There it was. An elephant in the parking lot of the shopping mall. The circus had arrived in one of the new suburbs of Guadalajara, and they decided to make better use of the vacant parking lot by placing the circus tent there. I was walking towards the bus stop when I discovered him. I recall thinking it was an Asiatic elephant based on the size of its ears. And without further evidence I decided it was a male. I was sixteen years old and—like most teenagers—I was fearless and impulsive. Without a thought, I approached him. He extended his trunk towards me, gently smelling. His skin was harsh and rugose, but despite its appearance it was surprisingly soft and delicate. And there we were. The Asiatic elephant and me sharing the parking lot. It seemed we were the only ones in the whole space. He was alive, just as I was.
“Are you stupid!?!” A voice from afar suddenly interrupted my thoughts. “What are you doing? It is very dangerous!!”
It was an employee from the circus. I quickly released the elephant’s trunk from my hands and, without replying, walked away to catch my bus.
I do not remember where I was going, or where I was coming from, when I found the elephant. Some details seem much less important and fade from our memories. But it seems to me these are the encounters that tend to stay deeply in our minds. The coincidence of being in one exact place at a precise moment is what influences us the most. And some of those encounters seem surreal.
The meeting with the elephant was not what persuaded me to study biology. At that time, I already knew I wanted to become a biologist. I made up my mind when I was eight years old. And even when considering something else, I never really doubted my decision. At eight, however, I was not sure what a biologist was. It was my uncle who suggested I would like it. “It’s like being a veterinarian, but instead of curing dogs you work with wild animals and study them,” he told me once. During the following years, I learned from my biology teachers that it was much more: There were the plants, too. There were the giraffes and Lamarck. Darwin, Wallace and evolution. Mendel and genes.
I recently came back to the parking lot where I met the elephant fifteen years ago. This time I was meeting some friends. While waiting for them, I entertained myself thinking about the encounter with the elephant. But also about the many other coincidental encounters that have taken place in my life. Life itself is a happenstance, I ended up thinking. It was the right molecules at the right temperature, together in the precisely right conditions, that triggered the beginning of life. It is the meeting of a specific sperm cell and a specific egg that generated each one of us. We go through the world, a bigger and more crowded parking lot, and we meet at the precise moment in the exact place. I guess we are all coincidences. Strange coincidences.
Marcela H. Coronado is a postdoctoral fellow at NYU, where she works in plant developmental genetics. She grew up in Guadalajara, México, where she did her undergraduate studies. She holds a Master’s degree in Biochemistry from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and a Ph.D. in Developmental Biology from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal).