Customer Reviews: The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World . . . via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes
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on April 12, 2010
"The Lunatic Express," is a great title. The title alone drew me to this book. In Carl Hoffman's rogue travel memoir, Hoffman travels to countries in the third world by train, plane, boat, ferry, bus, car, truck, pedicab and taxi, taking on five continents in six months. The twist to his tale is that he travels as a local would--not as a Westerner would be expected to.

The countries he visits include Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil in South America; Tanzania and Kenya in east Africa; Mali and Senegal in west Africa; Indonesia, India and Bangladesh in south Asia; Afghanistan, China and Russia. Some countries are just a quick pass; in others he stays a longer time.

I liked this book because Hoffman brings into sharp focus values that traveling Westerners tend to take for granted: privacy and personal space; quiet; the expectation of safety; the expectation for a reasonable level of comfort. Hoffman is willing to give these up to experience separation and to live in the moment.

What nearly destroyed this book for me was the back story: Hoffman as a worldly, middle-aged man who regularly engages in "travel escapism," yet at the same time, wallows in whiny guilt and self-pity for doing so.

Of significance, Hoffman carries an omnipresent cell-phone that he uses with much frequency. So much for the genuine experience of travel separation. His cell-phone is as much an ersatz travel companion as his spouse, a child or a travel friend. On an "as-needed" basis, he makes use of first-world technology to "stay-in-touch" or to make hotel or other travel arrangements. At one point, he uses the cell phone to order Christmas presents for his family from half-way around the world.

The puppy-love affair with a young Western woman in New Delhi with whom he pals around for nearly three weeks is the one truly pathetic part of the narrative. At this juncture, it is obvious that Hoffman is depressed and lonely. During his time in New Delhi, he chooses to live in first-world digs. Unfortunately for the reader, this breaks up the adventure/angst of third-world travel. It is not that the reader wishes Hoffman to fall apart. However, Hoffman's back story is replete with fulsome hypocrisy that nearly destroys the good parts of this narrative.

And yet, I still recommend reading this book because there are compelling parts to his tale along with sparkle and keen insight into local culture and conditions. I especially enjoyed his ferry-travel journeys in Indonesia and Bangladesh. He is temporarily "adopted" by a ferry-board family as he travels to a remote outport in Indonesia. He writes..."the more I shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, the more they embraced me."

Hoffman experiences much kindness and outreach from total strangers in this and in other situations where there is no opportunity for him to reciprocate.
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on March 30, 2010
I worried that this was going to be kind of slim, like Sebastian-Junger-On-A-Risk-Tour, and kind of exploitative. But it's the opposite. It's like a really really long article from the Atlantic, or a series of articles, where you learn what life is like around the world, and how the many billions of people who do not live in the first world get around. There's plenty of fascinating risk-taking, yes (he hitchhikes through the gobi 38 degrees below zero weather; and takes a bus Afghanistan, while the war is going on!), but Hoffman is a highly empathic writer who makes you feel like you know what it is like to commute in India, or be a taxi driver in Kenya, or to ride an ancient wooden ferry in the Amazon. He has some great Harper's-type stats about risk levels, but he is most interesting when talking about what it means to be affluent (quiet and privacy, as well as safety, and liability laws, not to mention bathrooms in trains...), and showing what you only can learn about the world and what it means to be human by traveling on an Indonesian ferry, in steerage, for a week, with roughnecks on their way home from months in an oilfield.
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on July 9, 2010
I guess you could call this extreme tourism. Instead of rafting down rivers or exploring caves, though, the author focuses on the world's most dangerous forms of transportation. Afghan airlines, Indonesian ferries, Indian trains - they're all there. These forms of transportation also happen to be what the world's poor take everyday.

And that's the real interest in this book. Hoffman never really is in danger. But the insights he gains in how the other half lives are really invaluable. His own openness, as well as his own excellent writing skills, help make this happen.

But you've got to admit, the adventures that simply come his way couldn't really be anything but fascinating - prostitutes in Havana, peeing out the window of a train rolling through the Sahel, eating whatever they bring him in a Chinese restaurant with no English speakers, smoking hash with the guy responsible for the casualties (i.e., bodies) that are created everyday on the incredibly crowded Mumbai trains.

As long as he's simply describing what's going on, Hoffman is right on target. Unfortunately, he's also prone to musings about what it all means. Now, this could have been very effective in the right hands. Hoffman, however, is very focused on himself, almost solipsistically so, and without much real insight to boot. He actually comes off as not an especially pleasant character, which is a little ironic, as he seems to make friends very easily with the foreigners he meets.

A couple of reviewers have raised objections which I felt someone should respond to:

"He cheats (has a cell phone and a computer, occasionally stays someplace nice, etc.)." That's a quibble, though, given the other thing he puts himself through. I can't imagine myself ever going through the things he does.

"He never stays in one place long enough to get to know the country and people." That wasn't the point of the book. At the same time, he does get to know someone pretty well in almost every place he goes. And, personally, I think he was able to learn quite a bit about a place simply from riding these very unusual conveyances.

"He's really hard on the US (a Greyhound from LA to DC is the last leg of the trip)." I think there was something to the difference between the we're-all-in-this-together atmosphere of the rest of the world and the atomized individualism of the US. At the same time, though, I think he was also simply projecting a lot of his own troubles onto the people he met, plus he was no longer the star of the show as the out-of-place American.
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on November 24, 2013
Some other reviewers chastised Hoffman as an adrenalin junkie. I've had a few unintended thrills, but mostly I am a person who prefers to live safely. One of the (to me, many) good points of this book is that Hoffman honestly wrestles with his desire to be a loving and responsible husband and father AND an adrenalin junkie who gets a kick from experiencing danger and then saying, “Whew! I'm alive!”

Another good point (again to me) is that he struggles with the paradox of trying to build a safe, humane, and caring society (United States of America), and in the process developing a society with a great deal of suffering and misery; in fact, one that may be poorer (in a spiritual or philosophical sense) than a lot of societies with greater poverty, injustice, and physical danger than American society. To me he communicated this dilemma brilliantly, especially as he describes the discomfort and danger of traveling as most people throughout the world do, pointing out how much more willing people in other cultures (especially men) are willing to physically touch each other, and so on. The Greyhound bus trip at the end of the book is a tour de force in this regard.

Every review is a personal reaction, so if your reactions are negative, then nothing I say will turn the book into a “good” book for you. An interesting part of writing, is that non-fiction seldom has as much emotional impact as fiction. While I am a suspicious person, and can't say with absolute certainty that Hoffman always tells the truth, to me his book is one of those rare books that conveys the same “thrill” and “insight” as the best novels do, while probably mostly sticking to the truth. Keeping in mind that everyone's “truth” is a little different and very subjective. Like me, (and I admit this strongly prejudices me in his favor), Hoffman is a frank and unapologetic atheist. So I guess that means that “truth” exists only in the mind of God. Which I am afraid, means we are all up the creek without a paddle. Hoffman is a lot bolder than I am in his willingness to go up some very dangerous creeks (and roads).
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on March 20, 2010
In less talented hands, "The Lunatic Express" could have ended up condescending, maudlin, exploitive, or worst of all, dull. Fortunately, Carl Hoffman is far too good of a writer to allow this to occur. Instead, Mr. Hoffman has given us a book that, much like the world it describes, is complex, colorful, exciting, and never less than engrossing.

The underlying concept of the book is to experience modes of transportation around the world that would give safety inspectors the vapours. After reading these descriptions I will never again complain about beltway traffic. Yet Mr. Hoffman is never insulting. He implicitly recognizes that there are reasons for the way things are, and manages to imbue his descriptions with a sense of dignity.

This respectful approach extends to the many interesting individuals he encounters, both on and off the road. He celebrates their idiosyncrasies, but never becomes patronizing. These people emerge as fully-rounded characters who live in a world fundamentally different from our own.

And this world bursts from the book with brilliant realism. Mr. Hoffman straddles the boundary between prose and poetry, even when what is being described is sometimes terrifying. Indeed, there are sections of this book that are so vivid and exciting that the reader feels the need afterwards for a stiff drink. (Or at least some soothing tea.)

Further, like all good travel writers, Mr. Hoffman is able to express the personal impact of his travels in a way that is honest and never narcissistic. We get the sense that these travels have changed him, much as reading this book changes the reader.

For me, personally, this book is special because it made me fully appreciate that for millions of people daily life consists of a crowed and frantic maelstrom. It made me realize that the entire planet could be considered something of a Lunatic Express. And with this knowledge comes a greater respect and admiration for the world as a whole, and for individuals, like Carl Hoffman, who bring it to us.
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on May 25, 2014
This book blew me away. The fact that anyone would travel like this author did, for no life or death reason, is unimaginable. I will never complain about any form of transportation in this country again.
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on March 3, 2015
Loved reading this book. The author travels around the world taking the most dangerous routes and vehicles! He travels by boat, train, Russian planes, etc. No death wish he just travels by these for the experience of jetting in poorly maintained jets, buses that, with one bump, would send them over the cliff, ferry routes where the ferry before has sunk. Fearless, but understanding the odds are in his favor, he weaves a first person account of these trips.
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on June 1, 2010
Here in the U.S. we take it as our due that we have clean, comfortable, reliable, safe modes of public transportation. How rare and fortunate is that circumstance, as I learned from this book.

Carl Hoffman spent five months traveling around the world seeking out the most notoriously unsafe means of conveyance and braving their discomforts as a passenger. Bad enough that these boats, trains, buses and planes have made news by killing hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. They're also crowded, stinking, unsanitary, vermin-infested, uncomfortable, and extremely noisy. Not to mention often painfully SLOW, so you get to be miserable for as long as possible!

This trip wasn't just a lark or a chance to show off, although Hoffman does admit to a thread of the daredevil thrill seeker in himself. He wanted to call attention to the fact that the people who ride these conveyances have no choice. There are no alternatives.

In India, people risk their lives daily just to travel to and from their jobs. The trains are so overcrowded that there are several deaths EVERY DAY as people fall off or are shoved off by other passengers.

In Indonesia, overloaded ferry boats sink, drowning hundreds, sometimes thousands. In one instance, Hoffman counted only 13 life rings and NO life boats on a ferry carrying hundreds and hundreds of people.

Nearly 3,000 people PER DAY die on roads in Latin America---roads declared the most dangerous in the world by the World Health Organization.

Sure, we're heavily regulated here in the U.S. with regard to safety measures. It may seem excessive at times, but the alternative is appalling. Dying on public transportation is a reasonable expectation in much of the world.

This is a superbly written, fast-paced, honest story. Carl Hoffman is a long-time journalist, so he knows how to keep things right and tight and moving moving moving. None of the long boring descriptions common to many travel accounts. He also shares the gradual personal transformation that took place on his journey. People around the world received him affectionately and shared their meager rations with him. He contrasts this with the selfishness and rudeness that is sadly becoming the norm here in the America.
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on November 28, 2015
This is a great read, especially when he gets to India and Bangladesh. I have been on some of those buses careening around blind curves passing a truck with a 3,000 foot drop off with drivers who shift UP going downhill.
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on September 10, 2014
I absolutely was blown away by this book. I actually will be buying more copies to give as gifts. I do not understand the negative reviews of this book. Here is a man, the writer, who is deeply aware of his faults, and guilt ridden, goes on an incredible and often dangerous existential soul seeking journey. This is no travel story of the usual sense, but a deeply personal journal of a man's midlife crisis, and daily struggles of his place in the world.

We all question our existence and place on earth...unless we are so poor, so hard working, that there is no time or energy left to think. The choices of where the author went, methods of travel, and his observances of not only other cultures, but of himself make for a book I could not put down. His writing was deeply spiritual and moving to me, though I got mad several times at his outrageously dangerous methods of travel, and his seemingly death wish when he has a family back home who love him. I would find myself yelling at times...until I understood how brave it is to write one's inner quest for happiness- or at least peace. If the writer were a woman, no doubt the critics would call her "independant and adventurous," with no mention of "whiny and selfish," (opinions used in poor reviews below).

What an incredible book. Yeah, makes one think about their cushy North American lives....we have nothing to complain about considering how much of the rest of the world lives. I am looking forward to Carl Hoffman's next journey.
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