This story is one of the two most important stories I will ever write because it gets to the very core of my being. The other story will be extremely hard to write but write it I will. The two are bookends to each other.
Very early on while I was writing the first life stories which began the beginning of April 2012, I wrote a story entitled Search for the Most Beautiful Beach in the World. It is important to read that story before starting this one about the mythical Shangri-La.
I don’t know when this soulful quest began to leave Austin for some tropical paradise to live on the ocean. I love the sea, the reef fish, the sand, the palms, and the sound of the waves, the moon or the sun setting on the horizon, its vastness, the birds – everything about it. I believe the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty set in Tahiti was what ultimately lit me up.
This “pull” that beckoned me going back to 1978 and my first trip to the Caribbean, is more than the desire to live in a beautiful place on this earth that is very different from where I’ve lived all my life. It goes beyond geography. The culture, the people, international travelers, food, topography, some subtle spirituality to the area and its people all have a bearing on the quest.
I have been looking – consciously and unconsciously – for almost 35 years. I’ve been to numerous places – islands throughout the Caribbean; mainland areas in Mexico (Pacific and Caribbean), Belize, Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Martins, St. Bart, Grand Cayman, Aruba, Curacao, Honduras, Panama; Africa; Peru and Ecuador and the Galapagos; the Hawaiian Islands. (Note – see JB Travels file for more details). I have seen many truly beautiful places that are about tropical life and the ocean. And, yet, none of these places really grabbed me to say, “This is where you belong. This is your new life. This is what you’ve been searching for most of your adult life.”
I realize that my pursuit may be an illusion i.e. I’ll be happier, more at peace, more fulfilled, and excited to get up each day to see something new and fresh and on and on. My former piano teacher – Pearl Amster – said, “John, you take yourself with you”. In other words, you take all your shit with you, inside of you. You may be distracted by the newness of a place. But, eventually, you will wake up to realize you are still you with all your demons still very much alive. People who are truly enlightened like Buddhist, Tibetan, Vietnamese monks among others – would say, without doubt, happiness exists in the heart, soul and mind of a person and has very little to do with external elements. I imagine these monks are at peace in the middle of Times Square or Calcutta or Nigeria. Regrettably I am not a monk (thankfully) nor will I ever achieve that lofty perch except through some divine intervention beyond my control.
I’ll bet you’re wondering what the hell all of this has to do with a story about Shangri-La. (Note – I’m going to let Wikipedia explain the legend Shangri-La more fully at the end of this story.)
There is a wonderful movie from 1937, Lost Horizon based on the book of the same name. Frank Capra was the director for Columbia Studios. The film stars Ronald Coleman, Jane Wyman (Ronald Reagan’s wife in those days), Sam Jaffe and other notable character.
Lost Horizon is one of my favorite films, in part because it was about the mythical Shangri-La. The film took 5 years to make and vastly exceeded the budget. Capra had done a wonderful job, in all ways, of creating that Utopian ideal city where all of its people were about a communal society – some making candles, others tending to animals – all in support and living in peace and bliss with one another.
Ronald’s character – Robert Conway who is the Foreign Secretary for England is shanghaied with a few others while trying to escape China and the conflict there. The plane that was to take them to safety had been commandeered by Chinese pilots who flew them in the opposite direction deep in to the Himalayas. The pilots parachuted leaving the plane on a descent that eventual crashed in a blizzard in the mountains.
Without out hope of surviving, Conway and the other passengers are rescued by Chang and other Mongolians who take them on a treacherous journey through the mountains, over fathomless cliffs and terrible snow storms. They eventually arrive at a wooden bridge, then through a cave in to the heaven like Shangri-La – a magnificent village of sun, clouds, birds and a thriving community flourishing in a magical place in the midst of the treacherous Himalayan mountains on all sides. It is a place where no one ages but slightly as long as they do not leave. They have no contact with the outside world – no wireless and the closes village is 500 miles away. They are literally a world unto themselves.
Jane’s character – Sondra Bizet, a resident of Shangri-La – is a teacher of young, happy children in their outdoor classroom– all Mongolians. She would not make any contact with Conway, purposefully, for some time. He saw her from afar and she saw him but she was always some distance away. Chang, the steward of Shangri-La told him that “he would meet her in time”.
Finally he catches up to her and learns why he had been brought to Shangri-La. He learns that she is the one that had him brought there to use his skills and experience for the betterment of mankind rather than to fritter it away in the hustle and bustle of the real world’s business and politics. Ultimately, the holy man who founded Shangri-La - The High Lama as portrayed by Sam Jaffe – tells Conway that he has chosen him to take over to manage Shangri-La as the holy man is at the end of his life now 129 years old.
There was always this unusual, melodic and otherworldly sound whenever Sondra was with Conway. Turns out she had created a little flute that she tied to the feet of her pigeons. That is what was making the musical but not melodic tones. It is pure and whimsical and genius to create the ambiance of a magical kingdom. They were instantly and very much in love. It was so palpable. It made me long for that kind of love so deep and perfect was it.
Conway’s brother couldn’t stand to be in what he considered to be an unreal and freakish place. He was desperate to get back to “civilization”. He created enough doubt about the real intentions of the holy man and Shangri-La that Conway overcame his conflict of leaving the place and Sondra. All the party died in an avalanche trying to return to civilization – all except Conway. He wandered the region for months and months to find the hidden passageway to Shangri-La. His cohorts in London would get bits and pieces of fragmented information about his whereabouts – too late, though, to find him. Ronald does find that gateway and the rickety bridge over which he passed long ago. He enters and that is the end of the movie. We don’t see Shangri-La or Sondra again.
This film definitely resonates with me. I’ve seen it a few times over the years. It is extremely well done for a film in the 1930’s. The creation of the city/place is a wonder with the cinematic “technology” of that era – very early on in the movie business.
This film touches me deeply and has an impact on me every time I watch it. It could just be move love of film or the romantic in me or the adventurer in me or the life long journey to find paradise somewhere in the oceans of the world. I guess it’s all of those. But there is something more. Perhaps I relate to the Ronald Coleman character that was a champion in his other life but completely swept away – in joy – with what Shangri-La stood for. He wasn’t won over immediately. However, he was like a small child in some wondrous place taking in life – pure life – with a full heart and a new sense of purpose. Ultimately, he chooses to leave behind a successful life to live the dream of Shangri-La. See the film to know how it ends!
The longing in me for that place – even if it is a presence of mind and not a real place – is something I have wanted going back to the time of my first trip to Cozumel, the Yucatan, the brilliant Mayan city of Chichen Itza and the Caribbean that year. Like Conway, I have explored much of the world and more – always looking but never finding “it” or my own Sondra.
This morning, I began to actually question the real basis of my fascination with this entire subject. Why does this film – made 75 years ago – affect me so powerfully? I must remind myself that there is much in the world – beauty, art, love, the mystical, the supernatural, spirit and soul – that can only be felt in the heart no matter how brilliantly writers try to reduce it to words. I have already enumerated much of my thinking in that part of the story that precedes the narrative on the movie and Shangri-La. The film says the rest.
“Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. In the novel Lost Horizon, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance. The word also evokes the imagery of exoticism of the Orient. In the ancient Tibetan scriptures, existence of seven such places is mentioned as Nghe-Beyul Khimpalung. Khembalung is one of several beyuls (“hidden lands” similar to Shangri-La) believed to have been created by Padmasambhava in the 8th century as idyllic, sacred places of refuge for Buddhists during times of strife (Reinhard 1978).”