Rare Coincidences Are Very Common on the Road

| October 13, 2010 | 34 Comments

rarecoincidence Rare Coincidences Are Very Common on the Road

What are the chances?

In July 1975, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reported the death of 17-year-old Erskine Lawrence Ebbin, a young man who had been struck by a taxi while driving a moped in Hamilton, Bermuda. While unfortunate, his death wasn’t terribly notable—except for the fact that the previous year his brother was killed at the same intersection. And he, too, happened to be driving a moped—the same moped.

But mopeds are dangerous vehicles, right? And this was otherwise a terrible coincidence, right? Wrong. That’s not even the half of it. It turns out that it was the same taxi, with the same driver—and carrying the same passenger—that killed his brother Neville the previous year.

Did I just blow your mind? To read about such incredible coincidences is one thing but to experience them is quite another. And while they say that travel makes the world grow smaller, I never realized the truth behind that maxim until I’d experienced this incredible shrinking world myself. And that’s where my story of amazing coincidence begins—in Vietnam, of all places.

I first met Richard over lunch in Vinh Moc. He was an interesting dude, a lone thin braid erupting out of an otherwise bald head. He’d been travelling Vietnam for almost as long as I’d been—and in the space of our lunch, I’d learned a lot about this gregarious Australian student. And our relationship would likely have ended there — except that it didn’t.

You see, Vietnam is notable for having a very well defined tourist trail running between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City owing to what—at the time—was the only highway in the country to connect the two cities. As Richard had set off ahead of me and we were both headed south, it seemed that I’d catch him in every city along the way. We’d bump into each other as I was arriving and he was leaving, which was great for me because he’d offer up his suggestions—over a pint or two—of what to see and do at every destination. This coincidence repeated itself again and again. Hue. Hoi An. Nha Trang. Dalat. Our accidental meetings became so commonplace that they no longer surprised either of us. I’d catch Richard walking down the street, hopping on a bus, waiting at the train station. And let’s face it; he wasn’t terribly difficult to recognize owing to his long thin braid, grizzled visage and red flowing fisherman’s pants. He was easy to pick out from a distance.

The last we saw of each other in Vietnam was in Dalat. I knew that he was travelling on to Bangkok from Ho Chi Minh City—and I was headed back north up the Mekong into Cambodia. We said our goodbyes over an extra pint and that was that.

Except that it wasn’t.

About six weeks later, I found myself on Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, a thriving community that caters to the every need of the backpacker. It was here that I was resting up after six hard weeks travelling through the back country of Laos and Cambodia, taking a break from the rigors of vagabonding before heading off to continue my adventure in India. Walking down the street, I saw Richard in his trademark fisherman’s pants dining by the side of the road.

Amazed by the serendipity, I joined him at his table and he introduced me to his friends—friends he had known from back home in Australia. We got on well—as Australians and Canadians often do—and it wasn’t long before we were well lubricated by several large Chang beers. That’s when Richard’s face froze in disbelief and he muttered: “Holy cripes!”.

It turned out that Richard had recognized yet another person from back home—but one he hadn’t expected to see—his ex-girlfriend’s mother! Before long, she too was seated with us and we were all tilting back Changs.

This is where the world shrinks. In the course of our conversation, I revealed to her that I was most recently employed in Korea—where I had saved enough money as an ESL teacher to travel afterward. “Oh!” she said, “I know someone in Korea!”. Jokingly, I replied, “Who? I probably know them”.

“No!” she replied, “I won’t tell you—it’s too embarrassing”. Intrigued, I resisted the urge to probe further. After several more Chang beers, however, she opened up.

“I met him over the Internet!” she erupted. While we reassured her that her admission was nothing to be embarrassed over, I asked her again, “Who? I bet I know him”.

That’s when she said his name: “Mark. Mark Smith”.

My jaw dropped. I happened to have worked alongside a Mark Smith. “An American?”, I asked.


“From Brooklyn?”

Correct again. What a small world—what were the chances? My mind reeled. An amazing number of coincidences occurred to have finally brought us together over beers in Bangkok. It was incredible.

And the story would have ended there—except that it didn’t.

A year later I returned home from my travels and shortly thereafter met up with the love of my life and fellow blogger, Kathryn. As she was a recent graduate, and owing to the fact that neither of us had any money but were both itching to travel, I returned to Korea—this time with her. The plan was simple: we’d work a year-long contract, squirrel away funds and travel a bit through South East Asia before returning home with enough money for a down payment on a home.

We enjoyed our year in Korea and looked forward increasingly to our time in Thailand. Shortly after our contract was up, we hopped a plane to the islands and settled on Koh Lanta to recuperate from teaching. It was here we met Phil and Jackie—two retired Australians who spent their winters abroad travelling through Asia. Former hippies, both made a killing in Australi a’s 80s real estate boom and were now living off the fruits of their labours and travelling almost full-time.

We spent a week with Phil and Jackie, swapping stories, swimming, hanging out and drinking. Over beers one night, I related the story as it appears here to them, beginning with: “It was a most amazing coincidence”.

I had barely begun—and was relating to them my impression of that erstwhile traveller, his lone braid, the way he dressed, his fisherman’s pant —when Phil stopped me. Lowering his beer from his lips, he said incredulously: “His name wasn’t Richard, was it?”

To read about such incredible coincidences is one thing, but to experience them is quite another. My mind was sent reeling yet again. There we were on Koh Lanta, having beers with Phil and Jackie—Richard’s parents—almost three years since the incredible coincidence had begun to unravel. And here we were—after all that space and time, at the end of this amazing piece of yarn.

And all of it true.

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Category: Dan's Blog

About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

Comments (34)

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  1. Jen Laceda says:

    Holy cripes! Amazing, amazing!

    Here’s my experience with coincidence: 5 months ago, we were living in the West End of the city and some random guy threw a rock through our car window and broke it. This was at High Park area and the police said it was uncommon there. Now, we’ve moved to the east end of the city, and just a few days ago, some random guy threw a rock through our house window and shattered it (while we were at home). The police was baffled because it didn’t usually happen in our current neighbourhood. 2x in 5 months – what are the chanes? Even our insurance company thinks we have some kind of hex on us! Weird coincidence?? I don’t know…

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks Jen! Kathryn’s family is originally from around there. I love High Park. Such a great neighbourhood. Hope you’re enjoying your new digs in the east. Happy coincidences are better than the negative ones—but all are a little jarring. I guess it’s all just random but we as humans have a natural propensity to try to see a pattern and make connections — just our nature, I guess.

  2. Jenny says:

    Awesome story. It’s definitely a small world. I, too, have found that out traveling.

    • Daniel says:

      And it gets small everyday! What with blogs, Skype, smartphones, etc. The global village is no longer a theory—but a reality!

  3. Shannon OD says:

    That is an absolutely incredible coincidence! Love the flow of the story and the synchronicity of the universe. I backpacked for weeks through Central America with a woman and then found out I had backpacked several years previously through Italy with her brother…but that’s about the extent of my coincidence!

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks for the comment, Shannon. The world’s a big place, but travellers are prone to gravitate to one another — that’s how I explain these things away, anyway.

  4. Jack Norell says:

    Very well told, and quite entertaining. I do feel like I’m left out though, as nothing even remotely close to this has happened to me.

    • Daniel says:

      Hey Jack—thanks for dropping a line! I rarely sit down to write a post and then publish it immediately afterward — but this was one of those times. I re-read it this morning in hopes that it hung together. This was several years ago (2001–4) — but it was no stretch to remember the details. They were still as fresh in my mind as the day we made the realization that we were all connected on Koh Lanta.

  5. Gray says:

    What an awesome story, Daniel! I can’t help but think that “coincidences” like that aren’t coincidences at all, but “universal intention” or fate of some sort.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Gray. Upon re-reading the story, I realized just how far-fetched it all seems. Maybe not a coincidence at all! What’s the universe trying to tell us? :)

  6. Jayne says:

    Hahahaha I absolutely loved this post from start to finish. Great story, superbly told. I must improve my memory skills if I’m ever to have a similar experience :)

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jayne! The vast amount of beer consumed on that leg of our trip would have otherwise clouded my recollection — but this was such an interesting series of coincidences that it’s stayed fresh in my mind!

  7. Phil says:

    I love stories like this. Amazingly, it seems that they happen with frequency. Always makes me think of Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious idea. Thanks for sharing this. B well, Phil

  8. Awesome! Love, love, love the final twist of meeting Richard’s parents! We have never had something quite so involved happen to us, but we once found ourselves in the Forbidden City in Beijing. As pretty much the only white people there we obviously stood out. Another guy noticed us and came over to ask if we were really Canadians. We explained we are, although we’ve lived in California for a long time. Turns out that he lives in Kingston, which is where Ian and I went to university. In fact, he teaches at that university…with my uncle!

    Our other “it’s a small world” moment came when a friend and colleague of Ian’s went home to India to visit family. While there he picked up a local paper in the local language and was reading the travel section. Imagine his surprise to find an article about travel in Turkey – with Ian’s photo in it! Which is to say nothing of OUR surprise to find that a paper published in a language neither of us speaks, half-way around the world, had not only taken a photo off our website – they’d taken TWO photos and merged them!

    Thanks for sharing this great story!

  9. Leah says:

    Dude, obviously you need to go somewhere other than South East Asia! ;)

  10. Doug says:

    About a year and a half late for this post, but it is relevant.

    I joined the National Guard in 2000 and stayed in until 2003. I had a Sergeant that I’ll refer to as “SGT D”. SGT D. was a pretty goofy guy, never really serious about his career, but a great leader. SGT D. left the guard and went Active Duty in 2002, and he was missed by a lot of people, including myself. I left the National Guard in 2003 and went Active Duty Army to South Korea. I spent three long years there (the normal amount of time spent there is one year) making new friends but never close ones.

    About a month before I was scheduled to get out, I got put on some detail in Seoul. I had a day off, and decided to hit up the local bars. I walk into one and start playing pool. It was about 2:00 pm on a weekday, so the bar was pretty empty, and I ended up playing by myself for a few hours. Around 6:00 pm I had a nice buzz going, and the bar started to fill up. I was getting ready to call it a night with pool because I couldn’t quite focus on the balls anymore, when I hear a familiar voice behind me ask “mind if I play a game with you?”. I turned around, and holy hell, it was SGT D. Turns out he had been in South Korea for around the same amount of time I had been there, and was also getting ready to leave. He had also gone to officers school, and was now a LT. We had a great night of catching up, drinking and having a good time. At the end of the night, we exchanged numbers and emails, and promised to stay in touch. Sadly we never did, and I lost contact with him.

    I returned home in late 2006, fresh out of the Army. I missed the camaraderie I was used to, and rejoined the guard in mid 2007. I decided to switch my job in the army, and that required a 6 month course in southern Arizona. Right before graduating from my school, I’m in line at a clothing store picking up some stuff needed for graduation. There’s a guy in front of me taking forever to check out. I hear him arguing with the cashier about the price of something, and the voice sounds familiar. I take a closer look, and it’s none other than SGT D, who is now CPT D. I couldn’t believe it. The odds of running into him twice, in two different countries, were astounding. To put it in perspective, there’s roughly 1 million people serving in the Army and National Guard together, serving in a multitude of different locations. That’s a one in a million chance of seeing a random person, and it happened to me twice in 5 years.

    Maybe I should play the lotto.

  11. Ezq says:

    Get the Fud&^%#@ OUT of hia!

  12. Nick says:

    Yours is probably the first blog I’ve ever commented on, but the story about Richard was all too familiar for me not to:

    I graduated from high school with no plans, having been lazy about applying to college and getting rejected from 2 of the 3 places I applied to, and never hearing back from the third. My sister recommended I just go traveling, and with my mom’s complete endorsement I hit the road. And by road I mean Buenos Aires, Argentina – the plan was to meet up with my sister who had been working as a ski instructor. I did that, traveled with her, applied to more colleges, etc. etc. After finishing up my time in Buenos Aires I started backpacking around South America; I only had a Lonely Planet for guidance, so I would pretty much just pick a town, bus there, see the sights, and move on.

    Of course, the backpacker’s trail in South America is pretty well-defined too, so I would run in to the same people pretty consistently; some in the next town, some a few towns later. One group of Israelis I didn’t see again until ~7 months later when I was back in Buenos Aires.

    The most ridiculous coincidence, though, happened in China. I had gotten resoundingly rejected from another slew of schools, 4 out of 5 this time (while the 5th, the same school I had never heard back from the year before, accepted me, citing “lost my application” as the reason), and so I had decided to travel to China to learn Mandarin. I got to Beijing, found my hostel nearish the middle of the City, and quickly fell in with a small group of foreigners also doing their rounds. One girl was immediately convinced she had met me before, although I was equally positive I had never met her, or her boyfriend, ever before. She remained dogged though, so that night we sat down over dinner and tried to figure it out, with me mostly just humoring her.

    On something of a whim I asked if they had been in South America recently and when she said yes I suddenly realized we were on to something. Going over my travels town by town, hostel by hostel, we narrowed it down to a small village east of Rio de Janeiro. It was there, it turns out, that we both stayed. Except, I was convinced I had never met her. And, of course, I never had: she overheard my VOICE during BREAKFAST on ONE day out of the 3 or 4 that I was staying there. Over 9 months later, we met again; well, met for the first time.

    The world is a tiny place.

  13. Jack Nichollas says:

    Not to be rude, but would it be possible at all to see a reference or source for the original incident with the two young men and their moped? I don’t wish to call you a liar, but considering your page is being used as a source for a post with over 1500 comments, likes and reblogs, I would just like to see the original story. Thankyou!

  14. Jack Nichollas says:

    Sorry for the double post!

  15. Alex says:

    I live in New Zealand, it is fact that we only have 2 degrees of separation in NZ, meaning that our friend’s friend knows someone that we do. I frequently come across people who are familiar with my friends and my father knows quite a few people. We joke about it because no matter where our family goes, my father is bound to know somebody from around there. But your story is truly remarkable!

  16. gloriousforest says:

    You know, I had two weird coincidences like this happen to me too quite recently.

    I went to university in Montreal and my roommate in my first year was a Christian girl from Connecticut whose parents were pastors. We were good friends but I never knew much about her faith. After graduating from university I went to Tel Aviv for an internship. After a few months, I decided to visit Jerusalem and the first place I stopped at was St George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem. It later turned out that this was my boyfriend’s church (I met him in a bar a few weeks after my first visit).

    When I returned to Montreal 10 months later, I was on the phone to my ex-roommate telling her about Jerusalem and my boyfriend’s family. I mentioned his uncle’s elevated position in the Lutheran Church and she said “Hey! What do you know! We’re Lutheran!” and asked her mum about my boyfriend’s uncle. It turned out that she had heard him speak once and that her ex-husband had worked with another man from the West Bank who was in the Church and she had had him over for dinner. That man happens to be the principle of my boyfriend’s university!

    My friend’s mother then asked me if my boyfriend is Lutheran and I told her “no actually, he’s Anglican. His mother converted from Lutheran to Anglican.”

    “Oh!” She exclaimed, “So did we! We were Lutheran but now we’re Episcopalian, which is American Anglican. You know, every Easter our church collects money and we donate it to our sister church in Jerusalem, St George’s Cathedral, do you know it?”

    Funny how the world turns around. My friend’s mother received an invitation to Bethlehem from the priest she had hosted for dinner and the whole family is thinking of visiting while I’m there :)

    The other coincident is a little less astounding. I took my first theology class in Montreal and my professor was a man who was “from Palestine.” When I graduated, I left without a second thought. In Jerusalem, I told my boyfriend I had had an Anglican Palestinian teacher – though I wasn’t sure where in Israel or the Palestinian Territories he was from. It being a relatively small community, my boyfriend asked me for my professor’s name. Not only was my professor the Dean of my boyfriend’s church, but their families know each other! I emailed my professor to let him know of the coincidence and he happened to be in Jerusalem at the time, so we met for coffee and the strange chain of events came full circle :)

  17. Bela says:

    Was he carrying the devil or death inside that taxi? holy smokes

  18. Alexandra says:

    Wow, those are some pretty weird coincidences. I’ve had a few myself, and each time I experience it, I experience a high that lasts for days haha. I know so many people around the world, and as they too travel, we all seem to be interconnected. I’m only seventeen, and already these things happen to me- I can’t wait to see what else is to come in the future. This is the reason why traveling is just so marvelous- it opens up the world in new ways I never thought possible. Nice article! :)

  19. Vicky says:

    Oh my god, by the time I’d finished that the hairs on my neck were on end. That’s SO weird! I’ve had a few coincidences abroad too - might have to write a post about them! That’s such a crazy story!

  20. Frank says:

    When these sorts of coincidences happen at home it’s not unusual, but on the road any chance encounter that happens multiple times is amplified (and thus adding to the “magic” of the road.

    I ran into my younger sister not twice by accident on on trip. I was living in London and traveling as whims (and time off from the pub) dictated, and she was on a guided tour around the country. I went up to Scotland to see a band I like perform and while walking around the streets of Edinburgh I heard someone call my name, turning around I spotted li’l sis. That was strange enough but a couple weeks later on a trip to northern England I was walking by the river and who should appear calling my name from a lookout but li’l sis!

    This has happened different times, with different people and coincidence or well trodden backpacker trail be the excuse, I’ll take it.

  21. Karl says:

    Just found this article via twitter and would just like to add my two. As previous people have commented my two also involve traveling.
    The first was I finished up work and went to Munich for the summer. During my stay, waiting for a train in Munich’s main station (as you can imagine very packed),one of my old colleagues walked right by me on the platform. We jumped on the train and had some beers later.
    My second was an amazing coincidence involving my wife and her dad. They went to the Bahamas for a wedding while I stayed at home due to work commitments. During their stay they met a German couple one night at the hotel and drank well into the night. They met a few more times until it was home time. Roll on about 7 months later. As I hadn’t been able to get away earlier in the year we decided to head away for a week to Tenerife, with my father in law too. Long story short our first breakfast at the hotel and who walks by?? Yes that same German couple. This time we all swapped emails etc and stayed in touch!!

  22. SecretAsianMann says:

    I have the attention span of a squirrel on crack, but I read the whole article and really enjoyed it. I think that’s the best praise I can possibly heap on anything I read online.

  23. Rachael says:

    Tell me you’re still in touch with Richard!

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