Carl Hoffman on his adrenaline-filled journey across the world
Journalist and award-winning travel writer Carl Hoffman travelled around the globe for five-and-a-half months — 159 days at a stretch. He had an interesting goal: to understand what travel means to more than 99 per cent of the world's population in the furthest reaches of the planet. In his book The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World… via its most dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains and Planes, he shares the thrills and pains of travelling in Latin America, Africa and Asia, negotiating his way through the jam-packed local trains of Mumbai, flying the notorious Cuba airlines from Havana to Bogota, and crawling across to Bangladesh in an overloaded ferry, which looks like it's designed to capsize!
Excerpts from an e-mail interview with the author.
Before embarking on the ‘lunatic journey', you had an envious job, a comfortable family life — what made you tinker with your destiny?
I'm a journalist and I've been travelling on assignments, often in places such as Sudan or Congo or Siberia. Everywhere, I noticed huge numbers of people on the move — old buses packed with people, people riding on the roofs of trains and hanging from minivans, crammed into small airplanes operated by local airlines… I was curious, I wanted to get to know them, their story. At the same time, I started noticing the little news clips that you always see buried in the paper: “Peruvian bus plunges off cliff, killing 35, or Indonesian ferry sinks, killing 600.” I realised that all those people I'd noticed moving around were the ones dying, and I thought it might be fascinating to see the world through their eyes. The journey was really a way to understand the world as it really is at this moment, and know some of its people in an interesting and surprising way.
Which would you describe as your best, worst and near-death experience?
All of them, and none of them! When I saw the thousands pouring into the belly of the ferry in Jakarta, I thought, uh oh, I can't do this. When I saw the train pull into the station in Bamako, and it was 110 degrees and the train looked like it had been beaten with sledgehammers and buried in mud, my heart rate soared. I was on a bus in Afghanistan that had broken down in a really bad place, and the guy next to me said: ‘Don't get out', and started praying like mad, and I thought I was going to die. And then, they got the bus started. Except for those few minutes I never wondered, ‘Why did I come here?'
Americans live in a sort of bubble. It's all based on a fear of the unknown… and a fear of poverty and its children — dirt, noise, overcrowding. The reality was that travelling aboard each of those conveyances was nothing like what I'd feared, but were, instead, deep, wonderful immersions with gracious, curious, generous people who fed me and took me to their home and into their lives. And, so many of these ‘dangerous' things were just trips people do every day all over the world.
Travelling for nine days from Jakarta to Sorong in the Indonesian ferry, The Siguntang, with 2,003 people — with no breaks, no bed, endless garbage. Physically, how did you cope?
At least in the U.S., people are obsessed with the idea of control, even when they don't realise it. I abandoned all that. I talked to everyone, ate whatever people fed me, bathed in whatever was available, and went wherever the train or ferry went. Once I did that, it was pretty easy, though I did long for a cold beer in a quiet place of my own, with my own hot shower!
It was amazing, actually, how healthy I felt during the whole trip. On long trips, my body would get sore from lying on a hard surface, but it wasn't that bad.
Can you recommend a dangerous travel that one must not miss?
Ha! All of them! The Indonesian ferry trips were wondrous, as was the ferry trip through the Amazon in Brazil. I love being out on the water; it never feels claustrophobic in the way a crowded bus can.