Small World

January 16, 2012

It seems that virtually every time I am somewhere far afield from my customary stomping grounds, I run into complete strangers with whom I have some strange hitherto-unknown connection. They a) live where I live, b) grew up where I grew up, c) know some of the same people I know, or d) all of the above; more importantly, the conversation inexplicably drifts in a direction that exposes those connections. This has already taken place twice in the four days I have spent in Thailand, and I have every expectation it will happen again.

The first one was on the tourist boat that plies its way up and down the Chao Phraya River, stopping at popular venues six or eight times along the way: Chinatown; Wat Phrao; Wat Arun; and a wealth (and I use that word literally) of high-zoot hotels. The boat was pretty full, and I had what would have been a window seat, had there been any windows. The seat beside me remained unoccupied until a pair of young women, obviously traveling together, meandered their way down the center aisle. For some reason I knew they were Japanese. I suppose it was the style of dress, because no conversation passed between them. One of them sat next to me, the other one found a seat across the aisle. When it came time to pay, I held out a bill which was not only larger than the amount needed for my ticket, but also larger than what was needed for two of us. I must have looked askance at my less-than-expected change, at which point the ticket-taker asked “Two, right?” Um, no actually. “Sumimasen,” the girl beside me said, and then realizing she had spoken in Japanese, hastily modified it to “Sorry!” She then paid for her ticket, and the ticket-taker refunded me the appropriate amount.

“Nihon-jin desu ka?” I asked (“You are Japanese?”). She did a double take, clearly not expecting to hear Japanese, especially from a non-native, after which I told her that I live in Saitama. “Really, where? I live in Saitama too!” I went on to tell her that I live in Niiza, a neighborhood of Saitama very close to the Tokyo border. If the wind is right, you can spit to Tokyo from my balcony. As it turned out, she lives two stations past mine, in Tokorozawa, and we routinely ride the same train back and forth to downtown. We have never met in Japan; it took a nine-hour flight and a desire for river travel at precisely the same moment to engineer this particular collision.

Later that same night, I was having supper at my new favorite Thai restaurant, May Kai-dee’s, which doubles as a cooking school for foreigners who would like to learn a bit about the foundations of Thai cuisine. The food is all organic, all vegetarian for that matter, and hands down the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten. The fact that a healthy (in both senses of the word) helping runs about $2 is a major bonus. The restaurant was understandably quite full, and as I was dining alone, the server asked if I would mind sharing my table. “Not at all,” I replied, and I was joined by an American woman named Jen, who had just finished the cooking class, and was now about to sample the dishes she had prepared. She insisted that I try her concoctions, which looked and smelled very fine indeed. Her massaman curry was so delicious I resolved to have that the next time I ate at May’s. Anyway, we got to talking in the middle of our munching, and it turned out that she was from Philadelphia, or rather the west Philly suburb of Manayunk. As it happened, the Manayunk local railway ran right behind my house when I was a kid, and countless times my brother and I flouted our mother’s authority and hiked along the tracks, heading for the old arched bridge that crossed the Schuylkill River. It was possible to lift manhole covers between the tracks and climb down into the structure of the bridge, and then dangle your feet over the river, from a height of perhaps a couple hundred feet. My poor mother would have fainted dead away if she had had any idea. Jen knew all the station names along the way, and could likely have picked my house out of a lineup. Once again, a weird confluence of circumstances conspired to engineer a collision half a planet away from where one might have reasonably expected one.

Small world, neh?