of un-fairness of that part of the game.

    My favorite prize was the WORLD radio, where you can listen to stations all over the world. I wanted that SO BAD!!!

      Oh my gosh, I forgot all about Ghostwriter!! I loved that one, too!

      I remember the kids who got the Africa maps most vividly, I think. Maybe because they seemed so daunting!

    SAME WITH ME TOO. Totally.

    My parents took me to an audition for the show in New Hampshire, but I chickened out! 🙂 Do it, Rockapella!

      Haha! You went to an audition? That is awesome. My 9-year-old self is extremely jealous.

    ha, I am totally with you on this one. I also had the Nintendo game of her they made a few years a later. The first season of The Amazing Race in 2001 was also a big one for me!

      I had one of the computer games. It was cheesy, and always ran very slow on my dinosaur of a computer, but I loved it.

      I would agree that the Amazing Race was (and still is!) inspiring, too. If I could be on any TV show, that would definitely be the one I’d pick!

    i never thought Carmen would inspire anyone. but after reading your post, i have changed my opinion about her. i also loved the show i used to watch it all the time.

      Yeah, I guess it wasn’t Carmen herself that inspired me… but the show in general. Thanks for reading!

    Carmen San Diego was the best show ever when I was growing up too! And you’re certainly right, she did inspire my love of travel and desire to see all the world’s monuments. I guess I owe her thanks as well! =)

      I feel like many of us travelers who watched the show probably owe her some bit of thanks!

    I remember fighting with other kids at elementary school over the single computer we had so that I could play the Carmen Sandiego computer game… that was so much fun! Thanks for the flashback! 🙂

      My pleasure! Glad my memories brought back so many others’.

    Definitely me too! I never saw the TV show but we had the computer game at school. The computers were booked days in advance just for people wanting to play the game.

      I had the computer game at home, and had an atlas next to the computer to help me figure the clues out… I loved looking at those maps so much!

    That would be a great show to bring back. I would love to get my children watching it so I can be sure they’ll get the bug too.

      Agreed! If one kids’ game show should be brought back, I’d vote this one! Or maybe Legends of the Hidden Temple, because I was obsessed with that one, too…

    I loved the computer games! That was the highlight of computer class in elementary–I have to admit I only vaguely recall the tv show but I remember it being good too!

      I was hooked on the TV show long before I played the computer game. But I remember begging and begging my parents for that game for Christmas one year. It was so fun! Much more exciting than Oregon Trail (though I also loved that one… who didn’t?).

    Haha, Carmen Sandiego was a big part of where my travel-lust began as well. 🙂

    I lived in the city and we had Foxtel but it was only on at 5:30am. So every morning (I could manage..) I woke up at 5am. Got dressed. Ate breakfast and watched Carmen Sandiego. I would then always go back to sleep in my uniform much to the confusion of my Mum until she worked out what I was doing one day. Haha.
    I love her so much I dressed as her for a Superhero/villan party!)

      Haha, that’s so funny that you used to wake up at 5 a.m. just to watch Carmen Sandiego! Now that’s dedication right there!

      I’ve often thought of dressing up as her for Halloween. It would be a fun costume!

    This brought back so many memories for me…my little sister and I would rush home from school to make sure we got there in time for the opening song. And yes, I think it’s Carmen that kickstarted my weird obsession with geography.

      You sound just like me!! I would get so upset if I for some reason missed that show.

    Loved that show!! I had the game on PC and played it ALL the time!!

      Same here! I wonder if you can still find the PC game anywhere?

    OMG I just stumbled upon your blog, and your About section lead me here. I’m glad I found your blog. Definitely following once I get on my computer at home (can’t log on to fb here…) =]

    I COMPLETELY just wrote a post on How Carmen Sandiego Changed My Life Last Month!!!


      That’s awesome!! I think Carmen inspired wanderlust (or at least an interest in geography) in a lot of people in our generation!

    Incredible – a fellow Carmen Sandiego fan! I had the computer game when I was small and used to dream of all the exotic places. One in particular caught my eye – Buenos Aires. Twenty years later and here I am in Argentina. The eight year-old’s dream came true!

      That’s so awesome! Congrats on making your dream a reality!

    I can definitely relate to this! I spent so many afternoons staying late at school so I could play Carmen San Diego on the classroom computer. I love hearing these kinds of stories about the origins of people’s travel curiosity.

      I always love hearing about others who played that computer game when they were younger! Such fun.

    We were *just* talking about this on my Facebook page! It’s definitely the biggest early influence I can pinpoint for my insatiable need to travel.

      Definitely! Carmen definitely instilled some wanderlust in me!

    Does anyone know if there was a Carmen Sandiego doll or if so were would it be sold

      I do not know… but would totally buy one if it existed!

    I found today off of passports with purpose. I must say that I loved “Where is the world is Carmen Sandiego” and my children loved playing the videogame after the show closed. to check off the jumping off a waterfall item on your bucket list, I recomend the Seven waterfalls tour in El Impossible National Park in El Salvador. I went there with my 17 year old daughter last spring and had a blast.

    See you on the road.


      Ah, Carmen. She was such a huge part of my childhood! I never had any idea then that I would actually be traveling the world now though!

    For me it might have to be when I was 14 and I got to go live with my mom and step dad in a little town (Momax, Zacatecas) in Mexico for 8 months while my step dad got his green card so he could get his childhood dream job back in the US. It was a really fun experience and I think it sparked a tiny bit of wanderlust in me.
    I also remember growing up watching PBS and Wishbone lol I’m sure there were more but I honestly don’y remember them. I loved Wishbone, though. Such a cute TV show and the dog was so adorable, too! I feel like I might’ve watched Where in the World is Carmen SanDiago too but I don’t have that great of a memory and couldn’t tell you what it was about. Same goes for Wishbone, I couldn’t remember until you said what it was about (I just remembered the dog lol).

      If Carmen Sandiego sparked my interest in travel, Wishbone sparked my interest in literature! Both great shows! 😉

    Yes! Carmen SanDiego was an inspiration. I watched the show and we had a computer game where we were the gumshoes. It was awesome.

      I had that game, too! Loved the show so so much.

    CARMEN!!!! I loved Carmen Sandiego! I never knew there was a TV show! I always played the computer games with using clues to find Carmen, or the board game. But there used to be a TV show? That’s amazing!

    So I know this post is old– but I had to comment. I think I’ve always had the travel bug. Or the map bug maybe. I used to pour over my mom’s old road atlases of the US, put together a USA state map puzzle, and run my fingers over a globe we’d been given for christmas– a globe that is sitting behind me as I speak. I also love the Amazing Race with all the experiences and challenges they go through and how I could and would do it better than the contestants.

    Who knows when I was bitten but I’m good and infected now.

      You would have LOVED the Carmen Sandiego show! It was basically a game show for kids that revolved around maps and knowledge about the world! These days I also really love the Amazing Race – I’m not sure I’d actually ever want to be on it, but it’s so fun to watch.

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