"The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World Via Its Worst Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes" by Carl Hoffman

What does it feel like traveling 50,000 miles across the globe on what statistically appear to be the most dangerous flights, boats and buses?

Ask Carl Hoffman.

His book “The Lunatic Express” piqued my interest as I browsed its cover flap and found author Hoffman summarizing the dangers of sinking in an Indonesian ferry. And guess what? He took one of the most notoriously and statistically  dangerous ferries from Jakarta to the strife-stricken city of Ambon (I have taken an Indonesian ferry myself, and “safe” and “comfortable” were not among the first adjectives I’d use to describe that experience).

Having worked for National Geographic for decades, Hoffman is accustomed to the occasional dangers and quirks posed by the demands of his job. However, in a style reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s travels in “Eat, Pray, Love,” Hoffman tries to search his soul while simultaneously taking a break from his crumbling marriage by seeing the world via some of its most inconvenient, filthy, and downright scary methods of transportation.

All the flights he jotted down have been banned from entering European Union airspace, as he dubbed them “flying coffins.”

What a whacky way to travel, no?

My main critique of “Lunatic Express” are the missing legs of the journey. Having written in detail about the discomfort of taking the Peruvian bus, or getting acquainted with fellow passengers on Bangladeshi ferries, one could not help but wonder how he could have intentionally neglected to mention anything on his flight from Peru to Kenya, or from Vladivostok back to Los Angeles, for example. It would be entirely excusable if he had written that he had taken some safer flight, but Hoffman skipped such a disclaimer.

In certain chapters, Hoffman may also seem to be contradicting himself by complaining how much he misses home and how his travels have separated him from his (ex? current? He doesn’t really say!) wife ... even though it is obvious from the very first chapter that he says that this journey is 100 percent of his own volition.

On the whole, however, “Lunatic Express” was a rich travel narrative over five months. The author Hoffman deserved a movie-remake much more than Elizabeth Gilbert did. It would make a gripping Anthony Bourdain-esque thriller.

Verdict: 9 out of 10 stars

This post is republished in The Jakarta Globe on 17th of April, 2012.

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