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The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World . . . via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes Hardcover – March 16, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Travel and technology journalist Hoffman (Hunting Warbirds) had two motives for penning this tour of the world's most life-threatening modes of transportation, including trains in India, buses in South America, and trucks in Afghanistan: to expose the "parallel reality," obscured by the tourism industry, of millions for whom "travel was still a punishing, unpredictable, and sometimes deadly work of travail"; and for thrills. By the first measure-showing how much of the world gets from place to place-Hoffman is commendably fascinating: his depiction of the horrors people endure just to see family members or get to work is unforgettable. Unfortunately, Hoffman's secondary motive dominates much of the ruminating prose, and it's hard to sympathize with his middle-aged family-man angst when he's subjecting his teenage daughter to a 24-hour ride across South American mountains in a bus with no bathroom. Elsewhere, a powerful description of the Indian train system segues into a tepid quasi-love affair. Readers with the patience to avoid some self-indulgent side-tracks will find much to reconsider during their next tough commute.
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From Booklist

You have to wonder who in their right mind would voluntarily fly on an airline with one of the world’s worst safety records, or ride on a commuter train on which passengers die on an alarmingly regular basis. The answer is obvious: for most of the world’s travelers, Hoffman tells us, travel is no luxury. The majority of today’s travelers are not tourists; they travel because they must—usually for work—and they are routinely forced to endure incredibly unpleasant circumstances. Hoffman, being an adventurous travel writer, thought it might be instructive to take a few months and travel the world the way most of its nontourist population does: on the least safe airlines, the most crowded buses, through some of the most inhospitable and dangerous places on the planet. The result is a thoroughly fascinating book, full of shocking stories and plenty of things to make your skin crawl (cockroaches, anyone?). This is one travel book whose audience is restricted to armchair travelers; let’s face it, would we really want to follow in the author’s footsteps? --David Pitt
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; 1 edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767929802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767929806
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,090,159 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James Denny on April 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
"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.
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Format: Hardcover
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 desert...in 38 degrees below zero weather; and takes a bus tour...in 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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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