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!