HofLuna 10-08-113

Lunatic Express

Discovering the World…via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes


Carl Hoffman

Broadway Books, 2010, 286 pp.   ISBN 978-0-7679-2980-6



From this travel book I learned from the descriptions of places, people, and modes of travel that risk avoidance and privacy are luxuries.  I also learned some things about how people live that might be useful when you are thinking about the world.


For most of the world’s travelers, travel is a punishing, unpredictable, and sometimes deadly work of travail.  (9) (The word travel comes from travail.)


Some 200 million migrants send home $300 billion a year, three times the world’s foreign aid.  (10)


“The World Health Organization rated Latin American roads the most dangerous anywhere, with 1.2 million people a year killed in road accidents—nearly 3,000 a day.” (29)


In Columbia.  “Relatively speaking, none of my fellow passengers had any money; they couldn’t afford good roads, good tires, good brakes. …  To make money from people who had none, buses went without maintenance and squeezed every person aboard they could.  Drivers drove for hours on end; they fell asleep at the wheel, they drank, they hardly saw their families.  The police weren’t paid much money, either; they took bribes from bus companies and drivers instead of forcing them off the road…” (32)


“After so many days on crowded buses and boats, it was becoming clear that more than anything else, money bought insulation and protection.  From wind and rain and heat, from other people, from noise, from pollution.” (60)


In Africa.  “The third world is all about tiny margins of profit in billions of minuscule exchanges; speed and maximum capacity are of the essence.  Regulation; safety; comfort—they cost money and there is no money here.  Or rather, there’s money, it’s just like grains of sand instead of pebbles that fill your hands.” (83) 


In Nairobi.  Description of how matatus make money.  Graft and extortion on a small or large scale everywhere.  Gangs, police, politicians, robbers, matatu operators.  Everyone trying to get a little bit, or more.  (93) 


Bamako, Mali.  “There was nowhere to hide or to get away from the chaos and throngs.  Crowds and heat and dust and noise, the streets bumper-to-bumper with crooked matatus with no glass in the windows, the smell of excrement and sweat and smoke.” (100)


Indonesia.  A web magazine ran an article that so many drowned in ferry disasters because they didn’t know how to swim.  “One look at the Siguntang reveals that claim as ridiculous.  It was just crowded, and the ocean distances across which it sailed were wide and wild.  Safety took a back seat; no one said it, would ever say it, but risk was just one more economic calculation in a country of islands with 240 million people, great masses of whom earned only a few hundred dollars a year and lived in villages or urban slums.  Everybody was just trying to make a little more; politicians skimmed big, and ship captains and lowly seamen skimmed little.” (124-25)


“My fellow travelers were right: I could have been flying.  I could have been traveling in first class….  That I wasn’t was like a gift to them, a mysterious one they couldn’t fully understand but that they appreciated in a way I would never have imagined.  And the more I shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, the more they embraced me.  ..I would do whatever my fellow travelers and hosts did. …  If they ate with their fingers, even if I was given utensils, I ate with my fingers.  Doing so prompted an outpouring of generosity and curiosity that never ceased to amaze me; it opened the door, made people take me in.  That I shared their food, their discomfort, their danger, fascinated them and validated them in a powerful way.” (127) 


“People were always fascinated that I was traveling alone, without family; it was inconceivable to them.  They lived with multiple generations, slept crowded into beds and on floors in tiny apartments or houses, and they would do so their entire lives.  For them, every night was crowded together, entangled in multiple legs and arms, always the heat of another human body next to them.  I envied that, even as it repelled me—the idea was a central conflict in my life.  … somehow I’d ended up in my own little apartment. (not living with his wife and children)  I’d always found crowds compelling, I always liked feeling part of something, so why was I always running away?” (143)  (a little insight on the author)


Leksula, a tiny village of huts on the beach of an island in Indonesia.  “But there were millions and probably hundreds of millions of people around the planet who lived in tiny, remote places like Leksula.  (No roads, no phones, no internet.)  Nothing but sun and sea and sand and jungle.  And each other; people were so connected to each other in this little world.” (150)


Mumbai.  19 miles across.  Population 19 million (larger than 173 countries).  Population density of Bombay island is 17,550 per square kilometer (2,535 for Singapore and 31 for U.S.)   20,706 people killed on trains in the 5 years prior to April 2008!  (158)


The waiting room for the train.  “There were hundreds, all packed close into a square, touching; since Indonesia I had this increasing picture of the world as a place with masses and masses of people huddled together, touching, always touching each other.  Nobody seemed to mind; they expected it, felt comfortable with—craved it, in fact.” (172)


Bangladesh.  More people die on ferries in Bangladesh than anywhere else, about 1000 a year between 1904 and 2003.  Between 1995 and 2005 a ferry sank nearly once a month, the vast majority from overloading and collision.  (180)


Looking back over the above information, how is your picture of the world of international mission different than it was before?  (dlm)





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