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.

Yucatan Mayan ruins

I’ve spent the last few days visiting a few of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. Namely Sayil, Xlapak, Labna, Kabah and Uxmal. Pretty impressive stuff considering they built it all without using the wheel or beasts of burden. Good work ethic…like the Mennonites who are now farming all around these ruins. Oh…but didn’t the Mayan culture get destroyed by drought and internal fighting? Hmm…

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20120809-181203.jpgThis isn’t Mayan…it’s the Catholic church in Hopelchen

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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Campeche

Victoria and I left San Cristobal two days ago. We got up early, before dawn, with plans to get to Campeche in a day. Ha! yea right. Vic’s bike started spewing oil again as we pulled out of town, so we nursed it to the Yamaha dealer. I knew the problem…an o-ring by the oil filter was torn, so Gary and I, back in Mexico City, jury rigged an o-ring, which seemed to work. but it didn’t. Now I figured we’d spend the time and get it right. The shop boys drove all over town finding the right one, but about an hour or two later we were back on track. Then I got us lost, again. I do that a lot. After making about a 5-10 km backtrack I started asking every dude I could find along the route what town we were heading for. I learned to pronounce one or two town names and then just shouted them out at random as we drove through villages, doing a quick straw poll of which way most of the arms were pointing. It works great.

The ride from San Cristobal was stunningly beautiful…through more mountains, more curves, misty valleys and chilly mountain passes. We had a blast riding it. But it was sooo slooowwww. You just can’t go more than 60km/hr on that road without killing yourself. So we had to split the ride from SC to Campeche in half, stayed in a gritty little town called Frontera last night. It was heavenly when we finally broke free of the mountains…flat, straight roads. I twisted my throttle till I thought it would break off.

We just pulled into Campeche this afternoon. Lovely little colonial town, cobblestone streets lined with tidy pastel brick and plaster buildings. Looks much like San Cristobal at first glance, sans the mountains.

Today was one of the best days on the road so far. We set off early, just after sunrise, just a coffee and then the road. We rode for an hour or so and then pulled over when we finally saw the sea, but on the inland side, as we rode the isthmus (don’t know the name). We stopped in a small restaurant, and ordered what we saw the worker dudes eating. A seafood soup of sorts, fresh prawns, a whole fish between the two of us, all very fresh, with tortillas. Lovely breakfast. We then drove like the clappers (Vic is now hitting 120km/hr with total abandon. Don’t tell her mom) until we passed a HUGE blue crab walking across the road. By the time I’d pulled a u-turn and made it back he was making off for the bush. Another guy had spotted it at the same time as me and was sprinting for it…when I pointed it out he looked surprised. I think he thought we were racing for dinner. Nah, I just wanted to see it. He pulled it from the underbrush and headed home with it, I resumed my ride. We stopped off again once the water, this time on the Gulf side, looked nice and clean. Pulled over at a beach cafe, stripped down and had a great swim in nice clear water off a white sand beach. I couldn’t bear to put my riding jacket back on, so rode the rest of the day in my t-shirt…bit burnt now. Pulled over once more to buy sandwiches in a gasolineria and eat them under a shady tree overlooking the sea. Pulled into Campeche around 5pm, found a cheap hotel, and here I sit…

Tomorrow I’ll ride to Hopelchen, where there are several large Old Colony Mennonite colonies. Goodbye Tecate, hello home-baked pie. It’s a battle between calorie sources.

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Photo by Victoria Burrows

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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Water

I’ve been on the colonies for a few days now…feels like a year. I’ve met an awful lot of awfully good people, my German has improved, and I’ve figured out which cafes serve good pie. It’s been the way I hoped it would be…one person introduces me to two more, and they all have stories to tell. It all began with Abram Siemens, who was my school principal in GR 5-6. He has the most well known radio show in the area and also publishes the Deutsch-Mexikanische Rundschau newspaper. From his first introductions I’ve been busy from morning to night, chasing down and visiting with all the contacts I’ve made. I’ve spent most of my time with the more “modern” groups so far, that’s just the way it’s been. I expect to hit the road again on Monday morning, or maybe Tuesday. I’ll see how things go today and then decide.

Just outside La Honda Mennonite Colony

I can’t, and won’t, tell all the stories here, cause then you wouldn’t buy the book when it comes out. However, I’ll share a newspaper clipping with you. This issue has been a very hot topic around here in the past 2 weeks and I’ve tried to get some video and stories about it as well.

OOSKAnews

Mexican Mennonites Call for End to Hostilities Over Contested Wells and Dams

20 Jul 2012

Mexico, CHIHUAHUA — Mennonite communities in Mexico’s drought-stricken Chihuahua state last week called on authorities to put a stop to aggression against them over alleged illegal dams and wells.

The groups said they had been targeted by members of agro-political groups like the Barzonistas, a movement of low and lower middle class private business and farming interests, and the Democratic Farmer’s Front (FDC). The Mennonites said members of these groups have destroyed their dams and wells.

The communities asked the state government to stop providing the equipment used to destroy their wells and dams (they say the equipment came from the state Secretary General of Government and Rural Development), and to return the equipment the Barzonistas and FDC confiscated from them.

The Mennonites claim that representatives of organizations such as the National Water Commission (Conagua) and the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Profepa) in the area are usually taking orders from the Barzonistas and the FDC.

Those destroying the wells and dams accuse the Mennonites of taking the water illegally. In late June, Fernando Vázquez Ramírez, president of the municipality of Ahumada, accused Mennonites of digging approximately 100 illegal wells in Chihuahua, and requested an investigation into the issue.

Those destroying the water infrastructure do not know if they are legal or not, the Mennonites have said.

Local Conagua director Sergio Cano Fonseca said that the Mennonites may have purchased false permits for wells, since the permits they have presented were not issued by Conagua.

He said the groups were paying as much as $1,000 USD for each of these permits. There have been higher sales of false permits during the current drought, he noted.

Mennonite leaders counter that Conagua sold them false permits for $35,000 USD, and false titles for wells for $40,000 USD. They complain that they have repeatedly tried to make deals with Conagua, but were forced instead to work with intermediaries.

Conagua plans to destroy 23 Mennonite dams. They have already destroyed one with a capacity of 55,000 cubic meters, which was at 15 percent capacity. Roads and crops were also destroyed in the process, reported El Heraldo de Chihuahua.

In parts of Chihuahua state, it has been illegal to construct dams without permission since 1957.

Following the request for assistance from the Mennonite communities, Chihuahua’s secretary general of government, Raymundo Romero Maldonado, ordered a halt to Conagua’s operation to destroy dams. He said that if Conagua’s Chihuahua branch did not have the power to stop this, he would go to the central government. Destruction of wells and dams was the responsibility of federal authorities, not the state government, he added.

Romero Maldonado said that he had met with Mennonite leaders, and they signed an agreement that would give the groups more time to gather documentation, and require Conagua to get the proper paperwork to determine if a particular structure is legal before starting an operation to demolish it.

Cano Fonseca accused the Chihuahua government of helping drilling illegal wells, which prompted Romero Maldonado called him a ”liar.”

The Barzonistas, angry at being excluded from the meeting between Romero Maldonado and Mennonite leaders, said they would march in the streets of Buenaventura, demanding a meeting with State Governor César Duarte and federal officials.

They warned that the Mennonites had made the truce with the government, not with them, according to El Heraldo de Chihuahua.

The Mennonites may call on US and Canadian authorities to pressure the Mexican government into protecting them.

There are approximately 80,000 Mennonites living in Mexico.

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.

Kawi came through

So Kawasaki came through and gave me a new shock on warranty, although my warranty explicitly states that shocks are not covered. Thank-you, Kawasaki.

I arrived on Friday afternoon, from Presidio, and drove straight to the bike shop. They confirmed I needed a new shock, but by the time we got on the hop it was too late to get Kawasaki warranty people on the ball. So they basically said come back on Monday.

I had a rather down tempo weekend in El Paso, hanging about my hotel (Coral Motel, just as glam as it was in the 70s, but now the pool is a giant sand box) trying not to spend money, tinkering on the bike and changing the tire, oh, about twelve-teen times. Seriously, I have no idea how I managed to pinch the tube every *&^%^%$^%$ time. I also broke my watch, a few of my tools, and I broke the visor on my helmet. And my bike shock was still broken, don’t forget. I wasn’t in a great mood.

On Sunday I walked over to the Dick Poe Toyota dealership next door, and one of the mechanics was in there working on his own truck (place was closed) and he graciously helped me with my tire, using the proper tools (tip: cheap carpentry prybars from K-Mark may seem like a clever cost saver, but they’re not). We whipped the new tire on and pumped it up and … pfffffft. I’d torn the tube AGAIN! His wife and kid were keen to get moving, so I lugged my tire the block back to my hotel and decided I’d just pretend the day never actually happened.

Monday morning I was back at Dick Poe’s fine establishment and the same mechanic spotted me right away. This time he had to clear it with the boss (insurance…man, these Americans are paranoid). I’d patched one of the tubes (again) and we managed to get the tire on, without another puncture. Thanks, shaven-headed tattooed mechanic with “love” tattooed under your wedding band (I think you said your name was John?).

Then I rode over to Edge Kawasaki, where David, a pony-tailed mechanic with a fair number of years of wrench-bending under his belt (he doesn’t bend them under his belt…I don’t think. I didn’t ask) jumped on my bike and said “yea, she’s shot alright”. He then called Kawasaki and told them where things were at and what I nice chap I was and how he’d feel awfully sorry for me if I didn’t get a new shock on warranty. They said ok. I think a rather sweetly-sinister letter from me to the warranty people, as well as pressure from Jill Ruth at Headingly Sports may have helped as well. Within 30 minutes he had a new shock installed (we had it over-nighted from the warehouse on Friday/Sat night already, just in case we’d get coverage) and I was on my way. I then rode up to another bike shop to buy myself some proper tire tools (they’re only $5 each. Ugh) and rode up the Franklin Mtns to get some nice panorama shots of El Paso. By then I was bright red (t-shirt riding. Yes, with a helmet) cause it’s 93F/34C here and everyone is begging to go to hell just to cool off. So I stopped at a 7-11 and bought the largest jug of water they sell and a tube of sunscreen, and slathered it on while standing in the middle of the shop in a helmet with a GoPro mounted on the top. Then I went to my hotel and drank said water. All of it.

A note on the GoPro mounted on my helmet, and this is for Stephen Burns. You are totally right about making yourself stand out and the added safety in that as a motorcyclist. Every kid in a passing car points at me and goes “Mom/Dad, that guy has a camera on his head!” and that Mom/Dad is far less likely to cut me off. I wave at so many kids in passing cars my wrist is getting sore. It works great. Hopefully the gangsters in Juarez see it the same way. I’m looking for a suitably garish plush toy to mount on the rear of my helmet for added safety.

So I will meet a distant/sort of cousin tonight (Kelvin Kroeker) and then plan to cross the border into Mexico early tomorrow morning. I should be in Cuauhtémoc by Tuesday night.