Lunatic Express: The World's 10 Wildest Rides

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Carl Hoffman

We take safety for granted when we travel, trusting airplanes with strict checklist inspections and ferries with enforced capacity limits and rows of accessible life jackets. But that's not reality for most of the world.


For his new book, The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains and Planes, Carl Hoffman recounts his fascinating five months spent circumnavigating the globe, from the waters of the Amazon to the air above Bangladesh to experience how the bulk of its citizens get from point A to point B. And it wasn't pretty. Think aging airplanes, rusting trains sizzling in the sun, and filled-to-bursting ferries where safety is hardly a consideration. "I selected the different conveyances and legs of my journey based on their dubious safety histories," he says. But Hoffman's journey was far more than a test of travel bravado -- it was a period of self actualization for the author. "The Lunatic Express was really an exercise in giving up control," says Hoffman, "Every conveyance I took was a leap of faith." Among his most intense travel experiences were the impossibly packed commuter trains of Mumbai, the hectic matatu vans of Kenya and Peruvian buses prone to go careening off a cliff at every hairpin turn. So how crazy was it? We asked Hoffman to count down his 10 wildest rides.


10. Biman Bangladesh Airlines

Hoffman flew Biman Bangladesh Airlines from Kolkata, India to Dhaka, Bangladesh, a two-hour flight in an aging and unkempt aircraft. "Biman only has about six or seven airplanes working right now, they're old planes and they're always at the bottom of the list of customer satisfaction," he says of the airline. "The seats were stained, the carpet was threadbare and it smelled like the dressing room of a gym" says Hoffman, "But it's what you don't know that scares you. You have no idea how well these things are maintained."

9. Blueline Buses, Delhi, India

Slow, dirty, hot and jammed. These are the adjectives Hoffman uses to describe Delhi's private bus line that's "notorious for high speeds, plowing into people, driving the wrong way, anything to make time and make money," he writes. Blueline buses were responsible for the deaths of 120 people in India's capital city in 2007. Hoffman got a taste, but concluded that his Blueline experience was fairly tame, and that the danger often applies more to pedestrians and bicyclists in the path of buses. "We literally went down the wrong way of a divided highway," he says of his Blueline ride, "And this is how huge amounts of people get around dail -- hour and a half commutes are routine, standing up squished into the corner of an incredibly hot and crowded bus that's careening through the city."

8. Amazon Ferry, Brazil
Hoffman's three-night adventure on an Amazon river boat took him from Porto Velho to Manaus on a ferry that was a carbon copy of the Almirante Monteiro, a craft that collided with a barge in 2008 and claimed at least 14 lives. Overloading ships with passengers and cargo is often the cause of ferry disasters, says Hoffman, who watched as his boat was filled to bursting with both. "Instead of offloading cargo to reduce the boat's overloading, money changed hands," he wrote in his book, adding that the first deck was completely full with crates of onions and tomatoes. Hoffman enjoyed getting to know his fellow passengers, drinking beer, playing cards and slinging a hammock to sleep in from the deck. But a lack of personal space and heat made the ride an intense one. "You're laying in a hammock with someone's body in your face. You're shaving and brushing your teeth in front of 200 people that are all looking at you, bathrooms are all hot and small, and they smell pretty strong," he says, "And on top of that, you're aware that the line between disaster and just being fine is a narrow line."

7. Bus, Peru
More than 1.2 million people a year are killed in road accidents in South America. And buses plying the hairpin mountain curves in Peru are notorious for plunging off cliffs and taking scores of lives with them. The bus Hoffman took from Ayacucho to Cuzco took 24 hours. Rather than a paved road, it's a "one-lane dirt track that rose and fell thousands of feet in altitude, full of switchbacks and cliffs and eroded sections that dropped straight down steep mountainsides," he wrote. "The seats are small, it's dirty, it's slow and hot -- or cold at night -- and there's no relief," he says. And at nighttime, the danger is even more pronounced. "You see the headlights dully illuminate these extreme drop offs, and there's no guardrail," says Hoffman, "You're aware of the history of buses falling off cliffs, and for hours you're literally inches away from the same fate."

6. Ferry, Bangladesh
Of Bangladesh's 20,000 ferries, only 8,000 are registered and only 20 percent are officially fit to operate. Some 1,000 people die riding ferries around Bangladesh's inland waterways every year. The author got a taste of the danger during a 30-hour trip aboard the government-owned P.S. Ostrich: "two stories of rusting, dented steel hung with burlap and an official capacity of 150 tons of cargo and 900 passengers, which regularly swelled to 3,000." The captain invited him up to the bridge, where Hoffman says there was a radio but no GPS or radar. And while the ferry was not overloaded with passengers on his trip, it's a regular problem, Hoffman says. "There's intense crowding," he says, "and disasters tend to happen more in monsoon season, when you have wind and rain and current and 5,000 people on a ferry."

5. Train, Mali to Senegal

"My friend, this train is very bad," a tout warns Hoffman about the Dakar-Bamako Express. The battered train that plies the sun scorched, two-day route from Mali to Senegal in West Africa "looked a thousand years old. Like it had been thrown off a cliff, beaten up, torn apart for scrap and pasted together again," writes Hoffman. And the fact that there's no respite from the intense heat, dirt and crowding made for a very trying ride. "On that train, you look at it and think because it's so dirty, so beaten up, that it won't be able to survive in some way," he says, "But you just surrender to the dirt, there's nothing you can do about it, everyone is on the same boat." Hoffman whittled the hours drinking tea with locals and watching the world go by -- nearly 50 hours of relentless 120 degree baking heat, with nowhere to cool off (even the bathrooms were full of a vendor's mango cargo). "There's no privacy, no clean spot to lie or wash your face. You either go crazy or surrender to it," says Hoffman.

4. Bukit Siguntang Ferry, Indonesia

Hoffman traveled for five days aboard the Siguntang ferry from Jakarta to Ambon in Indonesia to experience how most people in this immense archipelago nation get between its thousands of islands. "The decks inside, the decks outside -- humanity covered every square inch of space," he writes, "There were no beds or bunks, just two open decks full of knee-high, linoleum-covered platforms on which we were supposed to lie like hot dogs lined up on grill." The sheer experience of having his personal space invaded for days on end was trying, says Hoffman, and when you add intense heat and nonstop cigarette fumes to the mix, it's all the more intense. "There's five days of continuously having someone's hand on your leg, someone shoulder hitting your shoulder, all in 100 degree heat," he says. "There was no escape. I felt incredibly drained from constant contact from people."

3. Matatus, Kenya

Shuttle buses with blaring music and passengers piled on top of each other and hanging from the windows are Kenya's par-for-the-course conveyance. A matatu licensed to carry 23 passengers will often be packed with more that twice that amount, and the buses are frequently involved in fatal accidents. Naturally, Hoffman went for a ride in Mombasa. "You're not just touching people, you're smushed next to them," he says, "It's tight and hot. It stinks. And on top of that, the thing is careening around -- or else it's stuck in crushing traffic." Exhaust and fumes streaming in through the windows and "P. Diddy blaring at you" adds to the scene, he says.

2. Train, Mumbai, India
Figures released in 2008 by Mumbai's Central and Western Railway accounted for more than 20,000 train-related deaths within the city in the previous five years, making the trains in Bollywood's capital the "most dangerous conveyances on earth," according to Hoffman. Of course, the author wanted to see for himself, and learned from a local how to cram into the trains and disembark among the pushing throngs, all while avoiding getting pick pocketed along the way. "It's insanely crowded," says Hoffman, "People get pushed out, fall out, smash into telephone poles, die crossing the tracks." At one point while he was entering a train, he says, a man fell in front of him and Hoffman feared he would witness a trampling. "It was like a miracle that the crowd picked him up and pushed him forward," he says. "And when you go to the mortuary or hospital to investigate, the danger is graphic in front of you," says Hoffman, "Bodies come in every day. The casualties from a single train station can be three or more a day," he says. The trains are often so crowded that the doors won't close. "People are literally hanging out of the train with telephone poles passing by inches away," says Hoffman.

1. Bus, Afghanistan
No stranger to danger, Hoffman did find himself questioning his sanity when he landed at the deserted Kabul airport in Afghanistan. He found a fixer, bought a traditional Afghani robe and later set out by bus for the eight-hour ride to Mazar-i-Sharif. The bus itself was very nice -- smooth and quiet, very new and clean, with comfortable seats ("Nicer than any Greyhound," says Hoffman). But the danger was ever present, and all the more palpable when the bus broke down along a remote stretch of highway in the "khaki mud dirt world" of the Afghani landscape. "You're a target, a sitting duck in Afghanistan," says Hoffman, acknowledging that 99 percent of the population is friendly and well meaning. "But the political value to a kidnapper of having you is enormous," he says, "There is a price on you as a foreigner."


Photo Credits: Biman Bangladesh Airlines - Dubai Civil Aviation HO/AP; Blueline buses - Tauseef Mustafa, AFP/Getty; Amazon Ferry - Alamy; Peru Bus - Karel Navarro, Bloomberg/Getty Images; Bangladesh Ferry - Pavel Rahman, AP; Train to Senegal - Alamy; Bukit Siguntang Ferry - Adek Berry, AFP/Getty Images; Matatus - Marco Longari, AFP/Getty Images; Mumbai Train - Pal Pillai, AFP/Getty Images; Afghanistan Bus - Emilio Morenatti, AP
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