Varun Mahadevan woke up in his Washington, D.C., hotel room in the middle of the night, nerves keeping him up just hours before he represented California on Thursday morning in the final round of the National Geographic Bee.

"I was a little nervous," said Varun, a 13-year-old Hayward resident. "This was my first shot at nationals and it took me a while to get back to sleep."

He needn't have worried.

The butterflies in Varun's stomach vanished after he correctly answered a series of tough questions, such as: What's the lake bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia and drained by the Luapula River? (It's Lake Mweru.)

He then advanced deep into the tournament, capturing the third-place trophy and earning a $10,000 college scholarship.

Varun, a seventh-grade student at Prince of Peace Christian School in Fremont, was one of 10 national finalists in a contest that will be televised Thursday night on the National Geographic Channel.

He won the state championship in March when he identified the most recent country to join the eurozone. (It's Estonia.)

His love of geography stretches back to his parents' gift of a cardboard globe when he was 3 years old. He immediately was fascinated, matching colors to countries before he could even read.

A decade later, Varun said his appreciation for world geography has grown even more.

"I like the cultural and political part of it," he said from his hotel room after the competition. "It's interesting to see your own culture and compare it with others around the world."


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The geography competition tests knowledge but, as any competitor can tell you, good fortune also plays a role.

Varun was cruising in the competition until he was faced with an especially tough question: What is the landlocked country bordered by Iran and Tajikistan. (It's Afghanistan. His answer was Turkmenistan.)

So, first place went to Rahul Nagvekar, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Sugar Land, Texas, who won a $25,000 college scholarship and other prizes.

But Varun's family -- his Sri Lankan-born parents, Rabindranath and Viththaka Mahadevan, and his younger sisters, ages 9 and 5 -- said they are happy with how well he fared.

"We are proud of him because it was a tremendous amount of pressure," Rabindranath said. "He came out of it beautifully."

The family is staying in Washington, D.C., through the weekend, planning to visit the Smithsonian Museum and the Lincoln Memorial with an itinerary set by Varun, the family history buff.

"He has a long list of monuments and historical sites to see," Rabindranath said.

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