When you think of legendary travel writers, the usual suspects immediately come to mind. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Anthony Bourdain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Bill Bryson, Ernest Hemingway. I would like to do is add another author to this list, please. A man that instilled in me a passion for travel on a deeper level. Through his writing, he challenged me to connect on a metaphysical level with the people and places I visited. Paulo Coelho.
Paulo is one of the first people to ignite the spark for adventure in my heart. The characters in his books, both real and fictional, showed me that travel is educational. As a constant traveler, you never stop learning.
But how does someone just become a nomad? It took me years to figure this out.
I was living in New York at the time. I had fulfilled my dream of working on Broadway, but it wasn’t like I had imagined it was going to be.
Having achieved several of my life’s goals at this point, I was out of direction. I thought that living in New York and being near theater would complete me, but I still felt empty. Having achieved what I thought to be my ultimate goal, I didn’t have any secondary goals to work towards.
Without direction and passion, life became stagnant. I needed to find what I actually cared about, not just create random a random goal to take my mind off of depression. In the process, I floated around New York City, working a myriad of different jobs for over a decade, feeling lost, all while emotionally imploding.
Sometime during this decade, I picked up the book The Alchemist. It was written by Paulo Coelho over the course of one two-week spurt of creativity and published through a small Brazilian publishing house. The initial print run was for only 900 copies, then the publisher decided not to reprint. The Alchemist attracted very little attention at first until a French-language translation suddenly catapulted it onto European bestseller lists in the early 1990s. New translations followed, and soon The Alchemist became a worldwide phenomenon.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I picked up this book. I’m sure I was enticed by the story’s massive international popularity. The book had sold roughly 35 million copies at that point and was the most translated book in the world by any living author. It can’t be too bad.
I started the book and put it down several times, intimidated by the abstract feeling of the narrative. Although I instantly enjoyed the story on the surface, I could tell that there was more to this book, on every page, to dig deeper into. I was going to have to commit to it fully to unearth what Paulo was trying to teach. The procrastinator in me welcomed every available distraction.
Then one day, the time was right. I made it past the first few pages, and kept going. Again, the basic story is not hard to follow, in fact it feels similar to childhood fables fairy tales. So jam-packed with wisdom, the text overflowed with epiphanies and deeply insightful metaphors. It felt ground-breaking. I read every page twice, some three times, so that I could properly digest this gorgeous wisdom buffet. Determined, I continued to glean every lesson that Paulo had so masterfully laid out.
The reoccurring theme of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist: If you want something passionately enough, and you commit with all of your heart to achieve it, then the universe will conspire to help you reach your goal. Along the way, life will take you on many detours filled with unexpected surprises and even tragic setbacks. When you do finally reach your goal, you will discover that without the journey, your dreams are meaningless.
That was me! I saw myself in this allegorical novel about an Andalusian shepherd boy who literally follows his dreams. Along the way, he learns to speak the ‘language of the world’ and as the story concludes, he receives his heart’s desire.
Everything in my life, up until where I was right then, had been the result of opportunities that opened up or became accessible because of my passion to reach those goals. In a way, I knew these things before I read The Alchemist, but this book explained, so beautifully, my life up until the point I lost direction. The current problem was still that I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. The universe couldn’t help me achieve my dreams if I didn’t have any.
Another theme in the book: Though the universe wants to help you, if you become complacent and do not make any effort to move forward, the universe will also stop trying. The open doors of opportunities manifesting. In other words, the universe isn’t going to waste its time on you if you have given up.
The more I read, the more I studied the words, and as the character Santiago learned about life, so did I. After finishing the last page of the book, my shared journey with Santiago was finished, but I was still hungry for more.
I made a list of every book Paulo Coelho had written to that point, and started consuming them, one after the other.
All of these books were excellent. Some were fiction. Some were autobiographical. Most were so profound I got a bit choked up while reading. However, there was one book that for me, was very different from all the rest.
After walking the Camino de Santiago in 1986, Paulo Coelho wrote an account of his one-month, 500-plus mile walk across northern Spain. The walk and the spiritual awakening he experienced en route inspired him to write The Pilgrimage, an autobiographical account of the trek. So excited about writing the book, Paulo quit his other jobs and devoted himself full-time to the craft of writing.
In the tale of Paulo’s The Pilgrimage, he tells the story of his walk on the C amino de Santiago as a final requirement to attain to a higher level of rank within an esoteric society he calls simply, “The Tradition”. Attaining this new level would be noted with the awarding to him a sword. At the ceremony to gain this sword, he fails his final test and he is ordered by his fraternity master to perform a “redo” of the final test by making the Santiago pilgrimage. If he finishes the pilgrimage and learns the lessons presented to him on the way, he’ll receive his sword and the rank of “master.”
So, The Pilgrimage was written before The Alchemist, and paved the way for Paulo Coehlo to later write that international bestselling novel. In many ways, these two volumes are companions–to truly comprehend one, you must read the other.
As I read The Pilgrimage, the idea of walking a trail that would take me all the way across Spain fascinated me. I had never even been to Europe at that point in my life, so this was the most exotic and wonderful thing I had ever heard of. I had dreamed of visiting Europe for decades, but the fear of it being too expensive always kept me away. Experiencing the Camino de Santiago was a fantastical dream that I quickly filed in a list of things that would never happen.
Even still, the second spark was lit. Though it seemed like pursuing a fantasy, in my heart I was now determined to experience the same journey that Paulo Coelho had while walking the Camino. An adventure that wasn’t only a mental one but also a physical and spiritual one. A journey of discovery. A search for enlightenment. All of this while crossing mountains and farmland. All of this while meeting fascinating people and battling demons.
By 2015 that initial spark lit while reading The Alchemist had manifested into a desire to travel the world and experience as many things as possible. I had made the extreme effort to not only begin traveling, but I wanted to live my life on the road. It took me a year to finally get on the plane. Once I left, I didn’t return to the United States for over 15 years.
First I lived in Quito, Ecuador because I wanted to experience life at an insanely high altitude. Next I moved to Istanbul, because I wanted to live in one of the world’s oldest cities. Then I moved to Bangkok because at that point I needed to live someplace cheap. I had already been traveling for a decade, constantly struggling to find ways to survive on the road. Then, the theme park I was working at in Dubai gave me the option to take a 6-month vacation while the park was closed for the summer. I had spent the previous summer in Dubai and it was too hot and there was nothing to do, so I knew I wanted to travel a bit. But what could I do for an extended period of time, that didn’t cost much money? Walking? Walking is free.
The moment I remembered the Camino de Santiago, my plans were set. There was no question if I was going to do it. I now only had to plan the entire rest of my summer around it.
And during that summer, my intense love for hiking and long-distance trekking was solidified. I no longer have to have a goal to journey toward. THE JOURNEY IS MY GOAL, and I want to thank Paulo Coelho for igniting that first spark that brought me to this place.
Coelho was born on August 24, 1947, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Raised by devout Catholic parents, Coelho attended Jesuit schools. He determined early on to be a writer but his parents did not agree with this. They saw no future in that profession in Brazil. Coelho’s rebellious adolescence spurred his parents to commit him to a mental asylum three times, starting when he was 17. “I have forgiven,” Coelho said. “It happens with love, all the time – when you have this love towards someone else, but you want this person to change, to be like you. And then love can be very destructive.”
Coelho eventually got out of institutional care and enrolled in law school, but dropped out to indulge in the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” of hippie life in the 1970s. He wrote song lyrics for Brazilian musicians protesting the country’s military rule. Jailed three times for his political activism and subjected to torture in prison.
Coelho’s fans call his books inspiring and life-changing. His critics dismiss his writing as New Age drivel, promoting a vague spirituality devoid of rigor. A confident writer who rejects the self-help label—”I am not a self-help writer; I am a self-problem writer”—Coelho dismisses his naysayers’ critiques. “When I write a book I write a book for myself; the reaction is up to the reader,” he says. “It’s not my business whether people like or dislike it.”
In 1980, Coelho married Christina Oiticica, the artist. Together the couple spends half the year in Rio de Janeiro and the other half in a country house in the Pyrenees Mountains of France. In 1996, Coelho founded the Paulo Coelho Institute, which provides support to children and the elderly. He continues to write, following his own version of The Alchemist’s “Language of the World.”
In a somewhat unusual scheduling ritual, Paulo Coelho allows himself to begin the writing process for a new book only after he has found a white feather in the January of an odd year. As odd as that may sound, it seems to be working. His 26 books have sold more than 65 million copies in at least 59 languages.
Just as worlds that Paulo Coelho has lived in and created are linked by common threads, so is my world to his. On the Camino, he journeyed to the cathedral in Santiago. In The Alchemist, his character Santiago journeyed to find his destiny. — I followed Santiago’s journey in The Alchemist, and then I journeyed to the cathedral in Santiago along the Camino.
One of the strengths that I admire most about Paulo Coelho’s writing, is his ability to put incredibly insightful metaphors on every page. They should include The Alchemist in a New New Testament of the Bible.. and call it The Book of Epiphanies.
And it was always meant to be this way.
Books by Paulo Coelho I have read and can highly recommend:
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