Under Asian Skies by Sam Manicom: Audible book review

By | August 1, 2016

It didn’t start well.

Under Asian Skies for me was preceded by Guy Martin’s autobiography, Zen and the art of Motorcycle maintenance, and Jupiter’s Travels, among other legendary books written by extraordinary human beings. When I started listening to this book, 2 major problems immediately showed up with their ugly and irritating heads.

  1. Narration: Almost all the Audible books I’ve listened to till date have been narrated by professionals. The differences in the quality of speech are instantly apparent. Sam is a great traveller and a brilliant writer, but one man can’t also be a kick ass narrator.
  2. Music: I don’t think music belongs to Audio books, it just doesn’t make any sense. Under Asian Skies tries to bridge the gap between chapters with small music pieces related to the country where Sam is heading to, or came from.

For some reason, these little things affected me so much that I had to stay away from this book for a while. After finishing off Contact by Carl Sagan, and the first book in the Game of Thrones series, I came back to Sam’s book, mostly because of lack of other options.

I’m glad that I did.

After the first few chapters, you get used to Sam’s voice. Professional narrators are awesome, if not for Michael Kramer I would never have been able to finish Robert Pirsig’s book. However, the advantage of having your writer be your narrator, is that he’s the one who’s actually experienced the story. In the deeper, more emotional parts, the connection that you feel with the words is almost mythical, and the only thing responsible for this bond is the series of pictures running across the narrator’s eyes as he remembers those times.

The music rattled me a lot, but after about the halfway point I realised that I almost looked forward to the next one. I don’t know where Sam found the people to play these pieces, but they are different, beautiful, eerie, and it didn’t take long for my childish resentment to fade away.

I’m still halfway done with Into Africa, Sam’s first book. Under Asian Skies is second in the series, and the sole reason I’m finished with it is because it’s an audio book. Into Africa is riveting, but sadly I can’t seem to be able to concentrate enough nowadays to read physical books.

Under Asian Skies comes after Sam’s African adventure, and takes him to Australia, New Zealand, Asia and then the Middle-East. There were many things through this book that stood out for me, and made me respect the dude even more than I already did.

  1. Sam loves Libby, but it’s just a means to an end: I see a lot of people on social media nowadays who say stupid shit like “Live to Ride” or “Ride or Die”. Sam’s attitude towards his bike is refreshingly simple: It’s brilliant, it gives a lot of freedom, I love it, but I don’t mind putting it away in storage and travelling by other means if the situation demands it. His ideas perfectly match with mine, motorcycles are great and all, just don’t start developing a sexual fetish for one.
  2. He earns while he travels: I’d heard of mythical stories of people doing this, making money while travelling, but never actually seen in detail how it worked. It’s not as glorious as taking a few photos or writing a few articles to pay for the next month, Sam’s experience involved real hands-on work, picking fruits and vegetables. It was fascinating to see him blend in with all different kinds of people, do his job, make money, and then get back to life on the road.
  3. He budgets like a boss: Being wise with money is something I’ve always sucked at, and I watch people like Sam with open eyes and a gaping mouth. After some really intelligent work, he got the permission to ride through China, but the cost was too much. His decision to drop China is instant, without remorse or hesitation. I would probably have started begging for money, sponsorships, anything to make it through China, but it takes someone with complete grasp of the obvious to make the right choice. His budgeting also explains the lack of a professional narrator, he’s not the kind of guy who has a few thousand dollars lying around for someone else to read his book.
  4. He never gives up a chance to have fun: Whenever I’ve done a long ride, there’s always a little voice in the back of my head that keeps steering me away from danger. The side-effect of this voice is that sometimes I pass opportunities that are a bit risky, but promise to be insane amounts of fun. It’s easy to get carried away by the road, to just devote yourself single mindedly to the destination. Sam seems immune to this human condition, and I loved watching him do wrong things at the wrong time and get away with a few stories.
  5. He’s not stupid: Getting into a tough situation and getting out of it is one thing, purposely prying open an alligator’s jaw and sticking your neck in there is another. Sam knows what risks he can take, and prepares for any eventualities. He certainly makes mistakes, sometimes even giant ones, but he never lets the situation get out of hand, and knows how to get it back when it does.

An extensive part of this book is about his time in India, and as an Indian, it’s nothing short of a vomit-inducing embarrassment to listen to it. I’ve felt this before in other books, but I’ve never seen someone have such a rough time in this country as Sam and especially his German friend. I wish I could say things are better now, but that would just be a useless attempt at fooling everyone, including myself. I guess the only bright side of riding through India is that you’ll probably never run out of stories to tell.

More than anything, Under Asian Skies is a book about letting life carry you along, it’s about the good in this world. There are remarkable situations throughout the book where Sam is saved by nothing other than humanity, random chance, and the willingness to accept help.

In a world constantly being scared into submission, with the people frightened of each other, Sam’s book is a refreshing look into the real face of this planet. It’s easy to let yourself believe the news stories, but all it takes to know the truth is a step away from the screens. Under Asian Skies is one of the finest books that I have read, and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who wishes to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.