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Lunatic Express: Discovering the World via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes Paperback – 1 Jul 2011

3.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (A Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc) (1 July 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767929810
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767929813
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.7 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,022,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"This book is fabulous. The lean description, the weave of old and new perspective, the personalities, the real-people wisdom, and that the danger is as real as we don't want to think it is. "The Lunatic Express" is refreshing, liberating, and a paean to true Travel. Hoffman opened my eyes to the off-the-grid traveler, clearly most of the world, and made me cry. The last pages struck home; the duality of escape and harbor are the blessing and curse of life." -- Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief of "National Geographic Traveler"

"Reinvented the travel log as the supreme theater of paradox...a search for an unholy grail--something freakish; something dangerous; something authentic... Take this ride." -Richard Bangs, Producer/Host of the Public Television series, "Adventures with Purpose"
"There are two possibilities: we move through the world, or the world moves through us. Carl Hoffman's clever, funny, fearsome book does both. It takes us into the frantic fear and pitiless extinctions that punctuate the simple struggle to get from home to anywhere, for so many of the world's people. But it also takes us into the heart of the writer: and that journey, with its beauty and compassion, its conscience and courage, is so thrilling that we hope the ride never ends." -- Gregory David Roberts, author of SHANTARAM
"Carl Hoffman, a courageous and interestingly untroubled man from Washington, D.C., has done a great service by reminding us, in "The Lunatic Express," of this abiding truism: that the world's ordinary traveler is compelled to endure all too much while undertaking the grim necessities of modern movement...Mr. Hoffman spent a fascinating year going around the world precisely as most of the world's plainest people do--not on JetBlue or United or American or Trailways, modes of transport that look positively heavenly by comparison, but in the threadbare conveyances of the planet's billions....He learns along the way a great deal about the habits of the world's peripatetic poor, and he writes about both the process and the people with verve and charity, making this book both extraordinary and extraordinarily valuable....It is a wise and clever book too, funny, warm and filled with astonishing characters. But it also represents an important exercise, casting an Argus-eye on a largely invisible but un-ignorable world. It is thus a book that deserves to be read widely. Perhaps in some airport in a blinding rainstorm in the Midwest, while waiting for yet another infernally delayed American plane." - Simon Winchester, "Wall Street Journal"

"From the Hardcover edition."

About the Author

Carl Hoffman has driven the Baja 1000, ridden reindeer in Siberia, sailed an open dinghy 250 miles, and traveled to 65 countries. When he's able to stay put for more than a few months at a time, he lives in Washington, D.C., where his three children make fun of him on a pretty constant basis. He is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and Wired magazines, and his stories about travel and technology also appear in Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal and Popular Mechanics.

"From the Hardcover edition."

Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

By Miran Ali VINE VOICE on 18 July 2013
Format: Hardcover
The author starts with South America and then continuing on to Africa and Asia in his quest to take the most dangerous travel routes possible. I have never read a travelogue on South America that was quite as boring. Sadly the author has some family issues and that interferes with the narrative. Plus the fact that maybe he doesn't have much to write? Also being familiar with some of the places he visits, I rather suspect there's been some padding to make the vignettes interesting. Couldn't finish it.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Bought this book with high expectations. I love reading about other people's travels but for me this one fell flat. It wasn't particularly riveting or funny or interesting & I didn't enjoy reading it. I appreciate the effort he went to to write this book & everything he undertook but it just wasn't for me!
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Format: Paperback
I took a punt on this book after it was recommended by Amazon, and was pleasantly surprised.

Not only does the author convey beautifully the ubiquitous sense of bedlam on each of his journeys, but he does it so convincingly that I feel that I needn't ever put myself through the travails of South American coaches or Indonesian ferries.

It really is a lovely travel book, with revelations occurring for the author himself too: I particularly resonated with his temptations in India (something that has happened to me on my travels too) and enjoyed the story about the ear cleaners enormously.

On the whole it is a fun, exciting and interesting book that is perfect for one's commute. It made me realise how lucky we are that the London Underground is what it is...
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x91921ed0) out of 5 stars 88 reviews
64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91946a68) out of 5 stars Great travel idea falls short of the mark 12 April 2010
By James Denny - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"The Lunatic Express," is a great title. The title alone drew me to this book. In Carl Hoffman's rogue travel memoir, Hoffman travels to countries in the third world by train, plane, boat, ferry, bus, car, truck, pedicab and taxi, taking on five continents in six months. The twist to his tale is that he travels as a local would--not as a Westerner would be expected to.

The countries he visits include Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil in South America; Tanzania and Kenya in east Africa; Mali and Senegal in west Africa; Indonesia, India and Bangladesh in south Asia; Afghanistan, China and Russia. Some countries are just a quick pass; in others he stays a longer time.

I liked this book because Hoffman brings into sharp focus values that traveling Westerners tend to take for granted: privacy and personal space; quiet; the expectation of safety; the expectation for a reasonable level of comfort. Hoffman is willing to give these up to experience separation and to live in the moment.

What nearly destroyed this book for me was the back story: Hoffman as a worldly, middle-aged man who regularly engages in "travel escapism," yet at the same time, wallows in whiny guilt and self-pity for doing so.

Of significance, Hoffman carries an omnipresent cell-phone that he uses with much frequency. So much for the genuine experience of travel separation. His cell-phone is as much an ersatz travel companion as his spouse, a child or a travel friend. On an "as-needed" basis, he makes use of first-world technology to "stay-in-touch" or to make hotel or other travel arrangements. At one point, he uses the cell phone to order Christmas presents for his family from half-way around the world.

The puppy-love affair with a young Western woman in New Delhi with whom he pals around for nearly three weeks is the one truly pathetic part of the narrative. At this juncture, it is obvious that Hoffman is depressed and lonely. During his time in New Delhi, he chooses to live in first-world digs. Unfortunately for the reader, this breaks up the adventure/angst of third-world travel. It is not that the reader wishes Hoffman to fall apart. However, Hoffman's back story is replete with fulsome hypocrisy that nearly destroys the good parts of this narrative.

And yet, I still recommend reading this book because there are compelling parts to his tale along with sparkle and keen insight into local culture and conditions. I especially enjoyed his ferry-travel journeys in Indonesia and Bangladesh. He is temporarily "adopted" by a ferry-board family as he travels to a remote outport in Indonesia. He writes..."the more I shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, the more they embraced me."

Hoffman experiences much kindness and outreach from total strangers in this and in other situations where there is no opportunity for him to reciprocate.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91946abc) out of 5 stars smart travel book -- entertaining and thoughtful 30 Mar. 2010
By Cecil Natapov - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I worried that this was going to be kind of slim, like Sebastian-Junger-On-A-Risk-Tour, and kind of exploitative. But it's the opposite. It's like a really really long article from the Atlantic, or a series of articles, where you learn what life is like around the world, and how the many billions of people who do not live in the first world get around. There's plenty of fascinating risk-taking, yes (he hitchhikes through the gobi 38 degrees below zero weather; and takes a bus Afghanistan, while the war is going on!), but Hoffman is a highly empathic writer who makes you feel like you know what it is like to commute in India, or be a taxi driver in Kenya, or to ride an ancient wooden ferry in the Amazon. He has some great Harper's-type stats about risk levels, but he is most interesting when talking about what it means to be affluent (quiet and privacy, as well as safety, and liability laws, not to mention bathrooms in trains...), and showing what you only can learn about the world and what it means to be human by traveling on an Indonesian ferry, in steerage, for a week, with roughnecks on their way home from months in an oilfield.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91ee936c) out of 5 stars fascinating, but ... 9 July 2010
By C. P. Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I guess you could call this extreme tourism. Instead of rafting down rivers or exploring caves, though, the author focuses on the world's most dangerous forms of transportation. Afghan airlines, Indonesian ferries, Indian trains - they're all there. These forms of transportation also happen to be what the world's poor take everyday.

And that's the real interest in this book. Hoffman never really is in danger. But the insights he gains in how the other half lives are really invaluable. His own openness, as well as his own excellent writing skills, help make this happen.

But you've got to admit, the adventures that simply come his way couldn't really be anything but fascinating - prostitutes in Havana, peeing out the window of a train rolling through the Sahel, eating whatever they bring him in a Chinese restaurant with no English speakers, smoking hash with the guy responsible for the casualties (i.e., bodies) that are created everyday on the incredibly crowded Mumbai trains.

As long as he's simply describing what's going on, Hoffman is right on target. Unfortunately, he's also prone to musings about what it all means. Now, this could have been very effective in the right hands. Hoffman, however, is very focused on himself, almost solipsistically so, and without much real insight to boot. He actually comes off as not an especially pleasant character, which is a little ironic, as he seems to make friends very easily with the foreigners he meets.

A couple of reviewers have raised objections which I felt someone should respond to:

"He cheats (has a cell phone and a computer, occasionally stays someplace nice, etc.)." That's a quibble, though, given the other thing he puts himself through. I can't imagine myself ever going through the things he does.

"He never stays in one place long enough to get to know the country and people." That wasn't the point of the book. At the same time, he does get to know someone pretty well in almost every place he goes. And, personally, I think he was able to learn quite a bit about a place simply from riding these very unusual conveyances.

"He's really hard on the US (a Greyhound from LA to DC is the last leg of the trip)." I think there was something to the difference between the we're-all-in-this-together atmosphere of the rest of the world and the atomized individualism of the US. At the same time, though, I think he was also simply projecting a lot of his own troubles onto the people he met, plus he was no longer the star of the show as the out-of-place American.
26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91946d44) out of 5 stars A Book to Savor 20 Mar. 2010
By Ben F. Noviello - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In less talented hands, "The Lunatic Express" could have ended up condescending, maudlin, exploitive, or worst of all, dull. Fortunately, Carl Hoffman is far too good of a writer to allow this to occur. Instead, Mr. Hoffman has given us a book that, much like the world it describes, is complex, colorful, exciting, and never less than engrossing.

The underlying concept of the book is to experience modes of transportation around the world that would give safety inspectors the vapours. After reading these descriptions I will never again complain about beltway traffic. Yet Mr. Hoffman is never insulting. He implicitly recognizes that there are reasons for the way things are, and manages to imbue his descriptions with a sense of dignity.

This respectful approach extends to the many interesting individuals he encounters, both on and off the road. He celebrates their idiosyncrasies, but never becomes patronizing. These people emerge as fully-rounded characters who live in a world fundamentally different from our own.

And this world bursts from the book with brilliant realism. Mr. Hoffman straddles the boundary between prose and poetry, even when what is being described is sometimes terrifying. Indeed, there are sections of this book that are so vivid and exciting that the reader feels the need afterwards for a stiff drink. (Or at least some soothing tea.)

Further, like all good travel writers, Mr. Hoffman is able to express the personal impact of his travels in a way that is honest and never narcissistic. We get the sense that these travels have changed him, much as reading this book changes the reader.

For me, personally, this book is special because it made me fully appreciate that for millions of people daily life consists of a crowed and frantic maelstrom. It made me realize that the entire planet could be considered something of a Lunatic Express. And with this knowledge comes a greater respect and admiration for the world as a whole, and for individuals, like Carl Hoffman, who bring it to us.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91946ce4) out of 5 stars Truth right up there with the best fiction 25 Nov. 2013
By Modesty Press - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Some other reviewers chastised Hoffman as an adrenalin junkie. I've had a few unintended thrills, but mostly I am a person who prefers to live safely. One of the (to me, many) good points of this book is that Hoffman honestly wrestles with his desire to be a loving and responsible husband and father AND an adrenalin junkie who gets a kick from experiencing danger and then saying, “Whew! I'm alive!”

Another good point (again to me) is that he struggles with the paradox of trying to build a safe, humane, and caring society (United States of America), and in the process developing a society with a great deal of suffering and misery; in fact, one that may be poorer (in a spiritual or philosophical sense) than a lot of societies with greater poverty, injustice, and physical danger than American society. To me he communicated this dilemma brilliantly, especially as he describes the discomfort and danger of traveling as most people throughout the world do, pointing out how much more willing people in other cultures (especially men) are willing to physically touch each other, and so on. The Greyhound bus trip at the end of the book is a tour de force in this regard.

Every review is a personal reaction, so if your reactions are negative, then nothing I say will turn the book into a “good” book for you. An interesting part of writing, is that non-fiction seldom has as much emotional impact as fiction. While I am a suspicious person, and can't say with absolute certainty that Hoffman always tells the truth, to me his book is one of those rare books that conveys the same “thrill” and “insight” as the best novels do, while probably mostly sticking to the truth. Keeping in mind that everyone's “truth” is a little different and very subjective. Like me, (and I admit this strongly prejudices me in his favor), Hoffman is a frank and unapologetic atheist. So I guess that means that “truth” exists only in the mind of God. Which I am afraid, means we are all up the creek without a paddle. Hoffman is a lot bolder than I am in his willingness to go up some very dangerous creeks (and roads).
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