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.

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

Thank-you

I’m at the airport in Santiago, Chile, about to fly to Winnipeg. Bike is sold, gear either tossed, given away, or jammed into my bags. I’m done and heading home! I set off for home with a rather empty bank account (budget? Oh, that! It’s busted, in a ditch somewhere in Colombia!) but I feel like the richest man alive with all I’ve seen and learned. Once again, I’ve been changed by a challenge, a journey, a goal achieved. I am incredibly lucky to be living the life I dreamt of as a child, and even luckier that you want to read about it.

Thank you for reading this blog over the past seven months. It’s been a pretty special journey. Not only have I see a good chunk of the world (19 countries!), but I have learned so much about my heritage and who we are as Mennonites. Now to fit that into a book!

Thank you to all those I’ve met along the way. The long-lost cousins, the Mennonites in far flung corners of the Americas, the bikers, the new friends made on ferries, dusty roads, in dodgy hostels, in splendid campgrounds. You, more than anything, made this journey worth the effort.

Many people have sent me notes in the past months. Encouragement, contacts, questions, challenges and advice. I’m sorry if I have not responded, but they were all deeply appreciated. Thank you!

Next up, seeing my first film, The New Northwest Passage, up on the silver screen at the Winnipeg Real to Reel Film Festival. It plays on Feb 16 and 17, I hope to see some of you there. Then, it’s back home to Hong Kong, where the real work begins…

Keep checking in for updates on the book, film, and my next adventure.

Slow down for curves,
pullover to help those in need.
But never stop,
because there’s even greater things ahead.

Cameron

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Loma Plata, Paraguay

I spent more than a week in Loma Plata, Paraguay. This colony was created by Mennonites who left Canada in the 1920s when the Canadian government said they had to start teaching their children English in school. They had a brutal first few years carving farms out of the “Green Hell” of the Chaco. Today it is a fairly open, forward thinking colony (with Spanish as the main language in school), though many of the stereotypes still hold true. They are still struggling to come to grips with being a part of Paraguay, rather than just having a mini-state within the country. It’s the biggest colony in Paraguay, and they have become very rich through farming and industry. They are descendants of families that came to Canada from Russia on the same ship my great Grandfather came on in 1874.

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It was election time when I was there, and Andreas Neufeld is the outgoing president of the co-op, which runs just about every big business in town. It has annual revenues of $750 million. He has some interesting views on what Mennonites need to do to survive, many of which included more cooperation with the national government and better integration with Paraguayans. I agree.

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These two dudes at Classic Moto helped me fix my leaking “chjiela” (radiator), put on a new tire and make other small repairs to the bike. Thank you Randy Fehr and Dorien Funk for the laughs, mechanical help and gallons of tereré you served me across this counter.

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The old Explorers Club flag and I in front of the first Mennonite church in LatAm, in Loma Plata, Paraguay. I told the club the mission of this “flag expedition” was to get a sense of what modern Mennonite culture is. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea by now.

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Helmut Neufeld and David Fehr spent a day showing me Menno Colony and a few historical spots in the area.

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The next day I drove to Porto Casado with Rudy Harder (above), David Fehr and his brother Peter. This is where the Mennonites first arrived in the Chaco. We visited the cemetery, where the men found some of their relatives that didn’t survive the trip.

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We ended the day by fishing in a Chaco pond. It was a lovely afternoon of fishing, eating, and telling stories. This is David Fehr.

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Peter untangling his line…

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This is just after Rudy put his trousers back on. He lost his line in the pond, so he had to strip down to his undies to retrieve it. I didn’t take any photos, but we gave him a pretty hard time for it. I think they had blue polka-dots on them.

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A cookout over the fire, where David whipped up a giso (below). I’m told it’s an institution among Chaco ranchers, and I ate it several times while I was there. Very tasty.

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The first time I entered Brazil, in 2004, I did so illegally without a visa. I was caught and sent packing. I did it again on this trip, sneaking across the bridge from Paraguay to go see Iguazu Falls and then crossing properly the next day, since I only have a single-entry visa. And when I got to the falls…a rainbow!

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Estancia

Yesterday I spent the day with brothers Herbert and Werner Bartel as they inspected part of their 8,000 hectare (20,000 acre) estancia in the middle of the Paraguayan Chaco.

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Herbert and Werner (L-R). They live in Loma Plata.

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Herbert Bartel

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One of the ranch hands. He grew up with Werner and Herbert and spoke Low German fluently.

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This cowboy appears to be getting conflicting instructions from the two brothers.

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The US can no longer lay claim to “cowboy culture”. I’ve seen a countless horses and full-time cowboys in Central/South America, a lot more than you see driving through North America.

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The cattle are a mix of Hereford (calm, gain weight fast) and Brahman (hardy, can handle the heat). The breeding is still a bit hit and miss, some of them appear to be almost pure Hereford or Brahman.

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Werner is also a dentist and runs a clinic together with his son.

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Colony trial

I’ve been in the Santa Cruz area of Bolivia for the past week. Bolivia has around 70,000 Mennonites, mostly Old Order, and most of them live within a few hours of Santa Cruz. I’ve met a great bunch of people at RTM Radio (a Christian radio network) who have taken me in, given me places to sleep, food to eat, people to meet, etc. They also put me on air, which has turned me into a minor (like D-list) celebrity in the area. I’m that Canadian guy on the motorbike. A big thanks to the Janzen, Friesen and Toews families.

Bolivia contains some of the most conservative Mennonites in the world. The majority of them do not have electricity, they drive tractors with steel wheels, have no cars/trucks, adhere to strict dress rules, have very limited education and struggle with Spanish (They speak German and Plautt Deutsche). Their remoteness and lack of education and civility has manifested itself in chronic problems with domestic abuse, incest, alcohol and drug abuse and conflicts with the Bolivian locals.

In 2009 a case came to light that has put the colonies, and particularly Manitoba Colony, into the international press and shed some light on how ignorant and vulnerable these people are. A group of men were accused of possessing a magic spray which could put whole households (and their dogs) to sleep, allowing the men to enter the house and rape the women unnoticed. A posse of vigilantes arrested these men, tortured them (one man died of his injuries) and eventually, by paying large sums of money to local authorities, had the men put in jail. This has become a modern Salem Witch Trial for the Mennonite community. No one knows the truth, who is guilty, if anyone is guilty, what happened, etc. But the men are in jail, and the story has only grown more lurid, complicated, unbelievable and sad over the years.

I have no illusion of finding the “truth” since it doesn’t really exist anymore. People don’t know the difference between what they have heard, dreamt, done, seen, imagined or wished. But I am meeting with many of the parties involved, as I think this story illustrates what can happen when you willfully keep a population ignorant, isolated and repressed.

This couple, Mr and Mrs Peters, told me the story of how their son was arrested, choked until he passed out and then hooked up to a 220v electric fencer until he confessed to raping women and having a can of the magic spray. The spray has never been found or proven to exist. They say he’s innocent.

I went to the Palmasola prison to interview the men, who have never formally been convicted or sentenced. Palmasola is a “prison town” where children and families live with the convicted in a village like setting. It’s insane, overcrowded (more than 4,000 inmates), filthy but also colorful and quite “normal” in some ways. I kept thinking of Papillon when I was in the prison. I was not allowed to take my camera in, but I do have a picture of my arm to show you. I got stamped, numbered, checked and crossed by marker for every gate I passed through and bribe I paid.

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.

Costa Rica

A quick update from Costa Rica…

We crossed the border from Nicaragua on Thursday, hoping to find a beach with Greenback Turtles arriving to lay their eggs. We drove down the coast, on the Nicoya Peninusula. We were told we’d find them at Playa de Ostional…however, the person didn’t tell us that it was down a 40km dirt track, nor that it would get dark and start raining cats and dogs before we got there. It was an exciting ride, off road riding in the rain in the dark with a heavily loaded bike, but all turned out well. And the next morning we got to see our turtles. Pretty amazing stuff. Spent several hours watching them come up the beach, dig their holes, lay eggs, and then crawl back into the sea. Lots of vultures, dogs and humans digging the eggs up to eat them…all part of nature I guess. I joined in when one of the Costa Rican Nico natives offered me a freshly laid egg, right there on the beach. They have permits to dig them. So I had to eat it…tasted like egg. Later, back at the guesthouse, the owner was cooking up eggs in his special broth, so I got to try cooked turtle eggs as well.

Yesterday I rode about 300km, nearly crossing the entire country. Thanks to the bikers I met at the petrol station on the Pan-American, it was fun to meet some local bikers, and get some local riding advice.

I’m now staying with the Mennonites in the San Carlos area of Costa Rica (thanks to those who sent me names, tips). I’m staying with the Clarence Dueck’s, and have already met their family here. It’s an interesting place, as it’s one of the rare cases when Swiss and Russian Mennonites have combined to create a community. The Russian Mennonites came here from Spanish Lookout about 35 years ago and got together with the Beachey Amish. It’s not an official colony, but there is a fairly large (15-20 families) community of Mennonites.

I’ll be here for a few days, and then off to Panama, where we’re hoping to join a weekend biker party. I’ll be spending at least a week in Panama to get visas, work on the bike, etc.

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.

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Hopelchen Old Colony Mennos

I spent a few interesting days with the Sommerfeld and Old Colony Mennonites that live in the colonies around Hopelchen. They were friendly, if a bit shy and guarded. It’s a relatively new area for the Mennonites, the first colonies were started about 28 years ago, and there are still new colonies being started today. They are not nearly as rich as the Mennonites in the north, and in general are far more conservative. The Mennonites here don’t have as many confrontations with the Mexicans as is the case in the north, but there’s still some tension caused by the rather destructive and land-depleting farming practices of the Mennonites, as well as their racism and ignorance.

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There’s a very clear racism towards the Mexicans (both Spanish and Mayan) from the Mennonite side. I was told that the two can’t mix because they eat different food, they worship in different churches, and, if that’s not gonna stop you, Mennonite men with Mexican wives have reported that they even smell different.

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The Mennonites here would say faith and culture hold the community together. I’d say ignorance plays a pretty big role as well. These communities actively promote ignorance as a virtuous trait, and are afraid that if their children receive more the 6-7 years of education that they now receive that they’ll run away from the colony. I ran into a lot of people who had no knowledge of basic natural science, such as how ocean tides work, why there are clouds in the sky, etc. They are deeply ignorant of anything beyond their tiny world. The Beachy Amish have come to proselytize the Old Colony (as have other more evangelical Mennonites as well as the Jehovah Witnesses) but even they warned me that education beyond Grade 12 could put the soul in danger. I think this ignorance plays a pretty big role in the tension between the Mennonites and the much better educated Mexicans.

 

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