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Jun 25, 2008

"The World Is A Big Place..

Easymap ...but it often folds back on itself."

I think that Brian said something like this in an old comment, but I can't find where.  Hey, Brian -- care to remind?

I've lived in or around Durham since 1983, so it's no surprise when I run into friends or acquaintances when I'm wandering around town.  In the early 90s when I was making a lot of short trips around the US, I noticed that one of the weird sensations of travel was the absence of seeing familiar faces while walking the streets of, say, Atlanta or Chicago.  Thus the special fun of unexpectedly running into someone I knew, whether a Chapel Hill acquaintance at the New York Public Library, or a college schoolmate at a Washington DC bar.

Now when I travel for pleasure instead of work, I usually stay in places long enough to get to know a few people and then run into them around town.  It's happening regularly here in La Ceiba (population ~150k) even though I've only been here a few days, and it helps me at least feel like I'm actually in the community, not just visiting.

But here are better stories from my friends, paraphrased best as I remember:

In the summer of 1990, my friends John and Julie were traveling separately through Europe.  They made tentative plans to meet at the Duomo on a particular date and time, and John made it there.  But Julie and her travelmate were put off by the World Cup crowd, and decided not to push into Florence (figuring that John had done the same).  A week or two later, John was walking through the Zagreb train station when someone grabbed him from behind, pinning his arms to his side.  His life flashed before his eyes as he realized he was going do die behind the Iron Curtain and that his parents would never know what happened.  But of course it was just Julie.

Around the same time, my friend Geoff was traveling in India.  Outside the Taj Majal, an Indian man walked up and asked, "excuse me, sir, I noticed your Duke t-shirt and wonder if you went to school there?"  Geoff noticed that the Indian man was wearing a Carolina t-shirt, and then he noticed the man's face.  "Whoa, Dipak!" "Whoa, Geoff!!"  They'd been hallmates a few years earlier at NCSSM.

Back in the 70s, my friend Sheila was traveling in Greece when she met some friendly guys on a ferry boat.  The odd thing was that they claimed to have met her before, a few weeks earlier in Czechoslovakia.  Sheila said there was no way that could have happened, as she'd never been to Czechoslovakia, but they insisted -- repeating various parts of their conversations, etc., and things she'd told them about herself which sounded strangely familiar.  That's when Sheila finally figured it out... they had met her twin sister who (Sheila finally remembered) was traveling concurrently through Eastern Europe.

Europeans sometimes mock Americans as being overly fixated on their college alumnihood, what with all the car stickers, t-shirts, and hats, etc.  But these things are useful.  Three weeks ago I ran into a team of anthropology students from UNC-A whom I recognized because one of them (a guy who'd gone to E. Chapel Hill High School) was wearing a school hat.  This week I spotted some kids from Winston Salem ("Forsyth County Day School" on their t-shirts), and last week I also ran into some NC medical students while walking around the restaurant/bar part of town on the beach (pegged not because of their clothes, but because one of them called out "hey, y'all -- let's take another taxi, this one's full.").

But anyway, I'll leave you with my favorite small world story, which I've probably told you before:

Back in '84, my Dad met a UNC anthropologist during an Indonesian gamelan performance at Duke.  They got to talking, and figured out that the anthropologist and his new wife had lived with my grandparents for a year in Indonesia back in the 60s while he was working on his doctoral dissertation.  They adored my grandparents in Indonesia, and we've been extended family in North Carolina ever since.

The world is a big place, but it often folds back on itself.


Addendum and case in point: ten minutes after I originally posted this blog, I left the 'net cafe to get something to drink, and while I was walking through the food court I saw a woman with a Durham Regional Hospital bag.  So of course I asked her if she was from Durham and she said, "Didn't we meet outside of El Guapo's last week?"  Oh, duh.  It was one of the medical students.  (Hi Katie!)

2nd addendum
: reader Glenn is surely considering a comment along the lines of "while La Ceiba may have 150,000 people, it's likely that certain classes/types of people are likely to concentrate in similar areas.  For example, the mall has the town's most expensive shops, and people who go there are likely to visit the town's five or six most expensive restaurants, and none of the town's cheapest barrios.  The self-selection effectively creates a much smaller "town" in which to run into each other."  If he's thinking this, of course he's right.  (See also blogpost Durham: BimbĂ© Festival) But still... 

A related story about self-selected groups on similar life-paths: my friend Kristina (a fellow Brown alum) spent the mid-90s traveling around the world, working with various NGOs.  First she went to India for several months, and then she went to Tanzania.  While she was in Tanzania, she heard from her Indian friends that another Brown alum had recently started working at the Indian NGO.  A year later, after Kristina had returned to the US, the folks from Tanzania told her about a new cool woman who was working there and of course it was the same one.  A year after that, Kristina enrolled at the UNC School of Public Health, and when she went to her first faculty advisor meeting, guess who was also there?  Contextual note: all this information moved around the globe before email was in common use in any of three countries mentioned.


Photo of printed cloth EasyMap by dewadesign, commented on at the RoadScholar.

07:14 PM in Traveling | Permalink


Phil -

Great post. Selection bias did not pop into my head while I was reading this, but I do feel a certain eats-for-a-lifetime sense of accomplishment.

And I will add my own small world story. I was in Prague in 1993, at a musical performance in an old cathedral (an absolutely heavenly performance of Ave Maria) when I heard a familiar voice from the pew behind me, and it was indeed a former prof from CMU.


Posted by: Glenn | Jun 26, 2008 9:18:31 AM

Love this topic!

My two small world stories, both from the trip I took with 4 friends in the summer of '94 after taking the bar exam:

(1) Our youth hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland had a bar in the basement (it's the infamous Balmer's). We were there socializing one night and a guy walked past my friend Amy, immediately catching her attention. Turns out, they went to school together back in Houston, from elementary through high school. The guy was working in Bern and happened to choose that night to go to Balmer's to hear some American accents that would remind him of home.

(2) Our adorable hotel (more like little apartment rooms built into a hill) on the island of Ios, Greece hosted drinks on its patio each night to encourage the guests to meet each other and hang out (you may be sensing a theme). A guy at one night's social hour looked incredibly familiar to me, but I could not place him. We started talking and realized we had studied for the bar exam every day for several weeks that summer, at tables in the Rice Business School Library that were right next to each other.

Posted by: Lisa | Jun 27, 2008 3:24:48 AM

When I was in 4th grade, we moved and the first day a girl beat me up and threw me in the slushy puddle because she thought my (fake) fur coat was snobby and my southern accent was funny.

We moved away and then my dad was stationed back there so we moved back. I met a girl in school and we really hit it off. And then I said, hey, aren't you that girl who threw me in the mud? And she said, yes, sorry about that. And then we were friends.

Posted by: Valerie | Jun 27, 2008 8:33:11 PM

The exact quote is something like "Actually, the world is pretty big, but it's just folded over a lot of times." I plagiarized it from the comic strip "Eyebeam" by Sam Hurt.

I spent a little time leafing through my old Eyebeam books, searching for the strip in question, but no luck so far. When I find it, I'll scan and post it, thus compounding my intellectual-property crime.

Posted by: Brian | Jun 27, 2008 9:28:28 PM

Hey Phil - Have to throw my small world story into the ring... Back in 1990, I was on the Holbrook Western Tour (way too many 15 year olds on a bus traveling around the country). We stopped for gas in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Utah. Nothing but sand for miles and miles. I got off the bus and noticed that the station attendant was really cute! And then I realized that it was my friend Brian who had sat next to me in Spanish class all year. He was in Utah visiting his dad for the summer.

Posted by: Jennifer P. | Jul 1, 2008 10:17:27 PM

"Whoa Phil", the story is exactly right. I believe Geoff had facial hair so his baby face was transformed.

Posted by: dipak ranparia | Dec 5, 2008 8:04:01 AM

Though I didn't figure it out until afterwards, when we were on our way to Alaska for good, flying our own plane, we were stuck for a time in the airport in Billings, Montana. Another plane full of folks were there as well, and we had a nice chat waiting for the weather to clear. They were from the Badlands area of South Dakota where I was born and lived four years, and the woman had done a good bit of babysitting for families in park housing, where I lived. Talking to my mom later, there's no doubt she babysat my sister and I, though she didn't remember us by name. But being a teenager, and having outgrown her Barbies, she gave them to us when we moved away. My family, of course, never gets rid of much of anything, and Sierra still has some of them. Wish I'd fully worked out the connection while we were still in the airport....

Posted by: Jeanne | May 2, 2010 10:15:05 PM