Book Review: The Lunatic Express, by Carl Hoffman

If you read our last post, you know that Helen and I were truly blessed to attend the SBS North American Hub meeting earlier this month. One of the things both Helen and I took away from that time is that if we are to be life-long learners, we need to be reading MUCH more. Not only do we need to read more, however, we need to be reading from a spectrum of topics and genres. As a way of being somewhat accountable to do this, we will be posting mini book reviews as we finish the books we are reading. This also gives those of you who read this blog one more source for vetted reading suggestions; I know I am constantly curious as to what my friends are reading.

I (Michael) would personally like to put a caveat in here at the beginning of this venture: I am not nor will I ever be an English literature major, so my critiques may seem simplistic at times. On an overall note, we will not just be focusing on books that are about missions or even directly Christian spiritual development, but will be writing about what we are actually reading; this will hopefully include many different topics and genres. Our hope is that this will be a blessing, and not just hubris. Thanks for reading and here is my (Michael’s) first review.

The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman

Many of us who have gone on long or short term missions trips have had the pleasure of traveling by some very “interesting” means of transport. For example, in Kenya, I had the pleasure of sitting on my luggage in the back of a van as dust and exhaust poured through the floor boards. In his book, The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, travel journalist Carl Hoffman attempts to travel around the globe on the world’s most dangerous conveyances. Avoiding the pleasures of first class travel, he intentionally places himself among the global 99% by taking the overcrowded buses, trains and boats that carry the world’s poor. Along the way he discovers traveling as it used to be: often harrowing and without privacy, but enjoying the generosity and company of those who are on the move, seeking their fortune.

My initial impression of the book was “not so great,” but I’m glad I pushed past that. Mostly, I found the state of Hoffman’s personal life as he sets off on his journey unappealing. He is running off on this big adventure that could see him killed, while his marriage is falling apart. His motives, however, for going on such adventures, and the effect of being around so many people who are traveling together, become the interesting reflections in the book. What I found most compelling were his descriptions of his experiences of traveling on the many differing and colourful forms of transport. I found not only the accounts of the buses, boats, trains and planes fascinating, but the descriptions of the people he met who use and operate them.

One of the most profound things that has stayed with me after reading The Lunatic Express was Hoffman’s contrasts between traveling with the poor lower class versus traveling with the rich upper class. He found that though first class travel often buys you protection from discomfort, sickness, inconvenience and danger, what it most often protects against is an invasion of one’s personal space. When we drive down a highway we don’t see the individuals traveling around us – we see their cars. Even when placed together in an airplane, it is for much shorter periods of time with often clearly defined boundaries. In, say, the belly of a ship, however, traveling third class, sitting and sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder, one cannot avoid knowing one’s neighbour. This left me thinking about how wealth really does afford us the luxury of individualism. Whether this is a good or bad thing I am unsure, but I would encourage you to read this book and let me know what you think.

Overall I greatly enjoyed this travel journal that often made me think of the classic travel books that inspire people to venture off into places less visited. I would encourage anyone who enjoys such books to consider The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes.


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