'Lunatic' Travel Took Some Harrowing Rides

Journalist and award-winning travel writer Carl Hoffman journeyed around the world aboard some of the most perilous forms of transportation: overcrowded ferries, the most dangerous airlines, deadliest trains and brake-less buses. Host Scott Simon speaks with Hoffman, whose new book is called Lunatic Express.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Almost every day there's some kind of travel disaster in this world.

(Soundbite of news broadcasts)

Unidentified Man: Hundreds of people are feared dead after a ferry capsized during a typhoon in the Philippines.

Unidentified Woman #1: At least seven people are dead and hundreds more injured after a train crashed in Cameroon.

Unidentified Woman #2: The Go Express was traveling near Mathura City en route to New Delhi when it crashed into a stationary train in the early hours of the morning.

SIMON: Usually they're one-day stories - now these days just a few hours, then the world goes back to its business and Americans complain that the bags of peanuts they receive on passenger planes are growing smaller.

Carl Hoffman, who's a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and other magazines, decided he wanted to travel the world recklessly the way millions do, not for pleasure or exploration but survival. So, he spent five months traveling on the world's most dangerous airlines, overstuffed ferry boats and precarious buses. He's recorded his travels in the new book, "The Lunatic Express."

He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. CARL HOFFMAN (Author, "The Lunatic Express"): My pleasure. Thanks so much.

SIMON: First, are you comfortable? Can we get you anything?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, I'm fine, perfect.

SIMON: You're not used to people saying that the way you've been traveling. Is there something all these perilous modes of transit share?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, they share many things. They're all uncomfortable, they're all loud, they're all dirty, they're all crowded, they're often hot, though if it's in the winter in Mongolia or China, they can be freezing cold. Nobody has money, so the buses don't have new tires and they don't have brakes. And the way operators make money is to put a lot of people in them.

SIMON: You tell us in the book that 3,000 people a day die in road accidents in Latin America. And so of course you rode a bus in just about the most dangerous stretches of Latin America.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, every, I just got on a bus and went. There's nothing else to do. The bus goes on mountain roads and roads that are really not roads at all. They're just washed out dirt strips with huge, sharp plunges off of cliffs. And traveling...

SIMON: No guardrails typically?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No guardrails and those journeys are incredibly long. I mean, it took me from Ayacucho to Cusco, 24 hours to travel just a couple hundred miles. But there's always an incredible quantity of fresh food coming into the bus. I mean, that's the flip side of really bad dangerous travel is that it's incredibly ubiquitous and full of delicious food.

SIMON: There was a five-day stretch - I hope you don't mind me asking but you write about it in the book - but when your, I guess she was, then-17-year-old daughter Lily joined you. There's a part of me as a parent too that wonders knowing how dangerous it is why a parent brings his daughter along.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, I mean, for me, I thought that the reward outweighed the risks. And that for Lily, who already traveled to Nicaragua and Mexico and parts of Canada and Italy, it would be a wonderful experience for Lily. I overestimated a little bit. You know, Lily was walking out of her high school one day and then on a bus in Peru for 30-something hours the next day, and that was on mountain roads and that was hard for her. I mean, hard...

SIMON: Well, let's make it plain: it wasn't just a matter of lack of comfort or, you know, lack of Western style and toilets. You know, we're talking about - as you so vividly describe in the book - roads where a lot of accidents occur.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think she was just, there was a huge amount of culture shock. And she was squished into a seat, there were roaches falling out of the curtains when the sun went down and the food was suspect. And she looked, could see those cliffs and think, oh my God, what are we doing? To me, I mean, if you don't embrace the adventure of it all and take certain risks then life is boring and not worth living.

SIMON: You rode a ferry boat called the - I hope it pronounce it correctly -Bookit Singatan(ph), and when you described how everybody traveled, it is literally sickening.

Mr. HOFFMAN: That was a tough, one of my physically most difficult legs. Five days from Jakarta to Ambon and the Maluku Islands. Out of regular space for 2,000 people, 1,800 of those were in economy, and in what's steerage. And then sort of by another thousand people must have climbed on and it was incredibly crowded, where you slept on a platform, hard platform all just lined up like hot dogs on a grill.

And there was no, in steerage, there was no ventilation, there were no windows or portholes that opened. So, you had cigarette smoke, which probably a hundred degrees and florescent lights on and a lot of cockroaches just all the time.

SIMON: You also - I got the impression - developed some of your warmest friendships on the ferry boat.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I was surrounded by incredible people, most of whom were women. All these people were watching my stuff and taking me out. When we docked, we'd go off and they'd take me for meals. They would never let me pay. I mean, people are incredibly generous the world over and incredibly warm. And I can't say that it's not something I wasn't aware of but it overwhelmed me always over and over again.

SIMON: How's it changed you as a traveler? Like, are you less inclined to complain about the fact that they don't have macadamia nuts on the flights anymore?

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's funny; there's two ways of traveling. When I traveled for "Lunatic," I gave up, I surrendered to it. You couldn't be impatient if a flight didn't show up or the ferry was two days late or five days late. I still find I get frustrated on an American flight, for instance. You know, you expect it to be on time and you expect there to be some food and you want to have the seat next to you unoccupied.

And when the plane's late and the scene is crowded and you're in coach and there's no legroom and all they give you is peanuts, you know, I get incredibly frustrated, just like everybody else.

SIMON: But are you less inclined to call it, you know, to get home and call it a hellish experience?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I mean, I can do anything. I know that I'm capable of suffering through anything.

SIMON: Would you do this again?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I would, absolutely.

SIMON: Carl Hoffman. His new book, "The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains and Planes." Mr. Hoffman, thanks so much.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Thank you.

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