One of the things I’m beginning to take a liking to is that this outlet is causing me to read a few things. If you know me, you know I have lost track of the number of books in my house, but it is in the thousands. I am trying to stay focused on optics and astronomy books before 1930, travelers on the Amazon who at least pretended to be science oriented and lived to write a book, the prolific material affiliated with John Wesley Powell (the first reported to make it through the Grand Canyon in a boat) and, one of my favorites, the entire year’s run of Life magazine the year I was born and of National Geographic the year my parents were born.
While I do not intend to make this a series of personal book reports, I felt this latest read was quite something. As with many things that seem to improve the quality of my life, I heard a 10-minute piece with the author on “Whad’Ya Know?” on NPR the other day. Next thing I knew, I was in the checkout line at B&N (I know, I should have used the Kindle; I have one – didn’t adapt yet) buying the book, The Lunatic Express (named best book of the year by the Wall Street Journal, a dubious distinction and a strange one). I’ve been ranting about this one to anyone who will engage.
I think one reason this one grabbed me is that I have now been down the Amazon, I’ve been to India (although I hear I went to the less challenging section – Bangalore to Chennai to Pondicherry), and through some of Asia including China, Japan, and Korea. This gave me just enough perspective to be drawn fully into the Lunatic Express.
The premise: a journalist needs to write a book. How to be different, hmmmm. I know, let’s go around world in not 80, but 160 days, in the worst mode of transportation available to people in any given place. Buses, ferries, trains, unregulated airlines… And, to be sure to demonstrate no fear, include Afghanistan. Although, I admit, it takes the author almost the first third of the book to get over himself and immerse in the world, once he does, I found it fascinating. Here is a guy who always books the lowest class on the slowest thing. He appears to have nearly no plan, and is relying quite completely on the kindness of others. For example, he boards a 4-6 story ferry to traverse the Philippines. He spends 12 days in a 2’x5’ piece of linoleum deep in a boat that is meant to carry a few thousand people, which is loaded with over 12,000. He travels down the Amazon, across Africa, through India, on to the Philippines, China, Mongolia, and then somewhat anticlimactically across Russia and then in a revealing closing piece, a Greyhound bus from LA to his home in Washington, DC.
I was trying to think of a best image for this piece. I’ve included the luxurious Amazon ferry on which I spent three glorious (really) weeks with the Botanical Society. The Amazon ferries the author describes are clearly a decrepit version of this. If you’re in the mood for a little reflection and perhaps an input on the world, as we do not know it, this is quite the read.
Now, imagine this “ferry” with 400-500 people – an express for a lunatic.