Besides its catchy title, Carl Hoffman’s The Lunatic Express (out tomorrow from Broadway Books) has an irresistible premise: a harrowing journey around the world on what the subtitle promises calls “Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes.” Hoffman, who has made a living visiting nasty places on behalf of the likes of National Geographic, declares he will get to know the planet deathtrap by deathtrap, and the reader can be excused for expecting a thrill ride. If Hoffman’s book fails to deliver that white-knuckled excitement—he doesn’t even get to ride the eponymous train—it does offer a clear-eyed meditation on the harsh realities of getting from point A to point B for the vast majority of the world’s occupants.
Jammed into the third class of an Indonesian ferry, Hoffman’s fear of dying in one of the accidents that every few years kills five or six hundred people recedes in the face of the intense discomfort of spending five days packed into a windowless room, sleeping on a linoleum bench just inches from two of the other 1,700 people sharing the space.
He tries to catch some shuteye:
“The fluorescent lights hummed brightly overhead. People coughed. Babies whined and screamed…The air was still and humid and oppressive. Radios blared. And lying there, staring at the walls and ceilings, I noticed more roaches.” Tedium is more taxing than danger, and sleeping without a cushion, it turns out, is harder than risking one’s neck.
Hoffman left home to gain perspective on his disintegrating marriage, but finally realizes that five months surrounded by incomprehensible strangers is a lousy way to get closer to the people back home. He makes friends with an Indonesian family, and becomes jealous of them for having each other. He is alone, he realizes, “and hungry for a genuine connection that I wasn’t getting constantly moving through the world.” He also befriends a chubby Swiss trader named Joaquin Fechner, who has lived in Africa for the last twenty-five years. A professional traveler without friends or family, he is Hoffman’s romantic ideal—and the man he fears becoming.
Even when he does spend some time with family—a week near the start of the trip, when his 17-year-old daughter comes to join in the fun—they do not bond. To get from Lima to Cusco they spend 34 hours squeezed into rickety buses, which heave up and down winding dirt roads just a few yards from thousand-foot drops.
Lily is too nauseous to eat and too frightened—of falling, of guerillas—to talk. He hopes that she’ll cherish the memory, but for the moment, we presume, she regrets not going to the beach for spring break.
Only twice does Hoffman seem in real danger. The first time is in Afghanistan—this is not a good time to be an American in Kabul, even one with a knife taped to his forearm—and the second is on the road to Ulan Bator, when he forsakes public transit for a trip in a big rig hauling propane: 36 hours in a cab with a broken heater while the wind howls outside at 42 below. For the first time he shows us something alien not just to Americans, but to most Mongolians as well. Those pages fly by.
Besides that, his journey is never lunatic, and (the book’s title notwithstanding) that is the point. The commuter trains of Mumbai kill more than a dozen people every day, but by trying his luck on them Hoffman isn’t doing anything special, at least by local standards. He calls those trains “the most dangerous conveyances on earth,” but Hoffman knows that for the seven million people who ride them each day, the commute isn’t a risk. It’s just normal life.