Interview With Carl Hoffman, Author of the Lunatic Express

Traveling the world like the poor do.

The Lunatic Express is the story of how Carl Hoffman traveled the world by the most dangerous means of transport he could find – from Indian trains to Kenyan minibuses to Indonesian ferries, he went wherever the odds of dying were the worst.

Hoffman agreed to talk to Road Junky about what motivated him to risk his life in this way.

RJ: You spent 5 months on the road across 4 continents. Was this the first time you’d taken such a long, winding trip with no defined itinerary? Coming from a country where most people get only 2 weeks vacation a year, was anyone close to you able to relate to what you wanted to do?

Hoffman: I backpacked halfway around the world and back the year after I graduated from college a couple of decades ago, but that was a very different kind of journey and experience. Then I was just wandering and doing a lot of hanging out, versus working and reporting and really trying to understand the world around me, as I was doing while traveling for Lunatic.

When I’m traveling for work I’m constantly digging and alert and pushing and that takes a lot more effort, but is much more rewarding to me. I’ve been traveling on assignment for years and have made numerous journeys of three weeks to two months and I always find it hard to come home; most people with much more sedentary lives and regular jobs seem strangers to me, and that often includes my own friends. Add the ‘dangerous’ part of my trip and they really couldn’t fathom it.

RJ: You traveled on the most dangerous conveyances you could find at each point on your journey – to what extent were you motivated by a desire to understand the experience of those in the developing world who have no choice? Or were there also elements of thrill-seeking or even a kind of penance involved?

Hoffman: The purpose was never thrill seeking. The dangerous, crazy element I thought would make the narrative interesting and add an edge, but the journey was all about understanding daily life for most people in most of the world. There are only 300 million or so Americans and a billion Indians alone, and we tend to forget that we’re this tiny minority who live a life vastly different from most of the people in the world.

There’s no question, though, that I thought it would be fun and weird and challenging to ride on nothing but the worst conveyances, and that doing so would make a good story that would be fun to read. Originally, though, I had the idea that I’d just travel constantly, but that didn’t really work out, so I slowed down and started reporting more and some of my best experiences weren’t even on conveyances. The book reflects that – the beginning is just sort of blind traveling and it takes a while for it to come alive.

RJ: You’re an experienced international correspondent and have seen your fair share of war zones but how much of a wake up call was this journey for you about how most people on this planet have to live?

Hoffman: Yes, I’d seen a lot, but always in a very piecemeal way, and this journey was so constant and stretched over so much geography, that I think I saw the world as a whole – as this stage where the players and the costumes and languages and cultures changed all the time, but the essentials of what makes us human, our hopes and dreams and challenges, didn’t. It wasn’t a wake up call so much as just confirmation of ideas I had about how similar we all are in so many ways, and what a rich place the world is, despite poverty and crowds and dirt and delay.

It did hammer home the fact that people live tough lives out there, though rich in family and community, and how lucky we are to have so much personal space and quiet. And I struggled with the need for solitude, which most of the world rarely has.

Image from Neilsphotos

RJ: The Lunatic Express seems to come into its own when you talk about the lethal matatu minibuses in Kenya that claim thousands of lives a year. The overcrowded, speeding, badly maintained vehicles no longer seemed ‘a cool, mysterious and exotic dance‘ as they weaved through traffic but now ‘a mad scratching for pennies‘. Yet it seemed that everyone ripped each other off – the police extorting the drivers for bribes, the drivers charging double when it rained – what does all this tell us about humanity?

Hoffman: Ha! Well, everyone is just scratching for a living in very unregulated societies where there’s little rule of law. That’s the essence of it. People do what they have to do to feed themselves and their families and it’s a constant struggle for them. The little guy who drives a matatu can’t be the one honest person in the whole country – he’d get creamed.

RJ: In the second half of the book as you found yourself friendless upon a series of Indonesian ferries, most Road Junkies would relate to that feeling of isolation, of being an alien drifting without any clearly-defined purpose in a foreign culture. Were there moments when you felt like packing it all in? Once you’d experienced the awful conditions poor people around the world brave to get from A to B, why did you feel the need to go on?

Hoffman: No, I never wanted to pack it in. It was always good, anyway, despite periodic feelings of loneliness and isolation – those are powerful feelings and they’re good to have, sometimes, and they help you see everything in front of you, and yourself, with greater clarity.

And I did have a purpose, which was the journey itself and to write a book, which means I was always thinking about how I’d weave this narrative together and how Indonesia fit into Mumbai and how Mumbai fit into Afghanistan – I was constantly saying to myself, ok, what does this mean? And I knew that none of it would mean anything, that I wouldn’t understand the journey, until I had completed the circle and come home.

RJ: Your return to America made for great reading. Fighting with the obnoxious bus drivers, the inanity of the woman next to you on the SMS sex chatroom. Joseph Conrad’s character, Marlowe, in the Heart of Darkness, returns from his journey and comments on the people he meets ‘They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I was so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew.‘ How was it for you to accept that most people would never understand what you’d been through?

Hoffman: I did a story once on the Royal Geographical Society and one of the things that stuck with me was a comment by the director that an explorer isn’t someone who goes out into the world and returns, but someone who goes out and comes back and writes or lectures about it for others to share. That if you just go and come back without sharing it publicly, you might never have gone at all.

The book was my opportunity to share my journey, to try to explain it to people and to take them with me into the world. So I felt happy because people could, in fact, ‘know the things I knew.’ If I wrote well enough, they could feel those things, see those things, even smell them and taste them. Which is what writing and reading are all about, whether it’s a novel or travel narrative or whatever.

Long before I ever traveled anywhere, I’d been all over the world in books. Long before I ever fell in love, I’d experienced it in part through books. I’ve gotten a lot of letters from readers who were moved in some way by Lunatic, and that tells me that, although I traveled alone, ultimately I took a lot of people with me.

RJ: You concluded that ‘being the lone Western face in a crowd of exotics was no substitute for love and its sometimes irritating and daunting bonds’ – have you since managed to find that emotional resolution at home? How can a traveler forgo the addiction of adventure for a more meaningful life in his or her own culture?

Hoffman: Not entirely. I think the deep urge to travel arises out of feeling, in part, like an outsider in your own culture, and I’m not sure that ever goes away – no matter where you are, whether at home or in some exotic village. But the trip made me much more conscious of the importance of intimate connections and the necessity to not take those for granted and to nurture them as much as possible, which I’ve been doing. I try to stay in touch with people more and to listen to them more, and to approach home more like when I’m traveling – to be open to people and to chance encounters, even if they’re not people I would necessarily become best friends with.

My marriage ended at the conclusion of my journey and, while sad, that was also an important result of the trip – it gave me resolution and closed a door so that others could open. What more could anyone ask of a journey?

_Carl Hoffman’s book, The Lunatic Express, is available on Amazon