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 (

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