The Lunatic Express, by Carl Hoffman, is the story of a journey on some of the world’s most dangerous trains, buses, boats, and airlines. Hoffman travels over mountain passes and through jungles in Peru, journeys on the notoriously bad ferries of Bangladesh, and rides the local train in Mumbai that takes the lives of over 4,000 people a year. Despite these death defying feats, it wasn’t until I read of his flight into Afghanistan in the midst of the war that I truly thought ‘maybe he really is insane.’
The book is well written and compelling. I read it quickly, both to find out what would happen to him next, and also in an effort to try to understand him. When someone undertakes a project like this, there is a tendency to think they have a death wish. However, it seemed as though when Hoffman lives on the edge, he becomes more alive, more free, and more self-aware. The psychology of the book was almost as interesting as the travel stories. I found myself relating to both the connection he felt with the people he’d end up traveling next to as well as the isolation he experienced even in the midst of being squeezed in between hundreds or thousands of people.
The book illustrates what so many people endure to travel, in some cases on a daily basis. Hoffman also explores the lives of some of the bus drivers and boat captains he meets along the way and discovers the thin margins that these cheap modes of transportation catering to the world’s poor survive on. One reason they are so dangerous is the simple fact that there are no rules preventing someone from driving a bus for 28 hours straight. I don’t know about your judgment after that amount of time without sleep, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I drove off the road either.
The stories of the people he meets along the way are the highlight of the book, from the men on an African train that look out for him to families on an Indonesian ferry that share their food with him. He is continually surrounded by the generosity of the invariably poor people he meets, many of them insisting on paying for him to show their hospitality. They always seem to be baffled by him, “Why don’t you fly?” is the most common question he’s asked, because if they had the money, surely they would. Who would endure five days below deck on a stinking ferry crawling with cockroaches when they could take a short flight instead?
For me, it is these personal narratives that make The Lunatic Express such an interesting book. Most readers are probably wondering the same thing as his fellow passengers, but for adventurers who’ve been on similar journeys themselves – not because they were the most dangerous, but just because they were the cheapest or only way to travel to a certain destination – you may find a kindred spirit in Hoffman and enjoy his sometimes crazy stories.
The Lunatic Express, Carl Hoffman, Broadway Books, 2010.