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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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Radio Beijing interviews

For your listening pleasure…a rambling and eclectic three-part interview conducted by Bruce Connolly of Radio Beijing. He was a wonderfully interesting person to chat with, and it’s a shame he edited out his own stories. I suspect he has a much more riveting, and certainly eccentric, story to tell than I do. He’s one of those guys that when you name a place on the globe, any place, he goes (in that lovely Scottish accent of his), “Ah yes, back when I was there in ’72 it was still under dictatorship and this guy I met…” and then you’re off and running on another yarn.

Click on the links below to listen to the MP3 files.

Interview 1

Interview 2

Interview 3

You can listen to more of his work for RBC right here.

 

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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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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Bolivian salt flats

I’ve made it Potosi, Bolivia, one of the world’s highest cities at 4090m. I’m gasping for breath as soon as I roll out of breath, but it is getting better after a few weeks at altitude. I’ve been at 2000-5000 meters for much of my time in South America. The roads in Bolivia are incredible, as in incredibly bad. It reminds me of Western China, maybe worse. But good fun on a motorbike.

The last few weeks have been pretty intense. I’ve been riding pretty hard/fast, without many days off. I realized this morning that I’d only done laundry once since Colombia, which might explain that funny smell. I’ve been riding, writing and doing a wee bit of sightseeing (Machu Picchu) but not a lot of sitting around. So today is a rest day to patch clothes (yes, really, with a thread and needle), do laundry, work on the bike, email, etc.

South America is different than any other place I’ve been for the sheer scale of the land. The mountains, rivers, plains, sky, clouds, roads, everything is bigger, dustier, steeper and grittier than elsewhere in the world. The food is pretty bad (chicken, rice and potatoes. Every day) but the people are super nice, even when I spit out some garbled Spanish question at them. And I’m meeting a lot of crazy travelers on motorbikes and pedal bikes. Far more here than in Central America. I meet at least one other traveler a day.

I’ve done about 28,000 km on the bike so far…and all is well. My license plate fell off from all the rough roads, so after leaving it tucked away for about 800km I’ve now taped it to my pannier. A few bolts have vibrated out (single cylinder plus bad roads) which I replace as fast as I can (like the engine mount that fell out). And the bike got pretty salty on the salt flats…so I found a car wash and gave her the first wash of the trip. The “discount” front tire I bought in Panama is falling apart, literally, and I hope and pray it lasts until Santa Cruz. The panniers are standing strong despite me knocking over a few stone fences with them along the way. My boots are at the shoe repair shop at the moment…gear never lasts when you really put it to the test. And my body…well, I’m tired, got a sore arse, am sunburnt and wind-chapped, but very happy to be on the road.

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Getting a shoe shine while in line to cross the Peru-Bolivia border. I stood in this line for 1.5 hrs and then was kicked out when I refused to pay a bribe due to a piece of paper I lost. Then I found the paper, and they had to stamp me through. Ha!

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This road will take you home son…to somewhere anyway. Up in the Bolivian highlands, without a proper map, relying on the compass and landmarks. (Like, keep that massive volcano to your left)

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We (a German biker I met and rode with for 3 days and I) drove about 30km of the softest, dustiest sand road you can imagine. It was up to 30cm deep and bone dry. I fell off 4 times, but going so slow there was no problem. I was sneezing dust for 2 days, and it was worse because all this dusty gear goes into my tent at night! We camped in an empty sheep pen (stone walls make good shelters) and I think the sheep sneezed when they were chased into the pen the next day.

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The Uyuni salt flats, up at around 3600m, fairly simply blew me away. I drove about 100km across the flats, total white world. The salt is flat, hard and fairly smooth. I read about this place as a kid, and was literally giddy with excitement to actually ride my bike across it. I took some salt to use in my next camping meal.

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A woman (?) living on the edge of the salt flats.

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Just happy to be here. This was one of my big “destinations” of the trip.

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That’s real salt of the earth.

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Kinda contrasty for my camera, the volcano next to the salt flats. But it looked amazing.

Machu Picchu ++

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Cusco is tourist hell, totally driven by the tourist dollar. This is the jumping off point for all tourists on their way to Machu Picchu. A horrible place to be, but still pretty at night.

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Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca city that sits at about 2,500 meters in the Andes. Incredible to see it for myself.  incredible to actually see it for myself.

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I got there at 7am, just as the mist was clearing to reveal the mystical city.

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Mountains around Machu Picchu

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I hiked up Machu Picchu Montana for a top-down view…nearly killed me though.

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Just some more mountains…scenery here is stunning. I nearly run off the road looking around me sometimes,

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Brewing some morning tea at a campsite.

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20121026-174107.jpgArrived in Puno, Peru, a lake town, to a huge festival. This is my last stop in Peru.

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