The Lunatic Express
Discovering the World... Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes
by Carl Hoffman
There really was a railway called the Lunatic Express because of how many men died of
disease, exhaustion, and—oh yes—lions, while building it. The author rides its
truncated remains in the chapter titled "Agents of Death and Destruction." But The Lunatic
Express of the title has a broader application. On the one hand itís the dance with death
taken by the mostly poor people around the world who ride known deathtrap boats, trains, busses,
etc as matter-of-fact aspect of daily life. But it also describes the authorís own journeys
in the book: both the physical one, where curiosity sends him off traveling on those same
deathtraps, and the internal journey that gets triggered by his experiences, including a look
at what just might be some lunatic express patterns in his own life. Donít let that put you
off, thinking it sounds like a book long on philosophy and short on entertainment. Thatís far
from true. But the best travel books have both kinds of journey—if you arenít affected
by your travels then you havenít really left home.
The cumulative effect of all those little news bulletins you see about ferries sinking and
busses going off cliffs in faraway places sets travel writer Carl Hoffman considering the
difference between travel and tourism. The tragedies are widespread and common enough to indicate
that the sort of travel for pleasure Carl usually writes about—tourism—bears
little relation to most peopleís experience of travel—simple moving from place to place.
So he sets out to find the real thing, actively seeking out the deadliest and most notorious
forms of mass transit around the world. What he finds are not only the expected hairy rides,
but also an unexpected level of community amongst the people who use them. Real community,
generous enough to embrace him as well and helping to set off that internal part of the
journey, comparing his own life to theirs, with the positives and negatives not always where
one would expect. Along the way thereís a lot of color, adventure, humor, conversation...
did I mention color?... and enjoyable reading.