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

Curitiba, Brazil

I entered Brazil three days ago, though it feels like a week. This is the 16th country I’ve been in on this journey. The change from Paraguay was immediate and huge. Brazil is clean, pretty, green, civilized and wealthy. I like it, lots, although I am back to square one in terms of understanding what people are saying. Learning a bit of Spanish hasn’t done me a lick of good in understanding Portuguese.

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I had my first major accident of the trip shortly after entering Brazil. A truck was stopped on the highway. A car in front of me blocked it from my view. The car swerved to avoid the truck at the last moment, leaving me with only meters of braking space. I was doing about 100km/hr and had only a split second to lock my brakes, so I estimate I was doing 70 km/hr on impact. My last thought was “This is gonna be a big crash”. But I got up immediately after everything stopped moving, and thought “Hmm, that wasn’t so bad.” I have not yet figured out the physics of it. The truck was pushed forward by the impact. This picture doesn’t show it well, but the truck bumper was torn clear off the frame. There was significant breakage/bending of the metal/frame. My bike suffered only some broke plastic on the fender and faring. The forks/wheel/handlebars are straight and true. I can’t figure out what absorbed all the force, and a witness on the scene was as puzzled as I was, as were the cops, EMS people, the driver of the truck, etc. I woke up VERY sore the next day, and I still am feeling like I was beaten with a lead pipe. But nothing was broken. Yes, I’m a lucky man. I have no collision insurance, so I had to pay the guy about $180. I could have just driven away (even the cop told me that) but that didn’t feel right, as technically it was my fault (although he was an idiot for parking on the highway like that). Life goes on.

A few bikers pulled up and helped me get my bike back on the road and negotiate the payment, etc. Thank you Volnei and Marcel!

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I spent my first night in Brazil camped in a soya bean field. I look rather proud of myself.

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The next morning I rode into Curitiba, Brazil. As I entered the city I passed a Kawi shop, so I stopped to say hello. They offered to give my bike a proper wash, and then they escorted me to a cheap, clean and cheerful hotel in the center of the city. Thank you Rhino Motorcycles.

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Curitiba and the surrounding area is home to about 8,000 Mennonites, most of whom came from Russia/Ukraine/Siberia in the 1930s. This is Maria Duck (nee Kroeker), who fled Siberia at 5 years old, crossing the Amur River into Northern China and living in Harbin for about 1.5 years before finding her way to Brazil.

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Witmarsum (named after Menno Simon’s birthplace) is the biggest colony. A lovely little village filled with intelligent, educated and open-minded Mennonites who have embraced Brazil as their home, at least the ones I met. Mennonites have a long and rocky history of resisting change, but in this case here I sensed a good balance of pragmatic acceptance of the onward march of time and continued pride in their Mennonite history.

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Lena Harder is 83, and fled Siberia when she was 1 year old. She worked in the Witmarsum hospital for years, and now runs the museum that is housed in the same building. I asked her what she thought would become of Mennonite culture in her area. “Few kids these days can still speak Low German, they all speak Portuguese. But it will continue to exist here for a few more generations, I’m sure of that. It’s just part of life, we live in Brazil and we have to change and adapt to the culture around us,” she said.

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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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.

Curve Sickness

It’s been an incredible ride south from Mexico City. Victoria has come up to speed, literally, on her bike. I have to confess, after the first day of riding with her I thought, “Oh dear, this could be a long few weeks of riding.” She was quite nervous on the first day, especially when we hit the highway and she had to pass big trucks. But since then she’s become very comfortable on the bike and is taking on the role of biker chick very well, as this photo shows.

The morning of our departure we discovered that an oil seal on Vic’s bike was leaking…actually gushing oil. We couldn’t find an O-ring of the right size, but we managed to cut one down to fit. However, the oil still leaks out when the bike is cold…so we’ll have to sort that out at a bike shop soon.

From Mexico City we headed to the Tenochtitlan ruins. Impressive, hot, and lots of tourists. The ride to Puebla was Vic’s first taste of the open highway. We ended up ducking into a Holiday Inn the first night, as it was dark, we were tired, and it was there. The next day’s ride, from Puebla to Oaxaca, was incredible. Twisting mountain roads, 2-lane, incredible scenery, tiny villages, and just km after km of riding, with very little traffic.

Of course, you can’t go riding off into the hills of Mexico without having a petrol issue. Oddly, Victoria’s little 250cc Yamaha appears to have longer fuel range than my 650cc, so at around 6pm I frantically started looking for fuel. We had 2 hours left to ride, and everyone we asked seemed to have a different idea on where we might find fuel. Finally, after stopping and asking for a “gasolinara” for the umpteenth time we found a family selling petrol out of their back door.

Fueling station. Photo by Victoria

Many, many curves later we rolled into Oaxaca, very tired. We took the next morning off to take a quick look at the town. Stunning architecture, lots of cool little shops and cafes. And lots of tourists.

It was back on the curvy road that afternoon, but we didn’t make it far before I got us lost, and then Victoria’s gear shifter broke (twice). I had a bolt that fit, but while I was working on the bike I firmly planted my elbow on the hot muffler. Ahh, the smell of BBQ on a mountain road. We fell short of reaching our target of Tehuantepec for the night, so holed up in a little village about 50km away. It was dark by the time we rolled in, and we had just enough energy to enjoy a few Coronitas and a very tasty 40 peso (for 2. that’s US$3) meal on the street.

Yesterday we made the final dash to San Cristobal. We found a shop along the way, which gave me an old bushing which I sanded/cut to shape to fit Victoria’s bike. Now it’s good as new.

Repair job. Seems I'm always begging shop time on my adventures. Photo by Victoria

We rolled into San Cristobal during daylight…a first since leaving Mexico City. This is yet another lovely little city, cobblestone streets, amazingly pretty courtyard hotels with well-kept colonial-era buildings. Today I’ll do some work on the bike — new tire is so wide it rubs on my muffler, so gotta adjust that, and a few bits that are rattling, need oil, etc. I may also raise my bike back up. When I bought it I dropped it an inch cause I’m too short to ride it at stock height, however, fully loaded on Mexican roads I really need that extra inch of travel/clearance, so I’ll just have to grow my toenails long so I can touch the ground.

Photo by Victoria Burrows

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Cuauhtemoc

I arrived in Cuauhtemoc on Tuesday night, and came out to the colony on Wednesday morning. It’s been a very interesting time already. I’m really excited about visiting more colonies now. I found it pretty cool to check into a hotel in low-German…first time I’ve ever been able to do that. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever been in a community that functions entirely in low-German. I’m struggling with the language, but I can feel my German improving already.

I’m planning to visit various Campos in the next few days. Right now I’m at KM 13, but I want to head further north today or tomorrow and visit some of the Kleinde Gemeinde and Old Colony campos. The people I’ve met so far have been incredibly friendly and hospitable and refreshingly honest. I have various invitations for meals, places to stay for the night, community events, camping trips and even met some fellow riders who want to go for a cruise on Saturday. I’m now very excited to see how the coming months unfold.