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on 2 February 2011
The final book of a four part series, From Tortillas to Totems picks up where Sam Manicom's previous book, Distant Suns, concluded. The border crossings and country counts are smaller here owing to the vast landmass of each North American country traversed, but the adventures and Sam's keen insights are no less evident.

As an American, I particularly enjoyed this book, as it gave me chance to see much of my own country (as well as Mexico and Canada) reflected through the eyes of a fellow traveler. In full disclosure, I consider Sam to be a friend of mine (despite the fact that he nearly killed me), as I am the "John" mentioned in his first book, Into Africa, who was involved in the motorcycle accident with him in Tanzania. Our meet up in New York in the last chapter of this book sort of bookends the whole series in a personal way for me - although that certainly won't carry over unless you're reading this and also appear somewhere in one or more of Sam's books.

I was a bit concerned before starting this final book that it would be a bit harder to get into. Part of the appeal of the early books is their setting in foreign and what I consider to be exotic locales. Would a book in which 2/3 of it is set in the developed and westernized world that I am a part of hold my attention beyond Mexico? Would the relative lack of travel experiences with corrupt and shady officials or risky and dangerous situations make for interesting reading?

I'm happy to report that From Tortillas to Totems is very much a fascinating read, but for different reasons than the prior books in the series. Here, it is as much about what's going on within Sam, his attitudes, sentiments and perspectives, as it is about the environs and situations he and his travel partner and girlfriend Birgit (who plays as large a part in this book as she did in the prior one) find themselves in.

The United States in particular seems to have been a personal challenge for Sam, who in most cases, goes into a country without much in the way of biases or preconceived negative sentiments. Even Sam's generally optimistic and benevolent attitudes however are challenged by US policies (especially in the international sphere -- and I should add, not without reason). In some ways, his attitude towards the States initially is even quite negative, which can only make an American wonder about the attitudes and biases of those who are considerably less open minded and worldly curious than Sam.

As the travels in North America progress however, slowly -- ever so slowly -- something happens. Sam and Birgit meet genuine and overtly friendly, warm and welcoming people. He falls in love with the varied geography and terrain, and expresses admiration for what Americans have accomplished since independence. Preconceived biases fall by the wayside, and politics - like in every other country Sam has written about - becomes separated from the landscape and the people. If this separation is not complete (and is it ever so for any of us?), it is at least relegated to a level commensurate with other countries he has visited. It may not be a complete Dickens-like Christmas Eve transformation, but it's fair to say that an evolution in sentiments appears to have taken place.

Some Americans reading this book may find the early sentiments expressed a bit caustic and stop reading. What a tragedy that would be, as one will have missed the change that takes place in Sam's thoughts and attitudes, and which isn't revealed in full until much later in the book. The appendix, which gives a brief history of America's involvement in the Nicaraguan civil war under the Reagan Administration in the 1980's may also be difficult for Americans to read, but especially for Americans, if we are to be honest with ourselves and not whitewash our own past, it is necessary. Giants need to be careful where they tread, lest those who are smaller get trampled.

For those who have not read Sam Manicom's books, I don't recommend starting with this one. They are certainly best read in the order in which they were written, which follows the order of his 8 year around the world motorcycling odyssey. This is however an excellent close to the series, even if it's a bit sad, as it is, after all, the conclusion of the trip.

But oh, what a trip it's been!
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on 20 November 2010
On a recommendation from some fellow BMW bikers I purchased Sam's latest book 'Tortillas to Totems' From opening the first page to the last I found it difficult to put it down. Sam has the very unique and simplistic way of involving the reader in his writing. He does this by explaining his journey details, with his partner Brigit, on their travels through Mexico, the USA and Canada. And even more impressive is that they did all this on a shoestring budget!!

For those of you who may think like myself that 'life is not a rehearsal' then this is a book to read and be inspired to travel, whilst you still can.

I will certainly now be buying his previous books.
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There are two types of motorcyclists. Those obsessed with the technical - typically they like fast bikes or offroaders and there are those who use a bike as a means to an end. Sam Manicom falls into the later category where his bike allows him to travel the world and see places.

The first surprise I had was that he can write. I'm not talking about some flowery literary great, but with a literate easy going style that suits the subject matter. It is easy to read and avoids the frustration one gets when reading about an interesting subject but offset by poor grammar or style.

Secondly he is very fair. Now I say this because clearly like many people who want to experience the world in this way tend to fall into the left wing camp view. All poor people from dirt ridden poverty stricken countries are salt of the Earth folk who would give you their last food, whereas anyone from the USA is clearly a capitalist pig, hell bent on ripping the entire world off.

Sam Manicom immediately when he arrived in the USA did just that. The first couple of pages of his trip into the US were the expected put down of the USA. However, Sam Manicom pulled himself up and in his musings explained to himself that he was being closed minded when he complains about that very thing in others. It made for a very refreshing change. He maintains a good neutral view throughout the trip through the USA and his adventures along the way are well explained and disseminated in a affable natured way.

He describes the trip well and finds some wonderful people on the way and certainly the US comes out of this with flying colours. Spectacular scenery is visited and some extraordinarily generous people are encountered along the way.

Overall if you like travel writing then this is a very good example of the genre with of course a couple of motorbikes thrown if for good luck.
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on 2 November 2010
Sam is a hugely positive individual and has a zest for life which really comes across in the book. It's actually really therapeutic reading the book after a hard and mad day at work, you can escape with Sam, unwind and join him on his journey as he discovers new things. Sam has a wonderful way of story telling that enables you to put yourself as his riding partner and paints a vivid picture in your mind of where he is and what he's seeing. The experiences come thick and fast and it really amazes me, as it does Sam, generally how kind people are. That really comes across in the book and regenerates your hope for mankind. Perhaps we aren't all setting out to kill each other and could get along??

Sam strikes a good balance by providing just enough relevant historical information so that you can understand the relevance of where he is with a few interesting facts thrown in without it getting too overpowering as I've had in some travel books where I haven't got past Chapter 1. Oh and as per the other books in the series the pictures included are award winners. Each one. Really really stunning. You just want to look and stare at them and imagine what it must have been like to be there and how it would feel.

When I got to the end I was actually really sad. I was sad that the adventure was at the end. I wanted to read more...

Sam is a really talented writer and he deserves top marks for another fantastic book. Well done Sam.
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on 3 November 2010
'Tortillas to Totems.'
Excellent read and some very observant views on travelling and America in general. (The same thoughts I have myself)
Theres never enough good photos in these kind of books but I really liked the line drawings he's mostly done himself dotted through the book.
Great quotes and some good research.

Recommended easy reading especially if you're planning your own trip to the U.S.

And if you are thinking of travelling on the cheap he's ya man to learn from.... No hotels ever! Patched bike gear! No heated grips or jackets!
Try travelling for 3 months on 3 weeks pay!

One of the new generation of motorcycle travel authors, but one of the last budget travellers I fear....
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on 31 October 2010
A Brilliant Read. I read Motorcycle Adventure books all the time but Sam still hits the top of my list. After all the miles and the this, his forth book - he still keeps it fresh and so very interesting. You can't help but get caught up in the adventure and the moment. I try my best to dream of "Living the Dream" - Sam has been there and now he is sharing it with the reader - an excellent read and addition to my collection. Looking forward to him going back and doing Alaska justice. Keep the miles rolling under those wheels and one day - Live the Dream....... Buy them all - you won't regret it... and the pictures are great too !!
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on 8 November 2010
A real world biker on a proper adventure, Sam's writing inspires those who dream about such a journey and gives those who can't go a great insight into the highs and lows of such a trip. He shows you don't have to be superhuman or the world's greatest biker, just have the will to give it a go. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be but there are still huge rewards for those prepared to go and explore it. Sam tells it how it is, warts and all, and this, together with his knack of conjuring pictures in your mind, makes his writing so appealing. You won't want to put it down!
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on 10 June 2016
I have just finished reading the 4th book in the series detailing Sam Manicom and Birgits adventures on motorcycles, through Mexico, USA and Canada.
It almost makes me feel like I am there. When Sam describes the riding conditions, be it rain or shine, I can feel it too. These books are very easy to read and very difficult to put down.
One of my favourite passages from the book was not about bikes, but about the contrast between third and first world countries.
I took the liberty of putting in the relevant passage as a taster, in the hope that demand will lead to more books. a
‘North American supermarkets were a childish adventure for us. We were like kids in a toy store at Christmas. For the last couple of years we’d done most of our shopping in little shops where squadrons of flies practised aerobatics over the one choice of sardine, shampoo, soap, bread and sometimes even goat or sheep cheese. We’d bought our vegetables from little Indian women, choosing from their displays lovingly laid out on blankets on the ground. Great fun, but sometimes we’d dreamt of not having to bargain for everything. It’s a slow process. Now, these dreams were coming true. Ten choices of sardine, fixed price; twenty choices of shampoo, fixed price; but what to choose? And so many different types of bread! The goodies on the salad vegetable bar looked really fresh. We stood admiring them and then were amazed as artificial thunder rolled, lights flashed and artificial rain fell all over the salad from the ‘roof’ of the salad bar! When cool air floated out towards us I suddenly realised that I was standing with my mouth open, again… No blanket on the ground here, that’s for sure…’
Read it and, hopefully, you will be as hooked as I am.
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on 22 February 2011
The first thing I would say about this book (and Manicom's previous three) is that it is not a motorcycle travel book; it is a travel book by an author who happens to use a motorcycle. Although I am a motorcyclist, and I enjoy travelling I am not a big fan of reading about how our intrepid hero changed his lower thrungle bracket at the roadside using only a stone and a length of baling twine. What I prefer, and what Sam Manicom delivers excellently, is to read about the people and the country through which he travelled.

This book is very different to its three predecessors in that the greater part of it is about more developed countries. Into Africa: Africa by Motorcycle - Every Day an Adventure,Under Asian Skies: Eye Opening Motorcycle Adventure Through the Cultures and Colours of Asia and Distant Suns: Adventure in the Vastness of Africa and South America are all about Manicom's travels through Africa, Asia and South America respectively. Tortillas to totems sees him (and his girlfriend Birgit) travelling through Mexico, the USA and Canada.

Manicom's thoughts as he enters the USA and speculates on what he will find are an interesting insight to the man himself. Having perhaps fallen into the trap of believing the stereotype the rest of the world has, it is refreshing to read the change that occurs as meeting normal people reminds him they (we) are all human and all individuals.

I would advise anyone to buy and read this book (and its predecessors), and then go out and start your own adventure.

As a disclaimer, I have met Sam Manicom several times at motortcycling events. Although I am not arrogant enough to claim his friendship I have always found him very approachable and good company. His fantastic ability to match faces and names to people he doesn't meet that often (and among the numbers he must meet) is, I believe, a tribute to his interest in people and a virtue.
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on 15 November 2010
I loved Tortillas to Totems, just as I have enjoyed Into Africa and Distant Suns. In this 30th anniversary of the BMW GS range, here is a guy who went out and did what many of us are still dreaming of doing: quitting the job, buying the bike and hitting the road. It's great to lose yourself in Sam's writing and imagine that it could be you out there, experiencing life with him. For all of us who still harbour the dream to head out on the highway, Sam's books will have to do, until our time comes. Recommended for anyone with wanderlust...
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