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.

Darien Gap Done

I’ve made it to South America…20,000km, 10 border crossings and three months after setting off from Manitoba.

My last update was from Panama City…I spent more than one week there, sorting out some bike repairs, visas, banking and a million other little things. I was also down with a nasty flu bug, which I think I’ve finally managed to shake after about a month of feeling off-key.

From Panama City I drove towards the Darien Gap, a several hundred kilometer jungle wilderness that separates Panama from Colombia. It was a great ride to the Caribbean, where I and my bike boarded Jacqueline, a 56-foot catamaran. I was joined by about eight backpackers from around the world…a full boat means a big party. We spent several days lolling around in the San Blas islands, snorkling, spear-fishing and just being lazy. Then we hoisted sail and since there was almost no wind we motor-sailed the 200 miles to Cartegena, Colombia. We arrived yesterday morning, and spent much of the day getting through immigration and clearing the bikes through customs. Cartegena is a very lovely colonial city. If only it wasn’t too blazing hot to actually walk the streets…but I’ve checked into a hostel with some new friends and we are doing a bit of exploring, hanging out on the old city walls, etc.

Tomorrow I set off on Stage 3 of Menno Moto. I’ll stop in Bogota for a Paraguayan visa, and maybe a new sprocket for the bike, and then through Ecuador, Peru and long stops in Bolivia and Paraguay to get to know the Mennonite colonies there. I’m running exactly 2 weeks behind my planned schedule…not too bad after three months on the road, considering that I’ve driven about 7,000km more than I had expected to cover by this point.

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Santa Rita Revolution

This trip has taught me a lot about Mennonite culture. Sometimes I find just what I expected to find, other times I’m surprised. Sometimes I’m disappointed in “my people”, and sometimes I’m very proud to call myself a Mennonite. What I learned in Santa Rita surprised me, and in many ways impressed me.

I just spent two days with the Duecks/Friesens in a small Mennonite community near Santa Rita, Costa Rica, in the San Carlos area. It’s not a colony, but there is a concentration of Mennonites in the area. About six families moved en masse from Spanish Lookout some 35 years ago because Spanish Lookout was going through a rough patch with its youth, and these families did not want to expose their children to that environment. Secondly, the Kleine Gemeinde sect of Mennonites that historically have formed the core of Spanish Lookout resisted active proselytizing to the native Belizians, and this small group wanted to do more evangelism. After a few years in Costa Rica they left the KG sect entirely and instead joined with the Beachy Amish, a moderate and evangelically-minded Amish sect that has its cultural roots in Switzerland, versus the Russian roots of the KG sect. (I’m also Russian Mennonite, and it’s that cultural group I’m most interested in on this trip.)

Those that moved have created a unique community in that they are one of the very few cases where Russian Mennonites have formed a community with Swiss Mennonites. The Russian Mennonites were effectively adopted into the Beachy community, leaving behind their German language and many Russian Mennonite customs.

They are also interesting for their active attempts to open the community to non-Mennonites. One of the key traits of all the colonies I’ve visited so far is that Mennonites want to keep to themselves, and strictly limit participation in the community by non-Mennonites. For example, large communities have credit unions and stores that deal only with ethnic Mennonites. The Santa Rita community still sees itself as Mennonite in terms of their religious beliefs, but they have gone to great lengths to assimilate with the local community rather than remain isolated, as is the Mennonite tradition.

George Dueck, a prominent farmer and businessman in the community, said they were very willing to abandon Mennonite traditions that they felt stood in the way of their following Biblical teachings.

“The biggest difference between us and other Mennonites may be that we do not thing being Mennonite is very important. It does not define us,” George told me.

Another big difference is that the Mennonites are generally educated to the same level as their Costa Rican neighbors. This is interesting, as in most cases Mennonite colonies shun education beyond the basics and therefore must rely on non-Mennonites to handle more sophisticated work such as accounting, etc. Here, education is encouraged, including sciences, social studies, etc (Many Mennonites leave school once they can read, write, do basic maths and recite parts of the Bible.)

They are still deeply conservative: no TVs, no radio, women wear long simple dresses and head coverings, no competitive sports are allowed, men must wear collared shirts and not T-shirts, etc. However, they have set themselves apart from other Mennonites in a radical way.

Thanks to those in the community who took the time to discuss their ideas with me. I’ll elaborate more on this place, and their ideas, in my book.

Central American Blur

I’m tired, so a bit short on words. Arrived in Leon, Nicaragua today, after blowing through El Salvador and Honduras in three days of rain, border delays, coffin shops (no, not coffee) mountain roads, hail storms and hotels chosen out of exhaustion and need rather than preference. We slept beside the Pacific, and that means I’ve crossed the continent, sort of, which was a cool realization. Central American borders are nuts and the relentlessly ” helpful” “border agents” drove me to words not suitable for children. Saw a dead body on the road in Honduras, but it was no one I knew. Got pulled over by cops for passing on the shoulder, but my dumb white-guy routine worked. Smell of boots and riding gear suggests there may be a dead rat hidden in them, will inspect. But all is well, we’re making miles, having fun. Plan to spend some time here and in Granada. I want to climb a volcanoe with real lava, so I will, on Sunday. Ate an awesome hamburger for dinner today, and that was all I needed. For now.

Here are a few pix, I’ll write more in a day or so.

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Leon Lady

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Leon Lady #2

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Leon Lady #3

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My plan for saving on hotel costs isn’t working out well…

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lLeon

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More Leon Ladies

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Smoking volcanoes all around…this is just after crossing the border into Nicaragua

20120831-205602.jpgFirst glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, El Salvador

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Breakfast stop in Honduras, just before crossing the border into Nicaragua

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Guatemala

We’ve been in Guatemala for about three days..maybe four. It’s like that on the road. Feels like we’ve been here three weeks. We started by exploring Tikal, the ruins of a 2000+year old Mayan city right on the border with Belize. Stunning stuff, and even better that we got to camp, right in the midst of dozens of coatis, sort of like a pointy nosed monkey. For once I was not the only one scratching myself in public.

From there we rode up into the mountains and to Semuc Champey, an area with limestone caves and waterfalls. The ride down was epic, a rough rocky mountain road so steep that when we stopped I had to use both front and back brake to keep from sliding downhill. By the time we reached our camping spot the sweat was literally dripping out of my jacket sleeves. We stumbled down the dark jungle path and found the falls and pools to be just the cooling solution we needed. However, the next day’s ride out of the site was…a disaster. Both of our bikes have electrical problems, meaning that if we stalled riding up that hellish road we had to turn the loaded bikes around and push start them downhill…not easy. So not easy that I got pretty bad heat exhaustion, and long story short we gave up and hauled the bikes out on a truck. Lesson: riding a bike on a mountain path while dizzy and having tunnel vision is not a good idea.

We then met up with Richard and Suzanne (picture by Victoria below), fellow riders Victoria met online. The riding community is pretty awesome…they met up with us, we had lunch, and they drove us to the fabulous Earth Lodge overlooking the colonial town of Antigua.

I thought I’d take a few week break from the Menno part of Menno Moto…but when we arrived at the lodge we were served Mennonite farmer sausage for lunch. Turns out there are a few Swiss Mennonite villages nearby…so I’ll go see if I can find more cousins, though it’s unlikely given it sounds like they are all of Swiss origin.

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Victoria shows the road who is boss

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Semuc Champey waterfalls

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Semuc Champey waterfalls

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Camping in Tikal. Works well when you have a cheap tent.

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Tikal Mayan ruins.

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Semuc Champey waterfalls

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Tikal

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Semuc Champey waterfalls

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Richard and Suzanne

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We are taking a writing day, and this is the view from our desks (photo by Victoria)

Bye bye Belize

It’s time to cross another border…Belize to Guatemala. It’s raining out…touring the Mayan ruins of Tikal, in the middle of the jungle, will be very …. wet.

Belize is an interesting, odd little place. I spent the last few days in Blue Creek, with Ed Reimers, who did a splendid job of hosting me. I didn’t see much of Belize’s tourist features, but I’m in full sightseeing mode for the next few weeks, and countries. Vic has patiently been waiting in Belize for nearly 3 weeks…I think we’re done here.

And I have a camera lens once again, so expect more snaps.

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Spanish Lookout

Today I leave Spanish Lookout. It’s raining, and I have to drive across Belize. But Belize is pretty small, so no worries.

I arrived here on Monday, and one of my first stops was the home and farm of Klaas Friesen. They’re distant family, through a few different connections in the family tree, as is often the case with Mennonites. They offered me a bed in a sort of summer house that gives me plenty of space, and privacy, and I’ve been here ever since.

I’ve been pretty impressed with Spanish Lookout. When you’re driving through Belize this place stands out for it’s orderliness, nice homes, beautiful landscaping and obvious wealth. People have all been incredibly friendly, kind and welcoming. I’ve had some very interesting conversations that have helped me get a better picture of the place. Like Klaas’ story of being kidnapped and held for ransom by Belizian thugs. Safety is still a huge concern here, becoming worse every day, and the Mennonites have actually taken up arms against the thieves.

I spent a long evening with Clarence Dueck (also a relative? probably), who is one of three elected leaders in the community, in charge of roads, order, finances, making and upholding community rules, land purchases, etc. The colony runs like any small (2000 people) town, with its own taxes, highways, bank, stores, police, etc. It was also interesting to hear the leadership’s thoughts on issues such as racism, inclusion, financial planning, education and the future of Mennonite colonies such as his.

Spanish Lookout reminds me a lot of Manitoba Colony in northern Mexico. Large, rich, fairly progressive, independent, filled with very clever business people. I attended a meeting where they discussed the recent purchase and division of 29,000 acres of new land that needs to be broken. But it also has the same approach to education, which is to pull kids out of school at teens, or allow them to drop out. That’s worrying, as it results in the same thing in both colonies: racism, arrogance, narrow mindedness and a limited range of possibility.

I visited Barton Creek yesterday. It’s a nearby colony started in the 70s by a radical offshoot of Mennonites from Belize. No electricity, no paint on the houses, no phones, no engines of any sort, no glass windows, only farming and basic manufacturing allowed, everyone dressed the same in long shirts/dresses/beards. They allow no one to take pictures of them (they caught me trying to shoot video) One of the hot topics was whether using hydro power was a sin, just as electricity is to them. They won’t take a ride from a Mennonite from another colony (that would make that man sin) but they will accept a ride from a Belizian, as “they don’t know any better”. They are deeply ignorant, although they live a pretty good life. It reminded me of a poor village in Thailand or China, although these guys are not very poor. I find their theories a bit wacky, and their arrogance is only possible when combined with ignorance, but good for them if they’ve found a way to live that makes them happy.

Today I’ll take a break from the Mennonite story and meet up with Victoria again to ride to Belize City. We’ll leave our bikes there and take a ferry to Cay Caulker to go snorkeling. Then on Sunday I plan to go to the Blue Creek colony for a few days, and then we’re done with Belize. I broke my camera, and am waiting for replacement parts to arrive, so no photos.

;

Belize

I arrived in Belize on Sat afternoon and went straight to Caprice and Joe’s home. They’re friends of my sister Connie’s, and moved from Vancouver late last year to homestead in N Belize, near the border. They,re carving a very nice little farm out for themselves…they’re almost as good at homesteading as the Mennos. Totally off-grid living, and doing most of the set-up work themselves. My contribution was to hold down a chair on the front porch all weekend, just in case the wind might blow it away. I spent the weekend with them, did some maintenance on my bike and finally arranged to have one of my other lenses shipped out from HK.

I set off this morning and drove to Spanish Lookout, near the Guatemala border. Stunning town, huge visual difference from the rest of the area. And now my food has just arrived at the Golden Corral…so time to eat. They were out of perogies, sadly. After lunch it’s time to go looking for relatives, and a place to sleep tonite.