Why You Should Do All Your Traveling Before You Hit 25

By Zoe Heller

One Wednesday afternoon, I am lying in my Jaipur hotel room when the phone rings. It’s my ex-husband calling from New York.

“Why are you in your hotel room?” he asks. “Shouldn’t you be at the festival?”

“Who are you,” I say, “my mother?”

But I am embarrassed. I should be at the festival, or at the very least out, sightseeing. For 30 years, I have been talking about wanting to come back to India, to revisit all the places I went as a backpacking teenager. And now that I’m finally here, what am I doing? Lying in bed, with the door locked and the curtains drawn, watching CNN. What the hell is wrong with me?

“What’s wrong with you?” my ex-husband asks.

“I don’t know. I think I’m depressed.”

He sighs. “You never seem to do very well at literary festivals.”

This is true. Literary festivals make me paranoid. I spend a lot of time at these events in a state of suppressed freak-out. Why is the Argentinian poet who was friendly to me yesterday, being frosty today? Did the other speakers on this morning’s panel secretly think I was a fool? What if I can’t find anyone to sit with at lunch?

Etiquette dictates that all festival attendees pretend to great egalitarian bonhomie, but beneath the surface camaraderie, bitter snobberies and resentments are always waiting to burst out. At the opening night party, an American novelist was complaining to me about his hotel, which is next to the bus station and, apparently, very noisy. When he found out that I was being put up at a ritzier place, his eyebrows rose in vicious little circumflexes. “Oh” he said. “And whose dick did you have to suck to swing that?”

There’s actually something rather melancholy about my fancy hotel. It’s a long way from the center of things and the only other festival guests here are the Dalai Lama and the English writer, Howard Jacobson, both of whom keep themselves to themselves.

Every time I try to leave the place on foot, some member of the staff comes rushing up the drive after me, begging me not to go outside without the protection of a car and driver. I keep telling them that I am quite butch enough to manage a stroll through town on my own. But perhaps that’s not so. This morning, when I walked back from the bangle market, I was surprisingly anxious.

I kept worrying about losing my way. And when children yelled at me, or beggars started following me, I could feel my heart speeding up. My intention was to stop off somewhere and have something to eat, but when it came to it, I was too shy to walk into any of the restaurants I passed and too squeamish to eat something from a street cart. And there I’d been flattering myself that the hotel was cramping my adventurous spirit!

In the end, I waited until I got back to the hotel to eat. I ordered an expensive English breakfast and ate it in the Rajput Room, looking out at the lawn where they serve high tea in the afternoons.

I tried to remember some of the crazy things that had happened to me on my first trip to India. The night in Madras when I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery and the men on the railway platform started throwing those cockroaches. The time in a Calcutta hostel when I was attacked by a flying rat. The fat man in Varanasi who climbed through the window…

Even the grimmest episodes have acquired a certain romantic luster over the years, I noticed. But it’s not really the incidents themselves that inspire nostalgia, so much as the younger, braver self at their center. That person is largely foreign to me now. I gaze on her recklessness, her tolerance for disorder, her capacity to generate adventure, with the same sort of detachment that I might admire another woman’s wardrobe. Her qualities are not mine.

Up in the hotel room, my ex-husband is talking about our kids. He’s been looking after them while I’m away. “Tell them they should do all their really important traveling while they’re young,” I say.


“Before they’re 25. Tell them Mom said so.”

“Don’t be nuts. People can go on traveling into their nineties.”

“Yeah, they can go see places. It’s not the same thing. Tell them.”

After that we say goodbye. I lie for a while longer, watching CNN. Then I get up, brush my hair and go down to call a car. I am due at the festival at four o’clock, to discuss The Future of the Novel.

Zoe Heller is the author of Everything You Know, Notes on a Scandal and The Believers.

The Autograph Collection is part of the Marriott International portfolio.