Photograph by Andrew Watson, Getty Images
From the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
In a half whisper, though no one else is around to hear us, Neung tells me, “The reason I’m not married is because I don’t like men—I like ladies.” I almost gasp, not because I’m shocked by what she has revealed, but because she revealed it to me, a stranger.
I only met Neung a couple of days ago, when I began coming to this Internet café on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, to check e-mail. Neung sits at the front desk of the shop. Today, as she hands me pieces of paper with the day’s password and counts out 10 baht coins in change, we’ve been covering all of the usual topics familiar to travelers and to the locals who make their living from them. Where do I come from, do I like Thailand, am I traveling by myself and doesn’t that get lonely? I like to chat—especially when I’m on the road—and Neung’s English is pretty good, so I had asked her questions off the script. I’d found out that she is 25 years old, plays the guitar, loves American pop music, takes a university course at night, and still lives at home with her family.
Now there’s an awkward silence on my end as I ponder how to respond to her candor. I have no idea how Neung and I swerved so quickly from “I like Joni Mitchell songs” to “I like ladies.” And while this situation feels awkward to me, it’s also familiar: This is not the first time a conversation with someone I’ve just met while traveling has taken a sharp left turn into intimate territory.
There was, for instance, Mr. Sithan, the manager of the cheap hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I stayed when I visited the Angkor Wat temple complex. Returning late one evening after a sensory-overloaded day of ancient Khmer architecture, I found him sitting alone and pensive on the faded couch in the lobby. So I smiled and said hello. An hour later, I was fighting back tears as he finished telling me how he carried his 5-year-old daughter on his back across the Cambodian border into Thailand when fleeing the communist Khmer Rouge.
More than 12 years later I remember that lobby and Mr. Sithan’s matter-of-fact rendering of human horror more vividly than any of the dancing apsara figures on Angkor’s temples. Just as one of my deepest memories of Udaipur, India, is not its much photographed lake but the heart-to-heart I had there with Priya, a dance instructor, who was living a Shakespearean drama: She had a boyfriend she e-mailed constantly but kept hidden from her parents because he was not from the same religion as her family. “We love each other, but we will both marry someone else. That is the way it is.”
The first time I found myself far from home and on the receiving end of some stranger’s confessional, I didn’t like it much: I was on the road to travel, not be a global amateur therapist. I also worried that there was something about me, about my personality, that encouraged people I met to break the boundaries of privacy. Maybe I projected too much vulnerability—not a great thing if you are traveling alone in unfamiliar places.
Gradually, though, I realized that the reason hotel clerks spill the beans about their recent face-lifts and taxi drivers confess about their mistresses didn’t have anything to do with me personally; it had everything to do with the role that we inhabit as travelers out in the world. Travelers are just passing through, which makes it a good bet that any secrets entrusted to us will safely leave town when we do. Strangers on a train, and all that.
My anonymity, however, cannot explain the intensity and depth of the travel encounters I’ve had with secret sharers. It took me many journeys, and years, to understand what really was going on. I finally had the lightbulb moment one evening in Qatar at the end of a long dinner with friends of friends. Sitting on the floor, reaching for another handful of rice pilaf from the communal dish, I was very aware of being the lone woman in a group of men whose wives stayed at home, because it is the Qatari custom for the sexes to remain separate on social occasions. Yet those customs didn’t apply to me. I was, at least temporarily, and for the occasion, exempt from local taboos. My role as a traveler, as a distant other, trumped everything else about me, even my femaleness.
Being a traveler gives us a big pass: We can move freely through other cultures without getting enmeshed in, and restricted by, their traditions and rules. No wonder we’re a magnet for the confidences of strangers. Every society comes with its own particular set of expectations, but as an outsider from a different culture I’m not going to have them (or, at least, the same ones), which makes me a very appealing ear for someone aching to talk about emotional or deeply personal things without feeling judged.
The chance to be a secret sharer is a great gift, and I try my best to remember to honor the privilege even when it materializes, as it often does, without warning. A door opens, along with a heart and a hope, and suddenly it’s just you and the half whisper of a stranger in an Internet café.
“In my country,” I say, smiling, to Neung, “I have lots of girlfriends who like ladies too. Do you have a girlfriend? Tell me more.”