Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dakar to Ziguinchor to Dakar

Creaking along on the train from Bamako to Dakar, we passed bent, overturned box cars and tanker cars that had been shunted to the side and forgotten, the result of an accident just a few weeks before. I have little doubt they’ll stay there for years. And I recently saw a statistic that between 2004 and 2005 557 people were killed and 2,581 injured in bus crashes in Peru. Disasters don’t usually change things much in the Third World.

Things seemed different with the ferry between Dakar and Ziguinchor, Senegal. I was a bit nervous buying my ticket for the 15-hour voyage along the coast, past the sliver of The Gambia, which cuts southern Senegal in half, and up the Casamance River into Ziguinchor. The present ferry was new, German built. But so was the MV Joola, which was just 12 years old when it left Ziguinchor late in the afternoon of September 26, 2002, bound for Dakar.

Ziguinchor is a hot, dusty city of 400,000, the capital of the Casamance, a flat world of waterways and mangroves and the Diola people. The Joola had a capacity of 580. But the rainy season was hammering the already bad road to Dakar, and so many people wanted to travel it had taken Pierre Colly, a 19-year-old Senegalese student, and his older brother, three days to get a ticket. By the time the Joola cast off from the concrete mole and glided into the river more than 1,000 had officially purchased tickets. Just as the train from Bamako carried a constantly rotating crowd of freeloaders on the roof, at least another 500 had slipped a little something to crewmembers for a place on board the Joola. The ship was already listing. Even worse in Africa where portents loom large: rumors were circulating that the Joola had swamped a pirogue as it pulled away, drowning a fisherman.

The Aline Sitoe Diatta, the Joola’s replacement, almost seemed deserted, and it gleamed – not a chip or flake or rust darkened its decks or rails. Unusual for the Third World: lessons appeared to have been learned. I claimed a fourth class seat and hit the bar on the stern, slaking my thirst with a lukewarm Royal Dutch lager, and we slipped away under a bright moon at nine, to arrive in baking heat at noon the next day.

But I was conscious every minute, and so were my fellow passengers, of the Joola’s voyage along this same route. As the ship, already overloaded, passed Carabane Island hundreds more swarmed out and clambered aboard. By the time it hung a right out of the river into the Atlantic at least 1,862 were aboard, though no one really knows how many.

Colly and his brother were in the crowded bar; a band was playing. A rain squall hit. Colly was nervous, who can know why, exactly, but he had a bad feeling. He stood next to the window. Around 11 pm the Joola thumped. The lights went out. “What’s happening?” people screamed. The lights flickered on, and then off again. Colly clutched his seat hard, tried to open the window further. Rain. Darkness. The Joola rolled, Colly reached for his brother and a girl next to him, as he clung to his chair. A sound hit, a sound he’d never heard before that haunts him still: the sound of tons of Atlantic Ocean rushing into the bar. Luck. Providence. The ocean sucked Colly right out of the window and he was gasping for air in the waves, where he would cling to a fish trip for six hours as a handful of survivors tired and slipped beneath the water around him. “It was so cold,” Colly says, “but God pushed me out the window and I said I must fight.”

I talked to Colly in a crumbling building in Ziguinchor. He is one of 62 survivors, 61 of them men, known as “the rescapes.” No journalist or government official or investigator had ever spoken to him before, no one had ever offered him counseling. He spoke looking down, choking up.

Colly lost his older brother. He quit school. And he was a marked man in Ziguinchor, a rescape, a freak. “People look at me and think I’m weird. They say ‘why did you survive? Why did you live? It’s not normal!’ People call me the rescape. They say ‘you saved yourself and the rest died.’ Sometimes I want to leave Ziguinchor and go from here.”

We read about Third World disasters in three-line news reports and the dead are numbers. Another bus crash! Another ferry sinking!

Now Colly was a driving a battered yellow taxi with no door handles. It was time for me to go – the Diatta was leaving for Dakar in an hour. Colly drove me to the ship for my voyage back to Dakar. As I climbed out I asked if he’d been on the ship again. “No, never,” he said, looking away.

At 3 pm the Diatta’s engines thrummed and we slid away, and I was happy that the ship looked so new and there were few people aboard. This time, at least.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Bamako to Dakar

Bamako, Mali looks like it was hit by a bomb. The heat is searing and dry, like you’re walking around in a world of hot coals. Piles of dust and sand; piles of concrete in streets of dirt; nothing but low crumbling buildings and corrugated tin and thousands of people hip to hip and sleeping on the streets at night. Yet the Malians are sweet, calm, like they’re all walking around on heavy doses of Lexapro.

The train station is smack in the middle of the downtown chaos and information is scare. The train for Dakar, Senegal leaves on Wednesdays. Or Tuesdays. Maybe Monday. Actually, said a man lounging on its steps, “No one knows when it leaves or when it arrives. It is very bad. It leaves whenever it arrives.”

I paid a local guy named Guindo to do the dirty work – go to the station every day and find keep tabs on the train. Guindo was sure it would be Wednesday, but on Tuesday at 2 pm he called. The train was near; it would be leaving in five hours.

As darkness hit Bamako the train lurched into the station, the most dreadful looking conveyance I’ve ever seen. Covered in mud. Dust. Holes in its sides. Every window open and akimbo and made opaque with grime. Inside, it’s once white walls were black. In 90-degree heat we piled in, squeezing, touching, pressing, with boxes of mangos and clay pots and suitcases and 100-pound bags of charcoal.

But a bad conveyance is only really bad if your movements are restricted. At this point I can bear anything, enjoy everything, and in the heat and filth I sat with my legs dangling out of the doorways watching Africa roll by at 20 mph; sat piled in the vestibule at night with bodies sleeping curled around a gas stove, a lean, long legged mango seller with two wives named Moussa making sweet strong Malian tea.

The train lurched and rattled and banged. It stopped in the middle of sand and baobab trees and went nowhere for an hour here, an hour there. We passed villages of perfect conical mud and thatch huts, and boys standing by goats in a world of heat and brown, desiccated shrubs. Men prayed in the aisles and my roommates – Papasi, Monsieur Ly (resplendent in green robes) and a clay pot seller I called Fetish – shared their water and food and tea.

The truth was, it was only a very bad train if you were in a hurry or squeamish about cleanliness. Otherwise, in fact, it was a very good train.

As we ground into Dakar in the dark and dust as thick as fog 50 hours after pulling out of Bamako, I was sad to arrive. Even more so because this first leg of the LE is drawing to a close. I have one more journey to make and then it’s back to DC, back to the real world, back to missed family and friends who I can’t wait to see. But in some ways, riding the world’s slowest, most crowded, dirtiest and even most dangerous buses, boats, planes and trains is a lot easier than everyday life.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More Matatu Madness

Sometimes riding the Express is exhausting. But the harder I push, the wilder and more insightful the ride, as I slip deeper into modern Africa. Yesterday, I spent 17 hours hurtling – and sometimes going nowhere at all – through Nairobi with matatu driver Joseph Kimani and tout Wakaba Phillip.

Kimani was up at 3:45 am; an hour later he picked up the matatu he drives in Ngong Town, in the shadow of the Ngong hills, not far from Out of Africa author Karen Blixen’s coffee farm. Or what’s left of it. “I had a farm in Africa…” is one of those famous literary opening lines, but her elegiac words recall a different Africa. Ngong Town now is all overcrowded mud and trash and corrugated shacks, with the occasional Masai warrior looking like a Hollywood extra still in costume waiting at a bus stop.

Kimani and Phillip fired up their matatu and headed down Ngong Road to “town,” as downtown Nairobi is called. I rendezvoused with them at 6:30 am at the route 111 staging area: the Nairobi railway station.

It was just getting light; literally hundreds of matatus, from 14 passenger minivans to 51 passenger truck/buses, were angling, squeezing, honking, pushing, to navigate a semicircle that they entered empty and left full. Kimani, 32, with a wispy mustache and a wiry body, worked the wheel and gears, while Phillip, 30, ran back and forth waving his arms, shouting and banging on other matatus, trying to leverage Kimani through the madness while enticing passengers. (That’s not all Phillip did, but the other stuff I didn’t see, never saw – it was all too quick, too fluid, too under-the-radar – and didn’t even learn about until midnight, 17 hours later.) Competition was fierce. Every matatu was going the same route.

The semicircle was 150 yards tops; it took nearly 45 minutes – think the tank scene in the film Patton. Matatus were jumping the curb onto the sidewalk, parrying, jockeying, blocking each other’s doors; when we broke free of it Phillip swung up into the doorway and we blasted up Ngong Road, an undivided two-lane wide strip of cracked blacktop, with the Bee Gees at deafening volume.

Back and forth from Town to Ngong we went all day as the traffic built; in places it took 15 minutes to move two blocks – wall to wall, bumper to bumper matatus honking and flashing their lights and blasting music, some with monitors pumping out music videos.

An hour and a half away, the Ngong Town staging area was a football field sized patch of mud and banana peels and cornhusks and cigarette wrappers and crushed plastic water bottles surrounded by four-foot square market stalls.

We pulled in, Kimani and Phillip shouted “tea time!” and leaped off the bus. We crossed the mud, crossed the muddy road, waded through garbage, wolfed down fried dough and a somosa and sweet, milky tea in a concrete room, and hit the staging area again. And that’s when the complexity of it all started to hit me, the minute economic scale spread over as wide a net as possible.

A small army of touts fanned out to fill the bus. “Forty, forty, forty,” they called. “Fortytown, fortytown, fortytown,” – 40 shillings to Town. The touts were freelance; Phillip would pay them each 40 or 50 shillings for their work.

And on it went, at a grueling pace, the economy of it all hard to grasp. A 14-passenger matatu cost 70 shillings and took 13; in a 15-hour day it could make six to seven roundtrips, taking in six to seven thousand shillings, about $100. A 51-passenger matatu cost 40 shillings and only made five to six trips. For passengers the bigger one was slower and thus cheaper; but for the driver and tout, the bigger matatu was better, the volume adding up to more income. Still, a driver and tout like Kimani and Phillip made about KS 600 a day - $10 – paid in cash at the end of every evening. Maybe.

The speed, the weaving and honking and cajoling; at first I saw it as some form of romantic and crazy African expression. But that was wrong. It was simple economics: desperate and hungry poor people trying to squeeze one more passenger, one more round-trip into a day that never seemed to end, a day where literally every shilling counted.

At noon we shattered a main front leaf spring and Kimani sped off to the garage. But it was no garage; it was a place that boggled my mind, that stretched my imagination. It was Dickensian: block after block of mud passageways littered with garbage and upended vehicles and men sleeping on piles of tires and the sparks of welders and the smell of smoke and oil and diesel and Bondo. It was one lane wide with two-way traffic. It was hot and glaring, a place of burning fires and braziers and hammering and music, and the mud was so dark, so black, so viscous, it was like oil. It was the worst and the most compelling place I have ever seen.

With ferocious hammering and sweating, three men under the bus in the black grime replaced the leaf spring in 90 minutes. The labor charge: 300 shillings. Five dollars.

And so it went. We had a quick lunch at 4:30 in a corrugated roofed butchery amid bloody carcasses. A pile of fatty mutton cut up at our table, a mound of salt and a bowl of ugali – corn flour – eaten with our fingers. $4 for two, including sodas.

And at midnight, 21 hours after they’d started their day, Kimani and Phillip spilled the secrets of the matatu industry over warm pilsner in a Ngong Town bar. They were, in fact, nickeled and dimed at every turn. Two hundred to the police at every staging area, for the “privilege” of working the stage. “That is a good job!” said Kimani. “A policeman at the railway station makes at least 10,000 shillings a day!” One hundred to the Mungiki sect, simple protection money. “If you don’t pay they will cut your head off.” Inspectors and managers and robbers all demanding their share. Kimani’s matatu had been robbed at gunpoint three times; on those days he did not get paid. And they did their part, too: the fare changed according to the situation, price gauging as art. They kicked it up in the rain. They boosted it at rush hour. They had their touts attract passengers at 40 shillings and then made them pay 60, claiming the touts were unauthorized. “If they refuse to pay we don’t let them off the matatu,” Kimani said, laughing.

At 1 am they saw me into a concrete room with no running water behind a steel gate in a world of mud. I was exhausted, beaten up, my neck, back, knees and shoulders aching, hungry for solitude and quiet and cleanliness; my nerves frayed from the constant jangling noise and crowds. Kimani and Phillip had four more days to go before the weekend. Another 70 or 80 hours of work for 50 bucks. And David, their friend, a taxi driver who had introduced us all – he had been working without sleep or food for two days and two nights, living purely off of Mira – the narcotic drug Qat. And yet they were all in a good mood.

I passed out, woke, dressed and stumbled out into a light rain. It was still dark and I didn’t really know where I was. Somewhere near Ngong Town. But, no worries. I stood on the side of the rood and a pair of headlights came around a corner, flashed, and I held out my hand. A matatu swerved to a stop. I piled in, and there was Shakira wiggling her hips on the video. It was six am.

Off to Bamako, Mali tonight, via Addis Ababa….

Friday, April 18, 2008


The most famous dangerous and crowded conveyances in the world are Kenyan matatus, the mini-vans that careen though the streets here in incredible numbers. Officially known as PSVs – Passenger Service Vehicles – their accident rate climbed so high that in 2004 the Transport minister forced a law requiring speed governors and seat belts. Yesterday, as I was blasting along the highway in a matatu, the insurance industry rescinded a 15 percent premium break originally given after the law was imposed. The transport minister who pushed the law is gone and yesterday the Transport Licensing Board told the Daily Nation newspaper that most of the matatu’s speed governors had been “tampered with,” and that “most PSVs were moving at speeds between 140 and 160 kmh, instead of the stipulated 80 kmh.”

“Travelers on Kenya’s roads,” the licensing board’s chairmen told the Nation, “are increasingly being put at risk because of the matatu madness.”

Mad but efficient. Waiting on the train and dhow yesterday, I decided to find a beach north of Mombasa. A travel agent said “White Sands” was the closest, and a few minutes later I am being assaulted by too many choices:

"Bamburi, Bamburi, Bamburi."

The shouts come so fast they sound like one long sing-song word.

"Ferry, Ferry, Ferry, Ferry."

Malindi, Malindi, Malindi." Malindi; that's it. I squish into the Hungry Vulture.

We are nine, and then in rapid succession ten, 12 and fourteen, plus driver and boy.

“Malindi, Malindi, Malindi,” the bus boy, who’s a man, not a boy, shouts again and again, like a cd stuck on skip. He rides with his head and shoulders out of the open door window, scanning the crowded streets. He’s not just collecting money and operating the door, he’s actively selling, cajoling, sniffing for the slightest sense of someone, anyone, contemplating a ride. Two hard bangs with his knuckles and the matatu swerves to the curb; the door slides open and out he jumps. A woman jumps in, steps on my feet – wide hips and thighs pushing against my shoulders – and squeezes into the back.

Two more hard, fast raps and the matatu is off. The boy swings in, slides the door forward with a bang, 50-shilling bills folded lengthwise between his pinky and ring finger. A tap – he doesn’t even make eye contact – and we hand over our 40 shillings, about 65 cents.

Had we been shot into space to a distant planet we would have been the perfect sample of humanity, conveniently packed into a can.

Next to me is a woman in black, head to toe (which I find unsettling, unable to read face or expression or even dress), only her eyes darting about, her left hand ornately hennaed. Behind us a dark black woman with almost shaved head, a baby on her back, with long dangling star-shaped earrings and red beads around her neck. In front of me a woman with her arms covered in silver bracelets and a purple turban around her head, clutching a bucket wrapped in plastic, a Rasta guy next to her, and men in ubiquitous t-shirts and flip-flops. And me. The smell of humanity as raw and acrid as an eastern shore chicken house in August.

Knock, knock, swerve, open, shut, slam, knock; brake and accelerate and honk and swerve – the driver’s eyes never leave the road and the pace is fast; a dance times a hundred, a thousand, as matatus everywhere all around move in frenetic step honking and braking and bus boys jumping in and out, past rows of market stalls of sticks and plastic sheeting and carpentry shops displaying beds and coffins, that goes on for miles and miles. The third world is all about tiny margins of profit in billions of miniscule exchanges; speed and maximum capacity are of the essence. Regulation; safety; comfort – they cost money and there is no money here. Or rather, there’s money, it’s just like grains of sand instead of jewels that fill your hands.

But it works: in 20 minutes I am at the beach. Even more impressive, on my way home I had to catch a matatu from the highway and wondered how long I’d have to wait. No worries: I stand on the roadside for 11 seconds before a matatu scoops me up and deposits me at the Mombasa post office, there to grab a waiting tuktuk for my hotel. Total cost: about a dollar.

Off to the port to see Captain Mohammed and port boss Hamed, who sit around a scarred wooden table in a small office overlooking the Indian Ocean, talking of Dubai and Somalia and Zanzibar.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Original Lunatic Express, Delayed

Sitting in the relative splendor of the Royal Castle Hotel, originally built as The Palace in 1909, in Mombassa, Kenya. Ceiling fans on the high ceilinged verandah, the hedge of palms and mother-in-law tongue a buffer from the heat and sun and frenetic street.

Arrived last night on the slow bus from Tanga, after pulling into Tanga on the slow bus from Dar es Salaam, all the while ruminating on just how much money insulates, especially in the third world. Indeed, it’s no wonder that the rich live longer, healthier lives.

Life out there is harsh: the air is polluted; the water is full of who knows what; the sun is intense, unrelenting, unless a sudden rainstorm is driving down. In buses and mini-vans, known as daladalas, passengers are squished together like chickens on their way to the slaughterhouse. There is no respite: the clanging of horns and shouting; dirt, dust and mud; heat and dampness – my senses get overwhelmed by the raw elements from which there is no relief. The exhaust alone can be overpowering. For a while it poured rain yesterday and the bus’s roof leaked: big steady drops fell on my legs.

Well, there’s relief for me – after suffering last night in the New Palm Tree hotel – broken toilet, no hot water – I hit the Royal Castle.

We got stuck on the Kenya/Tanzanian border last night for two hours. No food, a couple of wooden benches on which to sit, all because two passengers were without passports and got kicked off the bus at the Tanzanian exit yard. Six miles further in, at the official Kenyan frontier, their luggage was discovered still on the bus. The authorities were flummoxed, hence the long wait, which left us hurtling through the darkness past villages glowing in flickering fires and oil lamps, and not arriving in Mombassa until 9 pm, almost three hours late. People without passports would never be on the fast, air-conditioned bus.

Contemplating my next move. Arrived at the train station this morning to find out about the train to Nairobi – the original Lunatic Express, in fact. The station was deserted. “Oh, many troubles,” said the guard, sweating under a white shirt and tie over a second collared shirt, that one with pink and blue stripes. “The train is canceled for now because we care a great deal about our customers.”

That was a bit too enigmatic for me, so I pressed on, and found a kind woman behind steel bars at the ticket office. “They have suspended service because of the kills,” she said. “For the time being there is too much risk to human beings.” Turns out the train was attacked two days ago, a victim of the Mungiki sect, which particularly likes, apparently, to circumsize victims and sometimes just cut off their penises. No passengers killed, in fact, but the tracks were ripped up and the morning train met its end. “The cargo is still going; we can pick that up,” she said. “But the carriages capsize and tumble over one another and it is very messy. We will review the situation on Monday and maybe a train will go on Tuesday. Yes,” she said, “you can take a bus. Have you thought about flying?”

I really wanted to take that train. And offers are coming in, that might make me veer off the Express for a bit. In Dar I ended up drinking warm Scotch and soda with Bhachu, a 60-year-old Tanzanian Indian now living in Lubambashi, Congo. He’d just taken delivery of six dump trucks and two coaches from the UK, which he was about to drive to the copper mines of southeastern Congo. Six days. “You are most welcome to come along,” he said. “At the Congo border much will be stolen from the trucks, but we are prepared for that.” I was intrigued.

And then this morning I found my way to the port, through the twisting alleys of Mombassa’s old town, full of women in full chador – only their brown eyes peeking from narrow slits. I paid 100 shillings – about 75 cents – and slipped through a gate, the Indian Ocean shimmering blue and green down a few flights of steps. Moored just offshore lay a 100-foot long wooden dhow waiting to take on thousands of pounds of cooking oil, electrical transformers and bags of cement, and on which I was offered passage to Zanzibar. “Leaving Saturday,” said Crispin, a deckhand, “and should only take 18 to 20 hours.”

Might be too hard to pass up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Welcome to Africa!

Stuck in Jo’burg, waiting for a flight tomorrow morning. All not lost, however: yesterday after arriving here from Sao Paolo I ended up at a travel agency in super chichi mall, trying to get tickets on Air Zimbabwe and Air Malawi. Not a straightforward matter. Agents Mpume and Deborah were delightful, however, and by the time we were done I had an invitation to dinner in Soweto. Six, they said, for real African food, and don’t be late.

Not exactly a ride on the Lunatic Express. Met them as they were locking the agency doors and they were ready to go: all high heels and lip gloss and lilting accents, like two birds chattering on a spring morning. We bombed through Jo’burg and after an hour of traffic and getting lost, a half-dozen cell phone conversations in various languages to help get us on track, and weaving through traffic lights darkened by the city’s rolling blackouts, ended up at an open, that-roofed bar/restaurant with picnic tables and oil drums filled with hot coals against the cool night.

The Township of Soweto is vast, a million people, a warren of narrow streets and square concrete and cinderblock and corrugated metal shacks, barely illuminated with dim lights. But post Apartheid has brought improvements and restaurants like this one never existed until its end.

I sucked down tripe stew and tumbled through the keyhole, lost in an array of languages. Deborah spoke five; Mpume, a Zulu, sang songs punctuated with clicks, and the hard drinking men around us closed in. “Why are you girls with that white man?” Mpume, translated, but curiosity (and the allure of the women) got the better of them, and soon they were plying us with Johnny Walker Black and beers.

“I hate Americans,” said a guy whose name was something like estrellas, but with a click at the beginning, “but I like you. I don’t know why.” Politics and political murder; crime; the resurrection of Christ – “We have a new pastor and I told him, ‘I am a good Christian but I do not believe in the resurrection.’ We argued about it, and on Easter morning I passed on my usual shot of whiskey before church. His sermon burned and moved me and made me cry. But it did not convince me!”

I tried to buy a round but failed, and Mpume rebuked me: “You cannot compete with them,” she said. “They must show how important they are so they buy for everyone at all these tables,” she said, waving her hand at the tables on either side.

After three hours we escaped into the night and the Soweto traffic, swerving around smashed cars in what looked like traffic wars, and hurtled down the highway back to the suburb of Randburg, Rihanna and Akon blasting at top volume. And Mpume shouted, “Welcome to Africa!”

Unfortunately, I forgot my camera...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sao Paulo

Resting up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, getting ready to fly to South Africa tonight. A whole new continent; a new series of adventures.

Yesterday I did a funky little interview with a travel website called Worldhum, about getting a haircut and shave here. The guy worked on me for an hour and I was reborn.

It's fun: http://www.worldhum.com/weblog/item/where_in_the_world_are_you_carl_hoffman_20080410/

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Water and Sky

At a certain point in the Amazon the roads end and the only way forward is by air or water. So just after dawn in Porto Velho, Brazil (after arriving in town at 4:30 am by bus), I grabbed a taxi for the docks. Almost magic: waiting in the muddy brown Rio Madeira was the triple-decked Almirante Moreira IIV, already heavy and getting heavier with crates of tomatoes and sacks of potatoes, bound that afternoon for Manaus.

By noon I was aboard, hammock tied to the rafters of the middle deck; $70 for three days and nights, three meals a day included. On buses passengers slink deep into their seats and try not to move; on boats people open up and live in public – a sojourn, in interlude, time stopped – a coalescing into one big anonymous family. It’s an evanescent live play that lives and dies for the duration of the voyage. The Moreira was overloaded, of course: too many passengers and way too much cargo. The waterline was nowhere to be seen. We’d barely pushed off from the half-sunken dock when we had to pause mid-stream as the harbor police zoomed in to make things right. Some arguing, some handshaking, a “fine” paid, and we were sliding downriver at ten knots.

Hopefully, I thought, we wouldn’t end up like the Almirante Monteiro (which I’d actually spent five days on two years ago), which crashed into a fuel barge on the night of February 25th, sinking and killing at least nine.

No matter. Hammocks were strung so close I was literally under two and touching one on either side, and to move anywhere on the deck you had to duck and weave and crawl. And it was hot, steamy, close. But all was not misery: by the time we slipped into the current the samba was cranking from six-foot high speakers and the beers were flowing and the girls and boys dancing up on the open top deck. Irma and Val were sweating and swaying as if the double-time beat was intravenous, and the wedding rings changing fingers with the speed of three card monte. Irma moved hers first, followed by the Paulista in surfer shorts, and an African Brazilian acowboy with green eyes in Stetson and high-waisted jeans went right for the bedraggled mom with a pack of barefoot kids gnawing at her ankles.

“Sex,” said a young doctor named Kleyton, “is all Brazilians think about.” He winked and then tried to slip a finger under Val’s bikini top.

But libidos settled down and life unfolded: beer and sun and breeze and Samba and dominoes and cards and the Southern Cross overhead at night, as the flooded banks passed hour after hour. We brushed our teeth and washed our faces and snored all together in front of each other, all 200-odd people showering and shitting in four stifling little toilet/shower closets that gushed cool brown river water. We stopped only once, at two in the morning to take on a truckload of frozen whole fish, which were loaded into sacks like cut wood. Breakfast was at dawn, the barbeque sizzling by nine for a snack, as 100 fingers danced with a flashing blade slicing great slabs of marinated beef.

After four nights without a bed and several thousand miles of mud roads and crowded buses and long-distance group cars and the riverboat, I was unprepared for two shocks: the industrial lights of Manaus and its sprawling port, all steel and sodium vapor brightness. It seemed alien, the textures and scale not of the world I'd been in for the past week or more. And my flight the next afternoon on TAM to Porto Alegre. The plane, the airport, it was all so new and shiny and dust-free; so affluent and anonymous and synthetic. I hadn’t realized how adjusted I’ve become to good, bad, hard travel.

But, as I’ve come to learn, affluence can be a mirage; you confuse the appearance of luxury and modernity with safety at your peril. It’s a common mistake. Brazil’s aviation system – Latin America’s largest – has been wracked with delays and accidents. It was just nine months ago that TAM flight 3054 skidded off the runway at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport in the rain, killing all 189 passengers and crew, plus ten on the ground. That just five months after a judge, citing Congonhas’s short runways and slippery conditions, barred 737s and Fokker 100s – most of Brazil’s intercity fleet – from using the airport. The Lunatic Express rolls on: I’m in Porto Alegre now, flying on the same flight to Congonhas tomorrow. And it’s raining in Sao Paulo.

It’s not called 3054 anymore, though.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Comments, Travel and Risk

Sitting in Internet café in Porto Velho, Brazil – teenage boys playing video games, a feral dog with red sores lying in the doorway – contemplating the nature of travel and risk – and life and risk, for that matter.

I figured out how to add comments to this blog and the very first came from an anonymous someone castigating me for taking my daughter on the bus from Lima to Ayacucho to Cusco. “What the hell were you thinking?” she or he wrote.

I’ve asked Lily to comment and we’ll see if she does. It’s her choice.

The world is big, rich, complex, sometimes dangerous, always interesting. You can hide from it or explore it, embrace it in all its complexities. I’m hoping The Lunatic Express does just that.

My children have grown up in the city, not the suburbs. They take buses all over the city by themselves; they attend DC public schools where they walk through metal detectors every morning. An Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post called their high school a war zone. Lily read it from Cusco, in fact. She laughed, shook her head. She’s almost 18. She has traveled to Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua and driven across the country at least ten times. She is finishing AP Spanish IV this year. She drank a Mojito overlooking the Plaza de Armas in Cusco.

Are we, her parents, corrupting her, scaring - or scarring - her? Or are we teaching her how to feel safe and confident, strong and self-reliant in a wondrous yet turbulent world?

What do you think?

We imagine travel will transform us in some way. We go somewhere else and leave the old us behind. But travel is like therapy, or maybe even a good Ayahuasca trip. It just shows you the real you, there’s no escape from yourself, ever. Your fears, anxieties – how you embrace the world; it’s all exposed on the road. The Lunatic Express will ultimately, I suspect, be a pretty personal journey, a tale as much about my own psyche as the buses and boats and planes and trains on which I ride.

I’d like to think Lily learned and saw much on her short but intense journey across the Andes. She was, yes, scared and uncomfortable for certain periods. So have I been on this journey and others. But she never flipped out. She smiled, kept her cool, learned to trust her instincts and to open herself to experiences beyond her usual boundaries. She was being transformed only by learning the strengths she already had, who she already was: someone capable and confident, and sometimes scared and happy, even at the edges of the world.

Speaking of which, I’m sick of buses. At 2 pm I’m climbing on a riverboat in Porto Velho for Manaus – two and a half days away along the Madeira River. It is big and wooden, with a beautiful curving sheer-line, with cargo stacked high on the first deck and hammocks strung on the second. Very slow and hot and crowded. A similar boat hit an oil barge and sunk five weeks ago, killing 13.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Carretera Transoceanica

From Cusco, Peru, my plan had always been to travel by bus to La Paz, Bolivia, there to ride the world’s most dangerous road and then a train to the Brazilian border known as the Train of Death.

Both sounded pretty tempting. But a new route bypasses the World’s Most Dangerous Road, which is now a staple of tourist mountain bikers. And in Cusco I ran into a stringy-haired British computer programmer who’d just taken the Train of Death. “It was nice, dude,” he said. “No problems at all and there were a couple of other backpackers on it.”

Which made the road to Puerto Maldonado, in the Peruvian Amazon, sound like heaven: “According to Peruvian road engineers, this is Peru’s worst road between two major cities,” warned my guidebook. “It takes two and a half days in the dry season and longer in the wet. Don’t take the trip lightly; the journey requires hardiness, self-sufficiency and loads of good luck. Fatal accidents are not uncommon.”

Expresso los Chankas didn’t seem worried. Seventeen hours if it didn’t rain; $20; we leave daily at 3 pm.

The road is the last key piece of the Carretera Transoceanica – a 2,500 kilometer highway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from Brazil to Peru. More importantly, though, it will tie one of the last great remaining pristine rain forests of the Amazon basin to ports on the Pacific coast. Gold. Mahogany. Uncontacted tribes. Puerto Maldonado was said to be a seething boomtown on the banks of the Madre de Dios River; only two weeks ago a researcher was shot after reporting on an illegal load of old growth mahogany.

All started well. The bus was old, but clean, and I had an aisle seat with no one next to me. And the road was newly paved in December, two lanes of smooth blacktop snaking up the Andes into a cold, largely treeless world of Llamas and smoke pouring from adobe houses with thatch roofs.

The clouds were ominous, though. And a couple hours out, as we started descending the Andes’ eastern flanks, everything changed: the pavement ended. Harsh white lightening ripped through the skies and torrential rains came pouring down. The bus filled; the air turned humid and thick. My seatmate had a three-year old on his lap who coughed and puked into a plastic bag and pissed out of the window throughout the long night. The rain fell in heavy, big drops and the driver, 32-year old Juan Luis, fought to keep us on the road. All through the night in pitch blackness we jerked and bumped and slid. We forded rivers so deep I thought we’d get swept away. We stopped, backed up, waited, inched past trucks and cliffs so close you could touch them out of the window. “It is heavy,” Luis confessed to me during a bathroom break, during which 40 people pissed on the side of the road in the rain. “And very tiring. The road is clay and very slippery.”

The journey was 20 hours of torture. But hardship brings rewards: Puerto Maldonado might be the beginning of the end of Peru’s rain forest, but I liked it the minute I stepped off the bus. It’s all jangly prosperity and dynamism; dirt and mud streets filled with motorcycles and Indian bemos, and wooden clapboard open-air restaurants dishing out thick soups, against the banks of two big khaki-colored rivers. Immigrants are pouring in from the Andes to work its timber and gold, the road is slowly improving; two concrete pilings are in place for a bridge across the Madre de Dios, which now can be crossed only by ferry.

Two hours down the Madre by longboat I found Rudolpho Munoz on one of five gold-mining dredges rafted together, hard against the banks of the fast moving river. Munoz was Bolivian, small and wiry and leprechaun-like, with green eyes and a helmet of black hair, and he’d been going after gold for 24 years, since he was 16. His boat was sun bleached wood on two hulls – two simple beds, a kitchen, outhouse and grinding, hot diesel pumping sediment from as deep as 45 feet into the riverbed up onto a king-bed-sized sluice.

Six days a week, 20 hours a day, Munoz worked the river, stopping at 4 am on Sundays until nine on Monday morning. “On a good day,” he said, scooping up a day’s sediment from a blue bucket into a rounded gold pan, “we get one gram an hour.” He swirled the mud and flicked water into the pan and pointed: a speck of gold so small I would never have noticed it. “A bad day is eight grams in 20 hours. Now, gold is 84 soles ($31) a gram; in a good week I get 120 to 140 grams.”

As big-headed and long beaked Banded Kingfishers dived and swooped overhead, I noticed the sluices sparkling with round balls of mercury. Munoz brought out a plastic jug of the toxic metal and showed how he poured it into the bucket, mixed it with the mud and squeezed it all through a cotton sieve – the water and mercury washing out into the river, leaving gold behind. From his bunk he fished out a small piece of paper wrapped around a silvery ball: five grams of gold.

Two men worked each boat and shared a cook; someone owned the mining concessions for every section of the river. “Every day is for us,” he said, “except Saturday, and that day’s gold goes to the men who own the concessions.” The engine was loud and the day humid; this was his life. “What else can I do? It is peaceful here and with my boat I can go to town, and here I make 800 soles a week instead of 800 soles a month like I would if I had a job in town. We take a risk,” he said, “and hope for buena suerta.”

When the road was finished, whenever that would be, Puerto Maldonado would grow even faster. More timber. More gold. More tourists to see the rapidly disappearing jungle and its monkeys. I liked it now; soon it would need all the luck it could get. And me, too. Heading into Brazil tomorrow, to Rio Branco and beyond.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ayacucho to Cusco

It always seems hard to imagine how guerilla movements linger for years in remote places, like the FARC in Columbia, or the now defunct Shining Path in Peru. That is, until you go to those places themselves and understand how rugged and hard it is to move around in them.

My daughter Lily came to visit for a few days, and I threw her into the deep end. Eight hours after stepping off the plane in Lima we were on a bus to Ayacucho, birthplace of the Shining Path guerilla movement. As we loaded our luggage a little man videotaped us, then marched up and down the aisle shooting each passenger. What’s up, I asked him.

“In case someone steals something or there’s an accident, then we’ll know who did it,” he said.

“So there are a lot of accidents?” I said.

“Oh no!” he said.

“A lot of thefts?”

Oh no!”

“Anyone killed?”

“Oh no!” he said, scanning us all carefully.

Ayacucho is only a few hundred miles as the crow flies from Lima, but it took 10 hours to get there on a freshly paved road. The mountains are steep, high, relentless. And I’d miscalculated: I needed to get Lily to Cusco, 100 miles down the road, for her flight to Lima. But Cusco was another 24 hours away and there were only two choices: a bus at 6:30 am or a bus at 6:30 pm. “But don’t take the night bus,” the hotel clerk warned. “It’s dangerous.”

So on the bus we were again, at 6:30 the next morning. And immediately it was clear why it took 24 hours, why the night bus was dangerous, and why it can be so hard to dislodge festering guerilla movements in the mountains and jungles of South America.

There was no road. Or what was called the road was 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. Mountain ridge after ridge, valley after valley – traveling ten miles took hours – through villages of adobe mud and thatch, atop high, treeless mountain plains where there was nothing but sheep and alpaca and round, waist-high thatch shepherd’s huts. We plunged into river valleys that were hot and humid before climbing back up above the trees, all at the speed of a walk. This was the highway; anyplace off the road and there was only one way to get there – walking in brutally steep country. Every six hours or so we’d stop and we men would pile out – 16 of us pissing on the side of the road. The women didn’t budge.

At dusk we pulled into Andahuaylas to change buses. Twelve hours to go. The station was wild, dirty, almost medieval, and Carleton, a mid-50s Canadian, was freaked out. “I promised myself I wouldn’t take any night buses,” he said, “but the rest of the journey is at night. I’m really scared; I had to turn my eyes away a few times on those cliffs.”

Poor Lily. We ate a quick meal of chicken soup on narrow wooden benches under a tarp and then took off. Roaches swarmed out of the curtains; they fell into her lap, crawled into her coat, scurried under feet. The bus filled to standing room only with people who were so brown and withered they looked like canned mushrooms. Bowler hats and long pig-tails; a dog; an old man dressed in black and so small and frail he was like a marionette puppet.

All this time on buses is odd time – time in sort of a suspended state. You’re in the heart of things, but removed, too; sometimes I want to climb out of the bus and be in places and not just passing through. And it’s physically painful. Lily and I were in agony by the time we rolled into Cusco; but at some points I get Zen-like, just succumb to the pain in my knees and my aching neck and my hunger and thirst. It’s out of my control and I rise out of that suffering into an odd state of grace, totally surrendering, my mind dancing to distant places.

Lily was dizzy from it all. But last night, over beers at the bar, we fell into conversation with a German traveler who bragged about getting away from the hordes and finding the real Peru, and then listed his itinerary of all the regular gringo trail destinations. Lily laughed, gave me a sly look, and started telling the tale of the bus from Ayacucho….

Monday, March 24, 2008


I’m reading The Naked Tourist, by Lawrence Osborne, in which he muses about the traveler’s dream of finding the end of the earth and his obsession with “the idea of leaving the world.” I’ve chased that dream for years, from my journey to a Dayak longhouse up the Mahakam River to hanging with pygmies in Irian Jaya and Oroki reindeer herders in Siberia. But those places are fading; they’re mirages of a quaint and distant past – they’re not really real anymore.

As we lurched into Lima after 28 hours of travel on a single bus from Guayaquil, it hit me that this trip is all about the opposite. It’s not about losing contact with the modern world, it’s about embracing it, reveling in it, losing myself in its massive vascular system as its multitudes lurch and pedal along its thousands of miles of veins and arteries and capillaries.

I mean, we watched eight movies, classics all, including Resident Evil III and Armageddon (there are no chic flicks on South American buses), while inching through the crowded market and border town of Huaquillas (six foot tall plastic flowers; quail eggs, four for a dollar; stilettos and skinny jeans and an upside down pig on a hook) and rain in Chiclayo so driving it flooded the streets up to the curbs and then paused in the hot morning sun to wash our hair in a concrete trough by the side of the road. “Only seven more hours to Lima!” said one of the drivers, shaking the water out of his hair like a dog after a bath, before lathering up his armpits. We ate quivering red Jell-O and watched the Bee Gees in between flicks, as Mariana, a 24-year-old “food engineer” whose favorite food was spaghetti, chatted on her cell phone and her 21-year-old sister read the Latin American edition of Cosmo, all while passing broken, dusty towns of tiny, garage-sized brick houses and sun and wind and burros and internet cafes.

All driven along the miles by two “conductores” – such a better word than driver – with gold teeth and faded, mystical home-made tattoos on their shoulders, who switched the wheel every five hours and slipped the bus through its seven forward gears like it was all they ever did. Which was true: they drove from Lima to Guayaquil (28 hours) back to Lima and then another 20 hours on to Puno, before turning around and doing it all over again.

“Lots of accidents,” they said, laughing. “You want to drive?”

And then, a few hours later, I was drinking a pisco sour with the world’s most famous volleyball player.

I’m smack in the very middle of the world and it’s a very weird place.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Paused for a day in a little village called Canoa, little but mud streets, a few tiki bars, a fat stretch of sand and big frothy Pacific waves. Transportation out here is slow but incredibly efficient. Leaving Canoa this morning I walked to a wet corner, set my bag down and in swooped a rattling old bus – 35 cents to the town of San Vicente, there to catch an open boat across a swollen bay for another 40 cents. Barely off the boat and a guy snatched up my bag, loaded it on a pedicab and 50 cents later, deposited me in front of the bus to Guayaquil, which was $5. So that’s two buses, a boat and a pedicab, with never a wait in between, a nine-hour journey for $6. And forget bringing food; at every stop on the bus vendors supply all the fresh mineral water and little warm crunchy hollow bread things called pan tortillas you could want. Not to mention crayons, pills that make you young again – his sales pitch was a good 35 minutes and we each got to hold a bottle – and even a cell phone for $20.

This journey is not just about having an adventure. It’s also about seeing the world moving and traveling in huge numbers. Not one of my buses from Bogotá to Quito to Canoa to Guayaquil had a single Gringo traveler; they were filled with people of poor or modest incomes – the rich fly, and they do so on the best airlines – traveling for work or to see relatives.

Two recent items of note in the New York Times: on Sunday, March 9, a piece on oil mentioned that “In recent years the world’s developing countries have been growing about seven percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards.”

And on March 17 a story appeared about a World Bank economist named Dilip Ratha, who is the first person to seriously study remittances – the money migrants send home. “Until the 1990s,” the piece says, “most economists saw remittances as small private sums irrelevant to development.” But Ratha’s research showed otherwise, and the numbers are staggering: over 200 million migrants worldwide sending $300 billion a year home to their families and villages – three times more than the world’s combined foreign aide. Think about it – that’s all those guys waiting for work at your neighborhood 7-Eleven, the busboys, the roofers and concrete pourers and landscapers, all earning minimum wage and sending a dollar here and there back home.

Directly, indirectly – it’s all those people who are crowding the collectivos and long distance buses and bad airlines that thread the remotest villages and biggest cities together into this growing worldwide economic tapestry. The roads of Columbia and Ecuador, bad as they are, are crowded with packed buses and minivans; the bus terminals from which they depart in places like Bogotá and Quito are massive labyrinths of restaurants and internet phone services and tamale joints that offer more options and services than Dulles airport.

The journeys are efficient, but never easy. The next time you’re steaming over sitting an extra hour or two in Dulles waiting for your delayed flight, think 25 hours on a bus with two guys slugging Tequila and FARC guerillas somewhere out there in the dark. Or today’s journey along the coast of Ecuador: hot, steamy, crawling along unpaved stretches of dirt washed out by rain and flooding, your knees jammed against the seatback in front of you. If all goes well, though, I’ll be catching the 6 am bus tomorrow for Lima, just another 25 hours down the road….

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bogota to Quito

Arrived in Quito, Ecuador yesterday afternoon after 30 hours on two buses. My whole body hurt. Head pounding from the altitude and little nourishment and no coffee, and the latest video: two hours of Rambo killing and blowing things up and blood spurting in slow motion, broadcast at full volume on a distorted sound system. Knees, shoulders, neck – I stumbled out into Quito’s chaotic central terminal in a cold, driving rain, somewhat in a fog. But I was better than the guy across the aisle: he and his buddy had polished off a whole bottle of Suiza gold Tequila in four hours and he couldn’t get up at all. His buddy was shaking him and slapping him and he wouldn’t open his eyes.

Regarding bus safety, the government of Colombia was progressive: since 2004 it required bus companies to post safety statistics in every ticket window. At first the stats for my bus didn’t seem too bad – only 18 accidents, eight injuries and six deaths. But that was only for the first two months of 2008. And no one seemed to have died on other lines. Oh well, I bought a ticket and settled in. My seatmate was a young woman so shy she could barely speak – she literally hid from me behind a lamppost when we made an afternoon pit stop – and she had a complicated name I couldn’t pronounce. I didn’t envy her. She’d traveled 28 hours by bus to Bogotá for two days work (what that work was, I couldn’t understand), and now was heading back – another 28 hours.

We’d rolled out of Bogotá in the morning, and just rolled and bumped and rolled on and on and on, through never ending mountains of green and clouds and rain and fog and switchbacks – straight through Colombian army patrols and checkpoints. Every once in a while soldiers boarded the bus and checked a few IDs; once I had to get off and let them go through my luggage. The dude in cammos seemed most flummoxed by my guidebook to Africa, which he studied, but then shrugged and moved on to someone else.

Avoid traveling at night, the guidebook warned. Somewhere out there were FARC guerillas, but no one seemed too worried – and it was hard to imagine anyone any one out in the dark and rain and cold doing anything but hunkering down.

I was happiest when the guy who had been masturbating across the aisle while staring at me got off the bus – that was just as dawn was breaking.

Right now rain is the big threat; it’s been raining incessantly for months. Once, early in the morning we had to detour around a landslide that covered the road. All of Ecuador has been declared a disaster area, but particularly the southern coast. Roads and bridges are out, thousands homeless. But this journey is all about plunging in so I’ve decided to take the southern coastal route to Peru.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Never been much of a strident anti-communist, but I found Havana creepy and sad, and compelling and dynamic, too. The flight attendants on Cubana flight said it all without words: an hour out they began stuffing everything that wasn’t nailed down or screwed into the bulkheads into their luggage. Piles of paper napkins. Plastic cutlery. Doggie bags of food. It was dark and wet when I stepped out of the airport, into a gypsy taxi running on three cylinders, belching oil and fumes, and without door handles. I don’t like to lose sight of my luggage but the driver insisted it had to be hidden in the trunk: “Policia!” he said. “Eleven million Cubans, five million police.”

And then suddenly, speeding down dark streets, an endless line of ghost-like people plodding along the pavement, the driver wanted his money up front. Now. “No,” I said. “I need gas,” he said. “No,” I said. “No money, no gas,” he said. “We won’t make it to the city.” Finally we agreed on half now, half when I got to my hotel. And sure enough, half went right into the tank a few miles later.

In this land of free health care and free education and Che and Fidel on every wall, the Cubans were hustling and bobbing and weaving around the system – and the police on every corner. Havana is a city seething with restlessness and want. “I teach Salsa,” said a sweet young thing named Martha. She was 21, could have been my daughter, was modestly dressed in running shoes and shorts and a t-shirt. Twenty minutes later her friend appeared out of the woodwork and worked hard to pimp Martha out. “We’re hungry,” they said. “Come on, fucky-fucky.” I bought them a plate of grilled fish. The friend rolled cigars – 100 a day – and earned 240 pesos a month - $10 at the official exchange rate. “America great,” they said. Yeah, I said, but you get free health care.
“Ha!” they said. “Nada free! You gotta give the doctor perfume, shampoo, souvenirs,” they said, “or else you’ll sit on a list for years. And the police earn 800 pesos a month, plus 40 convertible pesos.” They wanted more. “Mojitos! Shrimp cocktail! Fucky-fucky?”

I spent a night drinking with a Cuban in dreads named Orange and his girlfriend. Well, I bought them drinks – the bill was four months salary for Martha’s friend. Orange said there was a better bar around the corner. “Let’s go,” I said. “You go first and then we’ll meet you,” they said. “Huh?” I said. “Policia!” they said, eyeing the goons outside the bar. And just to be safe, they said, you better buy the cops a beer. Which I did.

Still, the Cubans are always in motion, always rocking. Huge crowds of men argue over baseball in the park. Couples dance salsa on the beach. Reggaeton and salsa blare from speakers and kids play stickball in the streets.

In Cuba I also realized the Lunatic Express isn’t just about movement; it’s also about ending up in places I never would have traveled to otherwise.

Monday, March 10, 2008


In Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s amazing book, Random Family, when the drug dealers and partiers stay up until dawn they call it “breaking night.”

I love that description; I broke night last night, not partying, but rolling into Toronto just as the sun was rising over a city gleaming and steaming: 14 degrees F; Lake Ontario a solid sheet of ice; three feet of snow piled along the streets and sidewalks; plumes of white rising from the city’s buildings and vents against a hard blue sky.

We were 11 hours by Greyhound from Manhattan. “Guess I’ll just freshen up,” said my seatmate, Deirdre, “and then it’ll be “Good Morning! Air Canada, How may I help you?” The irony: she works for Air Canada, flies for free, and got stuck in New York by bad weather gumming up the system. “Unscheduled events,” they’re called, she said. People are on the move. “They’ve gotta be at a wedding. A funeral. A business meeting. I’m a fast talker and I average 11 calls an hour.” That’s eight and a half hours a day. Twenty five thousand calls a year. “Planes are so full, you get one unscheduled event – doesn’t matter where – Chicago, Toronto, New York – and people get stuck for days.” Hill had to be taking calls this morning so she had no choice: Greyhound. “Haven’t been on a bus in 30 years,” she said.

It snowed off and on all night; the bus was full and she was nervous. On February 25th a Greyhound on the same route, from NY to Toronto, swerved off the road, flipped, and landed upside down on the median strip. Forty-one were hurt. Buses are pretty safe, though – over your lifetime you’ve got a one in 94,242 chance of dying in one, according to the National Safety Council. That’s compared to the odds of one in 80 in a car; one in 200 just falling; one in 180 of accidental poisoning (doesn’t quite sound right, does it?) or one in 552 on an airplane. That’s just in America. A bus in Bolivia, an airline in Africa, and I wager the odds get worse. Speaking of which, tomorrow I’m flying to Havana on one of the world’s most dangerous airlines: Cubana…

It was yesterday morning, on the China Bus from DC to NY, that it hit me: the Lunatic Express is standing travel on its head. The destination really is the journey. The moment I arrive I’m coughed up on shore, a fish slapping its tail and gagging for breath. I’m homeless and burdened with too much stuff. But on a bus, a train, a plane, a train, well, I’m home, where I’m supposed to be. The bus mysteriously stopped twice; we were an hour and a half late. Babies were crying and people checking their watches (almost all Chinese, I might add). Not me, though. I didn’t care; I was already there.

I suspect there are going to be a lot of breaking nights ahead…

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Time To Go

It is, finally, time to go. The Lunatic Express is pulling out of the station. A journey. An adventure; the idea sets in and, as Arthur Ransome wrote in Swallows and Amazons, the first book I ever loved, “nothing but a … voyage of discovery seems worth thinking about.”

A few months ago I was lucky enough to wander through Guatemala with a wonderful half French, half American storyteller named John Heaton. When he was a kid at a crusty English boarding school, “The chalk pits were the fence beyond which we weren’t allowed to go,” he says. “But I had to see what was on the other side and a friend and I snuck off.” Beyond the chalk pits he found nothing too remarkable – just more woods, as it turned out – but for Heaton those woods were like “standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.” No kids had ever disobeyed the order and made the journey. “We came back to a wall of tweed,” Heaton remembers, “and were given a ‘sixer:’ six lashes on our bare bottoms with a cane. It stung like hell but it was worth every lash. In the communal showers the stripes on our bottoms were stripes of glory.” And that’s what good travel is all about, “curiosity leading you to places you don’t know,” says Heaton, “just to have that knowledge of what lies beyond. I saw beyond the chalk pits and I paid the price. But it was worth the risk; you have that knowledge for the rest of your life.”

Knowledge… Adventure… Stories that change your life, and change your perspective. To get them you have to leave. Heaton once turned his car lights off in the middle of a long tunnel. And then promptly smashed into a boulder. I’ve done very nearly the same thing – sometimes I shut my eyes on the highway and count. It’s hard to get to three. It’s not risk for its own sake, but … something else. Curiosity. Knowledge. A taste of the unpredictable.

I think it was flying from Kinshasa to Kikwit in the Congo in a hot, fly-infested airplane when it first hit me: the daily complaints (mine included) about getting delayed in airports or jammed in a middle seat between the two largest, most foul-smelling people on a full cross-country flight is just whining. Really, we have it good. There wasn’t a single fatal crash of a scheduled American airline in 2007. We click on a web site, check in online, get where we need to be, all in one piece and usually pretty close to on schedule. With our choice of movies and music and soda. Yeah, the snacks suck, and the airlines have lost my luggage. But then it was delivered to my door in the middle of the night.

We’re lucky. The world is on the move; people aren’t just in their villages anymore, and most of them are subject to horrendous travel. Buses that turn over and plunge from cliffs. Commuters literally crushed to death on the trains in Mumbai. Planes that might not leave at all, or worse – you’re 25 times more likely to die on an African airline than on an American one. Overcrowded ferries that sink, like the MV Joola that went down off the coast of Senegal five years ago, killing 1,830 (only 1,046 of whom had tickets).

So I’m off to circumnavigate the globe, traveling as the rest of the world must – on the world’s slowest, most crowded, or most dangerous, buses, boats, planes and trains. I want stories, yes, but perspective, too. I want to see the world in a new light, a new way. I want to meet these people. And myself, perhaps, all over again.

What will it be like just to move? Can I suffer with a smile?

I’ve been anxious about it for the last few months. I couldn’t sleep. I doubled my life insurance; I loaded up on Cipro and Tylenol with Codeine and I even bought an inflatable life vest.

But suddenly I feel light. Lucky, soon to be flying from Havana to Bogotá on an old Russian Ilyushin, bound for Quito, Lima, La Paz, Santa Cruz….

Who knows? And that’s the best part.