My eighteenth year was when the world was suddenly flung open to me. Until then, I’d been mostly incarcerated within medieval boarding-school cloisters, where I regarded Keats and D.H. Lawrence as the greatest adventures imaginable. But my eighteenth year was when I took my first summer-long trip around my parents’ India, and got to savour my first taste of Bombay and Dharamshala; my eighteenth year was when I took on my first job, fecklessly impersonating a Spanish-speaking sub-waiter at Pancho Villa Inn, a Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara, California; my eighteenth year was when I went on my first official- seeming date, to see, too fittingly, a new movie of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, starring Max Van Sydow and Dominique Sanda.
My eighteenth year was also the time when I took my first major trip, unchaperoned, getting into a bus in the Mexican border town of Tijuana, and then travelling for the next three months, with an equally unschooled classmate, through Guatemala and the jungles of Colombia and over the passes of the Andes to La Paz, Bolivia, before continuing alone through the empty Amazonian spaces of northern Brazil and Suriname and then returning, by way of Trinidad and Barbados, to Miami to take a three-day bus-trip home.
My eighteenth year, in short, was when I learned, at last, that the world was a far richer classroom than any place with a textbook could be; and by the time I arrived at university, aged eighteen, I knew that all my deepest enquiries and illuminations would take place in locations as far from the known, and from the curriculum, as San Agustin and Belem. I can only hope that others, turning eighteen, can save up enough for a similar liberation, and see that neighbourhood, school and home are wonderful, but most deeply appreciated, sometimes, when you’re a long way away from them.