One for the Road: Carl Hoffman’s “Lunatic Express”

Looking for escape and adventure, Carl Hoffman embarked on a journey to ride some of the world’s most dangerous transport, a trip that he recounts in his new book “Lunatic Express: Discovering the world… Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boat, Trains, and Planes” (Broadway Books). A bus through a mountain pass in South America, a crowded ship in South Asia, or an airplane in the Congo – if it had a high rate of fatal accidents, Hoffman sought it out and hopped on.

Though he uses the framework of “danger” as a hook, Hoffman’s story is less about safety and more about the human connections he makes as he chooses the type of transport almost no other traveler will. It’s no coincidence that the riskiest rides are also the cheapest, and he is pleased to discover that he connects to “a whole river of people on the move” – people for whom travel is a necessity instead of a holiday. Rather than danger, Hoffman encounters incredible discomfort; instead of being mugged, he finds he is protected by seatmates, shipmates, and new friends who are curious about his presence among them. In fact, his scariest situation is in Afghanistan, a war zone. There, it’s not simply transport that is dangerous, but his very presence in the country.

His exploration becomes, like so much travel, a search for authenticity and an examination of his own motivations. As a fan of second- (but not third-) class transport, I appreciate Hoffman’s experience off of the tourist trail (even when he’s technically on the tourist trail). He writes, “here, on these buses, I was anywhere but at the end of the earth; I felt right smack in its crowded heart.” This experience is where the value in his book lies.

His use of danger as the structure for his travels yields a fortunate, if not entirely unexpected result: the relationships he forms when crammed into the world’s lowest-class transport, which most travelers can afford to skip.

Travel often provides a clearer picture of the place we come from rather than the place we are visiting, and therefore it’s fitting that Hoffman’s most telling leg of the journey is the home stretch – a cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus from California to Washington DC. Dangerous? Hardly. Uncomfortable? Definitely. But the discomfort of a Greyhound bus, where seats are assigned, the roads are some of the best in the world, and there’s nary a chicken clucking from a box in the aisle, is an altogether different kind of discomfort than he experienced previously. In keeping with the “danger” theme, Hoffman dutifully mentions a recent beheading on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba, but true danger is absent in his trek. Instead, the sweaty, stinking, and seething mass of humanity in the developing world is replaced by the soulless, depressing experience of America’s penniless. Comparing the generosity and curiosity he witnessed in underdeveloped countries to his encounters with American counterparts, Hoffman writes, “we were a bus of lost souls in a country that itself seemed without a soul.” Gone is the fresh, bus station food, the kiosks replaced by “vending machines full of Snickers and Fritos and twenty-ounce blue energy drinks.” Everything, not just his traveling companions, feels empty back home.

Hoffman ends his journey as we all will at some point: alone. Though his words claim otherwise, Hoffman hints at the loneliness of the solo and long-term traveler, arriving to an empty apartment, unable to maintain his relationships, disoriented. He concludes tidily, happily even, though I wonder at his ability to ignore his travel addiction for long.