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Tortillas to Totems

Tortillas to Totems: Sidetracked by the Unexpected

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By: Sam Manicom
ISBN: 978-0-9556573-3-7
Publisher: Adventure Motorcycle Travel Books
Publication Date: 2010
320 pages.21 x 14 x 2.4 cm
List Price: $21.99

Tortillas to Totems is the fourth book of what I hope will be a continuing series by Sam Manicom.

The other books in the series — all of which were previously reviewed on webBikeWorld — include Into Africa and Under Asian Skies (reviewed together) and Distant Suns (review).

The word “understatement” doesn’t come close to describing Sam Manicom as the consummate motorcycle adventure tourer.

After all, how many of us have taken our GS or KLR650 on anything more than a few dozen off-road miles, much less multi-month travels across four continents?

For us “arm chair” adventure touring types, who wistfully imagine ourselves as modern-day Marco Polos but who just can’t seem to release the bonds holding us to jobs and all the rest, there are always Sam Manicom’s books.

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There are few real adventurers left in the world and fewer new roads to explore, but these books are a sort of throwback to the glory days of exploration. They’re all excellent reads, but Tortillas and Totems is my favorite, perhaps because it brings to life the people and places in my part of the world.

“Tortillas to Totems” references the geographic area covered by the explorations; from the southernmost part of Mexico all the way up to the Northwest Territories of Canada…with side trips back and forth, up and down and just about everywhere else in North America.

Now just because and adventurer travels through interesting places doesn’t necessarily mean the story will be compelling. I’ve read too many authors that can make a trip to the moon seem boring. But Tortillas to Totems is compelling, with a combination of diary, narrative and commentary that really makes the reader feel like you’re right there in front of the campfire with Sam, listening to the tall tales as the coyotes howl in the background.

Sam and Birgit, his riding companion familiar to readers of his other books, are not Americans or North Americans. So it is very interesting to get their take on a land that I thought I knew.

His impressions as he crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. are especially interesting and possibly controversial to some. I’d have to say that probably the last place I’d pick to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. would be at Tijuana. Anyone knows that — anyone except a “foreigner” I guess.

Like it or not, we Americans have a certain…shall I say “reputation” that may or may not be deserved. But as Sam later finds out, this is a big country with a lot of people of different ideas, backgrounds and feelings that go way beyond stereotypes — yet another traveler’s lesson learned.

And making the crossing after a weeks-long Mexican motorcycle tour by going from the dirt roads of Baja to the superhighways of San Diego in one day would definitely be a max culture shock for anyone who had never done it before.

I would think that a salty world adventurer would know enough to be ready for anything, but apparently it was all too much for Sam and it took several days for him to see past it. Always something to learn I guess, and “Every day an adventure”, as is Sam’s motto.

The book meanders a bit towards the end, with some east/west and north/sound criss-crossing of the U.S.A. that seems slightly disconnected from the first half of the book. I’d probably have edited down the part about the border crossing and then tightened up the last 50 pages or so, which can seem a bit like trip notes added on to the end.

But overall, this is a very good “you are there” read and a must-have for anyone considering a serious adventure tour in your own backyard. You’ll learn about the types of situations to expect and the surprises that make it all worthwhile. And, as always happens when you travel, you’ll bring something back with you that will never be forgotten.

Review Date: February 2011

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