Martin Bauman hosted me on his podcast Story Untold to talk about the journey that led me to research and write a travel memoir about my Mennonite culture. Have a listen!
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.
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!
I spent my first night in Brazil camped in a soya bean field. I look rather proud of myself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m in Ohio, on my way to NYC. Time to backtrack and tell you how it all began.
I set off on Monday…but I only rode as far as a muddy riverbank outside of Niverville. Where the Red and Rat rivers meet is where, in 1874, my Great-Great-Grandfather and his 9-year old son arrived by riverboat from S. Russia along with about 35 other families. That’s where I stopped for my first night, and was joined by about 20-25 friends and family, including an impressive showing of my uncles and aunts. We built a fire and Menno Kroeker retold the story of that first landing. My aunties gave me schnetjie and honey, jereischte tveiback and a guardian angel. Then everyone left, the fire died, and I crawled into my tent for the night.
In the morning I was off. I skipped across the Canada/US border, making jokes that the guards didn’t find funny in the least. Then I zig zagged my way south, sticking mostly to secondary roads, where I speeded and enjoyed the curves. I camped my first night just outside of Minneapolis, having made more than 700km for the day.
I set off again, taking the very scenic 35 down the west side of Wisconsin before cutting east to Chicago. I’d made 800km by the time I arrived in Wilmette. There I found my old friend Chris Hipschen, his wife LIza and children Harry and Jennifer. I hadn’t seen Chris in 12 years. He looked just like he did when he lived on my couch in Chicago, and we had a lot to catch up on. A warm bed, good meal, a few beers and many stories later I set off once again.
Day 3 wasn’t too great. It took me hours to get out of Chicago heading southeast, and then when I did get out I made the mistake of hitting a freeway to make up for lost time. I hate freeways, their traffic, their horrible human encampments at the exits. It is impossible to get food that is not deep-fried at any of these stops, and that is a fact. Too many big 4×4 family wagons careening along with one person inside, sucking away on a super big drink (only 29c to upgrade to XXXXXXXXXX-large!). For some reason the bike feels very uncomfortable on a big highway, although I go no faster than I do on a small road. She also does not like it, I guess. I got rained on, several times, and was miserable and my jaw ached from grimacing.
Finally, in early afternoon, I snapped out of it and found the 613 cutting across western Ohio. Much better. I’m still doing 110-120km/hr, but now the bike feels steady and safe, and I get to down shift and roar around curves, slow down and see all those pretty little American country towns. Sturdy red brick buildings, green lawns and so many American flags I sometimes wonder if they grow wild around these parts. The towns are really very nice. Late in the afternoon I rolled into yet another one of those towns and found a man washing his firetruck outside the firehouse, women and children hanging around outside in the sun. Oh, where have the 1950s gone? The fireman directed me to a hotel, and that’s how I ended up in Findlay, Ohio for the night, holed up in a dodgy motel where the front desk guy, an affable Indian, told me he’d never seen a Canadian motorbike before. Yea right, I bet he says that to all of them.