Literary Learnings

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Jerry McFadden has been writing fiction for the past several years. His stories have appeared in various fiction magazines and e-zines, such as Flash Fiction Offensive, Over My Dead Body, Eclectic Flash Fiction, and BWG Writers Roundtable. Many of his favorites are included in his book OFF THE RAILS: A Collection of Weird, Wicked, & Wacky Stories  published in 2019. He received a Second Place Bullet Award for the best crime fiction to appear on the web in June, 2011, and has had his short stories performed aloud on the stage by the Liar’s League in London and the Liar’s League in Hong Kong. His stories have also appeared in various anthologies, including
 
Hardboiled: Crime SceneOnce Around the SunA Christmas SamplerA Readable Feastand Let It Snow. He has also won honorable mentions in Writer’s Digest Magazine annual national fiction awards, as well as in several regional writing contests.


The Journey Is the Destination

Thanks to COVID-19, Carl Hoffman may have written the last great travel adventure book for the next few years. It will a long while before someone else dares to take six months out of their life to circle the world via South America, Africa, and Asia on the world’s most dangerous buses, trains, and airplanes.

He did not do it on a dare. Nor did he do it to see anything special, such as a long-lost city or a hidden site, or to tour an ancient cathedral or explore an out-of-the-way museum. He explicitly set out to traverse the world on the most dangerous transportation conveyances available to humans. The journey was the destination. Welcome to
The Lunatic Express.

Carl Hoffman has made a career as an adventure journalist, writing for such magazines as
National Geographic Traveler, Wired, Smithsonian, Outside, Men’s Journal, etc. Along the way, he became obsessed with news clips that told of packed ferry boats in the Philippines or Bangladesh that overturned and drowned hundreds of people, and crammed native buses in the Andes that plunged off narrow mountain roads into ravines so deep that the bodies will never be recovered, and commuter trains in Africa and Asia that average five to eight deaths per day.

Hoffman’s morbid fascination morphed into a plan to circle the globe in a nonstop pilgrimage to understand how and why this was happening. It led him into a world where hundreds of millions of people, all desperately poor, are on the move seeking their fortunes, commuting to their jobs, or traveling the cheapest way possible to visit their families. He discovered how the world’s destitute masses live, travel, and survive.

His start set the tone. He hopped on a cheap Chinese bus line out of New York City that took him to Canada to catch the perilous Cuban Airways flight to Havana to connect to another risky flight to Bogota. He then immediately caught an overloaded night bus through the steep mountains to Lima. The game was on.

I was swept into Carl Hoffman’s stories from my own memories as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa a long, long time ago. I remember sitting on the souk (market) buses as if it were yesterday, rumbling between villages with every row of seats holding four people (or more) while the central aisle was jammed with people, chickens, dogs, and small goats. Other folks were hanging from the open doors and riding on the roof. Let’s not even talk about the overwhelming odors. Or taking the train to Marrakech on the Marrakech Express (this was before the old song became popular) in third class; the crush of passengers bumping and banging together on wooden benches over the ragged rails. But Hoffman outdid me—he would continue to ride on such transportation twenty-four hours or more as he circled the rough half of this world!

Memories continued as I continued to read. I once took the jammed, pitching ferry boat from Manila (Philippines) to the island of Corregidor to visit the World War II monuments. The boat wallowed and rode the swells with its overcapacity load, and I wondered if I had made a bad choice. In his book, Hoffman searches these crafts out on rivers, lakes, and small seas as if daring to see if he would survive.

And then there is Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. It is in fact an exact duplicate of Victoria Station in London, built in the 1860s. Victoria Station in London has moved forward with the times. Victoria Terminus in Mumbai remains as built in 1878. The London station handles thousands per day. A good guess would be that the Mumbai station may handle a million a day. Or at least it feels like it. The overflowing crowd is pushed to the very edges of the train platforms. Six to eight deaths happen per weekday as people are pushed onto the tracks or as they scurry to cross the lines to the other side. Others get their heads whacked by telephone poles and rail signs as they cling to the open doorways on their commute, as there is no more room inside the train car. A couple of years ago, I went to look at the terminus as a sightseer, then left. The station was too crowded to push my way into. Carl Hoffman went in and out several times as a pretend commuter. Better him than me.

I have traveled to many of these out-of-the-way places both as a tourist and for work. Over time I have become inured to the Third World: its smells, crowds, inconvenience, noise, etc. I would (and will) eat in the streets carefully and selectively, and still get sick. In the book, Hoffman appears to eat whatever and whenever and never pays for his sins. God bless him.

Hoffman deepens his adventure with flashes of his personal troubles at home. He tells about his marriage coming apart, his estranged relationships with his three children due to his long absences, and reflects on a short romance that quickly dies while he is on the road. He was terrified that this voyage and this book were taking over his life.

In spite of our differences, my dipping in and out as time and finances allow, and his unending six-month slog through South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, we arrive at the same conclusions: Wealth buys space—with even the slightest wealth, you can upgrade your travel to second or first class and have a seat (maybe even a comfortable seat) to yourself, without rubbing haunch-to-haunch, or having someone’s butt in your face. You can also have a house or an apartment of your own, without sharing it with your grandparents, kids, brothers, sisters, and even cousins, all in one or two rooms. It also becomes apparent that the majority of people in the so-called Third World are nice. In crowded conditions and seemingly unending voyages, they will share their food with a stranger, take an interest in him/her, and want to know where he/she is from and what it is like back there. Finally, more people than not work very, very hard to make a living with very little return; peddling onions on the street, frying chicken in open markets, fixing bicycles or cars with only hammers or screwdrivers, or commuting for hours every day in uncomfortable conditions to lousy jobs that pay too little. It is called surviving.

Home again after his epic voyage, Carl Hoffman sat down with an actuary to determine what his risk had been to survive the world’s most dangerous buses, boats, trains, and planes. Good thing he
didn’t ask before he left—50%. He might not have taken the trip had he known that.

In our current circumstances, such a trip is now impossible. COVID-19 would be out there waiting for you—90% probability. So it is an open question whether anyone will ever be able to chase after such an adventure in the near future. But as you are at home in quarantine, this is a book that will take you far in vicarious thrills, cultural insights, and deep reflections.
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