From the September 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Posing as a gem dealer (or jazz singer or archaeologist) can open whole new worlds.
"I'm interested in carved gemstones, but nothing too large."
Bangkok's pounding heat has helped chase me into a jewelry store for relief. The dealer wears a turban, has the untrimmed beard of a Sikh, and sports a large gold-and-diamond ring on his middle finger. At the mention of gemstones he nods, pulls a leather case from a stack beneath the display counter, and flips it open with a flourish. It is brimming with eye candy—chunks of peacock blue sapphires, cherry red rubies, and green emeralds, carved by artisans from Jaipur, India. "Are you a wholesaler?" he asks. I hesitate for a split second, and then the words spill out so effortlessly, it's as if I am listening to someone else speak. "A designer," I say. "I have shops in Hong Kong and New York. My clients like unusual and special things. I buy a lot of my jewelry in India but I also shop for stones in Sri Lanka and Tanzania."
He smiles, warming up to my shop talk. "Only in India does one find the prettiest handmade gold work. Gemstone carving in Jaipur is unique in the world. Let me show you something you'll truly appreciate. But first, would you like some tea?"
I sip his tea, feeling a twinge of guilt. I'm not a designer or even a dealer. I'm shamelessly lying. Not because I want to get a better price (who knows if I'll buy anything?), but because...well, I'm not sure what has gotten into me. Since I was a little girl I've loved jewelry, and I've wondered what it would be like to travel the globe from Africa to Antwerp, buying gorgeous shiny stones from exotic strangers.
Now, here in Bangkok, I'm not just imagining another life. I have morphed myself into a jewelry designer. I spend time visiting the sapphire mines of Thailand and chasing after emeralds in Colombia. A few minutes of conversation in a tiny shop, and I've ditched a certain too-familiar companion who, frankly, becomes a bore after I travel alone with her for weeks on end. The farther my stories take me from the person I am, the more terrific it feels.
I'm not recommending that we all start lying as a strategy to enhance our travel experiences. Indeed, because I was raised to believe the truth is golden, I'm slightly ashamed of the way I enjoy altering my profession, background, nationality, and life story when I'm far enough from home to get away with it.
I wasn't always so footloose with the facts. For a very long time, the only travel lie that crossed my lips was the one that is necessary in every traveling woman's toolkit: "I'm married." However, when I began to travel to more off-the-map destinations, I started prevaricating about my profession for security reasons: In many nations, identifying yourself as a journalist, even when not working as one, is tantamount to putting a big sign on your back that says, "Take me to the nearest police station now."
One lie, two lies, and soon I was tumbling down the rabbit hole. The next thing I knew, I was in a café in Salvador, Brazil, drinking a caipirinha and telling the owner I was an ex-jazz singer who'd come looking for a school teaching the martial art capoeira. Disconnected from my everyday self, I exhilarated in the freedom of trying on new lives, new personae.
Isn't that one of the reasons we travel? A little harmless story here and there, a bit of identity makeover, is part of the romance of the road. Plus, if I had not become a jazz singer and capoeira enthusiast, would the waiter have spent so much time giving me tips on where to hear great music in Salvador?
But sometimes the harmless white lies of travel can boomerang, especially when we tell them to people who end up being more than transient friends. When I was in my twenties, I met another traveler while walking along a road to a beach in Yucatán, Mexico. We chatted, and he mentioned he'd gone to a certain well-known university in the U.S. So had I! The coincidence drew us together and we ended up talking long into the night. We spent the rest of our vacations climbing Maya temples...and eventually dating. Back home, we moved in together. It wasn't until two years later, when I was planning a dinner with former classmates, that he admitted he hadn't attended my college (his father had, so he was familiar enough with the place to make his fiction plausible).
It was a small, seemingly harmless thing. By then our relationship had a history that went deep; I didn't care where he'd gone to school. But it mattered, a lot, that he'd lied to me—and, even worse, that he kept up the fiction for years. We parted soon afterward.
That's why when I travel, I'll improvise extravagant new identities for myself only with shopkeepers, hoteliers, and strangers I'm absolutely sure I'll never see again. I try on the hats that, but for a few twists of fate, I might have worn (as well as some I would not have): anthropology professor, Peace Corps volunteer, Hare Krishna devotee. If I meet someone who my gut tells me could become a friend (or someone who—hello Facebook—might know one of mine!), I make sure I keep it real.
Anyway, as the Buddhists love to remind us, reality is an illusion. Or at least a moving target. In a shop in Bangkok, the dealer, smiling, places a small plastic envelope on the counter. The stone inside is spectacular, the blue of a summer sky at twilight.
"It's the most beautiful Jaipur sapphire I have in the shop. Not a perfect stone, but as you know, that's where the carver's art comes in, to create the illusion and draw your eye away from the imperfections."
- Nat Geo Expeditions
He quotes a price that is a third of what I expect. I buy it without hesitation. "For a client," I say, trying to sound professional.
For months, the gem sits in my drawer—until I'm seized with an idea while planning a trip to India. The next thing you know, I've sketched a picture of a fabulous gold ring. A few days after landing in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, I take it, along with the sapphire, to a jeweler on the street lined with shops that make pieces for local brides.
"You are a jewelry designer?" the goldsmith asks.
This time I don't hesitate.
"Yes, I am." The traveler's tale I tell isn't quite real, I know. It fits into the twilight space between truth and fiction—between the traveler I am and the traveler I might be. But the gold ring he'll craft with the hand-carved Jaipur sapphire now sparkles on the hands of both of those travelers.