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.”


Aug 12
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Travel log

Hiroshima is most certainly one of the places on earth every American should visit. World War II is beyond the memory for me and for most of my friends, but it shouldn’t be far from our hearts even if it happened before we were born. When I was a high school student reading about the A-bomb in history class, I had no basis for understanding the travesty of nuclear power yielded against humanity. Most people I know never question that the United Stated “had to” use the nuclear bomb in Japan as a way to stop the war, and even the Hiroshima Museum doesn’t bring this premise into question. What it does instead is focus on the totality of the losses experienced due to the bomb dropped on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am. More than a hundred thousand people and their entire town were instantly incinerated when the bomb hit the atmosphere.
Yesterday when I walked through the museum, it became quickly obvious that the agenda of all the memorials in the Peace Park—museum included—is not to accuse or resent what is in the past, but to say, “Let us never allow this to happen again.” One of the most powerful exhibits for me was the downsized replica of the “Dome,” the only building still standing in downtown Hiroshima from before the bomb was dropped. On the walls of the replica are posted small plaques with letters written by the mayor of the city to every leader of a nuclear state EVERY time a nuclear weapon has been tested since 1968! As soon as a nuclear test has been completed, the mayor (whoever he is at the time) quickly sends a telegram protesting the test and the existance of the nuclear warfare program. One whole wall was filled with the protest letters sent during 1985, the year I graduated from high school.

On this trip to Japan, as I’ve wandered about searching for “goddess” images and stories, I have to admit that the images of men’s hatred for the “other” and the resulting violence that I saw in the exhibits yesterday (and I mean that the hatred cut both ways during World War II, for sure), almost overpowered the moments of peace I’ve felt at the shrines and temples I’ve visited in the past two weeks. But not quite. The message on every corner in Hiroshima is about peace. Just as I was despairing over how violent the war was, I stumbled across a huge bell with a plaque that instructed all who stood in that spot to ring the bell so that the call for peace could be heard throughout the earth. As the town rebuilt itself, it has made the most profound commitment to opening its heart and spreading a message of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We saw more foreigners welcomed to Hiroshima than we’ve ever seen in any of the tourist locations in Tokyo! This town is (or should be) a Mecca pilgrimage for anyone who believes that the future of the earth depends on peace between nations.

Today we went to Miyajima Island and puttered around the shrines and temples there. I got to see one more image of the Benzaiten, goddess of all that flows. They requested that we didn’t take pictures of the image stationed behind the altar, so I respected that, but here is a brief video of the O-torrii gate that welcomes visitors as they arrive on the island. This is taken from inside of the big Itsukushima shrine (a world heratage site which is dedicated to the three Munakata goddesses of sea, safety, and furtune and accomplishment).


Tomorrow Bill and I head back to Tokyo for one last night and then fly home on Wednesday. What a trip this has been—so rich with adventures and new goddess myths to factor into my worldview! Cheers to you all. I hope whatever you’ve been up to this past couple of weeks has been as edifying for you as my trip has been for me, even if it was more mundane in nature.

This Week in Tokyo

Aug 8
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Travel log

This morning I took my first–and probably only–run in Tokyo. The temperature was easily 90 by the time Bill and I left our apartment, and the humidity was about 65%. Within a quarter of a mile we were drenched. By the time we’d made it to the park (to see a temple) and back, our clothes were heavy with sweat.

The last few days have been wonderful and packed. After I got back from a three-day trip to chase down a handful of goddesses between Lake Biwa (Japan’s largest lake) and Ise City, I came back to Tokyo to connect with Bill and his wonderful colleagues for the last of their dinners together before most everyone flew back to the States. I’d really wanted to make it back from Nagoya in time to join them because this would be Bill’s last official gathering of any kind with his consortium friends. At the end of this month he retires from his career as Western Washington University’s director of the Asia University America Program, and the people he’s worked with over the past 25 years (staff and students) are the best part of his job. They’re also the part I get to enjoy.

We had a delightful dinner at a Thai restaurant and then went out to karaoke afterwards. I promised Bill I wouldn’t post the video of the reprise of his famous rendition of Back Street Boys’ I Want It That Way, but trust me when I say it was worth seeing. (I, of course, sang I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor.)

The next morning we hopped out of bed to have coffee with Tokyo friends and then took the train to see Bill’s old friend Norio and his family. Norio had arranged for us to stay in the guest quarters of his daughter’s condo building and to take us out for a most extravagant sushi dinner. I wish I’d taken pictures of all the courses (probably 12 in all) because I’ve never seen nor tasted anything like it. We started with squid, soup, sashimi, and tofu before moving on to more soup, sushi, and tempura. Dinner was capped off with green tea ice cream. Yum!20130809-144750.jpg

The next morning, still full, we waddled through Tokyo to find three goddesses Norio had identified for me:
1. The Benzai-ten in Ueno park. This is the Japanese version of India’s Saraswati. She’s the goddess of “all that flows” such as music, words, dance, etc. As a writer, it was important for me to go see as many versions of her as I could find (I could use some good-flow karma). In Ueno Park, the statue was smaller than the ones on Chikubushima Island in Lake Biwa, and she was baricaded off by the altar, so I wasn’t able to get very close.

2. Kijibojin at the Zoshigaya Temple. Kijibojin is a goddess who used to eat children but who repented of this and became the protectress of women and children. There’s one statue of her outside the temple (at least I think this is her–I was communicating with the priest in charades).

3. Datsueba near Shinjuku. This bitch is my favorite so far. Her Kanji means “old woman who strips clothes.” Her job is to sit at the edge of the river of the underworld and help souls cross over. If the person who died is an adult, she makes them take off their clothes. She hangs the clothes on the branch of the tree and the extent to which the branch bends reflects the gravity of the person’s sins.

Today after my run, Datsueba would have judged my clothing very heavy indeed.

For the next two days we’ll be spending some quality time with good friends before we head off to a couple of days in Hiroshima.

Travel Running

Jan 17
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice, Travel log

A few days ago, there was a terrific article in USA Today about travel running: running as a way to see the sights when you’re on vacation. You might think that what Bill and I did as we quested to run a marathon on every continent was the kind of travel running referenced in the article. Actually, while the marathon routes we chose did take us through some pretty spectacular places (the Weskus National Park, Old Panama City, the Mudgee Vineyards), “travel running” is something different altogether.

Moi on the Great Ocean Walk in Australia!

I didn’t write about it much in Second Wind, but Bill and I do quite a bit of travel running in addition to our racing when we travel. We’ve run through the Saguaro National Park in Arizona, for example. We chose a route that might take us past memorable land marks and then we went for it at a leisurely pace. When we run for sight-seeing, we always take water along–and a couple of granola bars. We walk when we feel inclined. We stop to read signs and take pictures. And we cover a lot of ground in a fraction of the time we could if we were walking or even taking taxis. We’ve done this in Australia on the Great Ocean Walk.  We’ve also done it at the Grand Canyon (11 miles along the South Rim of the Canyon), at the Organ Pipe National Monument, in the Joshua Tree National Park, on the circuit of monuments in Washington DC (Jefferson, Lincoln, etc.), on parts of the trail along the W in Torres del Paine, Chile, along the greenways in Tokyo, through downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil into Ibirapuera Park, atop the Sea Wall in Vancouver, BC, and so on…. It’s fun.

What are your favorite travel running routes? Which routes take you on a quick sight-seeing tour and give you the flavor of a place? It’s long been a dream of ours to travel with a handful of other runners to do spontaneous runs of the marathon distance or longer along trails and through the national parks of the world. Where do you dream about running?

Bruce Sheriff of Iowa Talks about his Seven Marathons on Seven Continents

Sep 26
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice, Conversations, Guest Blogger, Race Reports, Read This, Travel log

I’d like you to meet my pal, Bruce. He’s in his mid-sixties, an adventurer bar none, and a determined runner after my own heart. Recently he completed his seventh continental marathon, and I asked if I could interview him about his experience. Check it out! And scroll below for a smattering of Bruce’s photos (in no particular order). Thanks Bruce!

Bruce and Gerry in Australia


What made you want to run a marathon on every continent?

My quest for the 7 started in of all places Havana, Cuba after the Habana Marathon, which was the only marathon I started and failed to complete (five hour time limit, and after doing the first half in 2:30–it was hot, humid, and I was apparently not in as good of shape as I needed to be–I chose to stop at the half and call it an experience). After the race, I was having dinner with Lee, a friend I met on the run. We had good wine, wonderful Cuban cigars and a view of La Catedral de La Habana Church and Plaza with Havana Harbor as a background.  Lee told me I should consider the Antarctica marathon.  He sent me a DVD of his trip he had made the year before, and after watching it, I signed  up for Antarctica with Marathon Tours, making the trip in March 2009.  I had completed several Marathons in the USA and had finished Prague, CK in 2005, so after completing Antarctica I had three continents completed, including the hardest to get to: Antarctica.  I was still doing these trips as adventures and really hadn’t heard of the 7 continents club  \until Antarctica, where people were doing running to complete their seventh continent.  Africa, Asia, South America, and Australia were left for me, one per year and I could be done before I turned 65 years old. I finished my 7th at the Outback Marathon, Ayres Rock Australia on July 28th, 2012 my 65th birthday exactly!!


What were the 7 marathons you chose and which countries were they in?

I had run several in North America: Tuscon AZ, Reggae Jamaica, Brookings, SD, Phoenix AZ, but I chose Portland, OR to use as the official one since it was documented well.

So here they are:

2002 – Portland OR  5:09

2005 – Prague CK   5:43

2009 – Antarctica   6:29

2010 – Kenya, Africa  6:17

2011 – Tateyama, Japan 5:47

2011 – Buenos Aires, Argentina  6:08

2012 – Ayres Rock, Australia 6:04


Which continental race was your favorite and why?

Each one has a special meaning and experience, but the Tateyama Waskahio Marathon in Japan was our (mine and my companion, Gerry’s) favorite.   The race was relatively level, cool temps, with wonderful views along the bay and lots of people enjoying the runners. It was my favorite.  Thanks to you (Cami) the experience of being in a small race with friends of yours and now ours was something Gerry and I will remember for a lifetime.  As you indicated we got “the full treatment.”  And it was wonderful!!

In Japan with the Kawasakis

What was your favorite place you visited during your quest?

I enjoyed Havana very much.  I went there alone, and was concerned about that but upon arrival found the people extremely friendly, and the city architecturally amazing, with no western influence–and unspoiled beaches.  The people have very little to spare but would share what they had with you. Conversations were wonderful, be it about politics or whatever. And they loved to discuss political views with those of us from the States.


What was your most disastrous travel story?

Really we have not had any major problems.  We had our luggage stolen in Costa Rica from our little cabana on the beach.  Had nothing to wear but the clothes we had on!  Gerry lost her purse and billfold, but I had mine, so back in San Jose we bought enough items to return home.

In Brussels, we arrived by train about midnight with no hotel room reserved. Our taxi driver drove all over the city central trying to find us a room and only one could be found for like $400 per night. Finally we agreed to that one, blowing our budget in one night.  Gerry gets tired of me saying this, but I always say: “If you have enough money to buy your way out of a problem, you don’t have a problem.”

Then in Buenos Aries we got 500 pesos from a bank ATM machine and no one would accept the money.  We couldn’t figure out why they would take Gerry’s money and not mine.  Finally someone explained that the money I got was all counterfeit.  That was on a Saturday, and Monday was a holiday. Our flight left that same evening so we still have the bills as souvenirs.


What advice would you give others who are trying to do 7 on 7?

What was that old Nike commercial? “Just do it!”  I do think that anyone should try and get Antarctica off the list ASAP.  It is so environmentally fragile that anything that would happen to harm it in any way could cause these recreational trips to be curtailed in the future.  That is only my point of view, but I can see it happening.

Anywhere you travel, if you are a walker, jogger, runner, get up early some morning, put on your running shorts, lace up those shoes, head out the door, and no matter where you are in the world, you won’t go far before you meet someone on the streets running. You may not speak the language but you will receive a smile and a wave.

Don’t be afraid to travel out of the States, Homeland Security is the worst thing you will probably have to face.


Whats next on your bucket list?

The Des Moines Register Newspaper sponsors a bike ride across Iowa the last week in July called RAGBRAI.  Which stands for Registers Annul Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.  It is a big event, (10,000 plus riders) and takes five days. Riders stay in small towns each night and ride 40 to 100 miles per day, starting with your back wheel in the Missouri River on our western side, finishing with your front wheel in the Mississippi River on the east.  I want to attempt it this coming summer.

I also really want to go to Iran. Everyone I have spoken with (outside of the US) says it is a wonderful county to visit.  The people are friendly, well educated, and really like Americans, contrary to what our State Department says. Guess I just want to go see for myself.

Running on Snow






Ice berg








With an Australian Joey



Buenos Aires 2011