Travel Lesson of the Day: The Universe is Tiny

Small world stories in the Antarctic

It’s Christmas Eve here in Bangkok, and it feels strange to be in the cloying warmth, without the snow and serious frostbite, and without my family. Traveling rarely leaves me feeling empty inside, partly because the euphoria of my collective experiences carries me above any fleeting loneliness, and partly because I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some astonishing people along the way.

Small World Stories from My Travels

Two things have remained constant within the sandbox of my long-term travels: the moment I become complacent is the moment the carpet gets pulled out from under my feet, and that I manage to stumble across the same people in completely different, seemingly unrelated places. The exciting foods, the divergent cultures, the myriad of transportation stories, the colourful locals: these all differ from place to place. But the complacency factor and drenched-in-destiny smallness of the universe have both remained immutable.

During my months in South America, I was amazed at how I kept running into the same people while traipsing through new countries. Granted, there is a fairly entrenched ‘backpacker circuit’ etched into the continent, but I was zigzagging around haphazardly and yet still bumped into familiar faces, time and time again. The culmination of my backpackery astonishment came when the door to my hostel in Valparaiso, Chile opened at midnight, and in walked two guys I had met 3 countries and 6 weeks ago. Needless to say, jaws dropped.

Then, Helen Yuet Ling Pang of World Foodie Guide, a fellow traveleater and Twitterer with way better photography skills and a well-deserved following, commented on my tweet about my camping out on an abandoned part of the Great Wall of China and the semi-disaster of a weekend that preceded it (spoiler: we couldn’t find the Wall). Helen mentioned that it might be a common occurrence; she too went to Jiankou and saw sleeping bags in the turrets of the Great Wall’s towers. The thing is: camping on the wall is illegal, and huge signs around the wall reiterate as much to anyone passing by.

Further, I checked with my friends who live in Beijing (and who camp there fairly often) and they insisted that they have never run into any other campers. I went back to Helen. “Are you sure you saw sleeping bags when you were there?” I asked. She was positive. So I checked my timestamps on the photos and told her I was there on the night of October 17, 2008. She took a look at her pictures and sure enough her timestamp was from October 18th. My friends are in her pictures, sleeping peacefully in the nooks and crannies of the crumbling wall. Bridged by a random interaction and fueled by technology, I had solid proof of how tiny the world can be. The coincidence sort of blew my mind.

Antarctica is Still Close Enough to Cross Paths Online

Today, however, I found even greater evidence that the universe is bewilderingly tiny. I initially stumbled over to the excellent Dry Valleys blog via link aggregator MetaFilter. Chronicling Michael Becker’s “slightly terrified journey in Antarctica,” the blog is extremely engaging and the narrative at times humorous, at times educational and always interesting. His photographs are also fantastic; the scenes otherworldly and completely saturated with colour. I tweeted a link to his blog, left a comment and added him to my blogroll. Today, I left another comment and he sent me a quick email, noting that he had perused my blog and that he too had been on Gili Trawangan in the summer. “It would be a crazy coincidence” he added “if you had been there at the same time”. Well, as you’ve likely guessed, we were on Gili Trawangan at exactly the same time. Not only that, but we randomly met while eating a lunch of $1 nasi campur this past July, and bonded over our mutual love of Montreal. He left me his email address, but with my trip to Lombok and birthday volcano climbs, I never wrote. And today, I dug up my notebook from the depths of my backpack, and there it was: Michael Becker, with a footnote that read loves Montreal; can handle spicy nasi campur.

It’s hard to believe the guy emailing from a tent at the southern ends of the earth was the same tanned guy I shared some chicken and rice with a few months ago. Stranger still was the convoluted series of coincidences that led us to correspond today.

What is the lasting legacy of these insane coincidences? A lesson we were all taught as children, but one that often fades into the background over time: be nice to everyone you meet, because you never know when your paths will cross again.

Happy holidays, everyone! All the best for 2010.

19 thoughts on “Travel Lesson of the Day: The Universe is Tiny”

  1. I once said, "All roads lead to Bangkok."

    I once met a guy on the Everest Trail in Nepal. Six weeks later, after I had traveled all through Nepal and parts of India, I ran into him again on a connecting flight bound for Bangkok. We hung out a few days in BKK before going our separate ways. Almost two months later, after he had traveled all though Australia, and i did more of SEAsia and a whole month in the Philippines, I bumped into him AGAIN (3rd time) at the same exact spot on the same street in Bangkok.

    Glad to hear the universe is still working its mysterious ways in this tiny planet we live on.

  2. These stories remind me of a couple I met in a Chomrong guest house on the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek. A good 6 months later, we happened to bump into each other again while taking the same small boat in Cambodia from Siem Reap to Battambang.

    And while less serendipitous, some of my favorite meetings on my RTW trip were the ones when I purposefully collided with travel bloggers I'd been reading from home.

  3. I couldn't agree more – the world is a tiny place, especially with the help the internet and social media give us these days.

    For Xmas eve dinner tonight, we're going to the rented apartment of a Kiva Fellow we met on a project in Totonicapan, Guatemala in March. By chance, we happen to be in the same city for the holidays…and rented apartments only blocks away from each other.

    Enjoy the holidays in Bangkok (I miss that place and its food!) and have an awesome trip to Burma in January. Merry Christmas!

  4. Universe is tiny indeed. I had some experiences in Turkey, Indonesia, Brasil.
    But the funniest experiences come from my involvment in Some guy wanted to stay with me, but then somehow havent managed to get Slovenia… But than he actually run into me in hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria.
    My slovenian friend told me that she met some guy on wheelchair in Rio de Janeiro (via CS), and i came on some party, started to talk with a guy in wheelchair, and he told me i met slovenian girl here, but she doesnt look european (my friend is of arabian descent), and i asked him was that Tamara??

    Btw. i like your blog, one of the best founds recently…

    I am hoping to get away from sometimes really boring lawyer life in 2011… thanks for inspiration.

  5. and you deserve every positive serendipitous meetup. Fun, surprising, sometimes otherworldly. Great stories to share! Be kind to others, indeed!

  6. How boring. Of course you're going to run into the same dweebs doing the exact same thing you're doing. If you were at all interesting you wouldn't. I never do, because I travel much differently than everyone else, when I travel at all. Now that backpacking has become so common even corporate lawyers can do it, I don't go as much as I did in the 90s.

  7. Anonymous, I couldn't agree with you more. It's SO boring to travel the world & run into people along the way who share similar interests. Connecting with other human beings is SO trite. Your anonymity and alleged unique 90s travel sound far more interesting. Thanks for the laugh and reminder of the douchebaggery that exists in the world.

  8. @Erik and @Audrey, thanks for the comments and as fellow foodies you can rest assured that I am definitely eating my way through Bangkok. Been staying near Aree and there are some glorious food stalls here.

    @jaka & @eileen, thanks for the kind comments. Was a fun 'what the?' moment to realize that it was the same guy.

  9. “All the evidence shows that God was actually quite a gambler, and the universe is a great casino, where dice are thrown, and roulette wheels spin on every occasion” – Stephen Hawking quote

  10. In another one of those moments of unplanned carpet removal, I am sitting at the Crary Lab at McMurdo Station. I read your post to the Lost Girls blog and followed the link to find (you guessed it) a picture of the Dry Valleys and my good friend Seth who just got a plane to head back North today.

    Small world!

  11. it´s crazy how small the world can be sometimes! I´ve bumped into friends in a museum in Paris and on a subway in London…
    great blog! will be visiting more often! are you still on the RTW trip? since 2008? did you go back home at any point? I´m planning mine and my itinerary doesn´t fit in a year calendar! lol

  12. Thanks for all the comments everyone!

    @adriana: yes, still on my trip and I did go home during the course of these last 20 odd months. I plan on updating the trip map once I'm back in broadband internet-land.

    @Kelly: that's just crazy! I love how this story has spawned a multitude of similar small world tales. Thanks for the reading.

    @NomadicChick: cheers and thanks!

  13. Camping on the Great Wall of China! Well that's something new. I hope to see something that interesting when on my China Tour :)

  14. Someone once said (I can't recall where I read it) that the world's not really *that* small; like-minded people just end up going to the same places. Something to that effect :)

  15. You might find Barbara “Hole in the Donut” Weibel’s last few posts of interest – she’s just stayed overnight on the Great Wall herself…

    The Internet has made the world tiny. But with a strange sleight-of-hand. We’re connected, yet still just as far apart as ever. It’s two different worlds that often overlap, but certainly don’t *exactly* overlap. I find it fascinating that there are many folk I can regard as good friends that I’ve never met, some of which I’ll possibly never get to meet….

    But in this case, you prove the world *is* that small. As long as you go out and see it, and make both those world, the virtual and the physical, fit better. There’s the lesson for the rest of us. :)

  16. The universe does indeed operate in strange and beautiful ways. But that just means we’ll meet again somewhere some day! I love the “can handle spicy nasi campur” note.

  17. So so true! I think every travelor realizes how small the world really is as soon as this starts happening.

  18. Travel the Stable Road

    Traveling makes me humble. It makes me realize that I’m just a tiny speckle of dust compared to the earth’s vastness.

  19. Pingback: Serendipity: The Redux | Legal Nomads

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