Dear Readers, as you head into that great American tradition, a long, lost weekend of drunken pyromania family, friends, and tasty BBQ, take a minute to consider the less fortunate, like adventure travel writer Carl Hoffman, whose new book ‘LUNATIC EXPRESS: Discovering the World…Via its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes’ has just hit the shelves, despite his many apparent efforts to off himself while reporting it. Hoffman just returned from Thailand, where he traveled to write a piece about his 81-year old father’s restaurant in Chiang Mai. We caught up with him just as the jet lag was wearing off.
In one sentence, please defend your sanity. Thank you.
I did not jump out of a plane or climb a mountain or plunge down a waterfall in a kayak; I merely bought tickets on regularly scheduled buses, boat, trains and planes that millions of people take every day.
Seriously, should travelers throw caution to the wind and take their own Lunatic Express trips? What is it about moving around the world through these kinds of corridors that you found so compelling?
The whole point of the journey wasn’t some death defying macho thing, but to use those conveyances as a window through which to see and understand the world as it is for the majority of its people. The world is changing rapidly and huge numbers of people, mostly poor, are on the move, traveling from countryside to city, from one end to the other of enormous cities, from country to country, on epic and often dangerous and uncomfortable journeys. If you’re looking for an authentic travel experience, if you’re looking to meet people and plunge deeply into the world, than there’s no better place than an overcrowded Indonesian ferry or a jam-packed Kenyan Matatu or Mumbai commuter train. And I found that the further off the beaten path I got, the more I put myself into places few westerners went, the more gracious the people became and I was treated with great care and hospitality. So, in a word, yes. Everyone should take their own Loony journey.
Any points in your reportage when you thought, ‘Feck. Now I’ve really done it. Goodbye, world.’ What happened next?
A few times I felt really, really out there – when I squeezed into a shared car in the Peruvian Amazon or when I boarded a small ferry in the Molucca Islands of Indonesia for a place called Buru, and I had no idea where I was going or what I’d find when I got there, and I carried no map or even extra food or water. But those times were the best! I felt a total freedom and exhilaration at moving through the world into this great unknown, and at giving up control and surrendering to whatever lay ahead. And on a bus through Afghanistan, well, it broke down for a bit in a bad area and that was the only time I though, ‘uh oh, I’m stupid and if I die or get kidnapped it won’t be fun and what was I thinking?’ But then the bus coughed to life and off we went.
What’s the most important item in your bag or suitcase, aside from your passport?
My notebooks. Everything else was replaceable, but those weren’t. I kept them in sealed zip lock bags and close at hand, hoping if the ferry sank or the bus plunged off a cliff, I’d be able to keep them safe. And something to read. And Ibuprofen. A must for hangovers.
Why do they hate us?
They don’t. They love us. They’re dying to know everything about us and they all want to move here. The only people who hate us are urban Europeans, and that’s because they’re really so much like us. And maybe a few Taliban, but they secretly all want to move here, too.
I’m a fan of writer William Boyd. His debut novel ‘A Good Man in Africa’ made me howl. What fiction and non-fiction travel-themed writers do you love the most, and why? Do you see yourself writing fiction? What’s next?
I love Tobias Schneebaum, a gay, New York artist who shed his clothes and disappeared into the Amazon in the 50s, and then lived with the Asmat in Indonesian Papua in the 70s. ‘Keep the River on Your Right’ and ‘Where the Spirits Dwell’ are haunting, unbelievable books, and they’re all about the outsider in his own culture who seeks connection in the exotic, and sort of finds it, but not really, because a white Westerner is even more of an outsider with a bunch of natives than he is at home. Naipaul’s old stuff like ‘A Bend in the River’ and ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ really take you into the Congo and Trinidad, and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s African books are wonderful. I loved Lawrence Osborne’s ‘The Accidental Connoisseur’. John Burdett’s thrillers like ‘Bangkok 8′ and ‘The Godfather of Kathmandu’, about a half Thai, Buddhist detective in Bangkok, are pretty insightful about Thailand and fun to breeze through.
You seem totally unafraid of riding trains like the one on your book cover, overloaded with thousands of death-defying maniacs clinging to the roof. What are you afraid of in the United States?
I always get scared when I tip over my sailboat in the middle of the Potomac River. Which is ridiculous, because the River is about four feet deep and warm and full of boats and only a mile across. But it always freaks me out.
What’s the best skill or piece of local knowledge you’ve picked up from your book project?
I always jump into the front seat of taxis; it establishes a little dominance and rapport. Never be afraid to eat street food or to walk into that dingy, crowded little restaurant. And when in doubt, keep your back to the wall or keep moving.
Any countries you’re still dying to get to? Why?
So many! All of Africa, especially the weird, crazy little countries of West Africa, like Liberia and Sierra Leone that are full of music and life and are recovering from horrible wars. Ethiopia, because its landscape and its people are beautiful. Burma, because its hot and wet and in a socialist authoritarian time warp.
My father used to tell me when I was little about DC’s inner city: Don’t be afraid; they’re just like you and me, only poor.’ I never forgot that and it’s true about the whole world.
Don’t go there, it’s dangerous.
[Journalist Carl Hoffman traveled 159 days in 2008 and 2009 for The Lunatic Express, published by Broadway Books on March 16th, 2010. Buy it here. He is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, Wired and Popular Mechanics magazines, and his stories about travel, adventure and technology – and often the nexus between them – also appear frequently in Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men’s Journal. His first book, Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II, was published by Ballantine Books in 2001.]