H is for Happy Happenstance

Dec 3
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Reflections, SHINE, Travel log

H is for Happy Happenstance

As you may know, I’ve been on a quest to visit some of the sites around the world that purport to feature sacred feminine energy. Before I tell you what happened yesterday as related to the Black Madonna of Copacabana, Bolivia, let me give a little background for my quest.

Mostly it’s a longer story than I can cover in a blog post. But the short version is this: I was a very conservative Christian for 20 years. And during all that time, one of the things that bothered me—a lot—was the patriarchal aspect of my faith. God was called Father; his messiah was a Son; men were in charge of the churches; husbands were the head of the family. Didn’t seem to matter who was more qualified to lead, the job was delegated to men. I once had a male leader tell several of us who were proselytizing on Hollywood Boulevard one Halloween that, “If members of your group feel leadings from God to go in different directions, follow the man’s leading. He’s ordained by God to lead, and he needs to get used to it.” There was at least one man per group, so none of us women would be led astray, I suppose.

When I left the church, I became largely agnostic. But of one thing I felt sure: I’d lived with the masculine archetype of divinity for too long, and I wanted to experience a feminine archetype that could connect me to experiences of the numinous. I didn’t want to pray to anyone per se; nor did I want to ask theological questions and try to wrap my brain around a new dogma, I just wanted to see what sort of stories were available and what it would be like to expose myself to goddess traditions. I wondered if I would feel connected to the idea of a goddess, purely from the perspective of the feminine having some power ascribed to it. So I began seeking out temples and other holy sites. I’ve been at this now for several years.

This leads me to the story at hand. I flew down to South America on Thanksgiving day. My plan: to run a marathon in Vina Del Mar and visit Valparaiso, a city I really enjoyed when I was in South America in 2014. My research told me that not far away, in Bolivia, there was a “Black Madonna,” a Catholic statue of the Virgin who was sculpted in the 1500s, I decided to make my way to her and to spend a few days in Copacabana, where she is enshrined.

The first day I visited the basilica, I had high hopes of seeing her and sitting in her chapel for a while to see if she would speak to me, but I was disappointed. She wasn’t there. Had I come all that distance only to encounter an empty glass case? All the guide books say that she is never removed from her shrine, so what was the deal? But then a local man told me they turn her around sometimes, facing her away from the chapel (so she can rest?), leaving the case empty so far as the public is concerned. He told me I should go back and check to see if she was available to hear the prayers of supplicants the next day.

When I returned to the cathedral the next day, there she was! A glowing apparition of turquoise and gold, lighted from beneath, her dark face (not very dark, actually, and looking quite European if you ask me) held a peaceful, even neutral expression, while she held the baby Jesus in her arms (who also looked completely unimpressed).

I sat in the chapel for a little under an hour, watching two women and their menfolk adorn the alter with fresh flowers. After the flowers were situated, each of them sat in a pew and prayed, mouths moving, offering (I assume) both praises and requests. Sitting in that echoey chapel, I tried to feel into her. Did she have any presence? I’ve felt a distinct sense of awe sitting quietly at other sacred sites like Lourdes in France, Glastonbury in England, and the shrine of Izanami in Japan. But here I felt nothing. She seemed like a doll and more than anything, I felt pity for her, spending all of her existence locked in a cage. She looked posed, like a model, for the adoration of men (more on this someday soon in my new book—stay tuned).

Chalking up my visit with her as something to check off a list, I turned to other tourist activities, took a tour of the two islands on the Bolivian side of the lake that still feature some intact Incan ruins (Isla del Sol and Isla de luna), then I took a bus back to Bolivia’s big city: La Paz.

In La Paz now I wanted to take two walking tours—one in the morning at 11:00am and the other in the evening which would include dinner. After the first three-hour tour of the central part of the city, I had some time to kill, and decided to take a break at a café near the San Fransisco Cathedral.

I order a double latte in the café and at to rest my feet. On the walls, there was a display by an artist called Roberto Mamani Mamani. Vibrant colors depicting indigenous life and Bolivian landscapes grabbed my attention the moment I noticed the paintings. I’m a sucker for COLOR. Maybe growing up in the gray winters of the Pacific Northwest has made me irritated with muted colors, but anyway, I love bright primary or just off-primary colors. Mr. Mamani’s colors are like candy. LifeSavers, actually. Or Skittles. The whole rainbow in every image. Geez, I’d like to meet the guy who sees Bolivia in these bright colors, I said to myself.

One large painting especially jumped out at me from a distance, and when I got up to look at it closely, I saw it was entitled, Madonna de Copacabana. I studied it. Yes, there she was, a woman holding a child with a crescent moon beneath her denoting that her fertility had already led to her having given birth. But this Madonna was full and inclusive, not tiny and encased as the madonna in the church in Copacabana. Besides the baby Jesus, she also held other round faces in her embrace, indigenous faces. Clearly the artist was depicting her as Pachamama, Mother Earth. Arms open wide, she receives the whole of humanity. And her own features were truly in the image of the local indigenous people—round and dark—not thin European features as the Madonna in the Basilica.

I fell in love with her! She spoke to me the way the Madonna in the church had not, and I felt a tingle on the back of my neck. Determined to find out more about the artist, I asked the waiter about him and learned that Mamani is the most famous painter in Bolivia. My server gave me directions to his studio, which I thought I understood would take me out of the city center, but I resolved to go there the next day. I wanted to see Mamani originals before leaving La Paz, and perhaps even get a print or a poster of the Madonna/Pachamama.

That evening I took a Foodie Tour. Those of you who know me are laughing about this, since my palate was honed on Mac ‘n Cheese and hotdogs, and nowadays—even upgraded by a higher education and exposure to people who are devoted to food—I’ve not risen to delicacies much beyond mexifries from Taco Time. But truly I like to try new things, and I do love good food if someone else is preparing it for me. Beside, one of the hardest things for me in travel is eating. Outside of tourist areas where there are not English menus, you’re guessing and pointing. My anxiety always goes up, worried I’ll get something inedible and I’ll go hungry or have to get by with a bag of peanuts. So this time I decided to let someone show me the local cuisine and to enjoy the company of a handful of other travelers.
That night on the tour, we stopped at two of the stalls in the public market and ate first a pastry and then a thick smoothie with puffed rice. My three foodie compadres and I were full before we even got to the main courses. To give us a chance to digest and re-build our appetites, our guide Max took us on a walk up to a place called Jaen street. This is where the art galleries are.

And there, in front of us, was a gallery devoted to Mamani Mamani, the same artist I was introduced to only that afternoon! It was the only gallery open this time in the evening, by now about 7:30 pm. I was so excited! We’d stumbled on the very place I was planning on spending the next day finding.

I asked if there was time to go in. This request, I want to point out, represents a departure for me. Normally I wouldn’t want to put anyone else out, but one of my new commitments is to take up space without feeling apologetic. If no one else wanted to go into the gallery, I could catch up with them later. As it turned out, everyone was interested in seeing the paintings of the most famous painter in Bolivia.

I wandered the gallery. You can see the love in Mamani’s brush strokes, the energy of the mountains channeled in the concept of the world he depicts on the canvas. Once I’d been through the gallery, I asked the clerk if she had a copy of the Madonna and she did. I bought it straight away, pleased with the happy coincidence.

On our way out the door to continue our eating tour, Max said, “This is his home, you know.” We paused to look back at the building, and then Max added, “Please wait for one moment.” We all paused while Max took out his phone and made a phone call. I now assume he called the number on the outside of the building but at the time, I thought he needed a moment to make a personal call. He spoke to someone briefly and then he said. “We must go back inside. The artist is coming to sign your picture.”

Though it was past what I would consider working hours, inside the gallery, there was Mamani, a short, dark man in a painter’s apron, obviously called away from his work, smiling and ready to meet his new fans.

He wrote a little note to me on my poster, signed it, and posed for pictures. Gracious, smiling, and generous, he signed the pictures my new friends had purchased and then drew pictures on the backs of their prints!

What luck, all of this.

I could conclude that perhaps the Goddess was leading me in the discovery of Mamani and a more connected interpretation of the Madonna I’d gone to seek out. I don’t land on this interpretation because as I said, I’m agnostic. Faith for me has suffered over the last decade or so, but I was elated by the happy coincidence of finding the painting, the gallery, and the artist all in one day—and for the FEELING of a sacred synchronicity organizing itself on my behalf. Feeling is enough. Especially if the feeling is “happy.”

The Soundtrack of Experience

Nov 24
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Chile 2014, Reflections, Travel log

I’ve never been a very sophisticated music connoisseur. Just to give you an example, my high school boyfriend tried to introduce me to Peter Gabriel back in the day, but I eschewed his attempts to educate my taste and stubbornly continued to listen to Air Supply—until MANY years later when my life-long friend Jason made me a CD of his favorite Peter Gabriel songs and I finally understood what I had been missing. (Sorry I was so unreceptive, T.H., if you’re out there anywhere.)

Even as the simpleton I am, music is still important to me. Years ago I compiled a running play list that has been my steadfast companion through 25 (ish) marathons and God-only-knows how many other races and training runs. And I’ve used that same list for so long I can almost tell you what mile I’m on based on the song that’s playing. There is great security in knowing what comes next (in running and in life).

Just before coming to South America, I updated all my technology to Mac products and, because I didn’t have a ton of time to figure out how to use iTunes (which, by the way, I find decidedly NON-intuitive), I simply loaded my running list and a few of my favorite CDs onto my iPhone. This is what I’ve been listening to for four months. Partly because I already have all my old CDs on my old computer, I didn’t want to invest in buying much music digitally while I was traveling, so I made do with what I had for the most part—favorites to be sure, but not the music that I would have chosen as the soundtrack to my experience—in Concepcion, especially.

The music I brought with me was music for other times in my life:

Supertramp1.  Supertramp, Breakfast in America. This was the music for the first time a boy ever put his arm around me. I was eleven-years-old. Daniel was fourteen, and his family was visiting one of my neighbors. We had a campfire in the neighbor’s back yard one summer evening, and I distinctly remember The Logical Song coming on the radio at the same moment Daniel surreptitiously slipped his arm around my waist. I’ve loved Supertramp ever since!

 

 

David grey2.  David Grey, White Ladder. David Grey was the music of my divorce. I got White Ladder almost the same week I separated from my ex-husband. Grey’s mourning tone and deeply honest lyrics made me cry for what I was losing—both in terms of self and other. You’d think I might not love the CD because it evokes the memory of a difficult time in my life, but divorce for me was as revolutionary as it was sad. It upset the narrative of who I was to such a degree that it opened up possibilities I could have never foreseen.

 

 

DMB3.  Dave Matthews Band, Everyday. DMB originally came into my life at the same time as David Grey but called to a different something inside of me. The band, with Dave’s sexy voice, Boyd Tinsley’s violin (OMG!), and LeRoi Moore’s saxophone (RIP), evoked sensuality for me and in me, a sense that I could/should stop and let the breeze brush against my skin rather than bundling up tight to protect myself from the cold. DMB cracked me and opened me up.

But none of this music is fresh to me now. And as I listened to these three albums over and over for the past four months, I started longing for something new, but what? As I said, I’m not a refined music consumer. So as our travel time wraps up, I’m ready to expose my ears to something new. Looking forward to heading home, I can see that I have the chance to push a reset button on many aspects of my life. I’d like to have some background music for the next chapter. And I’m receptive to suggestions. What do you love right now? What is meaningful to you? You know my email (clostman@live.com) if you have ideas (or you can comment on this post).

 

And PS: I will buy a pitcher of beer for anyone who can teach me how to use iTunes more efficiently.

To the Top of Villarrica

Nov 12
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Chile 2014, Travel log

My senior class in high school voted me “friendliest” and “sunniest smile” the year we graduated. One thing they most certainly did not vote me was “most likely to participate in adventure/extreme sports.” And, although I think of myself as an extreme runner, I’ve never been interested in mountain sports. (Bellinghamsters forgive me for what I’m about to say.) For example, I’ve never skied, never snow-boarded or snow-shoed, never even gone sledding or inner-tubing down a mountain as an adult. The fact is, I’m not a big fan of snow, and where I live, that’s sort of a crime.

But when I saw Villarrica (Chile’s most active volcano whose steam you can see from a distance every day) here in Pucon, Chile, I said, “I’ve gotta climb that.”

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I’m not sure why. Bill has repeatedly asked me back home to climb Mount Baker with him and I’ve always said, “Naw, you go ahead.” This time, though, I felt compelled—partly because we’re here in Chile. Somehow in your own backyard you know you can take advantage of natural beauty anytime. But here in my temporary home, I’d better jump at my chances to live out loud while the jumping is good.

We started our day by being outfitted for the weather conditions

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and then made our way to the base of the volcano by 8am where we began our climb to the summit (at 2860 meters/9,380 ft) with the help of three competent, good-natured guides who taught us how to use our equipment and watched out for our safety with diligence (thanks VolcAn Villarica!).

Our lead guide fastening my crampons.

Our lead guide fastening my crampons.

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This was my first time, as I said, to spend the day on the snow and I was anxious—though confident that if making it to the top was a matter of endurance, I could do it. I’m nothing if not patient with my body’s ability to take me the distance.

The first part of the ascent was on soft snow that cooperated nicely with our slow-stepping up the incline. Our guides were patient and careful to make sure everyone was using his/her equipment properly, so my confidence grew that if the average tourist could make it to the top with such instruction, I could too.

On the way up, we trudged. This climb reminded me of marathon running in a way. For one thing, the whole climb would take more than five hours—my average marathon finishing time. For another thing, I was alone, even though I wasn’t. We all walked in one long single-file line,

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so I didn’t have the chance to talk to anyone while we were picking our way to the summit. That meant that I was in my head with my thoughts.

I reflected on how much endurance activities are compact versions of big-scale life. First you decide to take something on, then you get started, then you get tired and consider quitting. Finally you decide to push to the end and you finish the task.

Four of the people who started with us chose to abort their climb at the last rest stop. I don’t have any judgment of people who give things a try and then quit them. I’ve done it myself and probably will do it again. You can’t always know when you start something if it’s for you (this is true for almost anything: a job, a new hobby, even love affairs). Yesterday, I thought about quitting too. “Yeah, there’s the top. I get the idea. No need to put in the last 45 minutes. I’ve proven my point,” I thought—for about 10 seconds. Then I pushed the idea of turning back out of my mind and pressed on.

At about 1:30, Bill and I summited along with five other people.

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Looking back toward Pucon from the top.

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Looking into the volcanic crater.

 

 

Getting down the volcano was the fun part. We trekked back over the hard packed snow and ice for less than an hour and then used plastic sleds to cruise down the wet snow for the better part of the distance.

Weeeee.

I wish my senior class had the chance to vote again for who I would turn out to be!

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Punta Arenas, More Beautiful than Ever

Oct 10
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Chile 2014, Race Reports, Travel log

As some of you may know, this isn’t my first time in Chile. When I was in the midst of writing my first book in 2010 and trying to figure out how to get to Antarctica, Bill and I flew down to Bellingham’s Chilean sister city, Punta Arenas, which happens to sit at the very bottom of the continent.

Punta ArenasWe made some friends there and spent nearly two weeks getting to know the city (here’s a link to my old blog post about our visit there). When we got the news this year that we were going to come back to Chile, I hoped we would get down to Punta Arenas for a visit, but time didn’t look like it would permit us to go. Punta Arenas is 1600 miles away from where we are—about the same distance as Phoenix, Arizona is from Bellingham, Washington. And flights aren’t always cheep. But the closer we’ve been getting to the end of Bill’s Fulbright, the more we both kept feeling it would be a shame not to get down to see our sister city and our friends. Bill and I made a decision that I would go on my own. At least one of us should make the journey.

I’ve traveled alone plenty of times—even in foreign countries where I didn’t know the language—so while I wasn’t overly fearful, I did want to prepare. I sat down with Rodrigo, my tutor, and made a list of possible questions I might need to ask, and then off I went on a six hour bus ride to get to Santiago to take a plane to Punta Arenas.

When I got to Punta Arenas eleven hours after saying goodbye to Bill, my amigas, Mackarena and Maritza, were there to pick me up and whisk me away to lunch at a special restaurant in a gorgeous old building that belongs to the Airforce. Their sons, who are four years older, taller, and more handsome than the last time I saw them, came along and regaled me with their English. There’s nothing like growing children to mark the passing of time (and to make a person feel her age)!

From L to R: Maritza, Alvaro, moi, Sebastien, Mackarena

From L to R: Maritza, Alvaro, moi, Sebastien, Mackarena

I stayed with Mackarena the first two nights and Maritza the second two nights.  Mackarena, it turned out, had been training for her first road race—a 3K that was to happen the next morning! I was so excited to be able to do it with her.

Macka’s dad, Andres, joined us for the race too and we both had a good time cheering her on.

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Andres and his wife Aurora were key people in helping us plan a 42K run in Punta Arenas when we were there in 2010. And the moment I saw them, I felt like no time had passed. You know people like that, right? These two souls are people I must have known in another life, familiar and comfortable. Aurora and I can’t understand a word of what the other has to say, but it doesn’t matter. Friendship doesn’t always have to be based on language.

Aurora made lunch of seafood and rice after the race and we lingered at the table for a couple of hours catching up until I was stuffed and ready to roll into bed. In Chile, lunch is the solid meal of each day and dinner is only a bit of bread with jam or cold cuts (in fact, I’ve noticed that my Chilean friends are downright confused about what to do with me at dinner time—worried they aren’t feeding me properly in spite of the fact that I reassure them I ate enough at lunch to last me two days).

Monday I visited Colegio Miguel de Cervantes for a few hours. This is the colegio (a private elementary and high school) that Bellingham has a longstanding exchange with. Each year high school students from Miguel de Cervantes visit us, stay with host families, and visit our local high schools. In the picture below are the three who came last year (on the right) and the three who will come this year (on the left). In my opinion, the brilliance of the sister city program is in informal exchanges like this one. I say “informal” because there’s no profit made by anyone in a sister city exchange. Students don’t apply to an organization that runs like a business. These students have been chosen by their principal, Maria Angelica, and they will stay with Bellinghamsters who know of (and in some cases have traveled to) Punta Arenas and who share in a long-term citizen-to-citizen commitment.

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The next day (Tuesday) I had lunch with Silvana Camelio, a world class adventure athlete (check out her video below) who has participated in the Patagonia Expedition Race (Seriously? Look at the expedition race website—OMG!!!).

Silvana has participated twice in Bellingham’s Ski to Sea relay, so Bill and I met her back at home when she gave a slideshow of her 2013 expedition race at Back Country Essentials. Her husband Enrique and her 13-year-old daughter Sofia joined us at lunch for one of my HEALTHIEST and most delicious Chilean meals so far. Silvana is a rocking’ cook in addition to being one of the most inspirational humans on the planet. Some people can do everything…. I don’t envy, I just admire. 😉

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And then Silvana took me up to Club Andino, Punta Arenas’ ski club, which serves for hiking and running in the off season.

View of Punta Arenas from Club Andino

View of Punta Arenas from Club Andino

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Taking a walk on Club Andino's trails

Taking a walk on Club Andino’s trails

When Silvana took me back to Maritza’s house, I had only one more wake-up before it was time to get on the plane to come “home” to Conce. There is a superstition that says if you kiss the toe on the statue in the town square you are certain to return to Punta Arenas:

It worked last time. Let's see if it works again!

It worked last time. Let’s see if it works again!

Notice I’m holding Macka’s little dog Bart in the picture? A special benefit of this trip was that I got some badly needed dog love.

Wednesday morning I hopped on the plane and started the journey back to Concepcion.  The view from the plane flooded me with awe. Even knowing that my pictures couldn’t do justice to the lonely land I saw below, I couldn’t help but snap picture after picture. So I leave you with some images from the bottom of the Americas. Love to my friends there. Until we meet again!!

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Up, Down, and Up Again

Oct 1
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Chile 2014, Travel log, Writing

Well, I suppose it’s inevitable that Bill and I would catch colds. You don’t leave summer and arrive to a blast of winter without a shock to the system. We had a first short bout with the flu/cold but tried not to let it keep us down.

Last week we visited Lenga, and then the mine in the town of Lota (where former miners lead tours 930 yards under the water), after taking a walk in that city’s lovely private park.

Getting ready to go underground

Getting ready to go underground

 

Not much air down here.

Not much air down here.

The next day we caught round two of what I call “this nasty, never-ending virus.” And while we definitely spent too much time watching CNN and fretting over the state of the world as we were recovering, we also managed to make the best of our low energy.

For one thing, we buckled down to read essays. Before we came to Concepcion, Bill and I both thought long and hard about whether or not to actually assign essays in the classes he was to teach about academic writing. I, for one, voted yes. How can you teach writing without actually asking students to write? As an author, writing is my passion, and while I’m well aware that not everyone loves the writing process, it’s sort of a personal mission of mine to spread the word that, “Hey, writing is fun. You should try it.” So we agreed that we would assign a seven-paragraph essay to be based on interviews students would conduct on topics of their choosing.

Although giving conscientious feedback on so many essays has been an arduous task, reading them has turned out to be the best possible way for US to learn about Chile through the eyes of her up-and-coming generation of educators.

We’ve read essays about the following topics (just to name a few):

  • Abortion (Chile, according to students, is one of only a handful of countries that has absolutely no legal provision for abortion of any kind, regardless of the health of the mother or the advent of a pregnancy due to rape—no matter how young the victim)
  • Why student protests are important
  • Chilean attitudes about gender, the legalization of marijuana, corporal punishment, and same-sex marriage
  • The centralization of culture, business, and government in Santiago
  • Gun ownership in Chile
  • High taxes on books and what people think should be done about such taxes

Of course we didn’t create our assignment to give ourselves an education about Chile’s social and political issues, but we’ve been delighted that this has been the outcome. We are absolutely impressed at how bright and thoughtful students at the Universidad de Concepcion are. So impressed, in fact, we feel sure that if they represent the quality of the world’s next generation, the future is much brighter than CNN would lead us to believe

These past few days we are gradually feeling better. We’ve been well enough to enjoy meals and get-togethers with new friends—in spite of continued nose-blowing and plenty of “productive coughing” and hacking.

Our new friend Karla had us over on Friday and let us spend the evening with her family (including her two golden retrievers). Then Saturday we enjoyed a gallery show with Cecilia.

With Cecilia and her friend, artists, Marcela Krause

Cecilia and her friend, artista, Marcela Krause, and another friend

 

Bill, art gazing

Bill, art gazing

And then later in the day, we drove up and down some steep winding hills with Lilian and her family to reach the fishing town of Tumbes, where we had an awesome lunch.

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Tumbes

 

On the ride home from Tumbes. L to R: Bill, moi, Ellie, Laura

On the ride home from Tumbes. L to R: Bill, moi, Ellie, Laura

Monday night we had the most BEAUTIFUL dinner with Maria Edith and Cecilia.

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From L to R: Bill, Cecilia, moi, Maria Edith

From L to R: Bill, Cecilia, moi, Maria Edith

And while I didn’t get pictures of it, yesterday we spent one sweet hour with another Cecilia’s class of life-long learners who ranged between ages 25 and 85!!

Whew! No time to be sick. What fun.