Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman

While reading this book I could not help but think that the author, a career travel writer, missed his true calling in the TV series Jackass, where two pathetic guys put themselves in harm's way for the thrill of it, and suffer the consequences. That being said, this adrenaline junkie experiences travel the way most of the 3rd world does, the style of which is dictated solely by the cheapest means available without regard to comfort or safety or lost time. As with van Bergeijk's book, the concept of "authentic" travel is revisited. In his extensive travels in South America, Africa, and Asia, he seeks the most dangerous forms of conveyance imaginable, be they bus, plane, train, or boat. I am proud to say that I personally had the pleasure to travel on two of his chosen carriers, in Kenya and Brazil, but I digress.

The author lays down the tone of the 159-day adventure right away when he takes a bus from D.C. to Toronto so he can catch a flight to Havana with Cubana Airlines. Cubana has one of the worst safety records in the sky - close to landing, the flight attendants were loading up their luggage with anything that wasn't screwed down. - napkins, food, toilet paper, plasticware. He next boards a flight to Bogotá on a Soviet Ilyushin Il-62 aircraft, that was in tatters. From there he takes an overcrowded bus to Quito where he later passes through Guayaquil and Lima. His 17-year old daughter then joins him on a bus to Cusco. He then took Peru's worst road across the Andes to Puerto Maldonado. Deep in the Amazon at Puerto Velho, he took a river boat, the Altamonte Moreira to Manaus. Itching for travel in another continent he flies on TAM to São Paulo, Brazil's national carrier and rated one of the worst airlines in Latin America. We flew this same Manaus-São Paulo leg on TAM in 2002.

The train on the 600 mile line from Mombasa, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda, built in the 1890s, lost so many workers to disease, exhaustion, and hungry lions it was dubbed the "Lunatic Express." I'm pleased to say I took this train from Nairobi to Kisumu before boarding the RMS Victoria ferry on the way to Mwanza, Tanzania (with a no-dare-to-exit stop in Kampala) in 1973. Now it no longer travels beyond Nairobi, much less hooking up with the ferry. Needless to say, the author sees this as a not-to-be-missed dangerous conveyance and in fact his ride on 3rd class is uneventful. From there he flies to Bamako, Mali through Addis Ababa and takes a truly dangerous train to Dakar. On and on he goes, through overladen tippy ferries in Indonesia, riding the overcrowded trains in Mombasa (he even goes to the morgue at St. George's hospital near Victoria Terminus to view the decapitations from hangers on !), and finally Bangladesh ferries that were sinking left and right (once a month from 1995 to 2005), whose stability he compares to rubber ducks in a bathtub.

As if this was not enough, he flies on Ariana Afghan Airways to Kabul. Spends weeks dressed in Afghan garb to escape notice from the Taliban. Before we know it, he's in Urumqui, China, then Ulan Bator, Mongolia, finally completing his journey, departing Vladivostok.

Postscript - Terry Ward, AOL blogger, posted a discussion on this book on July 8 (

Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Mercedes is Not for Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou...An Auto-Misadventure Across the Sahara by Jeroen van Bergeijk

It is amazing to realize that there exists a huge market in West Africa for European cars, especially Mercedes, that have outlived their useful life up North by a long shot. And there is a lively trade in such cars from adventure seekers who drive them across the Sahara though Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso. The landscape and "attractions" they pass through in these countries seem singularly unappetizing. With the exception of Senegal's Saint-Louis (the former headquarters of colonial French West Africa) and portions of Dakar, places like Boujdour (Spanish Sahara, but really ruled by Morocco), Nouakchott (Mauritania's capital), Bamako (Mali capital), and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) offer little to savor, unless one reminisces the feelings of being unbearably hot and uncomfortable, hungry with disease strewn food offerings, and endless scenery comprised of roadside garbage and wrecks, with little in the way of passable hostelry. AS the author says, "Things in Africa come in two forms: broken or almost broken."

The author gets a bit philosophical in the early going with pondering the true meaning of an authentic experience, namely, being one that is not shared with fellow Europeans seeking the same authentic experience right along side. His musings on time derive from Ryszard Kapuściński's The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of essays about Africa. While Europeans are slaves to time, Africans feel time appears as a result of our actions and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. Nowhere do you see these different conceptions of time better than in places where people have to wait.

There are many curious anecdotes including the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupery (famed author of The Little Prince), who in fact was a pilot that got stranded in southern Morocco in Cape Juby (now called Tarfaya) as an airfield manager in 1928, recounted in his nonfiction book Wind, Sand, and Stars. Many such airfields enabled mail service between Paris and Dakar.

And how many know that when taking a boat from Spain south across the Mediterranean, one lands in Melilla, but is still in Spain ! Evidently, Melilla is Spain's Guantánamo Bay. Melilla and Ceuta are the only two European-Union territories located in mainland Africa.

The main excitement occurs at the border crossings, like Rosso in Mauritania, bordering Senegal, the most notorious border crossing in all of Africa. What that means in practice is having plenty of small bills to grease a large number of palms.

And who knew that Ouagadougou has a film festival, the biannual FESPACO (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou) ?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The Dead" in Dubliners by James Joyce

The Dead is generally considered James Joyce's finest short story. I revisited this story anticipating watching the recent DVD release of John Huston's final (1987) film, The Dead, starring his daughter Angelica. I had not read this story since high school, and remember Dubliners as a very cerebral exercise, to say the least.

The story revolves around a Christmas dinner party in Dublin in 1904 and the subtle interaction between Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, who is reminded of a long deceased lover Michael Fury, by one of the party goers rendition of "The Lass of Aughrim." Gabriel's realization that he had never experienced the love that his wife had with Fury is troublesome to him. He realizes that "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."

This has it's modern version in Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," appearing on his album Rust Never Sleeps, where he sings "My my, hey hey, Rock and roll is here to stay, It's better to burn out, Than to fade away, My my, hey hey."

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

This is an insightful book about an extraordinary human being, Dr. Paul Farmer, who founded Partners in Health (Zanme Lasante) in 1987 with Ophelia Dahl, Dr. Jim Yong Kim (now President of Dartmouth College) and others, first based out of Cange, Haiti. He graduated near the top of his class at Harvard Medical School, despite barely attending classes as he spent most of his time in Haiti. Farmer is now on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. PIH provides services free of charge to patients living in poverty.
Tracy Kidder, tells the story with a deft hand, often asking tough questions of the protagonist - happily, Kidder is a far better writer than Farmer. On the surface this appears to be a simple book, but stepping back from it raises some very fundamental and controversial conundrums. It is hard to read a book about Haiti without coming across the phrase Deye mon gen mon, which is Creole for "beyond mountains there are mountains," a literal view of Haiti's topography as well as a profound commentary on what it takes to move the poverty stricken country forward.
Religious faith was disdained at Harvard, yet so important to the poor, Farmer came to believe that faith must be something good. Farmer is a believer in liberation theology, a branch of Catholicism, to provide a preferential option for the poor (an "O for the P", p. 174). He has devoted his life to provide medicine in the places that need it the most. Some readers contest his take on liberation theology as shallow and misguided.
Towards the end of the book, Kidder wonders if anyone could reproduce Farmer's work in Haiti or elsewhere. Farmer and Kim do things that no one else can do, Zanme Lasante can't survive Farmer. PIH relies too much on a genius. Farmer chooses to doctor in obscurity, so that he knows he doctors first of all because he believes it's the right thing to do. In the end, are the means justified ? Farmer's extraordinary accomplishments have not gone without severely compromising his own personal life.