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  • I have a habit of running into people I know halfway around the world. One time I ran into an old high school friend in the middle of Times Square (almost halfway around the world for an Alaskan). Another time I bumped into a different high school friend in a tiny coffee shop in Delhi, India. And there have been plenty of closer, less exotic run-ins as well--within a few states range of Alaska.

    But there was a particular incident that took place in the fall of 2009 that just blew my mind with its small worldliness.

    In the spring of 2006 I took a 3-month bonding trip across Asia with my brother. The journey culminated with a couple weeks in Mongolia. Immediately upon arrival in the capital city Ulaanbaatar I was accosted by a local man trying to steal the empty wallet in my pocket using a knife he kept in his sleeve. I instinctively pushed him away from me and he took a tipsy swing at my face, nicking my nose with his fist while falling back over his heels. He recovered his stance and fled down a stairwell to a crosswalk that led beneath the busy street we were on.

    I looked down to the tear in my pants and quickly realized I'd been cut, and it was a bit deep. Back at a hostel we ran into an American who'd been traveling as an EMT with an outdoors education group from the US. He cleaned me up in the bathroom and bandaged me and we chatted for a few minutes. (The scar remains as a reminder to never carry a wallet--even an empty one--in an obvious place on my person while traveling abroad).

    Three and a half years later I was volunteering on a remote island in the Bering Sea 300 miles off the coast of Alaska. I spent part of almost every day of the 3 months I lived on St. George Island on the cliffs above a northern fur seal rookery counting seals for a friend's masters degree statistics. It was during this time that a man visited the island to fix some communications device that needed a specialist's attention. The town is small (population 90ish) so I'd see most everyone that came through. I offered to take the visitor out to the rookery with me on one of my counts.

    So we drove across the island the few miles to the south side, hiked the 30 minutes to the rookery and spent a few hours there, moving down the bluffs above the seals as I made my counts. There was something faintly familiar about this guy. But it wasn't until the walk back, as I gathered more information about his life that his EMT and traveling background came up--not Mongolia specifically, but my brain had already done the work. It had pushed the final connection through and a light went on. I asked if he'd traveled in Mongolia. He had. I asked if he had ever cleaned and bandaged a backpacker standing in a hostel bathtub after he'd been cut open by a drunk Mongolian. Turns out he had.

    We both just stood there for a few seconds with our mouths open. Our far east encounter was no more exotic than our encounter in this far west Alaskan frontier island. I felt the world shrink just a bit more in that moment. So I took this photo (I'm pointing at him) when we got back to the road a few minutes later to remember.
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