I’m Dr. Stephann Makri from University College London Interaction Centre and I have spent the last 2 years interviewing people about serendipity – asking them to tell me stories about their memorable experiences. I’ve found that serendipity involves 3 essential ‘ingredients’: unexpected circumstances, an insightful ‘aha’ moment and a valuable outcome. Now, I’m going to tell you my own ‘serendipity story’ about what happened when I took a holiday in busy Bangladesh. Questions and comments are very welcome! You can also watch short videos of serendipity stories from my interviews on my YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/stephannmakri) and can share your own story (and read those from others) at www.serendipitystories.net. I would love to hear your memorable examples of serendipity!
Last summer, I travelled to Bangladesh. I wanted to visit somewhere that would be as different to the UK as possible and wanted to be immersed in a different cultural environment, but I don’t think I was fully prepared for just how differently things would work over there. Even figuring out where I could go and use the toilet or where it would be most advisable for me to eat was difficult. And something else that was quite a challenge was booking bus tickets. I needed a particular bus ticket in order to get from Kuhlna – a fairly small town, back to Dhaka, the bustling capital city to take my flight home. I didn’t want to miss my flight, so buying a ticket in advance was very important to me.
I opened the door of the ticket office and found myself in a dark, sweltering room. I made my way to the counter to buy a ticket and an employee said, “look, there’s no lights, there’s no air conditioning, the power’s down, I can’t sell you a ticket until the power comes back up.” I didn’t know how long it would take for the power to come back on. I decided that I would just wait it out so I was guaranteed to get home. So I sat down and thought to myself, how can I kill time? All I really had with me was my mobile phone and I had a bunch of leaflets that I’d brought with me because I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to arrange a day trip for the next day to visit a mangrove forest. The Lonely Planet had warned me this particular trip was something tourists often get ripped off with and there was at least one person a day in that area who gets eaten by a tiger! So I was only prepared to go if I could arrange it at a reasonable price.
Most of the travel leaflets I was thumbing through were only written in Bangla, so I didn’t bother phoning any of them. But I did try phoning a couple of them whose leaflets were in English, but they couldn’t understand a word I was saying! Then a guy a few meters away asked me what I was doing and I explained what I was trying to arrange and the difficulties I was facing. He very quickly offered that he would speak to them for me. After all, we both had nothing to do! He was also waiting for the power to come on to buy a bus ticket.
The guy introduced himself as Rahib, borrowed my phone and had several long negotiations with various travel agencies to get an idea of a price. But he even insisted on coming with me to the travel agency to act as a translator and took my phone number to check that I was safe whilst on the tour and hadn’t been eaten by a tiger! I certainly wouldn’t have been able to arrange the tour on my own. Meeting Rahib also led to some knock-on things happening; he showed me round his village, which gave me a local insight into rural life and we became good friends too.
And that’s where I thought the story would end. When I was about to get on my bus, Rahib asked me “so when are you going to come back to Bangladesh?” And as if he could see the answer in my face, he said, “we’re never going to see each other again, are we?” He said, I would love to come to London but I just don’t think it will ever happen. Then he said “well, actually I did try to come to the UK once!” And then he told me about how he had tried to apply for a visa by paying a college that he didn’t realise was bogus. He’d been told that if he paid an agency an exorbitant fee, it would be plain sailing for him to study in the UK and he’d be able to send any extra income he makes back to his parents. He told me his visa had been rejected and asked me what to do. He said he’d been told there’s this other company that will definitely help him and will not do the same thing as the last company. And I said to him “you have to forget these companies! At best, they’re all trying to make money from you and will deliver something you could have done yourself anyway and at worst they’ll just make it harder for you to get a visa! So I told him how to apply for a visa legitimately and, a few months later, got a message from him saying “hi, I’m in London!” So I immediately arranged to meet up with him for a meal and we laughed about our chance encounter in Bangladesh and he told me about his accountancy studies, which seemed to be going well.
Our chance encounter was serendipitous for both of us, but in different ways. I had unexpectedly met someone at a bus ticket office who helped me arrange a memorable forest trip and who later became my friend. Rahib unexpectedly met someone who gave him visa advice for studying in London and who ended up becoming his friend.
This serendipity story includes all 3 of the essential ingredients of serendipity – unexpectedness, insight and value. Meeting Rahib was unexpected for me as very few people in Bangladesh speak much English and here was someone sitting meters away from me in the ticket office who was willing and able to help. Meeting me was unexpected for Rahib as very few British nationals visit the part of Bangladesh I met him in. And perhaps fewer would wait around a sweltering ticket office for hours to buy a ticket! An insightful ‘aha’ moment was involved when I thought ‘maybe he can help me book my forest trip’ and when Rahib thought ‘maybe he can give me visa advice.’ It was valuable for both of us as not only did I go on a fun trip and Rahib get to study in London, but both of us became close friends. He had helped me without expecting anything in return and I had been willing and able to reciprocate.