Book Review: The Lunatic Express

Travel Books & Movies — By on May 18, 2010 at 12:23 pm

The Lunatic Express

by Carl Hoffman

Broadway Books, $24.95

Rating: 4 Stars

Unsettled by Spirit airlines new $40 carry-on fee? After reading Carl Hoffman’s The Lunatic Express, you might change your mind.

In this rollicking travel memoir, Hoffman decides, on the heels of a mid-life crisis, to travel around the world via the most dangerous routes–buses in South America, the “Train of Death” in Cusco, ferries in Indonesia, planes and trains in Kabul and Mumbai and everywhere in between. His goal was to experience travel through the eyes of 90% of this globe, not just as the Western convenience we’ve come to know. And what did he find?

“My mattress was so stained it looked like a bullet-riddled soldier had died on it. The walls were smeared with brown. Piles of dust covered the floor. Everything was broken, crooked, askew.”

Movement saturates this book. Characters float in and out. He’s always on a different bus, train, plane, ferry, and though one may think that the lack of steady characters and location may weaken the story–especially in exchange for the mundanity of travel– Hoffman weaves an engaging, insightful narrative. Two motifs really hold the book together.

The first is Hoffman’s unique cultural and economic comparisons. Starting this book, I knew, logically, that most of the world doesn’t travel on Jet Blue, but as a Westerner, it’s easy to forget how the rest of the world lives. Traveling alone through these decrepit infrastructures, Hoffman reveals several insightful nuances about our culture that we don’t always realize. In Nairobi, for example, when he finds a hotel after 24 straight hours hurtling back and forth on matatus, the Kenyan version of taxis, he writes “I was alone. It was an almost unspeakable luxury.”

His experience as a solo Westerner also revealed unique insights about other cultures, societies and economies that is easy to forget from the comfort of a coach seat. In most countries, for example, the travel infrastructure reflects the economy. “The speed, the weaving and honking and cajoling,” he writes, “at first I saw it as some form of romantic African expression. But that was wrong. It was simple economics: poor people–desperate and hungry–trying to squeeze one more passenger, one more round trip into a day that never seemed to end, a day where literally every shilling counted.”

But what’s most touching, and surprising, is the hospitality he receives on the road.

“The more I made myself vulnerable by putting myself completely at the disposal of people and situations in which I had no control, the more people took care of me..being a white American conferred on me an automatic status. I represented power. Affluence. Vast numbers of the world were poor, watched American television and films, listened to American music, but had no real contact with Westerners, and if they did it was often as chambermaids, taxi drivers, waiters–none ever sat down in their slums or ate their food.”

In this book, we are “the other,” and after weeks with travel companions who find happiness without wealth, it was kind of embarrassing to see how we travel–and live–in contrast. Or at least motivation to get up and volunteer.

Along with these cultural comparisons, Hoffman spends much of the book wrestling with personal issues and decisions on family and human connection versus isolation and individuality. Though an adventure that brings you steps away from death seems an appropriate avenue, this theme surprised me–pleasantly–and gave the book a touching, universal quality that he resolves to satisfaction. “Hunger, fatigue, the aches and pains of life in a bus seat, only show the real you…a reminder that happiness wasn’t all the external comforts but just there, within myself.”

With adventure, danger and self-discovery in one insightful package, The Lunatic Express is Eat Pray Love for men.

But don’t worry. Women will enjoy it, too.

Grab a copy of The Lunatic Express here!

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