Monday, July 7, 2008

Guest Column! Ari Olmos Reports from His Life Abroad

Isla del Sol
by Ari Olmos

If I ever feel impelled to sequester myself on a remote island 3000 meters above sea-level, I won't have any doubts as to where to go. Isla del Sol.On my way back from La Paz, I spent one night on the island at Don Ricardo's hostel. I arrived as green and ill-prepared as you could possibly get. While everyone else had hip-strapping backpacks, I alone tried to hump a rolling suitcase up the steep dirt trail. No matter how many times I stopped to catch my breath, my chest would begin to pound after two minutes' ascent. But while the Danish girl and the medical-school-bound Seattle snowboarder I met on the boat never made it to the top, I am really, really glad that I did.One of the most extraordinary views I have ever seen awaited me at the top. The enormity of Lago Titicaca. Glaciers visible in the distance. The water lit up by a sun of other-worldly proportions.

But when I reached the hostel, Don Ricardo was nowhere to be found. It was Saturday, and music blared from a reunion at the town's only school. I had chosen the hostel due to the gushing recommendation in Lonely Planet, and I was reluctant to go elsewhere. Eventually, a neighbor checked me in, offering me my pick of one of 4 rooms that had keys already resting in the locks, assuring me that I did not need a receipt. I accepted this distrustfully, and took the nicest room of the lot. As I was sweaty from the hike, my first action was to attempt to use the shower in the tiny bathroom.

The shower had no curtain and was not separated from the toilet, and the brown clay or concrete floor was freezing. There was no water heater, but an electric showerhead that was supposed to deliver legitimately hot water. I waited, shivering, for the water to warm up. When it didn't, I fumbled with the temperature knob, and when that didn't work, unwilling to concede defeat, I ran my hand over the green and yellow wires that stuck out suspiciously from the unit. It took me a second to register the sensation that came next. I'd been shocked before, but never for more than an instant. I'd never felt like current was passing through me continuously. I could swear there was a buzzing sound in my ears, and before I knew it, I was screaming. I wrenched my hand away, snapping the plastic pipe in two.

I got the water off, and took a moment to gather myself. The situation, I decided, was unenviable. I didn't have a receipt. The showerhead was dangling by a cord next to the window. No one had heard me scream. I hadn't succeeded in taking that much needed shower.
But I did not dwell.

I dressed again, and headed up to the summit to catch the sunset. I passed a restaurant with a few tourists, and knew that wasn't my scene. On the road, an old man called to me from his bodega, and invited me to buy snacks or drink a mate at the table behind his shop. I took him up on the latter. I let him serve me mate de coca, and I pulled out my notebook and attempted a little writing. Pretty soon, the feel of the mug in my hand, the warm drink in my throat, and the mood-altering view made me forget all about my troubles.

In another hour, it was pitch black. Moonless night. I stopped at a restaurant and ate delicious fresh trucha, then I staggered back to Don Ricardo's in the dark, by the light of my cell phone. This time Don Ricardo was to be found. He and another guest, a woman of around 30, were talking and preparing soup. Don Ricardo greeted me in his Argentinian Spanish, the sound of the Argentine "je" recalling my brother's guitar teacher, a chill and friendly dude.

It was night now and freezing cold outside. It was dark, and not a streetlight was to be seen. The mood in that warm room, with the soup cooking, was instantly intimate. Don Ricardo offered me a portion, and while he cooked for the three of us, I spoke with the woman. She was British, of Brazilian parents, living in Sao Paulo. She was doing a masters in art therapy. I told her a little about the work I was doing at SKIP. I told her I had thought about teaching creative writing to the SKIP kids, and she showed me a book of exercises she had with her. Writing as therapy. Writing without the aim of writing perfectly, but solely serving the writer as a form of release. I told her about the recently-discovered joy of learning the guitar--playing for the sake of playing, with no grand hopes or expectations. A tape played faintly. A woman singing in French, the instrumentation mellow and slightly electronic, music I'd never heard.

Soon thereafter, she produced a deck of tarot cards and asked me if I would like to draw one. I told her I would. "Think of a question," she told me, "you would like answered." She shuffled the cards a few times, then fanned the cards out on the table face-down. At first, I could not think of one. Then I thought to myself: why not ask the scariest unaskable question?
Should I pursue writing as my career?

I am not a superstitious person, but at that moment, the question seemed to rise through my blood, through my soul. It seemed to me that my entire trip to Peru had been about accepting the reality that I could not hack it as a full-time writer, about making the transition to writing as a hobby. Taking the pressure off. Getting writing back in perspective. Certainly it was not healthy to view writing as the only thing, to hinge my whole self-esteem on this one thing I could not yet do.

I'd traveled to Bolivia specifically to talk to my uncle about working for his development company, Chemonics. I was telling anyone who cared to ask that my work at SKIP was the most worthwhile thing I'd done since I graduated college. It wasn't that I was hedging in all this thinking, hedging against the possibility of a bad card. On the contrary. I was ready. If the answer was no, my reaction would be relief.

She told me to close my eyes and draw a card using my left hand. I did as she said. The card I drew was the 6 of batones. Six of clubs. The picture was of six muscular arms spiraling out from a center circle, each of the 6 fist brandishing a club.

The significance, she read to me from a book, was great success. Great success and achievement await you. Be careful, the fortune admonished, to guard against excessive hubris. Great success can bread arrogance.

I mused, at the time--what if I was to take as a given that I would eventually be highly successful at writing at some unknown time in the next 50 years. How would that change my approach? How would that free me? I cannot say I took my card seriously, though there was a certain pleasure in a good omen reaching me at such an unexpected time and place.

The next morning, I woke before sunrise, and hiked for two hours before breakfast. I hiked purposefully but without destination, without any care for seeing the sights tourists were supposed to see. I reached the point of the southern part of the island, and sat down and meditated for a few minutes and felt very much at peace.
Ari Olmos is a man of many talents. Writer, Filmmaker, Snowboarder, Chess Champion: These are only a few words that apply. We here at Go Independent call him dear friend.


L said...

Beautiful post. Makes me feel warm. Good fortune with whatever you decide to do.

Empire said...

Would it be possible to theorize Ari's Peru as a technology of self-discovery? The reason I'm asking is because it so happens that technologies of self-discovery would be hobbies of mine were I courageous enough to pursue them. I'm not talking about metaphorical self-vivisection, if that's what you're naughtily thinking. Rather, I'm talking about whispering sweet everythings into the ear of, say, your favorite transgendered know, the one with exceedingly cute...

Ric said...


Making sense is the new post-modernism. Help us out here.