The Lunatic Express is a book about travel that jarred me to the core and made me think hard about myself and my place in the world. It ought to be required reading for every human being in the Western World. Go to the bookstore and buy the book. It will do you good.
After my recent review of the movie Up In The Air you know that I am a business traveler equipped with credit cards and memberships to airline, hotel and rental car clubs that make travel more comfortable. I have minimum hotel standards, which include not staying in hotels where the room door opens to the outside, be it a parking lot or a passage way. As travelers go, I probably float around in the upper tenth of the upper one percent of travelers. I stay in the nice, warm suites twenty stories up downtown and I look down on the cold streets of whatever city I am in and I wonder how the homeless make it.
There are about 6.815 billion people in the world, and I am guessing that about 815 million of those go home to a house where they actually have a bed to themselves, where there is a faucet with clean water, maybe even hot water, where there is at least one toilet and you can push a lever after doing your business and make it all go away, like magic.
The other 6 billion people, mostly in South America, Africa and Asia, do not have such luxuries. They have to go to a well to get their water and carry it home in buckets. They have no access to a toilet of any sort. They live in 10 by 10 foot concrete rooms with dirt floors, several families sharing the space. They have to risk their lives in horrendous commutes on the roofs of trains for hours just to go to their jobs, those that are lucky enough to have jobs.
When those 6 billion people travel, they are in 3rd class in the bowels of ferries, below the water level with no circulation, no toilets, no food, no beds, only linoleum platforms at best, and steel floors most likely. They risk their lives on death roads along mountain sides in Peru in rickety buses with bald tires and no windows, in driving rain and mud, where the ride from one city to the next takes 28 hours under those conditions. They travel on overloaded trains across the African deserts in 120 degree heat for days on end. They are packed like sardines, no personal space, no space to even stretch or breathe.
Carl Hoffman, the author of Lunatic Express, is a travel journalist who decided to travel around the world in the most dangerous, cheapest and challenging conveyances. He always bought the lowest class ticket for any stretch he traveled, and the Lunatic Express is his story. Vivid pictures of the people he met, who make 1000 Indian rupees a month (US $20) who will buy him a cup of tea and do not allow him to pay. He tells stories of hellish adventures deep in the Amazon jungle, underground in Afghanistan, waiting in an unheated railroad station in Mongolia with minus 42 degrees F outside. In matter-of-fact language, Carl Hoffman takes us along, and the world comes alive in front of us. Here is a passage describing a pit stop on a bus trip within India:
In the end, though, I had no complaints about my journey to Patna. The bus was full, the aisles taken by fifty-kilo bags of rice. The knife was unnecessary. I was, as usual, in a cocoon of generosity and watching eyes. Ranjit handed me a down pillow covered in red velvet; the wind (and dust) streamed in from the open window at my shoulder; we stopped every three hours for a break – twenty-five men standing (or squatting) in a line like some grotesque Roman fountain. The first stop almost made me retch. We stood in a line next to roadside stalls, a trillion insects flying and buzzing in the lights, pissing into a trench that had years of plastic water bottles, plastic wrappers, toilet paper, and reeked of shit and piss. Then I remembered doing the same thing in Peru, in the rain as we descended toward Puerto Maldonado, and I laughed; around the globe right at this very minute, probably, were lines of men and women pissing in the mountains and on highways and in jungles next to battered buses.
After traveling with Carl Hoffman for 280 pages on the Lunatic Express, I sit at my desk typing out this review, overwhelmed by my unspeakable luxury of a safe place, a full stomach, electric light, listening to the neighborhood children playing in the cul-de-sac outside, a car sitting in my driveway ready for me, unlocked – why would I lock it? If there is heaven, I am in it. 6 billion people or more would give everything they have to trade places with me. I knew it all along, intellectually, but The Lunatic Express drove it home, and deep inside myself it will not quite be the same ever again.