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.

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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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.

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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Ecuador Express

I crossed into Peru on the 14th, slept near the border, and then rode about 500km into the country yesterday. It’s been a long haul of riding from Colombia. I made it across Ecuador in three days of solid riding. I realized I’m well behind schedule after faffing about in Central America and Colombia, and want to make sure I have plenty of time with the Mennonites in Bolivia and Paraguay. So I’ve been hitting the road hard. But I’m loving the riding. I’m usually on the road by 6:30 or 7:00 am, and ride for 10-12 hours, then repeat. It doesn’t leave much time for blogging, I’m afraid.

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Ecuador was mostly mountain riding, much of it above 3000 meters. It was a relief to ride in cooler weather after all the heat and humidity of Central America. The towns and much of the rural areas reminded me of northern/western China. Dry, dusty, gritty, grimy. Unpainted brick buildings, and when they are painted it’s with product or political adverts. But clearly there’s some new money around, all from oil I think. New cars on the roads, lots of new, big houses.

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I’d hoped to do some camping in Ecuador, but I wasn’t planning out my days well enough, and always ended up in some gritty little town at night, so that’s where I’d sleep. The one day I did make it to a national park, late, in the dark, they turned me away, saying that they were having security problems in the park and that it was unsafe to camp. So I backtracked down the mountain and found a little cabin with a fireplace.

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My first flat tire of the trip. I’d been carrying a new rear tire since Panama, so decided the old one was bald enough (and very thin, I realized when I took it off) and opted for a new tire and tube. Problem was, the new tire was very stiff, and my little traveling tire tools were not up the job. I managed to flag down a car –driven, of course, by another motorcyclist — and he drove me and my wheel to a town 10km away to get the tire changed while his wife watched my bike on the roadside. Came back, thought all was right, and put the wheel back on and loaded up. Then I realized I’d pinched the tube in my frenetic attempts to put the tire on. I tried pumping it up to drive a short distance…but the hole kept ahead of the pump. This time I had no one to watch my bike…took the wheel back off, locked the bike up as best I could and hitchhiked back to the tire shop, got it fixed, hitchhiked back to the bike, all was well. Four hours later I was back on the road. Going shopping for new tools in the next big town.

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Gorki Mayorga, the man who came to my rescue and gave me a ride. His wife, also a journalist, stayed behind and watched the bike for me while we went to the shop.

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All well so far. The bike is standing up pretty well, despite the stray dogs that throw themselves at me. KLR 2, Dogs 0. (although the last one broke my improvised tool box when I hit him.)

 

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Crossing Colombia

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I met Dom Harris, another KLR 650 rider, on the boat over from Panama. We drove from Cartegena to Bucaramanga together, a marathon 15-hr ride through the mountains.

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Stopped to make some adjustments to the bike, and as always a crowd gathers to ask questions.

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I went hang gliding for the first time in Bucaramanga. Awesome views, plenty of fresh air.

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After I left Bucaramanga I retuned to the road alone. I stopped in Barichara, a 300-year old colonial town, for the night.

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Kids playing ball in Barichara

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The scenery on the ride to Bogota. I had about 500 km of this…nearly drove off the road a few times. Crisp, cool mountain air.

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A protest of sorts in Bogota. Plenty of cops.

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Young Colombian taking in a punk rock concert in Plaza Bolivar.

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Thanks to Utz-Jay and her amazing family in Bucaramanga for their hospitality. I stayed with them for several days, and they fed me, did my laundry, showed me around town, etc. These sort of people make traveling easy.