The Lunatic Express

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2011-06-07
  • Publisher: Broadway Books

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Indonesian Ferry Sinks. Peruvian Bus Plunges Off Cliff. African Train Attacked by Mobs. Whenever he picked up the newspaper, Carl Hoffman noticed those short news bulletins, which seemed about as far from the idea of tourism, travel as the pursuit of pleasure, as it was possible to get. So off he went, spending six months circumnavigating the globe on the world's worst conveyances: the statistically most dangerous airlines, the most crowded and dangerous ferries, the slowest buses, and the most rickety trains. The Lunatic Express takes us into the heart of the world, to some its most teeming cities and remotest places: from Havana to Bogotá on the perilous Cuban Airways. Lima to the Amazon on crowded night buses where the road is a washed-out track. Across Indonesia and Bangladesh by overcrowded ferries that kill 1,000 passengers a year. On commuter trains in Mumbai so crowded that dozens perish daily, across Afghanistan as the Taliban closes in, and, scariest of all, Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., by Greyhound. The Lunatic Express is the story of traveling with seatmates and deck mates who have left home without American Express cards on conveyances that don't take Visa, and seldom take you anywhere you'd want to go. But it's also the story of traveling as it used to be -- a sometimes harrowing trial, of finding adventure in a modern, rapidly urbanizing world and the generosity of poor strangers, from ear cleaners to urban bus drivers to itinerant roughnecks, who make up most of the world's population. More than just an adventure story, The Lunatic Express is a funny, harrowing and insightful look at the world as it is, a planet full of hundreds of millions of people, mostly poor, on the move and seeking their fortunes.


Mumbai: The city’s cattle class train commute has put a big question
mark over the future of a brilliant sixteen-year-old girl. Raushan
Jawwad, who scored over 92 percent in her class X examination a
few months ago, lost both legs after being pushed out of a crowded
local train near Andheri on Tuesday.
—Times of India, October 17, 2008
The 290th Victim
“Everything in that book is true,” said Nasirbhai. It was almost
100 degrees, the humidity of the Bay of Bengal pressing
down, and he was wearing a white dress shirt over a sleeveless
undershirt, pleated black slacks, and black oxford shoes. Small
scars were etched around brown eyes that studied me from a
wide, inscrutable face; a big stone of lapis studded one finger,
and a silver bracelet dangled from his wrist. He had a barrel
chest and his hands hung at his sides, ready, waiting— never in
his pockets. He looked immovable, like a pitbull, like a character
from another time and place, and in a way he was. “That
book” was Shantaram, the international best-selling novel written
by Australian Gregory David Roberts, who’d escaped from
prison in Oz and found his way to Bombay two decades ago,
where he’d become deeply involved with its criminal gangs and
Nasir— who always carried the honorific bhai, “uncle.”
“We met in the 1980s,” Nasirbhai said, standing on a corner
in Colaba, one of Mumbai’s oldest neighborhoods and its tourist
epicenter, the streets lined with vendors selling tobacco and sandals
and newspapers and bangles, pedestrians as thick on the
sidewalks as attendees at a rock concert. Roberts was famous
now, a Mumbai legend, and through a friend of a friend had
connected me to Nasirbhai, who agreed to take me deep onto
the commuter trains of the most crowded city on earth, where
the day’s simple commute was a matter of life and death. “Traveling
on these trains is very risky because they are so full,” Nasirbhai
said. “But people must be at work, they must not be late
or their boss will fire them. They must get to their destination, so
they lean out of the doors, hang on to the windows, climb on top
of the train. They risk their life to get to work every day.”
By population, the city— just nineteen miles across, with 19
million souls— was bigger than 173 countries. The population
density of America was thirty-one people per square kilometer;
Singapore 2,535 and Bombay island 17,550; some neighborhoods
had nearly one million people per square kilometer. A
never-ending stream of Indians was migrating to Mumbai,
which was swelling, groaning, barely able to keep pace. In 1990
an average of 3,408 people were packing a nine-car train; ten
years later that number had grown to more than 4,500. Seven
million people a day rode the trains, fourteen times the whole
population of Washington, D.C. But it was the death rate that
shocked the most; Nasirbhai was no exaggerating alarmist. In
April 2008 Mumbai’s Central and Western railway released the
official numbers: 20,706 Mumbaikers killed on the trains in the
last five years. They were the most dangerous conveyances on
Copyright (c) 2010 by Carl Hoffman.  

From the Hardcover edition.

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