The Lunatic Express: Taking Cheap and Dangerous to the Extreme

When a war-hardened journalist leaves his family for the better part of a year to go ride the most dangerous methods of transportation on the planet, is he an idiot, a masochist, a bastard, a lunatic, or a true adventurer? Or maybe “all of the above”?

My colleague Amy Carlson reviewed The Lunatic Express for Perceptive Travel a while back from a woman’s perspective. I’m a married-with-children man who is closer to grasping the author’s attraction of traveling alone to escape and get the heart pumping again, so maybe I have a little different perspective.

Still, this Lunatic Express book brought back painful memories, made me tired, and made me very very thankful to have been born in a country where people have opportunity and space to breathe (and stay reasonably safe). Subtitled “Discovering the world…via its most dangerous buses, boats, trains, and planes,” this is no clever bit of publisher hyperbole. Author Carl Hoffman makes most shoestring backpackers look like wimpy pampered tourists. He insists on taking the most uncomfortable, the most dangerous, and the most local transportation possible in every situation, even when his daughter comes along for the ride in Peru. If there’s anything lower than 3rd class cattle car available, he’s on it. If there’s a bus company, ferry line, or subway with a high record of fatalities, he’ll wait days to score a ticket on it.

Bihar was India’s poorest state, with an illiteracy rate of 50 percent. It was rife with banditry, murder, suicide, road accidents, and corruption. I though it might be interesting to take the bus right through its midst.

He goes all-in with the poorest of the locals in each location: “Personal space, cleanliness, silence, safety—I was getting used to not having any for long periods of time.” The litany of cramped quarters, squalid conditions, and days without any personal space gets tiring to read after a while. You may be tempted to shout, “Pay two bucks and upgrade already!”

There are some themes and revelations that shine through, however, enlightening nuggets that can only be gleaned by someone willing to live at the bottom with the have-nots for a while.

The third world is all about tiny margins of profit in billions of minuscule exchanges: speed and maximum capacity are of the essence. Regulation; safety; comfort—they cost money and there is no money here. Or rather, there’s money, it’s just like grains of sand instead of pebbles that fill your hands.

Despite being in a crowd all the time, he finds it very hard to connect on a personal basis. Different classes, different backgrounds, different languages (especially in China), and anyway, he’s moving on and they’re stuck. Eventually this leads him to crave the real connection he has with his family forging on without him at home.

The ending is rather unsatisfying though, with our protagonist crossing the U.S. on a series of sad Greyhound buses (when it would have been about the same price to fly) and we readers never finding out how things worked out with his estranged family. So we’re only left with hints along the way that something’s been lost. He realizes it’s time to stop running away for adrenaline highs, but is it too late? We’ll have to wait for the Hollywood movie version—or the author’s Wikipedia entry—to find that out.

The Lunatic Express is a tough read sometimes, but would be a great book to take on a round-the-world journey. It will help you make sense of those crammed buses and give you a lens into the lives of the drivers. When you’re starting to feel uncomfortable, pop this book open and see that it could be worse…

Get The Lunatic Express book at Amazon. I would tell you to get the Kindle version, but the publisher (Broadway) has put the price only 2 bucks below the hardback—a 50% increase over the $9.99 I paid back in March. Maybe wait for the paperback.

  1. Asa

    I loved this book! I also bought it on the Kindle when it was $9.99. I’m still a fan of the Kindle, but I don’t buy as many books for it as I used to, and am more picky than I used to. I still love the sample feature though.

  2. Linda

    I can’t believe the publishers think they’re going to publish an e-book that takes no shipping or printing for only $2 less than a hardback and not turn people away. On principle if nothing else I would buy the hardback used before I would pay that much for a digital download. Ridiculous (and bad for the authors, who probably don’t have a say in the matter).

  3. Jeff Bell

    I agree with the comment that ” this is no clever bit of publisher hyperbole. Author Carl Hoffman makes most shoestring backpackers look like wimpy pampered tourists.” I enjoyed this book immensely and also agree it would be a great book to have along on any trip.

    I once travelled by bus from Honduras to Oklahoma, and I have to admit, like Carl Hoffman, that the worst part of the trip was the Greyhound from El Paso to Oklahoma.

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