Welcome to the days of the 1970s, when the hippie counterculture was gathering quite a reputation and Paulo Coelho was a hippie. This book is considered to be the most autobiographical of his works — one that gives a brief glimpse into his life as he nostalgically relives the days when he was in search for the meaning of his existence.
The hippie movement started in the 1960s in the United States and attracted youngsters by the tens of thousands. The Woodstock Music Festival, for instance, one of the monumental events in the history of hippie culture, attracted more than 400,000 people. These long-long-haired youngsters who wore vibrant clothes, tucked flowers in their hair, danced, sang and meditated were unconventional for their times. They lived in harmony with nature, experimented with communal living, sex and recreational drugs. Hippies challenged the established ways; everything from conservative behavior to excessive consumerism to unbalanced concentration of wealth was detested by them. Hippies were beyond using labels to attach to themselves and define who they should be or how they should act. They were on a spiritual journey, seeking the meaning of life and get deeply in touch with themselves.
Hippies had a novel way of communicating with each other — via the ‘invisible post’. It existed so that people could discover ideas on where to meet next, how to explore the world (and not in a touristy sort of a way) and how to find the next great trail to be followed. It was the original wanderlust. Most hippies, in their thirst for travel, relied on a big book called ‘Europe on 5 dollars a day’. You could find information on where to eat, where to sleep, where to catch some live music, all of this without having to spend a fortune in Europe. Hippies swapped ideas and created a culture based on personal connections.
Paulo introduces himself as a young 23-year old Brazilian, already sporting long flowing hair and a goatee, aspiring to become a writer someday. He has set out on a journey to find freedom and discover if there is a deeper meaning to his life. On the path to finding himself, he travels with his girlfriend, a Yugoslavian woman, 11 years his senior. They take the famous ‘death train’ to Bolivia, then go on to explore Peru, Chile, and Argentina. They then get to Brazil where they are kidnapped and get separated. Imprisoned and in the unknown, Paulo recounts his terror on being held without a just cause and the torture he has to bear at the hands of the cops who believe Paulo and his girlfriend are some sorts of rebels or resistance activists. The two are eventually let go and reunite, but the couple ends up parting ways as Paulo’s girlfriend finds that she no longer loves him.
Paulo continues his journey onward and reaches Dam Square in Amsterdam, one of the capitals of the hippie world. Here he meets Karla, a Dutch woman in her 20s who is looking for a traveling companion. Karla is desperate to find her place in the world. Appearing to be independent and confident on the surface, deep down she is unhappy, perhaps even depressed. She is closed off to the rest of the world, never having truly experienced love. As if drawn to each other magically, Paulo and Karla have a chance meeting and get to talking. She convinces him to take a trip with her on the Magic Bus which will take them through Europe and Central Asia to Kathmandu. All of this for just 70 dollars per person.
They travel together in the company of some fascinating travelers, each of whom has their own stories to narrate. All these hippies are strong individuals who have had their share of challenges and are trying to seek something on a spiritual and emotional level. We meet an Irish couple, where the man has already been to Nepal before and is now traveling with his partner to the same destination once again to see if he can stay there for an extended time. His partner, not really interested so much in the idea of Kathmandu or the supposed promises it holds, is in the journey because of the man she loves and is following her heart wherever it takes her. Then there is a father-daughter duo, Jacques and Marie, Marie having lived her college days as a hippie. Her father abruptly leaves his marketing job one day and asks her to lead him, to help him see the world and find meaning. They are together on the Magic Bus, with Jacques trying to learn everything he can from Marie about life.
Karla and Paulo are a pseudo-couple of sorts, discovering themselves individually and with each other. Karla is hardly gentle with him, but she manages to guide him to seek the truth and unearth his passion. They explore their relationship, have an awakening and find themselves facing a difficult crossroads that will set the course for the rest of their lives. Karla falls in love with Paulo but Paulo’s true love turns out to be spirituality which he realizes while having sex with her and having an out of body experience. He cannot give her what she wants and decides to break away from the trip midway in Istanbul, in order to continue his search for spirituality. Karla heads on to Kathmandu.
With this book, readers may be on the fence in trying to figure out whether they like it or if it’s a disappointment by Coelho’s standards. Even though it is a trip down the memory lane, the author fails to evoke powerful emotions except in a few instances. Most of all, what this book is missing, is a heightened sensory experience of the hippie life you would expect to enjoy, a counterculture which happens to be one of the most prominent ones of our times. Straddling both the genres — of memoir and novel — the book feels inadequate on both fronts; written from a third-person perspective it robs you of the connection you otherwise feel when reading an autobiography, and as a novel, the characters are not compelling enough, the plot isn’t strong and the insights, though philosophical, are not always powerfully enlightening.
What you can hope to enjoy, of course, is the inspiration you will find, to learn about yourself, which begins when you start exploring the world around you. You also learn that love can take on various forms — romantic, sexual, friendly but mostly love is born out of human connections and needs no further elaboration. In an interview with TIME magazine Coelho says,
“There are very different types of love. There’s Eros, love for another person. There’s Philia, love for wisdom. And there is Pragma, which is love that goes beyond everything.”Why Best-Seller Paulo Coelho Thinks Books Should Never Be Made Into Movies by LUCAS WITTMANN, October 4, 2018
Paulo’s values are still the same today the way they once were, even though he is far from a hippie now. He continues to believe in simplifying life, eating healthy and respecting women, as he says in the interview. Experience is the most important thing for him which is why he agreed to go with Karla on the trip to Nepal, willing to undertake a journey with someone he barely knew and putting himself at risk. Woven with self-discovery, the focal point of Hippie is human connection. It seeks to answer the question, “What happens when two people are given the time to get to know each other?”
Interestingly, Coelho first wanted to title this book ‘And Where the Old Tracks are Lost’ inspired by a poem from Rabindranath Tagore. The spiritual experiences the characters have, their will to chase their dreams, find love, to travel and find peace, are all characteristics which were an inherent part of the hippie life but are really timeless and relevant even today. You can’t help wondering what really happened in the end after Paulo and Karla part ways. Does Karla make it to Kathmandu? Does she find what she was looking for? Is she at peace? Paulo tries to look for her in his later years but he never hears from her again after their time together in Istanbul, and neither do we. In the end, Hippie is a beautiful story about friendship, love, the search for meaning and realizing that getting closer to oneself demands many tough choices.
Have you read Hippie? How does it compare to other works by Paulo Coelho in your opinion?