Biblioasis to publish Menno Moto

I’ve received many messages from people who want to know when they can read the story of my motorcycle trip across the Americas to research the Mennonite diaspora. Those messages encouraged me to keep editing, rewriting and reimagining what has become a very personal project. I’m pleased to finally have some good news to share. I’ve sold the manuscript to Biblioasis, and Menno Moto is slated for publication in Spring 2020.

Biblioasis is an independent bookstore and publishing company based in Windsor, Ontario. It was founded by Dan Wells as a bookstore in 1998, and in the early years it focused on poetry and short story collections. Biblioasis went on to become one of Canada’s most prestigious small press publishing houses and in 2015 they had three books nominated for the Giller Prize. You can read articles about them here and here.

Dan is known for taking a risk on new writers and books that other publishers won’t touch. In that case, I’m proud to have written something the publishing industry considers risky.

Menno Moto documents a culture of fair-haired, blue-eyed people who have created isolated colonies across Latin America. There, they have kept their doors and minds closed for nearly a century, viewing the rest of the world as sinful. These are my people, and they are my story.

In Menno Moto, farmers, teachers, missionaries, drug-mules and rapists force me to reconsider my assumptions about my Mennonite culture, which I find to be more varied than I had dared to hope. I find some of my people in prison for the infamous Bolivian “ghost rapes”, while others are educating the poor in Belize or growing rich in Patagonia. In each of these communities I encounter hospitality and suspicion, backward and progressive attitudes, corruption and idealism. I find the freedom of the road, the hell of loneliness, and am almost killed by accidents and exhaustion as I ride my motorcycle across two continents. I learn that there is more Mennonite in me than I expected, and in some cases wanted, to find. I find reasons to both love and loathe the identity I am searching for.

I hope you’ll buy Menno Moto when it’s published in Spring 2020.

Betwixt and Between

One year ago I spent a month as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, where focused on essay writing. This essay about open ocean sailing was written while at the center, in response to fellow resident’s question.

Read this essay as it appeared in the October 2018 issue of Cruising World Magazine. (pdf download)

It was also performed live at Liars’ League Hong Kong, watch the video here.

Leaving without a fixed destination to arrive to an uncertain welcome. That is why I sail.

It’s the first thing I tell landlubbers who ask, “What is it like, to sail across an ocean in a small boat?”

I could describe the long, loping swell of the deep ocean. The black, moonless nights when the darkness chokes my mind. The curl of blue bioluminescence on a breaking wave. The way a new dawn paints the deck candy floss pink. I could describe the welling of joy when dolphins appear and the secrets we share. But I always begin with the thrill of leaving port.

My port clearance is a precious document, the paper clearing boat and crew of debts and warrants and unpaid bar tabs, free to leave without obligation to say where we will come to rest. A zarpe, outbound clearance, a chit that sets you free. The thrill of limbo when I travel without destination sets my imagination afloat.

I aim my boat into blue waters, seeking wind and way. A month of waves may kiss my keel, then, just miles from port, I gybe away. To another coast, a friendlier nation, somewhere downwind from here. Perhaps I’ll never return, never arrive, betwixt and between, alone at sea. I’ll sail in circles, north to the pole, south to the ice, east and then west until land stands in the way. I could if I wanted to.

When the wind blows hard from the north, we aim for Yemen rather than Oman. When our water runs low we stop in Alaska on our way to Japan. If the sailing is good I’ll pass New Zealand and aim straight for Tahiti.

It isn’t always so, this ticket to eternal noncommittal freedom. If you are port hopping in an island nation, or skipping down a nation’s coast, authorities may ask your destination. But when you raise your sail to cross the Atlantic Ocean, The Arabian Sea, crossing a great expanse to a land far away, you wave farewell and slip away into a world between nations, free of borders, free of customs, duties and right of abode.

Tell me, where else can you wander like this? Which train carries you across a border without two nations, one to exit, one to enter? No airliner takes off without a destination on your boarding pass. Roads that lead to the fronterra cross to the other side.

But not when I go to sea.

“Don’t you get bored, day after day with nothing new to do or see?” the landlubbers ask.

Bored? No. Never. I’m too engrossed in the blue soul of the Indian Ocean, light shot through it like a drift of silver filings. The fear that punches through the bottom of my belly when I look aft and see a grey wave, two, three stories high, with anger in its face. The brilliant flash of metal and blue, streaks of yellow, as a tuna hits the lure. Hand over hand, in it comes, the first fresh food of the voyage.

There’s too much work, helming hour after hour, trimming, changing sails. An inch of ease for a tenth of speed. Or making repairs, jury-rigging when you don’t have spares. Baking bread, cooking dinner, cleaning the head.

My father, an old farmer, came aboard my boat. Never sailed, never cruised, a life spent working hard. He knew nothing of the sea. I was proud, showing him my world. And I waited, wanting a hand on the shoulder saying, son, you’ve done well. Nothing. A silent, critical eye.

“So Dad, what do you think of sailing?”

“Seems like an awful lot of work to go real slow.”

I couldn’t argue. The whole point is to go real slow, to appreciate the subtle shifts of scene. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the sea. Every cloud that passes creates a new blue, new grey, new frothy white cap on the wave. Sometimes there are thrills, a squall that makes us long for home. A whale, a school of dolphins showing us the way. But even without, even if it’s calm, we’re still sailing in a kaleidoscope of shifting shape and light. The setting sun on a clean horizon, the masthead light joining Orion. Darkness so deep it’s hard to stay on your feet. Watching the stars revolve, picking a new one to point the way. Then the dawn. Oh, the dawn. First a tinge of grey, then blues and pinks and tangerine light. The white decks glow, waves and wind that frightened in the night pushed back by the light. If I show you the dawn of open sea you will love me. You’ll know what’s for real.

And then, a few weeks in, someone gets lucky on their watch.

“Land! I think I see land!”

A dark smudge on the horizon turns into mountains, beaches and trees and sand. An excitement takes hold. We clean, we shower, we put the ship in order, we work even harder.

Port of Aden, Dutch Harbour, Port of Jamestown, Pond Inlet, Galle, Salalah. Ports and not marinas, not moored next to superyachts and motor cruisers, but ships of war and coastal barges, the grit and grim of a working harbour. The docks are painted with tar, the water streaked with oil. This is not the country’s best face. But it’s where we arrive, alongside working men and foreign cargos, by the kitchen door. Others, less fortunate I’d say, are disgorged into shiny halls, then a taxi and a hotel in a predictable order. We hoist our yellow flag, a declaration of quarantine, inviting corrupt officials to board.

“Perhaps you have a gift for me? Ah thank you, but my brother, he likes Marlboros too.”

Our first requests are fuel and water and is there a sailmaker in this port? And once she’s secure, the papers signed and bilge inspected, we step ashore.

A cold beer, that day’s newspaper, a meal that’s fresh and green. A walk about town, perhaps a souvenir. And then I begin to wonder, what does the forecast say, when will the wind blow and get us out of here?

Buying into my Mennonite roots

Read this essay as it appeared in the February 22, 2018 The Globe and Mail newspaper.

Dad’s raspy 87-year-old voice was filled with relief that this last bit of business was taken care of. But I also heard uncertainty, a tinge of seller’s regret, over the telephone.

“He’s agreed to the price and it’s a done deal,” Dad said, his voice muffled by half a world of telegraphic cable. “That’s it. That was my last piece of farmland.”

I was in Hong Kong when I received his call, a long way from Canadian land that he himself broke and turned into grain fields. The fields where my siblings and I learned to put in an honest day’s work, the cornerstone of our family farm on the Prairies. The land that had defined him as a Mennonite man, one chapter in our culture’s long history of buying wilderness and turning it into productive farmland. Selling his land meant he was exiting the cut-and-thrust of agri-business. It meant he no longer had a seat at the table when talk turned to crops and taxes, government subsidies and drainage plans.

When Dad bought half the half section, 320 acres we always called Section 10, it’s designation according to the Dominion Land Survey in the 1800s, it was mostly old-growth tamarack and spruce and the ground was covered in luxuriant moss. It was home to bears and bobcats, wolves and wild that would take years conquer. There were no proper roads leading to it, and just beyond it lay mile after thousands of miles of wilderness. It was low-lying peat and prone to flooding. The land was cheap because it was beyond the fringe of civilisation, part of a new agricultural frontier in Manitoba’s Interlake region. The government offered Dad favourable financing terms because he was a young man eager to help build Canada’s agricultural industry, to tame the nation’s vast expanse.

Grainy black and white photos in our family album show him and my mother, fresh faced and smiling as they began carving a farm out of the forest in the early 1950s. They were in their early 20s, poor but filled with the thrill of prospect. It was a grand adventure to them. One picture shows them resting in waist-deep snow while cutting down the pine forest to make room for their first crops, another has Dad on a borrowed bulldozer, pushing brush into long windrows for burning. Then there’s the photo of him standing in his first crop of barley, which grew as high as his chest but couldn’t hide his beaming smile.

“Ahh, those were hard times,” he says when he sees the pictures. “We worked so hard, because we wanted to build something, to have our own farm. That land was everything to us.”

Sold. Sold to someone I’d grown up with, a farmer who will take good care of it, but still, Section 10 is gone. We knew it was coming — he tried for many years to convince my brothers and I to buy it. But none of us wanted this particular piece of land.

Most of my family still lives in Manitoba. I’m the one that has moved farthest away. When we gather near the farm we grew up on, and the heavy Sunday lunch has been consumed, the men pile into pick-up trucks and go for a drive down the rutted dirt roads circling Section 10. It’s always only the men — because land and crops is a man’s game. At least in a Mennonite’s mind it is. We drive and tell stories about picking roots and long hours on the tractor.

“Ohh, do you remember this corner of the field, the roots that we had to pick here?” one of my brothers asks. The truck slows down so we can get a closer look.

“We’d pick them and burn them, and every year the frost pushed up a fresh crop,” another brother adds.

One person driving the tractor, slowly pulling a flat bed trailer. The others walking behind, sinking deep into the soft peat, picking up the remains of the forest and hurling the roots onto the trailer. When the trailer was full we dumped the roots into piles and burned them. Rock picking wasn’t much different — just heavier to lift and harder to dispose of. Hour after hour of hard work, the earthy smell of the land permeating our hands and clothes, the dirt hiding thick in our hair.

“Child labour. That’s what that was.” Everyone laughs.

Dad squirms in his seat. “Ahh, it wasn’t so bad. And there was no other way, if you boys didn’t work hard the farm wouldn’t keep going.”

“We’d clear the fields of roots and rocks, and then it would rain too much and the fields would flood,” one of my brothers continues.

“It was all we had. We had do the best with what we had,” Dad says.

The stories are always about the struggle, the fight against nature. There were no easy gains made on Section 10. And that’s why none of the brothers bought the land. We wanted nothing more to do with land that required such hard labour. The land was important to our family history but owning it would put nostalgia above smart investment, and none of us could afford such costly sentiments.

Yet owning farm land is central to Mennonite identity. It spells security and stability and, most importantly, independence. Menno Simons, the radical 15th-century religious leader for whom the Mennonites are named, never called on his followers to own land. Nowhere is it written that Mennonites must buy and break land. But the faith’s key tenets of isolationism and simple living were translated into practicing agriculture in remote regions, places raw and wild enough that we could do as we pleased. So, for a Mennonite man, land means you don’t owe nothing to nobody. It means you’re your own man.

Mennonites like to tell stories about how we have moved from country to country to escape religious persecution, to find freedom to live the old way. But, truthfully, the moves are often about finding new land. And Mennonites are thrifty. Swampy land that needs draining can be had for cheap, and all it takes is hard work to turn it profitable.

Perhaps we’re influenced by our earliest roots in the Low Countries, where holding water at bay was a matter of survival. In the mid-16th century those skills earned us an invitation to settle, en masse, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. We dug ditches and built dikes, creating an agricultural haven. Then Catharine the Great invited us to move to southern Russia, promising us good land. We accepted, and took a break from our ditch-digging to farm wheat and silk worms on the well-drained steppes.

In 1874 my great-grandfather moved from Russia to Canada in the first wave of Mennonites to colonise the Prairies. He settled in the Red River Valley, where he needed those diking skills again. The Red regularly breaks free of its banks, overfilled with spring melt. In Rosenort, the diked village where both of my parents grew up, the farmers hold their breath every spring, watching the river rise, rejoicing when it doesn’t flood and resigned when it does. We’ve done it in southern Mexico, Belize, all the way down to Paraguay and Bolivia. On a topographical map, many Mennonite settlements are located in deep green territories, where the land dips and water gathers, places the cartographers mark with cross hatchings.

Dad added another chapter to that story when he left the Red River Valley and moved north to the boggy shores of Lake Winnipeg to break virgin peat land. For Dad, digging drainage ditches became as much a part of farming as planting and harvesting, from an annual deepening of ditches already dug with the tractor to hiring heavy machinery to transform the landscape, thumbing his nose at nature. Ditches that led the water off our land and towards Lake Winnipeg. In really bad years the lake flooded, snaking up those same ditches to drown out our barley and canola. Farming the Mennonite way.

No matter how many ditches we dug, the tractors and harvesters still became stuck. My father put rice tires on the harvester — although there was no rice being grown — hoping to better churn his way across his swampy fields. To no avail.

My childhood memories of farming centre around being mired axle-deep in the fragrant peat of Section 10, the tracks filled with seepage. Deep ruts, so deep you had to scramble to climb out of them. I could think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing.

“Why are we farming here? This is the worst place in the world to farm,” I’d say, my hundredth complaint for the day as I grudgingly helped Dad work the land.

“It’s good soil, we just need to drain it better,” Dad said. He slapped at the hordes of mosquitos — ohh, there were mosquitos, big and by the thousands. He crawled through the muck under the harvester to hook a logging chain to the axle. I took the other end of the chain and dragged it towards the idling tractor, hitching the machines together with the clinking steel snake.

“Now start slow. Don’t yank it or the chain will break,” he would instruct.

I crawled into the tractor cab, twisting around in the seat to watch him on the harvester, watching his hand signals. I revved up the big diesel engine until it belched black smoke, eased out the heavy clutch so slowly that my skinny legs quivered with tension. Watching Dad, watching the harvester, the chain, a delicate dance of lumbering beasts. The chain pulled taut and then, instead of the harvester popping out of its hole, the tractor’s spinning wheels dug giant holes in the quagmire, pulling the machine deeper and deeper with every revolution.

I could see my father shouting, urgent, his lips moving but words drowned by the roar of thrashing pistons. He waved his arms for me to stop. I groaned.

“I’ll put another drainage ditch through here and then next year it will be dry,” Dad said as we unhooked the chain and repositioned the tractor on firmer ground. But it was never dry. Some years we had to wait for frost to firm up the water-logged fields before the crops could be taken off. In those years harvest became a race against the snow.

“I’m never gonna be a farmer,” I told him, more than once, as we stood knee deep in bog, working to free the machinery. I said it angrily, with vengeance.

And I stuck to my word. I moved away from the farm and the Mennonite lifestyle that the rest of my family still shared. I lived in Chicago, New York, Singapore, London and Hong Kong, moving further and further away from my Mennonite identity. I certainly didn’t attend a Mennonite church, I rarely found opportunities to speak our quirky Plattdeutsche mother tongue, and digging ditches made for good stories in the bar, but it was no longer a part of my life. I’d scrapped that muck from my shoes for good.

Then, years after I’d left and Dad had long ago accepted that I wasn’t the farmer he’d hoped I’d become, on a trip back to Manitoba to visit my family, I told Dad I had some money I wanted to invest. His eyes lit up and he leaned forward in his chair.

“Hey, there’s some land for sale near here,” he told me. “It may not go up in value as fast as those stock markets do, but it will always be there. They’re not making more land.”

The language of land — drainage, fences, good soil, stoney or not — was one I’d never learned to speak. But the idea of owning land, my very own land, still appealed to me. It appealed to the Mennonite in me. I’d thought the Mennonite in me had faded, replaced by urbane tastes and international lifestyle, so I was surprised at how his suggestion struck a chord in me. Drifting through the world’s capitals earning a living with my pen was good fun, but owning land, now that was permanence. That was long term planning, building something for the future. The advertised plot was a few miles from our family farm. It was cleared of trees, already tamed and well drained. No digging of ditches needed. It promised an easy, painless path to becoming a respectable Mennonite man.

So I bought the land with a loan from the home town credit union, a small place, where my family had banked for so long the manager still recognised my voice on the telephone. It was with great satisfaction that I took the “For Sale” sign off the gate and walked into the field for the first time.

I kicked a clod and thought, “That’s mine.” I eyed the slope towards the lake, pretending, for a moment, that I knew something about land. I had friends and family that owned thousands of acres so there was a tinge of city-boy sheepishness to my pride in owning this modest plot. I knew I was reaching back to something that wasn’t me anymore, that I had skipped some important steps. I hadn’t broken my own land, planted it with crops, let the land tether me to a place, a community, church and family that consumed me all day every day for my entire life. It wasn’t the same as what Section 10 had done for Dad. This land had not been watered by sweat from my father’s brow. It did not come with stories of hardship, work and progress. And I’d never be a real farmer like my Dad. But I did have a piece of my own land.

Solid, well drained land, and it’s not for sale.

Reading at the Vermont Studio Center

The Red Mill, the main building of the Vermont Studio Center, in the year’s first snowfall.

I’m at the Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson, VT for a month-long writing residency. The art center is based in repurposed turn-of-the-century buildings in the center of town — houses, church, grain mill, dance hall, gymnasium — all turned into studios, housing and dining hall. It’s a lovely place with about 50 residents in addition to a large community of staff artists and writers. I’m here to work on a series of essays.

Writing residents are given opportunities read their work to the community in regular readings held in the Lowe Lecture Hall, a wonderful old converted theatre. I chose to read from the manuscript of Menno Moto: A Journey in Search of Identity. It’s the first time I’ve read any of this work publicly, and I hope there will be many more readings once it gets published. You can listen to an audio recording of the reading here:

Maverick Studios, where I have been sat writing for the past month, on the banks of the Gihon River

Bradley House, my home for the past month.

Wolf Kahn Studios, filled with incredibly talented visual artists.

Dogshead Falls on the Gihon River

Canadian Shield

Read this story online as it was published in the South China Morning Post.

camerondueckrriverimg_3582

“This sure doesn’t feel like October,” my brother says, standing knee deep in lake water, squinting up at the warm afternoon sun.

Our yellow canoe is pulled up on a narrow beach, perpendicular to the deep hoof prints left by a passing moose. The birch and spruce forest leans over the beach, as if reaching for the sunlight that glitters off the water. Most of the leaves have already fallen and the trees are naked and white.

“The water’s a bit chilly, but the sun makes up for it,” I say as I wade ashore after a quick plunge in Lake Kilvert, in Ontario’s Eagle-Dogtooth Provincial Park.

camerondueckrriverimg_3500

It’s one of thousands of lakes carved out of the 4 billion year old rock. This is the Canadian Shield, the largest mass of exposed Precambrian rock on earth, the exposed continental crust of North America, where ancient mountains were flattened and lakes carved from rock during the Ice Age. Eight million square kilometers of it, igneous rock born from volcanoes that grew into tall mountains which were then worn down to rolling hills and a thin sifting of soil by monstrous slabs of ice.

camerondueckrriverimg_3473

Right now, that much ice, or even snow, is hard to imagine. We’re enjoying some late season warmth on the first day of our canoe trip. This park, only a 2.5 hour drive east of Winnipeg, has five meandering canoe routes through moraines, boggy beaver ponds and pine forest ecosystems. We gambled with a late-season trip and it paid off as we have the lakes to ourselves. Everyone else has already packed up their boats for the winter.

We hoist our canoe and trudge one and a half kilometers through the forest to Gale Lake, where we drop it with a sigh. I stretch my neck and shoulders as we walk back to retrieve our bags and a food barrel. This is just one of seven portages we’ll make on our 51.5 kilometer route, the price we pay to paddle across these remote lakes.

camerondueckrriverimg_3593

Once we’ve portaged all of our gear we set up camp in a stand of tall red pine on the western shore of Gale Lake, a small tear-drop shaped body of water that pinches off into a narrow creek in the north. There’s plenty of wood for a fire, and I mix up a batch of bannock, the unleavened Native American bread. I fry it in a pan, seasoned with wood smoke and raisins.

camerondueckrriverimg_3703

The Canadian Shield is the home of Algonquian nomadic hunters, who paddled these lakes in birchbark canoes, but the wide expanses of bare rock, poor soil and frequent marshes made it difficult for early explorers and fur traders to push westward into the continent. On the other side of this rock wall are the Prairies, Canada’s wheat land.

Eventually the European colonialists blasted a rail line through the Shield, which opened it to prospectors who found gold, silver, nickel, cobalt, zinc, copper, iron ore and, more recently, diamonds. This is also where Canada has built massive hydroelectric dams to feed cities to the south. The Shield, both past and present, looms large in Canadian history and culture, and canoeing these waters is a rite of passage for many Canadians.

Our good weather holds for exactly two days. Just long enough for us to grow smug, congratulating ourselves for setting forth while others stayed at home. Then, during the night, the temperature drops. We pull out our thermal underwear and stoke the fire as rain spits from a leaden sky. Now, suddenly, that Ice Age seems more feasible.

camerondueckrriverimg_3738

We’re watching the change of the season, when the benign summer is replaced by the unpredictability of early winter. This winter won’t wear down mountains or create a new lake like a true Ice Age, but it will put the land to sleep for the next six months or more.

Luck never changes in half-measures, and the wind that brought the cold air blows heartily from the southwest, straight on our bow. A day earlier the lakes were so still the rippled wake of a loon traveled a kilometre across the water, and now the grey water sloshes into our boat as we claw our way upwind.

“Do you still have control of the boat?” I call back to my brother, who is steering from the stern and who I’ve only heard grunts and curses from for the last few minutes. He is the more experienced canoeist, so surely he will know if we’re pushing our luck. We’re trying to round a point of land that has compressed waves and wind and I’ve just taken on a lap full of cold lake water.

“Yea, but we’re on the edge,” he shouts. “Just keep paddling, hard.”

camerondueckrriverimg_3662

We make it, but once we’re in a protected bay we rule against risking further miles in these conditions. Along a low, swampy shore on Dogtooth Lake we find a forest clearing created by gnawing beavers and set up camp to wait out the storm. Every few hours we walk to the edge of the woods to see if the white caps that race across the lake are becoming smaller. They are not.

But the view is great. Tall cliffs left behind by glacial erosion, topped by scraggly jack pine and poplar. Massive round boulders have been dropped by the retreating ice, like marbles left behind by a child. Speckled alder and red maple still sport a few blazing leaves, beacons in the grey light.

Our last morning begins before dawn. We’ve promised friends and family to reemerge from the wilderness at a certain time, and in order to do that we need to make up the distance lost to the storm. We stop once, mid-morning, to boil up some coffee, and then push on. The wind has died, leaving behind a cold mist that blankets the quiet lakes.

camerondueckrriverimg_3779

I’ve had something on my mind, but I’ve been afraid to say it. I didn’t want to jinx things. But then we round a corner and I can see our truck and the end of our canoe journey. I double check, squinting to make sure, but I can see no one on the shore.

“We haven’t seen another person in five days,” I finally blurt out. “Not a boat, no people outside their cabins, no one at all.”

“If there was anyone else out there they were warm and dry in their cabins,” my brother says. “Probably looking out of their window at us paddling past in the mist and thinking, ‘Those poor buggers’.”

camerondueckrriverimg_3535

Dinosaur Ecosystems

Ever wondered what it would be like to live in the world of dinosaurs?

I had the privilege of working as a filmmaker and editor on a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) — an online video university course — for Hong Kong University. I spent an intriguing month filming in Inner Mongolia and two weeks in the halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Here’s the official trailer for the course, which will launch on edX on February 8, 2017.

This course will take you to the Gobi Desert of China to show you exciting fossils from the Late Cretaceous fossil site of Erlian. We will also visit leading international museums and institutions and see beautiful scenic sites.

Join us to find out more about dinosaurs and how their ecosystems are reconstructed! Enroll now!! It’s FREE!!

Series IIA

Read this story online as it ran in the South China Morning Post.

Land Rover Series IIA in Thailand

Land Rover Series IIA in Thailand

It feels like hours since we last stopped. I’m cramped from sitting hunched over in the back and my legs and arms are slippery with sweat on the vinyl seats.

“Ugh, ooofff, damn!” I grunt as we bang through a pot hole, the jolt making my spine throb. Our Land Rover Series IIA bucks like an angry bull, its suspension rigid with age after half a century on Thai roads.

“Turn right here,” I shout at Torben, who is at the wheel. The roar of knobby tires on pavement, a throbbing diesel engine and all windows open for the fresh air — the air-con died within hours of starting the trip — robs our conversation of nuances.

We jounce down a narrow dirt lane atop a dyke, with fish ponds on either side and no one else in sight.

“Where do you think this goes?” Torben asks, hunched over the wheel as he pumps the heavy clutch and drops a gear. The transmission gives a rattling snarl in reply.

“I have no idea. Let’s see.” The road ends next to a strange loading chute that is built from bamboo. There is a creek, slow and muddy, and the stench of fish. We climb out of the truck for a closer inspection.

“We should have brought our fishing gear,” Johnny crows as we stand on the river bank, breathing in the humid air, heavy with heat and stillness. Thailand can get bloody hot at times.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2047

My friend Torben bought the 109 inch Land Rover Series IIA in Bangkok and needed to move it to Phuket. As soon as Johnny and I heard that, we replied, in unison, “Road trip!”

Torben had never driven this Land Rover any further than around the block, so it was with some apprehension that we flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok with return tickets leaving from the other end of the country, three days later.

We weren’t clear of the Bangkok suburbs when we heard a strange rattling sound — broken bearings on the sleeper pulley for the belt driving the air-conditioner. While we were cutting the belt away — easier to get rid of the air conditioner than fix the pulley on the road — we spotted a steady drip of oil coming from the vacuum pump for the brake booster. Torben tightened the bolts a few grunts worth, topped up the oil and we cautiously set off again.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_1886

We were on Route 4, also known as Phetkasem Road, and Google Maps predicted the trip to Phuket would cover nearly 900 kilometres, taking 13 hours. That soon became unfeasible as we repeatedly turned down side roads that added distance and time but led us through villages and farm land and down to the sea. We stopped to buy mangos and pineapple at road side stalls and steered into gravel pits and palm oil plantations.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2021

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2144

To be honest, I had no idea what a cross-country trip in a Series IIA would be like. I didn’t know that my neck would get stiff from slouching down to see out of the window. I didn’t know that I’d feel the bumps in the road with the top of my head. There was no way for me to understand that “let’s stop for coffee” really meant “it’s time to check the oil.” I didn’t know how it would bring smiles to the faces of the gas attendant and the guy who gave us directions late at night. I was a complete Land Rover novice.

The Land Rover was one of Torben’s fantasies. He imagined lazy days of hauling sandy kids to and from the beach, fetching lumber to complete his new home or bringing home a load of plants and gravel for the garden.

“I wanted something I could use, reliably, right away. But I also wanted something I could work on and improve,” he said.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2169

This truck was once owned by the owner of the Land Rover assembly plant in Thailand, where they used chassis from the UK to assemble vehicles. He sold it to the government, but his son bought it back. But then the son passed it on to a man who used it to haul a 3,000 kilogram trailer around Thailand, who sold it to Torben. Over the years, the suspension had been changed — very little improvement in my opinion — the now-defunct air-conditioning was added, along with a new alternator and an upgraded Salisbury rear axle and differential. The original engine had been swapped for a Nissan six cylinder turbo diesel, connected to a Nissan gearbox. The radiator had to be moved forward and the hood made longer to accommodate the in-line engine.

“It’s typically Land Rover but with power steering and much better seats, which gave it some luxury status,” said Johnny, who owned several 88 and 109 Series IIs in the UK over the years.

“But this seat back here is crap,” I said, pointing at my squashed legs and the puny backrest.

“That’s why I’m not sitting back there,” Johnny responded with a grin as he leaned back in his bucket seat.

Behind me was a jumble of luggage, tools and cans of oil, as well as an ice-box full of drinks. We were also carrying an extra front axle and prop shaft — when you buy an old vehicle you get the spare parts as well.

Every road trip needs at least one dodgy hotel, and ours came in Chumphon, a city surrounded by farms, right on the Gulf of Thailand. Our breakdown meant we arrived late, when the more reputable hotels were already full. What we were left with looked like a prison, with a harsh, faded facade and lumpy beds. There were no bars or restaurants in sight, so we sat on the concrete steps outside our rooms drinking beer from 1 L bottles, staring at the Land Rover parked in front of us.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_4454

“We spent all day in that bloody thing, and now we’re sitting here, three blokes, staring at it while we’re drinking our beers,” Johnny said before going to his room. “I was hoping to find someone else to talk to besides just you guys.”

The next morning we drove west until we reached Kraburi river, which forms the border between Thailand and Myanmar on the Kra Isthmus of the Malay Peninsula. Myanmar was just a stone’s throw away on the other side of the narrow river. We followed the river south to its wide estuary, filled with thick mangrove forests, ending up in the gritty river town of Ranong for lunch.

Route 4 is peppered with waterfalls — beautiful when there’s water, but as we made our trip Thailand was in the midst of a drought, and the waterfalls were dry. But the temples were still there, as were the national parks and innumerable small roadside restaurants serving excellent food for cheap.

One of the best parts of a road trip is watching the landscape, culture and climate subtly change with the kilometres. Even with the drought, Thailand’s landscape became greener as we drove south. Soon the road began to climb up and down the seaside mountains. Mosques became more plentiful — about 30 percent of the population of Southern Thailand is Muslim — and the prominence of the ports and beaches showed the sea was the centre of everyday life.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2059

With the windows open we could also enjoy and suffer the smells as they changed. The loamy smell of elephant dung as we passed a sanctuary, the sharp tang of dried fish when we were near the sea and the smoke of burning fields in the farms of the river flats.

The three of us had all been to Thailand many times in our decades of living in Asia, but this was our first road trip, taking us to less-touristy parts of the country, where the Land Rover drew plenty of attention.

“The response we’re getting from the locals is different than I’ve experienced here before,” Johnny said as we climb back into the Land Rover after a fuel stop. The cheery young gas jockey was chatty and curious about our trip, waving goodbye as we pulled out of the service station. “I don’t think they see us as tourists, in the regular ATM sort of way.”

Another random turn off Route 4 took us through flat pasture land dotted with cattle and goats. It ended in a quiet, humble little seaside resort and camp ground with one Russian couple eating watermelon near the beach. Long-horned cattle wandered across the sun-baked beach.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2155

The same small road passed by a tall white building, open sided with wide steps — a tsunami shelter. Route 4 took us through some of the areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. Seaside villages still showed unexpected gaps, barren lots and ruined buildings. Signs pointed to tsunami shelters and radars scanned the sea.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2146

Police Boat 813 in Khao Lak is a chilling memorial to the awesome natural strength of the catastrophe. The boat was guarding Her Royal Highness Ubonrat Rajakanya Siriwaddhana Phannawaddee and her family, who were staying in a beach resort, when the tsunami hit. The tsunami swept the 80-foot steel boat inland almost 2 kilometres, where it was deposited unceremoniously with no route back to the sea.

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2165

We remained in the slow lane — the vibrations became too much above 80 km/hour — and cheered each time we overtook another vehicle. Still, we pushed the truck hard for a few hours to reach Khao Lak, a quiet resort town 60 kilometres north of Phuket. We wanted to arrive before sunset this time.

“We gotta stay somewhere nicer than last night,” Johnny said. “I want a good meal and cold beer.”

We arrived with enough time to check into our hotel — nicer, with a pool this time — pour ourselves rum and cokes and carry them down to the beach in time for a sunset swim.

Three days after starting out we crossed Thepkasattri Bridge, which connects mainland Thailand to Phuket. We parked the Land Rover outside Torben’s half-completed house with plenty of time to catch our flight back to Hong Kong.

“We made it!” Torben said. “I have to be honest, I didn’t think it would go that smoothly, or that it would be that fun.”

cd-thailand-road-tripimg_2231
Throughout the trip Torben had been scheming on the work he’d do to the Land Rover. The engine needed servicing, the prop shafts appeared to be bent and the brakes needed work. But beyond that his plans had slowly evolved as he got to know the vehicle’s character.

“I was going to fix it up and make it all pretty,” Torben said as we stood next to the Land Rover, waiting for our taxi to the airport. “I am not sure about that now. I have kind of fallen in love with its rugged and purposeful look. I’ll fix the mechanical stuff, give it a good clean inside and out and maybe repair the worst dents and scrapes but I won’t repaint it.”

“And then I’ll just enjoy it for being a Land Rover.”

cd-thailand-road-tripunspecified

Seattle Screening on Feb 12

I’m very pleased that my documentary “The New Northwest Passage” will be screening at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA as part of their “Imaging the Arctic” exhibition.

Date: Thursday, February 12, 2015
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 NW 67th Street
Tickets are $5

RSVP at documentary-newnorthwestpassage.eventbrite.com

FjordLobbysmall

Penghu

This story originally appeared in the SCMP’s Post Magazine as “The wind and the waves” on November 16, 2014.

The temple is filled with the fug of incense, the air musty with 400 years worth of prayers that have been offered up towards its wooden beams. I’m not a religious man, and certainly not one who prays to Chinese gods, but these are special circumstances. If it worked for pirates, it might work for me.

Outside, the tangy brine fills my nostrils and the unrelenting wind tugs at my hair. I stand at the threshold, the darkness of the temple behind me, the sea just a few blocks away, knowing that thousands of sailors have stood in this spot, like me, wishing the winds would back off a little.

CD-PenghuTaiwan 273

From the Penghu Mazu Temple, the goddess of the sea, known as Tin Hau in Cantonese, has watched over this Taiwanese archipelago’s seafarers for four centuries, offering her protection from countless typhoons like the one that is now darkening the skies.

I came to notoriously windy Penghu, an archipelago of 90 islands, to experience its maritime culture and soak in the folklore of pirates and conquering navies. Now I’m experiencing the uncertainty of being a Taiwan Strait sailor. Penghu’s mariners learned long ago that the winds are out of their control, hence the 183 temples scattered across the islands, some large and grand, others so small and nondescript they’re hard to find.

Severe Tropical Storm Fung-wong is churning her way north, aimed squarely at Taiwan. As soon as my flight touched down in Magong, the islands’ main town, my skipper called to warn me that our sailing trip would be delayed.

Like any restless shore-bound sailor, I seek ways to kill time.

Magong is a maze of criss-crossing streets, the heart of the old town lying low and grey behind ancient walls, huddled against the elements. New, garish hotels and empty boulevards sit exposed to the steady rush of wind. The town’s bars have been shut down for the season, and I haven’t spotted any bordellos around the port, so I rent a scooter and ride the island’s winding roads.

CD-PenghuTaiwan 288

The reliance of the Penghu Islands, also known as the Pescadores, on the ocean is evident at every turn; from ancient houses and garden walls built of greying coral to the waft of drying fish.

Settlement of these islands began some 700 years ago, 400 years before the Chinese arrived on the Taiwanese mainland, and they served as a way station for people migrating from Fujian province to Taiwan, leaving the chain scattered with historical sites.

Numerous navies have anchored off the Penghu shores, their colonial forces engulfing the islands and then receding again, like the storms that sweep over the low-lying land. The Dutch came to Taiwan in 1624, were challenged by the Spanish and were eventually dislodged by Ming-dynasty loyalist Zheng Chenggong, whose Latinised name was Koxinga.

He was a privateer with a vast fleet and control over large swathes of China’s coastline, and the Penghu Islands were a frequent hideout. Koxinga used Taiwan as a base in his failed fight to overthrow the Qing dynasty and restore the Ming.

Eventually, the French came and built a fort overlooking Magong, but their stay was short, and they were long gone by the time the Japanese moved in for a 50-year stay, only to be replaced by the Chinese Nationalists.

CD-PenghuTaiwan 296

Now it is the Republic of China’s armed forces who are stationed on a far-flung promontory, their base built around the stately Yuwengdao Lighthouse, which was designed by a British engineer for the Chinese imperial government in 1828. Soldiers peer from behind rusted gates and banks of sagging sand bags, the camouflage paint on the buildings peeling in the sun. They slouch with boredom, staring across the strait at an ideological enemy that batters the island with tourists instead of artillery shells.

The islands have long been viewed as a frontline in tensions with mainland China, and martial law was only lifted in 1979, allowing people from Taiwan proper unfettered access for the first time. Penghu has since tried to grow a tourism industry, to prop up its tepid economy, offering as enticement its long, pristine beaches and azure water.

On July 23, Magong hit the front pages of newspapers when TransAsia Airways Flight 222, from Kaohsiung, crashed when landing in heavy winds and careened into nearby homes, killing all but 10 of its 58 passengers and crew.

“They were almost all from here, from Penghu, so it was very bad. Everyone knew someone affected,” says my host, Tom Chen, proprietor of the oddly named 1,2,3 V-Stone B&B, which is located a short walk from the main harbour and a five-minute drive from the centre of Magong, in a rapidly developing part of town.

“Now everyone is scared, so with this storm there will be no flights or ferries until it is gone.”

CD-PenghuTaiwan 312

The snaking road that connects the islands via bridges and causeways leads to Wai-an, in Siyu township, a small village perched in front of a hill that threatens to push it into the sea. The village is centred on its port, the main street tracing a line of bollards on the wharf and each side street leading to and from the water.

The harbour is jammed with fishing boats, with more arriving every hour, seeking shelter from the impending storm. The boats appear first as dots on the horizon, riding a white wake as they draw near. They rumble into the port and tie up three deep along the wharf, where fishermen sleep in hammocks or squat on their haunches, cigarettes smouldering between their lips as they repair their nets.

CD-PenghuTaiwan 306

“Looks bad, doesn’t it,” I ask a group of fishermen sitting on the wharf, surrounded by billowing heaps of net. They squint, looking up at the sky, where the sun still shines despite the dark bruise on the southern horizon.

“It will be over tomorrow,” they assure me. “The storm comes one day and then it is gone.”

The wind may prove inconvenient at times, but it does draw tourists to Penghu, whether for windsurfing, kite boarding or, more recently, sailing; the Penghu Regatta Week is held every June.

The fishermen were wrong, being out by two days, but finally the weather breaks, the wind dies and the skies clear.

We slip the lines on our 40-foot catamaran and motor to the harbour master’s station, to officially clear port before heading out to sea. A stream of fishing boats floods out of the harbour alongside us, crews eager to lower their nets.

Soon we’re making our way down the coast, where the ornate, curved roofs of the temples stand high above village houses. From the sea I can’t be sure which of the temples venerate Mazu, so instead I mouth a prayer of thanks into the breeze, sure that it will eventually reach the goddess of the sea.

DCIM103GOPRO

Manigotagan

This story originally appeared in SCMP’s Post Magazine as “Canoeing along Canada’s Manigotagan River” on Feb 1, 2015.

I am still trying to get comfortable in my seat and come to terms with steering the canoe when my brother points to the sky. A bald eagle with a two-metre wingspan soars overhead, its brilliant white head twisting back and forth in search of prey.

The eagle circles us in a lazy loop and then, with two smooth strokes of its wings, disappears over the treetops. When I come back down to earth, I find that our canoe is drifting down the Manigotagan River sideways – which is bad news, because it’s getting dark and we have yet to find a campsite.

The Manigotagan is only a few hours north of Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba province. But we could just as well be a thousand miles from civilisation as the river carries us through the Canadian Shield, the massive rock craton that forms the core of the North American continent. This is rolling land with rock outcrops that were rounded off by the last ice age, leaving room for boreal forests and marshes. Maps show long, narrow lakes, all running in the same direction, torn into the earth by the slow claw of ice.

DCIM104GOPRO

Atop each rocky outcrop, at every roaring waterfall or quiet bend where the river slows, history invites us to imagine. To envision humans on this river thousands of years ago, proud natives traversing their land; the first European fur traders and voyageurs, men who came searching for their fortunes in Canada’s wilderness, toiling their way up and down this watery highway.

A nearby archaeological site proves that human habitation of the Manigotagan area began at least 2,000 years ago and use intensified when aboriginal people underwent a cultural shift from relying on grassland hunting to life in the forest, where they survived on fish, small mammals, waterfowl and wild rice.

When white men discovered the forests’ bounty, they set up the Bad Throat fur-trading post at the mouth of the river, on the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg. The river became an important trade route for trappers and their canoes, and they were soon followed by loggers and miners. Rusting iron machinery, empty trappers’ cabins, shards of pottery and tent circles all mark chapters in this river’s history.

That trading post has become the town of Manigotagan, which continues to rely on nature, with forestry, commercial fishing, wild rice harvesting and tourism being the economic mainstays. The river is now travelled by weekend canoeists looking to connect with nature. The longest canoe trips stretch to 102km – five to seven days of paddling – and the last 70km of the downriver journey has no exits. After 32km, you’re committed to a week-long journey.

We start at the mouth and work our way upstream. Just as daylight begins to fade, we come to a thundering set of waterfalls. There are dozens of falls and rapids along the river, most of which must be skirted. This requires us to unload both two-man canoes and carry everything on forest paths that pass the dangerous water: a process called portaging.

At Old Woman’s Falls, the river appears to be trying to dislodge a small island. The water sweeps around the rocky obstruction before roaring into narrow chutes on either side.

DCIM103GOPRO

We gingerly land our canoes in eddies only metres from the maelstrom and drag them up to safety before scouting out a campsite. The island is one of the most popular campsites on the river but it is late in the year and no one else is braving the chilly weather. Or perhaps the ghost of the old woman whose death here gave the falls their name has scared them away.

Firewood collected and tent erected, we are soon sitting around a crackling campfire with dinner simmering in a pot. A few streaks of light remain in the sky and the falls are now just a flash of white in the dusk, a steady clamour of water bashing itself against the rocks.

The topography along the Manigotagan ranges from sheer rock faces topped with craggy Jack pine and a thin skin of rock-tripe lichen to thick green stands of balsam poplar, green ash and elderberry. Our small island is covered in towering pines, the reflection of the river glinting through gaps between the trunks.

And there is wildlife; the entire river lies within protected parkland filled with, among other creatures, moose, black bear, wolf and woodland caribou. Beavers can be seen working along the banks.

We sit, passing a rum bottle in circles, until we have depleted our wood pile and the fire fades. We give the dishes a hurried scrub in the frigid water, the clattering of pots echoing across the river. We crawl into our tent, hoping that whatever the large brown furry thing we saw earlier was, it won’t be brave enough to swim across Old Woman’s Falls.

DCIM103GOPRO

The next day, we continue upriver, leaving the campsite set for our return. We spend the morning paddling over gentle rapids. At midday we find a rock outcrop overlooking Big Skunk Rapids. The others gather wood while I mix up a batch of bannock, the simple flat-bread that is the traditional mainstay of native American cooking. We crouch around the fire, watching the dough turn a golden brown flecked with ash.

After lunch, we turn back, now riding with the current. My other brother, in the second canoe with his son, eyes up a low set of rapids that we portaged around earlier.

“I think we can run those, eh?” he says, as much a challenge as a question.

His canoe slips into the current, dips, bobs, is caught in a spray of water, as we hold our position in an eddy. I can see only heads.

A few moments later, a drenched duo are treading water, one at each end of the swamped canoe, gasping with shock at the cold.

“Get your canoe around the rapids and get us out of the water! Hurry!”

DCIM104GOPRO

We do as we’re told, less careful about the canoe’s paint than we were on earlier portages. The pair roll into our canoe, sodden and shivering, rocking the craft until I worry that we will all be swimming soon.

Back at Old Woman’s Falls, a fire leaping through the grating and clothing strung from the trees, the story is retold with added flourishes, a gentle nip of warning from nature.

The next day we break camp and turn for home, letting the current slowly pull us towards Lake Winnipeg. The sun breaks through the clouds and remains free, bringing out the blue reflection of the sky on the water, the emerald green of trees and moss.

As we approach our landing spot, where pick-up truck, mobile phones and cluttered life await, what looks like the same bald eagle takes flight out of a poplar tree along the banks.

Once again it circles and eyes us, as if tallying to check whether those who ventured into his hunting grounds have returned alive.