Monday, December 5, 2011

The Lunatic ExpressThe Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a travel book focusing on modes of transportation that most travellers would prefer to avoid. Carl Hoffman’s stated desire was to circumnavigate the globe on the cheapest and most dangerous forms of mass transit. For most of humankind, travel was no pleasurable touring, but a necessary movement from point A to point B often involving terribly long and uncomfortable, not to mention perilous, trips on decrepit buses that would plunge into gorges from the winding mountainside roads that they travelled, on overcrowded, capsizing ferries, unmaintained ancient aircraft, and trains that were so stuffed with people that they just fell off on the tracks. Hoffman’s travels over several months involved all of the above, as he left his home in Washington, DC, and toured around the Andes and Amazon basin in South America, the roads and railroads of East and West Africa, the notorious deathtraps that ferries in Indonesia and Bangladesh were. He had weeks of relative leisure in India before flying to Afghanistan on the national airline Ariana (a.k.a. Scariana). Then returning home by train and gas truck through China, Mongolia and Siberia. Through all these segments of travel he reports on the exotic places he encounters, the hairy situations arising and, most importantly, the various people he meets.

Carl Hoffman is plagued by wanderlust. He is middle-aged, married with three kids, a journalist, but for a long time he has felt compelled to leave the comforts of home behind and travel. This is the other theme of the book: man’s struggle between loneliness and belonging. The book gets quite personal, as Hoffman misses his family while at the same time feels alive only travelling in risky places amongst strange people. At times his descriptions of his own addiction to danger seem slightly too heroic, but at least I personally can very well relate to his contradictory feelings. He observes with some envy people in the poor countries that he visits and interacts with, how they all have strong bonds in their communities and families; at the same time, he knows that he could never live that way, with no privacy or time alone. When he finally is returning home, he notes that he was settling in and getting a little bored on the trip. He concludes that it was time to go home: “Travel was only worthwhile when your eyes were fresh, when it surprised you and amazed you and made you think about yourself in a new way. You couldn’t travel forever. When you stopped seeing, when you lost your curiosity and openness to the world, it was time to return to your starting point and see where you stood” (p. 263).

I found the book to be well worth reading, well written, even quite wise. Although the narrative was generally entertaining, I found there was a certain unevenness to the chapters (probably reflecting the interestingness of the segment and the people Hoffman happened to meet). The cover of my edition touted it as a “Wall Street Journal Book of the Year.” I wouldn’t go that far and the accolade baffled me initially, before I realized that for an average WJS reader the book would cover territory that was strange and likely unsightly. The Lunatic Express certainly serves its purpose as an antidote to seeing travel only through the lens of comfortable business travel or relaxing tourism. Carl Hoffman made a superb effort to experience travel the way the majority of the world’s people experience it. In the process he met numerous interesting and hospitable people whom he recalls frequently with warmth, always with understanding.

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