When you first meet Christobal, proprietor of Ginger’s Paradise, you’d be forgiven for believing that this riverside organic farm and refugio, cradled by pristine Bolivian cloud forest that clings to the mountain, was named after him. His faded red hair is a magpie’s nest of old dreadlocks and new growth; he wears a dirty white cheesecloth button-up shirt, loose-hanging beige chinos and Crocs knockoffs that have earned their keep. His high-pitched, memory-piercing laugh escalates to a shrill. These things, and a whole lot more, paint the picture of a traveller who went searching for freedom and found paradise.
The five of us were beyond exhausted and hungry after our day of relaxing and walking, when we arrived at Ginger’s Paradise just before dark. Christobal came to greet us at the refugio, and together we took the eight- or so minutes-walk to the Stone House, where snacks were waiting. It was dark when we got to the house, and we were served banana bread and flowery pink tea with raw sugar – not the light brown stuff you get from the pseudo-organic shelf in the supermarket. No, these were dark brown, not overly sweet clumps, harvested and processed at Ginger’s Paradise. So too were the bananas used in the bread, and the citronella for the pink tea. And the drinking water comes from their own spring – sweet, unfiltered, unbottled, straight from the tap as Madre Tierra intended.
Christobal and his wife Sol, a diminutive but powerful Bolivian woman of indeterminate age, bought two adjoining pieces of land here next to the village of Bermejo about 14 years ago, but Ginger’s Paradise as we know it has been established for 10 years. During this time they’ve accumulated cows, chickens and almost painfully colourful roosters, coffee trees and a vegetable and herb garden which, in the event of an apocalypse, will leave them untouched and fed for generations to come. Christobal is finishing of a mountain-water catchment dam that will provide enough water for farm expansions. They have solar power and a stationary bike used for generating electricity, which is used sparingly. The darkness around us is warm and inviting; light and noise are what threaten this way of life.
They’ve also accumulated five children. The three girls – Ginger (the madame of the manor, about 10 years old), Orquedia (about three) and Eclipse (four months at the time of our visit) – and the boy Dizzy, or Fizzy (about 15) were as much part of our visit as their parents were. The fifth boy, the oldest at 17, was off working in another city. Ginger tried to involve us in every card game; Orquedia stumbled around on her new-found legs, in turn hungry for attention and then utterly disdainful of it. Eclipse spent most of her time sleeping on a hammock while Dizzy, or Fizzy (was it Ozzy?) listened in on the adult conversation, offering occasional insight in Spanish and English, quietly brave and curious, straddling that line between wide-eyed boy of the farm and ever-ready man of the city.
Christobal and Sol told their story as we devoured the provisions that night. I think my eyes rolled audibly when Chris described his career pre-Bolivia as “rockstar”. I’ve tried and failed to verify his claims online – that he was in a band called American Flag (can’t find) and (my boys back home will get a kick out of this) that he was invited to join the band System of a Down before deciding to break away from that life 15 years ago. He climbed onto a bicycle and rode through Bolivia for more than three years before settling down here.
Sol, too, is well travelled, having left the unimaginative and dirty urban life of Santa Cruz behind to travel through Europe for many years before claiming a piece of land and her independence alongside Christobal. She chatted in French to Samia, Simon and Rabah, in English to me when I struggled, and in Spanish to Chris and their kids, who are all bilingual or at least in the process of becoming so.
As if the picture isn’t idyllic enough, there is no catch. Sol and Christobal are the best kind of hippies: the non-vegetarian kind. With a rare humble, non-presumptuous and non-self-righteous approach, they live on what the land makes available, whether it be animal, mineral or vegetable. There are no sentimental delusions of grandeur here, only a down-to-earth adherence to what the earth provides. I think it’s this – the fact that they are very much in touch with reality, politics, science – that ultimately endeared me to them. These are not heady hippies, these are just people who wanted to choose how to live, who wanted to return to knowing the earth and to learn how to wield its potential.
You should make a point of meeting this family for yourself. Even if their way of life doesn’t move you, you will have a religious experience through the food – each and every morsel and drop of which comes from their farm, no exceptions. The thick black Bolivian coffee, ah, that liquid black gold at the top of this addict’s hierarchy of needs, is life changing. The homemade bread, fresh off a wood-fired stove. The most colourful and moreish salads I have ever seen or thought possible – pink and orange and green and red and sour and sweet and crunchy and wet. The scrambled basil pesto eggs. Three types of chili sauces. The banana smoothies made from milk so fresh from the cow that it hasn’t even been boiled. The syrupy dulce de leche, already part of my lexicon of Argentinian nostalgia. The papaya marmalade. The papaya marmalade, guys.
There are loads of surprises too, the extent of which is depends entirely on how open your mind is when you visit.
We planned to stay one night, but that was a foolish notion. Samia, Simon and I went back to Samaipata for our bags and returned for another two nights, while Rabah stayed on. We spent one long day next to the river and in the forest. Three or four more unbelievable meals.
Many long conversations in the near dark, about everything and nothing. Early to bed and early to rise. Echoes, silence, patience and grace (with thanks to Dave Grohl). Processing sugar, hard labour requiring six people.
The unspoken delay of an inevitable, sad departure. An unshakeable and lasting feeling of well-being as I dared cross the bridge back over the river, back to the main road, alone again, ready to leave one paradise in search of another, laden heavy with a bulging backpack but light on my feet. Grateful.