Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»Big River« is what the Athabascan Indians call the Yukon. It’s one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohrbach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.
It’s a rainy evening in the 90s. My friends and I are discussing a possible foreign intervention of the German Armed Forces. Obviously irritated by my anti-war attitude, one of them eventually says to me, “Then why don’t you go to Ibiza and become a hippie!”
Many years have passed since then. It’s winter. February. For weeks, gray wafts of mist have been sticking to the sky like chewing gum. Once in a while, they are joined by a drizzle. In the morning, I crank up the heating and try to lift my Vitamin D-deprived mood by doing some yoga. On the radio: Syria, refugees, Neo-nazis. That’s when I suddenly recall what I was told back then.
Hippie on Ibiza.
Why not? Best, right away.
There are no direct flights in winter, so I have to take a bit of a detour. And, there are also no tourists. Most clubs and bars are closed, the booming electronic basses are hibernating. Where I’m going, to the north of the island, it’s even quiet in the summer. I get myself a room in a small stone finca in the countryside, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. The next village is forty minutes away by foot. I’m planning to stay for four weeks. For the first two weeks, I’ll be all by myself in the middle of nowhere. The landlord is in Amsterdam, taking a break from the island. It could get pretty lonesome here. We’ll see how I’ll cope.
Silence. All I hear are birds, a soft rustling in the pines, a barking in the distance. The mild winter air envelops me like velvet cloth. Later on, I look into the night sky and think: this is what peace feels like.
The north of Ibiza is a conservation area. With its untamed beauty, “Es Amunts” attracts everyone who wants to be in tune with nature: hippies– aged and young-at-heart, self-proclaimed and studied healers and shamans, osteopaths and reiki masters, masseurs, yoga instructors, gurus, dancers and musicians, vegans and vegetarians. They all love Es Amunts, this unspoiled landscape with its wooded hills, rocks and fields. And so do I. I’m a city kid, but I love nature more than anything.
When I’m doing badly, nature is the best medicine for me. Balm for the soul, honey for stressed nerves.
Suddenly, life is easy and immediate again.
In the morning, I go for a seven kilometer-long walk. The air is cool, moist and full of tempting smells. The blossoms of the wild garlic are of a delicate rose color, rosemary, thyme and pines emit their fragrances. I pass knobby olive and wild carob trees. Almond trees already carry their first fruit, still green, and orange and lemon trees flaunt their ripe fruit in a vibrant orange and yellow. For some time, I follow a small track through the woods, up a hill and over rocks overgrown with small, dark-blue orchids. I keep passing the traditional stone walls; once in a while there’s a typical Ibizan homestead, whitewashed and cubic. With some, it seems as if the clock stopped ticking centuries ago: a stone house, a well, a threshing floor. Surrounded by trees and fields.
Yellow marigolds blossom brightly on lavish green pastures; sometimes there’s a knobby, ancient olive tree, defiant, looking like a lost sheep.
You cannot shift an old tree without it dying.
The dark red, dug up soil of a recently plowed field competes with the light spring green of its neighboring pasture. Above, the wind is chasing white wisps of clouds over the deep blue sky. For a good hour, I walk through the landscape with my senses wide awake, marveling and almost devotional, feeling more alive with each step. Life can be so simple. At the end of my walk, I gather a bit of firewood, dried pine cones, tree bark and small branches to make a fire in the oven.
In the evening, I will have a cozy get-together at my place, in fact, with myself. I will cook something, open a bottle of wine, watch the fire and drink a toast to life. There’s nothing more to do. Have I become a hippie?
* * *
Jon Michelle is 65 years old. He has a high forehead and long, dark hair. He grew up in Africa as the child of Swiss diplomats. He’s been living on Ibiza since the 80s. He’s sung mantras with Nina Hagen, and every Wednesday evening, he organizes the musical program “Namaste” at the hippie market together with some friends. At the International Travel Trade Show (ITB) in Berlin, he represents for Ibiza what the officials have long been embarrassed about, “Hippiedom”. This has become the island’s unique feature. People have realized that it’s not only about parties, drugs and sex. There are many artists and artisans among the hippies.
So suddenly being a hippie is ok.
Jon Michelle knows full well that this a a marketing strategy of the tourist office. But, he emphasizes, he really is a hippie and sticks to it. I ask him how he defines a hippie.
“John Lennon was a hippie. Hippie means stopping the Vietnam War, hippie means living without violence. That’s exactly what John Lennon says in his song “Imagine”. Imagine there were no religion, no hunger. To me, that’s being a hippie. We didn’t become hippies to get stoned. To me, being a hippie is an attitude. And I am still living it.”
Jon Michell lives in Sant Joan, a small village and the chief village of the northern province. Whitewashed houses, orange trees, a church, a cemetery, three bars. Every Sunday, there’s a small market with homemade bread, lavender honey, organic vegetable, incense sticks, Tibetan prayer flags and singing bowls, bracelets and silver jewelery, clothes and scarves, the sound of drums and guitars. It’s in particular during the winter months that the bars become a popular place to get together for the ones who have stayed. And that’s more than a few. In the seven towns of the municipality Sant Joan de Labritja, 35% of the population are foreigners who are permanent residents. In terms of numbers, Germans rank first, followed by the British, Italians, French and others. Most of them came during the 60s and 80s.
Different from many of his hippie friends, Jon doesn’t live in a finca, but in an apartment in the village. And that’s where I visit him.
Normally, I wouldn’t visit a complete stranger in his apartment. What’s wrong with me?
Am I already full-speed on the peace-love-and-trust-trip?
Almost looks like it. Jon asks me to come in and, for a moment, I feel like I’m back in the times when I used to live with roommates; it’s been a while. There are colorful blankets, Indian scarves and arrases, here a buddha and there some lovely draped flowers. Jon’s office is full of music: drums, guitars, flutes and all sorts of rhythm instruments, conventional and exotic. The big veranda with a view of the landscape is as colorful as the rest of his apartment: the walls are painted a warm red; light blue shutters and a shade-giving straw roof, flower pots and herbs, a big table with four chairs.
Jon has three children and one grandson. His youngest daughter is 11 years old. She alternately lives with him and her mother. He says it’s not easy to cover the living expenses, but something always works out. Jon Michelle isn’t only a musician. He also performs wedding rituals for people who don’t want to get married by the church.
He doesn’t see himself as a shaman or even priest. Rather, he wants to offer the newlyweds and their guests a nice setting for their promise of life and love. The celebrations take place at the beach, on a rock or on a mountain top.
Jon believes that the island is under the influence of the fertility goddess Tanit.
Several cult sites were excavated on Ibiza. The cave Es Culleram near Sant Vicent in the north of the Island is one of the most known ones. Tanit is a peace-bringing, feminine energy. Exactly what attracts many artists and spiritual people.
On Ibiza, being aggressive is considered uncool.
Whether it makes a difference to be a young or an old hippie, I ask. After all, I’m not that young myself. I mean, hey, maybe there’s an expiration date or something.
Good we’ve cleared that up.
Hippies don’t retire. Once a hippie, always a hippie. But what about insurance? Health insurance, pension insurance, accident insurance, nursing care insurance? I guess a hippie doesn’t have that. If you’re young that’s not a problem. You think, it’ll be fine. But what about when you’re advanced in years?
Concerning this, Jon also has some wisdom to offer, “You lose quality of life if you constantly try to insure yourself – which, in fact, you really can’t. But people think that that is quality of life. Truth is: the more you learn to have faith, the safer you will actually feel.”
There might be something to it. Just trust in life.
How much time do we lose because we lock doors, cars, bikes, arbors and offices? We search for our keys when we leave, we dig for them in our purses, when we return, we unlock, we lock. And? Are there fewer burglaries, fewer thefts? At best, more broken doors and windows. And, precious lifetime lost, which we could have spent doing more pleasant things.
* * *
It’s raining. It’s strumming on the roof and swooshing in the trees. Greedily, bushes and trees, their light green buds and blossoms which are awakening these days, drink up the water, giving their thanks by emitting their woody and floral fragrances that daze the air.
I’m still in bed, looking up at the ceiling’s wood beams and wonder if they’re really impervious to water. It’s cozy in my little room with the rustic, unplastered stone walls. It doesn’t bother me that it’s raining.
In the past days, I have made contact with nature on my walks.
I’ve tried wild garlic, eaten borage blossoms and taken home some rosemary for the kitchen. Cherry blossoms, almond trees, pines and olives, figs and orange trees, they all whispered to me, “It would be so nice if we got a little bit of rain. We have to make do with what comes down in spring, as many months of drought follow.”
One time, I took a break at a clearing and did a few yoga stretches, standing. When I was doing the “tree”, a position where you’re standing on one leg while the other one is bent and your arms are reaching for the sky, I imagined what it was like to actually be one of these trees. I picked out a pretty crooked pine and took up the same position; stretching my left arm downwards, analog to the tree’s protruding branch, and stretching my right arm steeply up. I imagined how my feet grew roots into the soil.
How is life as a tree?
What’s it like to stand here when the sun rises, only experiencing this one outlook, always, day in and day out, in cold and heat, rain and sun, always this one segment of reality, a whole life long. Spring, summer, fall and winter. Year in and year out. The pine can live up to 200 to 250 years. The oldest olive tree is 4,000 years old.
I stood like that for a long time, breathing, making contact with the surrounding trees and plants. The longer I stood, the more multifarious everything became that was within my sight. I discovered more and more details which had been hidden to me before: here a small orchid blossom on the ground between blades of grass, there a tree stump that seemed to have a face, infinite different shades of green surrounding me. And, the ground was no longer just a surface, it was a realm, an earth, with mountains and valleys, ravines and lowerings, a whole landscape to my feet, which I’d never registered before although I had daily passed it. So that’s what standstill feels like; so in motion and so rich in detail, a microcosm where everything is connected with everything. So that’s what life feels like when we allow it to be, when we listen carefully; when we ourselves become a tree.
Which is why the rain makes me happy, now that I’ve had my tree experience. Hopefully the joy will last, I think, then halcyon days lie ahead of me in Germany.
Rain on Ibiza is a rare good. In April, all it does is rain tourists, for months, about four million per season. They shower after getting up and before having a meal, they splash in the pool, drink tea and coffee, require fresh bedding, if possible daily, spic and span washed rental cars and nice green gardens that need to be watered twice a day. The water table is sinking rapidly and it’s getting tight for all those who are not hooked up to the public water system. So mainly for those living in the country. The farmers and the hippies.
* * *
Sometimes, Ilona says, she prays for rain. Ilona is from Germany and, for a decade, has been living in a finca in the country with her partner and son. She’s set up a meditation tent next to it. Sometimes she performs ceremonies in there. For the moon, for women’s power or for the rain.
Ibiza’s international community is always open to and experienced in what the spiritual market has to offer: yoga and dance, ayurveda and thai massages, shiatsu, reiki and watsu, mantra singing and meditation, singing bowls and smudging rituals, coaching and self-discovery. There are some who perform Ayahuasca ceremonies, where the participants drink a brew of hallucinogenic vine from the Amazon, and, under the supervision of a male or female shaman, first vomit and then find themselves. Three days long.
But Ilona doesn’t think much of West Europeans who do a workshop in the Peruvian jungle, stick a feather in their hair und come back as shamans. After all, she says, there is also traditional knowledge about the power of energies and herbs here.
I don’t believe in magic. But on Ibiza it’s easy to open up to all kinds of spiritual ideas. Close to San Rafael, I meet Manuel Estevez. He’s a musician and has some unusual sets going on. His thing is electronic music, beyond mainstream. He combines sounds from nature with rhythms that invite you to dance. His music is based on the Solfeggio frequencies, which are a set of six tones. Already in ancient times, these frequencies were believed to have healing effects. In the Middle Ages, monks used them in their Gregorian chants. The native music from the Andes or the Himalayas is also based on the Solfeggio. Manuel sees himself as a music shaman who synchronizes people’s energies. And that’s what it looks like when he’s at work:
That’s right. On a Friday night, I was there when Manuel played his sets. I danced and danced, hour after hour, filled with a deep joy. Without any drugs. Simply driven by the magic of the sounds.
* * *
In the South of the island, the basses boom through the mega clubs, the temples of electronical music, which are merchandised through and through. Each club sells t-shirts, clothes, purses, mobile cases, cups, stickers and wallets with the club’s label, be it Pacha, Amnesia, Space or Privileg. In the South, you also find the beaches of the rich and the beautiful, the hotspots for celebrities and millionaires, drug dealers and real estate agents. In the North, however, live the dropouts and hippies, the artisans and veggie prophets, yoginis and gurus. And the Ibizans live amid it all, serenely watching how, over the past decades, their island is being transformed.
In the 60s, long before Ibiza was considered a party island, the farmers were flabbergasted when these light-dressed young people came fluttering onto the island like colorful butterflies. They wore feathers and blossoms in their hair, carried a guitar under one arm, held a joint in one hand and sang songs from the flower power movement. The Ibizans simply called them “the longhaired” and found them a bit odd; these hippies with flower wreaths in their hair, who came to the village pub once a month to pick up their German, French, Canadian or American checks which had been sent from home to their P.O. box. And, who, apart from that, knit bracelets. They came and stayed. Like Noelle, who has lived on the island for forty years. When I visit her out in the country, I drive about 20 minutes on a dirt road from Sant Joan towards the sea.
Her house is a solitary house in the middle of a garden. In the 70s, she came here at the age of 25 with her little son. Together with two other women she started a commune. They didn’t own a car. Every morning, the kids walked to the village school in Sant Joan. There was neither electricity nor running water. And still, it was love on first sight.
The farmers couldn’t quite understand why these crazy foreigners wanted to live in these dilapidated stone houses by candlelight, in the middle of nowhere, without any modern conveniences. But it worked out perfectly. Because the farmers couldn’t think of anything nicer than to live in a city apartment. With running water and electricity, radio, telephone and TV. The perfect match, so to say.
But aside from their rental agreements, they didn’t really get together and barely got to know each other. In Ibiza Town there was one who wanted to change that. And he’s the one I’d like to meet now. Therefore, I must leave my quiet place in the country and drive into the city.
In an alley in the Old Town, not far from the Plaza Vara del Rey, Juan still has his bar. In memory of his birthplace he named it Bar San Juan. In the summertime, long queues form on the street, even before the bar is opened. In the wintertime, business is slower. Regardless of the season, there is often only one dish of the day. Fresh and inexpensive. Once it’s sold out, it’s sold out.
Juan is the owner and in his late seventies. He has close-cropped grey hair and wears fifties glasses; almond-shaped eyes with laughter lines twinkle behind the thick lenses. The boss, so he, decides who gets to sit where. His father introduced this concept in the early 60s when the flower people were flooding the island.
Juan’s father wanted to bring the down-to-earth farmers of the island and the mantra-singing hippies together at one table, so they would get to know each other. “Out on the street, they wouldn’t even greet each other, but here, with good food and a bottle of wine, they became friends and signed rental leases, sometimes started an affair or a family,” Juan tells me. And a bottle of wine, whether it’s been ordered or not, always stands on the table. Everyone can help themselves to it as they like.
The hippies from back then still like to celebrate today. Which is why I wasn’t as solitary in those four weeks as I thought I would be.
* * *
After four weeks of living out in the country, I feel at home on Ibiza and completely renewed. The international community comes up with a lot of ideas in order to connect. Via social media and word-of-mouth propaganda they organize hiking and yoga groups, movie nights and private parties. I like these people. They are creative and open-minded, tolerant and a bit crazy. Not everyone here calls themselves a hippie; but after four weeks of reflecting and all the talks I’ve had, I no longer consider “hippie” a role but more an attitude towards life. Peaceful, creative, in touch with nature and spiritual. Insofar, I can say for myself: yes, I’m a hippie. And, oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to live here. Like Sandra. Who owns the finca where I stayed as a guest.
But life here is expensive. Too expensive for me. And for others as well. Many had to leave the island in the past years because they could no longer afford the high costs of living. The times when a small stone finca was sold by handshake and paid in cash are over. Several of the long-established hippies have already emigrated to Thailand. Others to Brazil, Columbia or southern Spain. The exploding real estate prices have caused rents to spiral, so that many inhabitants, even locals, no longer know where to live during the summer months. Waiters, cooks, vendors and others who make their living from tourism, share apartments at horrendous prices. A room with a shared bath and kitchen for 1,000 Euros a month or 500 Euros for a sleeping place outside on the balcony: the exorbitant rents during peak season have caused people to quit their jobs and try their luck elsewhere. Over 900 apartments have disappeared from the regular housing market and reappeared on Airbnb, Tripadvisor or Ownersdirect in the summer months. Off the books and unlicensed, ridiculously high short-term rents are gained.
If I had gone to Ibiza back when during a heated peace debate I was told, “Then why don’t you go to Ibiza and become a hippie!”, who knows, maybe I’d be living in the beautiful stone finca of a nice Ibizan who hasn’t raised the rent for 20 years. But then my life wouldn’t be, what it is, and I wouldn’t be, who I am. In the end, I am too much of a hippie to lose myself in “shoulds” and “woulds”. It’s all good. And who knows. Maybe I’ll be back soon.
In the winter, at the latest. As a seasonal hippie.
* * *
The Great Calusa Blueway is an almost 200-mile-long paddling trail off the Gulf coast near Fort Myers. Here Dirk Rohrbach follows the tracks of the Calusa Indians who were once settling in this region in Florida’s Southwest.