I have chosen a mountain to define my limits. In 1989 (I was just over 40yrs and I had already published The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage in Brasil), I was on my second sacred pilgrimage in the Pyrenees. And I saw a mountain in the distance called Pic du Gez and I said, ‘okay, I have nothing to do today, so I’m going to climb that peak’.
First, it was very difficult to get close to the base – from a distance it looked so easy. When I finally arrived at the bottom, I had about five hours to climb about 2,000m. Not a big deal. So I started climbing, and I got lost. I knew the peak, but I had no water, no food, I had nothing. Eventually, I made it to the top and looked around. It was summer. There was no snow, it was barren.
It looked like the moon and I seriously thought, ‘I don’t know my way back. I can’t take the same route that I took to get here’. I spent nearly four hours climbing and I had no energy for the descent (which is more difficult than the ascent). So I sat down, and my first decision was that I wasn’t going to smoke – I needed to preserve all my energy.
As I looked around, I saw a city in the distance and I said ‘I’m going to that city’.
And again, it seems easy to navigate when you see something like that in the distance. So I started my descent, heading towards the city, but soon after I began I could no longer see the city anymore. I said, ‘my God, I may die here’. And then I thought ‘well, that’s not so bad. I die on a mountain. Winter will come, my body will disappear and I will become a legend’.
Eventually, I made my way to the city, but I couldn’t sleep that night. My body was completely tense. I had gone beyond my limit.
I called my wife Christina the next day and said, ‘yesterday, I was lost in a mountain, I almost died’.
And she said, ‘okay Paulo, great, but don’t call me very often because our telephone bill is getting very high’. And I’m thinking, ‘oh my God, I almost died and here she is talking about my telephone bill because I was always calling collect’ (laughter).
After this experience, I decided that this mountain would tell me when I get old.
So once a year, I return to climb this mountain. One day, I will be unable to climb it and when that day comes, it will be a landmark moment, a turning point, telling me that I can no longer overstretch myself that way and that I need to find something else. I will find something else.
So this mountain is a symbol for me.