In this book review of The Lunatic Express in the Wall Street Journal, we see the reality of travel by the masses of the poor in the world, putting that which we often complain about, but is relatively heavenly, into its proper context…we are a lucky people.
“No one pretends anymore that it is fun, or even pleasant, to fly on any airline in the U.S. these days. It is a task—a travail, from which French linguistic origins the word travel is most appositely derived—to which few can possibly look forward. Perhaps only being trapped overnight, waterless and powerless, in an Amtrak siding in Indiana, or changing buses before dawn in a Greyhound depot in West Virginia coal country, can offer up a more sobering experience of what it is like to be on the move in America today.
“And yet, for all its shortcomings, the process of wandering anywhere in this country, between Bangor and Baja, or between Kodiak and Key West, remains an experience that is an order of magnitude more acceptable— and, crucially, many orders of magnitude more survivable—than is endured by most of the rest of the traveling world. For the planet's poor—which means the vast majority of humanity—the simple business of getting from place to place is almost invariably a savage and insufferable nightmare, unsafe and unsanitary, run by incompetents and regulated by crooks.
“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.
“So he headed across the Andes crammed inside half-welded and smooth-tired buses. He sardined himself into the creaking fuselages of the notoriously unsafe airlines of former Soviet-bloc banana republics. He sweated on Indian or African railway trains (the Lunatic Express of the book's title is the nickname of a train in Kenya) that were filled to bursting—though with the numbers occasionally reduced as passengers gasping for fresh air had their heads lopped off by passing bridges. He slept on the bilge-water-stinking hammock-decks of ferries, in the Philippines and the Ganges tributaries, that tip over more regularly than cattle outside Wisconsin college towns, and with the accumulated drownings of thousands.”