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It’s a small world after all – chance encounters while abroad

Top-down view of world map with sunglasses notebook and British passport on top

There is a unique phenomenon that I am fascinated by: the chance meeting of friends or acquaintances whilst abroad when neither was aware of the other being there. I call them “Small World Moments”. It’s not exactly ideal to bump into someone from home when you’re on your holiday, yet so many of us have eerily similar stories to tell of awkward interactions when we least expect, halfway around the globe.

I have heard anecdotes of colleagues miraculously bumping into each other on remote tropical beaches while, ironically, trying to escape the workplace monotony. Or of distant relatives cropping up at inopportune moments during your romantic getaway. Or even perhaps a “great minds think alike” encounter with an old friend while on a city break.

I think we all have a story of stranger-than-fiction crossed paths that we can’t quite believe really happened. So why is that?

What causes Small World Moments?

I have exactly two theories of why the phenomenon of Small World Moments occur:

  1. People end up having the same ideas and destinations in mind due to trends, social media, and social circles.
  2. The world is trying to play a very mean joke on us when we’re trying to relax.

Let’s start with 1).

It doesn’t seem too implausible a concept to consider that people end up bumping into each other simply because their choice to go to THAT place isn’t entirely their own choice. Debates of Free Will aside, I am certainly influenced of visiting destinations based on recommendations, discussions, the internet. Heck, I remember a year when 5 different colleagues visited Portugal on holiday (at different times). Given that there are literally lists about trending holiday destinations every year, it’s not so crazy that people you know will have the same idea as you?

The second theory is just the blind belief that stars really do align in the strangest ways.

Travel motivational quote with flowers

I love my friends and family! Why does it matter?

The problem, I think, is we often go away to escape home. Certainly not to be followed by it. To forget work and routine and commitments. The jarring reality that is brought with one of these unlikely yet unfortunate scenarios is probably one we’d rather all avoid. And yet there’s not that much we can do about it.

Granted, in the digital age where social media is a back-lit scrapbook, perhaps it’s easier to know where people in our lives will be at, well, literally any given time. But I can tell you that it’s not guaranteed protection from these awkward encounters.

For anyone that’s endured a Small World Moment, you can either take two routes:

  1. Say a shocked hello, make small talk chit chat (and perhaps swap suggestions), and go in your separate directions. Reeling from the strangeness that you’ve just witnesses but yet pleasantly surprised at keeping a cool head. At least you have a funny story to tell now.
  2. Or, you succumb to the guilt and social embarrassment that seems to accompany being caught outside of your usual place of interaction with this person… And make plans to hang out together.

For those who choose option 1, I salute you. For those who end up in option 2, I am so sorry. This wasn’t what you’d hoped for, and depending on who you are with, even less what they had in mind.

Hand holds a British passport in front of a globe which shows a map of Australia

Planned coincidences

The thing is, there are lots of friends and relatives I would be overjoyed to see on holiday. But sadly, the people you actually WOULD want to spend time with are highly unlikely to be the ones you randomly bump into. I know I wouldn’t exactly consider someone a close friend if I had zero knowledge of them being in the same destination as me at the exact same time!

If only fate were so kind to coincide trips with our besties though, right?

I have had the good fortune to have this occur.

On my second visit to New Zealand to spend time with Kaz during our first year of long distance, it just so happened two of my very best school pals took a trip to Australia and New Zealand. As they made their way across the country, we organised a couple of days hanging out as they passed through Christchurch.

Bumping into old friends abroad

Unfortunately, the above example simply cannot meet the criteria for Small World Moments.

These such tales must be:

  • An unplanned meeting
  • With someone you would not choose to holiday with
  • Neither party has the knowledge that the other planned to be in the destination

Crossed paths while crossing roads – My Small World Moment

It’s 2017 and I’m visiting  Perth, Western Australia for the first time. Kaz and I have decided to meet halfway instead of visit home countries for a holiday in sunny WA.

We had been staying in Fremantle with Kaz’s family and decided to take a trip out to the city for a bit of sightseeing. A glorious November day, we opted to cool off in the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

After feeling decidedly more cultured than before we entered, we took a stroll around the Northbridge area before a restaurant reservation with Kaz’s relatives.

As we walked across the street, I heard from behind me: “Suzy!!” 

It took me a couple of moments to realise, hey, that’s my name coming from someone’s English accent. Oh God, does that mean they’re talking to me?

I turned in all directions to identify the source, and spotted a tall smiling man wave as they crossed the street to meet us.

The cogs up in the ol’ noggin began to turn as I connected the dots where I recognised this face. Ah yep, university. I think?!

Before I had a chance to fully get my brain in gear, they were over saying hello and the small talk began.

“Oh my God, HI!” was all I could muster.

“This is my partner, Kaz!” Smooth, Suzy.

And here is where I will admit: I forgot their name. Yet they had yelled mine across the street, in a city 15,000 km away from home, just to say hi. So I hurriedly introduced Kaz in the hopes they’d introduce themselves. I am a terrible person.

A quick exchange of what the other was doing here and now, and we went our separate ways. But not before I agreed (or may have suggested) we catch up over a drink while we’re around. Arrrgh Suzy you goose! Please Earth, just swallow me up in embarrasment.

Don’t get me wrong, this person is SO lovely. We just… Weren’t friends. Not even really acquaintances. I mean, I had forgotten their name. It wasn’t top of my list for the only 2 weeks in 9 months visiting my long distance partner to spend time with someone I hadn’t spoken to in 5  years.

A bit of Facebook stalking and I finally tracked them down (still digital friends, apparently). We did exchange a few brief messages but (un)fortunately never managed to get that drink. Oh well, maybe next time.

sunset over perth city and swan river

The odd thing about this brief but crazy moment is that there are so many factors that led up to this exact meeting. Had we left the art gallery 5 minutes earlier, taken a different route, or perhaps crossed the road before waiting for the light, this might never have happened.

And yet, it did. The result? Feeling constantly on edge that it could happen again, but with someone even more obscure from the past (heaven forbid, imagine an ex??). And thus began my paranoia of the unpredictable Small World Moments, waiting to strike again.

Not quite strangers

On the other end of the “what are the chances” scale is meeting an apparent stranger to discover they are far from that. These are the small world stories where a newly acquired friend on the road has such a specific connection from your home life, it feels like fate has intervened for you to meet (whether you like it or not).

Do you know the stories I mean? When you chat to someone in a bar and realise your grandmas were best friends. Or when you discover you both took the same dance class as children. Maybe Or something equally unbelievably coincidental.

I have a couple of such stories. One from when I was backpacking through New Zealand and someone on my tour bus who just so happened to study at university with someone my mum used to teach piano. How crazy? Don’t even ask me how the topic came up, but it did.

Another occurred when in a hostel in Queensland Australia, a young woman I chatted to had the same surname of a friend of a friend from school, and lo and behold – they were sisters!

It can be oddly comforting when you meet these people. There is an immediate bond that you know what each other is talking about. Mutual interests are instant.

It really is a small world.

roys peak track from high up the cliffside walk overlooking lake and mountains

6 degrees of separation

It’s these stories where friends of friends, missed connections from your hometown reminders me of the 6 Degrees of Separation. This is the theory that everyone is connected by 6 or fewer people in your network. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Yet I feel we are given proof more often than we think.

Personally, I think these instances are less bizarre in some way than say, meeting someone you already know. It feels, in fact, quite expectant in my stories. It makes sense to me that backpackers who move in similar social circles across UK universities and who share a vast array of connections from their school years and beyond will stumble upon each other. And then, in our need to form meaningful connections with other humans, we search for some thread of familiarity within each other. It’s the real-life version of discovering a mutual friend with someone on Facebook.

In a way, I do find this a little disappointing. It highlights the privileged world that inescapably surrounds these types of trips, destinations, and visitors. For many, backpacking through Oceania and South East Asia is a right of passage. It’s just a shame that we are all so seemingly predictable. Imagine we traverse across countries and cultures only to find… People exactly like us.

In a way, it’s a reminder that no matter how far you go, your other life can often catch up with you. But maybe that’s just me being cynical.

Have you ever had a chance meeting or Small World Moment? Or perhaps you have your own theory on how these crazy moments of fate occur? Let me know!


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  • Reply
    Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    05/28/2021 at 11:43 pm

    I love stories like these! I laughed at your awkward anecdote about inviting the guy out for a drink and then being thankful it didn’t happen haha.

    My craziest one will always be in Australia too, we went for pizza in a restaurant attached to a hotel my friend was staying in and the girl serving us ID’d me for alcohol and then recognised me as an old childhood friend!!?? Like what are the chances?! We would never have gone in there if my friend wasn’t staying there. We just happened to go in while my old friend was working. If I hadn’t bought alcohol, would she have said anything?? It’s mad! Anyway I’ve got her on Facebook now and she put me in touch with another girl we used to hang out with! Wild haha.

    I’ve also had a couple of random experiences like meeting a Scottish girl in a customs queue between Canada/USA and she said one of her uni friends is from Orkney… of course it was someone I knew from school! I always wonder about all the people I’ve just missed meeting, too.

    • Reply
      05/31/2021 at 6:23 pm

      I felt so bad, but it’s the problem of trying to be polite!

      Ooooh that is bonkers, but so nice you were able to reconnect with another old friend too 🙂 That’s a really good point, for all the people we do bump in to how many are nearly missed?!

  • Reply
    Daniel Fencyk
    07/28/2022 at 9:01 pm

    Saw your article. I was stationed on Mactan Island in the Philippines during the Vietnam war. I was a fireman in the USAF. This was in mid 60s. I had a friend who joined The Sir Force couple years later. We’re we both from Detroit Michigan. I have not seen or heard from him in those years having no idea about him. Well one day I was ringing out a mop out front of the fire station and I turned around and there he was!!!!! Walking past!! We could not believe it!!! He landed on the island refueling before going to Vietnam. He was a mechanic in the Air Force!!! Wow what a rewarding and surprise!!! Totally unexplainable!!! Yes we party that night and talked about home!!!

    • Reply
      07/30/2022 at 1:21 pm

      Wow what an amazing surprise reunion! That must have been so special to see a familiar face all that way from home, glad to hear you could enjoy some time together before going your separate ways. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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