From the book jacket of Carl Hoffman’s The Lunatic Express:
Indonesian ferry sinks. Peruvian bus plunges off cliff. Kenyan train attacked by mobs. Whenever he picked up a newspaper, journalist and award-winning travel writer Carl Hoffman noticed these news bulletins and was struck by how far removed the idea of tourism–travel as the pursuit of pleasure–is from the reality of most people’s experience. Curious and intrepid reporter that he is, off he went, spending five months circumnavigating the globe by its most perilous means of transportation: the statistically most dangerous airlines, the most crowded ferries, the slowest buses, and the deadliest trains. His goal: to understand what travel means to more than 99 percent of the world’s population in the furthest reaches of the planet.
One of the best passages comes near the end. Hoffman’s traveled through South America, Africa, Indonesia, China, Russia, Afghanistan. After months on the road, he’s finally home. He decides to take a Greyhound, which is how the poorest of the poor travel in the U.S., from L.A. to his home in D.C.
We hit Vegas that afternoon, and America seemed like the saddest place I’d seen in months. The worst, most dangerous conveyances in the world always had a mix of people on them, people bursting with life and color and friendliness. In Peru or Mali or Bangladesh everyone was poor. The few rich people flew; everybody else took a ferry or a bus or a train and they prepared for the journey with their carefully wrapped boxes and containers of rice, and the stream of fresh food for pennies was ubiquitous….I thought of Moolchand, poor as dirt, buying me tea; of Fardus, feeding me fresh coconuts from his yard and dreaming of Las Vegas. But this was Vegas. This was America, the dream itself. And it looked like a place cracking, peeling, coming apart at the seams. Who would invite me to their house for lunch? Who even had a home? When we’d passed temples on the Blueline, Moolchand had prayed; Khalid prayed constantly, for me, for our safety; the men and women to whom he gave money gave us prayers back. Moussa had made tea in the vestibule of the train in Mali, and handed it all around to whoever wanted a cup. Rokibal in Bangladesh had wanted to know everything about me, and Ranjit, the bus driver in the poorest state of India, had given me his red velvet pillow. Wakiba and David had begged me to come home with them after twenty hours of fighting Naoribi traffic, and fed me in a house that had no kitchen and no bathroom. The conditions were deplorable sometimes. Dirty. Hot. Crowded. Groaningly uncomfortable. Dangerous. But all those people had been so filled with generosity and spirit, curiosity about a stranger, and they all in some way had felt connected in a way they didn’t even realize to a larger society, culture, family. But the people around me seemed alone, disconnected; what bound them to each other? To America? What was America? We were a bus of lost souls in a country that itself seemed without a soul.
Forty miles outside D.C., the bus broke down. Outside the U.S. his travels included steerage on leaky ships, suicidally over-crowded Indian subways, heaterless trucks minus a tire or two. The transport might have been late, the transport might have been slow, the transport might have been filthy–but the first and only time on Hoffman’s trip that a conveyance actually failed to reach its destination was that ride on the Greyhound bus.
7 Replies to “THE LUNATIC EXPRESS”
God bless all of us.He is the source of energy,all our life we draw positive energy from him to face various challenges.Say thanks to God.
I understand the feelings of “lostness” in American society that is conveyed by Carl Hoffman in this quote. However, I think it is over sentimental. While on the Greyhound bus did Carl Hoffman make an effort to be friendly and colorful? Did he offer tea or fresh coconuts to the other passengers? See, the real issue with many of us is the” lostness” inside of us. We project this “lostness” to our “world” but not to others. Would he make the choice to reside and live in the poor neighborhoods of Bangladesh permanently? No. He lives in America and he likes the creature comforts our society provides but like most of us he senses something is missing. Of course something is missing. There are two sides to a ledger. Money and creature comforts only get you so far. Regardless of my anxious and negative temperament when I objectively look at the America I live in each day, I find kindness, understanding, and generosity. It matters where you focus your attention. There is community and sense of belonging in America you just have to open your heart and eyes. One example: this blog:)
Having taken a long train trip across half the continent earlier this summer, there's something resonating deeply within me about this post.
The book interests me, but I like what Gordie says here, too.
I love what Carl Hoffman says. So true!
Once, when I was a bit younger, I took a taxi from my husband's home village to the nearest town. What a memorable and humorous trip it was! Wedged tightly between several well-padded mothers, I felt almost secure as we hurtled over the potholed dirt road, narrowly skirting precipices and cows. I thought, Well, at least if I die here I'll be cushioned as I fall. No one else seemed to mind in the least.
Then on the way home the engine gave trouble, so we all got out and the driver and his friends examined the engine (which was between the front seats … an old-fashioned kombi). They leaped back as if a snake had emerged; it was merely flames. They had a good laugh and we all got back in. Later it totally gave up so everyone, except me and the other pregnant woman on board, got out to push. She and I sat in the long grass, chatting relaxedly. Many hours later we were safely home.
Considering the whole vehicle was held together with bits of plastic and sticky tape, I think it did really well. What I remember most was the humour, the grace extended by the passengers to the driver, the sense that we had would solve this problem together.
Its an interesting topic; trasport. What do we do with the many hours we spend getting from one place to another?
Oh, and Gordie, I so agree with what you said. That's insightful and true; the fact is, EVERYone weants and needs community. The need for it is as strong in Americans as in all people (I believe). And you do see and create around you what you have inside; if we have any love for fellow human beings, we'll find ways to express it. It just takes courage, in a bus filled with silent individuals. All longing for connection, in one way or another.
Hmm, so we project our lostness on the world … good one.
No, no, the Greyhound passage isn't meant as a criticism–Hoffman fully owns his own "lostness": in fact, the underlying theme of the book is the realization that his craving for extreme travel has distanced him, perhaps permanently, from his wife and kids. The impetus for the whole voyage, in fact, is that instead of escaping from the world through travel, he decides to descend into the very heart of humanity.
I've driven cross country a couple of times, and more to the point, I simply live in the United States, and to notice the pervasive distrust, fear, loneliness, bad food and isolation–especially among the traveling "poor"–is not necessarily to project my own (absolutely acknowledged) existential loneliness on my neighbors. It's to observe them, and myself, with compassion…It's to be grateful for every tragicomic moment of connection.
At the same time, by all means, Let it begin with me. Let me be the one to share my coconut, break out the communal teapot, yield my red velvet pillow to the next guy!