What Are the Odds?

Mlilwane National Park,


August 14, 2016

There is space aplenty in Mlilwane and the lack of big game means walking in it is a rare pleasure not easily found in other national parks. Today I had decided to go for a walk along a trail ambitiously called the Hippo Trail. If the park has a hippo, it has stayed in hiding but the walk was pleasant as I rambled along the red dirt trail past a few grazing kudu and the odd warthog napping in the shade.

I had just crossed the bridge next to the Hippo Pool when I saw three men walking down the trail heading in the opposite direction, chatting together. We said hello as we passed and walked on. I had gone barely a couple of meters when a question followed me.

“Excuse me?” said the tallest of the trio I had passed a moment ago.

“Yes?” I turned.

He called out “Were you in Iran?”

“Yes” I replied squinting at them.

He continued his questions as we began to walk toward each other.

“You were in Shiraz?”

“You live in New York?”

“Yes, I replied, “Yes“

By this time we had come close enough for me to see their faces clearly.

“We met in Shiraz” he said grinning broadly now.

And then it hit me.

“Ohhh”, I exclaimed “You’re that crazy Dutch guy!”

One of the others had taken off his hat and I recognized him as well. He was the Italian with that special knack of saying the most ordinary of things in a way that had us convulsing in laughter. Three years ago when I was travelling through Iran, we had met in Shiraz. Olav, Vincento, a few other memorable characters and I had spent more than one evening on the takht in the fountain-sprinkled courtyard of the guesthouse. We traded stories and jokes and writhed in helpless fits of laughter. Oh how this took me back! A far cry from Africa in country, culture, the people I met, both locals as well the other travelers. How heartsick it makes me for such places and peoples.

We hugged and laughing uproariously, marveled at meeting like this out of the blue. What are the odds that we should do so with no planning, no contact, in a completely different part of the world?

Coming across people I’ve met before on the same trip is something that happens often enough and not really surprising since we are wandering more or less around the same countries, across the same borders, in the same places. But this? This blows me away!

But even as I write that, I think of the many times this has happened to me. More than half a dozen times I have come across someone I had met years before in some part of the world. A chance encounter on the street, in a café, on the stairs of some guesthouse begins with a quizzical look as they begin asking questions. They remember that I was travelling by myself and sometimes describe a memorable incident. Sometimes they describe my tent in meticulous detail. My memory usually does a commendable imitation of a sieve and such times are no exception. But once prompted, I remember them too. Clearly.

Walking down the stairs in a hostel in Beijing, China I met again a man whom I had met on the Inca Trail in Peru seven years before.

On the rocking boat to the Gili Islands in Indonesia, a fellow passenger was a young woman,  whom I had met on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal four years before.

Over dinner in a guesthouse in Leh, India I ran across someone whom I’d met on the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China three years before.

Walking into a guesthouse in Gondar in Ethiopia I ran across a man I had met in Leh in India thirteen years before.

And so it goes. And now this, the latest in a long list of such meetings. What are the odds? As miniscule as the statistical probability must be, it happens again and again. Incredible, amazing and so utterly delightful that I have a silly grin pasted on my face. I strongly suspect the grin is here to stay for a while.

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