Maybe the Beltway Isn’t All That Bad

By: Garrett M. Graff

Vacations remain a key reason for many Americans to travel; even business trips often allow the chance to explore new cities, cuisines, and sights.

Not so for most of the world, for whom travel remains simply transactional—with an emphasis on speed and cheapness and where government safety standards and regulations are unenforced or nonexistent.

In his new book, The Lunatic Express, Carl Hoffman explores how the other half travels. Leaving his family behind at the H Street stop of DC’s Chinatown bus to New York City, Hoffman—a freelance writer and Wired contributor—spends 159 days traveling the world by the most notorious modes of transportation known.

He rides packed commuter trains in Mumbai that kill thousands of Indians a year, overloaded ferries in Bangladesh and Indonesia that regularly capsize and can kill hundreds with a single sinking, and buses through the heart of South America that get held up by rebels or plunge off cliffs. He even hitches rides through Afghanistan in the midst of the war—just to do it.

Hoffman is filled with an escapist recklessness that most Washingtonians—lots of whom have toed a straight line in their school, life, family, faith, and professional choices—couldn’t even imagine.

Along the way, Hoffman paints beautiful portraits of the people he meets on the road—people for whom the idea of traveling just to see the world is foreign and confusing.

Having embarked on the journey with a keen wanderlust and intense dissatisfaction with his life in Washington, Hoffman ends up learning that he cares about life more than he thought—though the trip also underscores how much he loves exploring.

He writes, “How could you not live that life, taste that taste after you’d had it?”

And, for the record, the only mode of transportation on Hoffman’s itinerary that actually broke down and failed to reach its destination? The Greyhound bus he took on the final leg of his trip from Pittsburgh back to Washington.

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