This was my read on my daily NYC subway commute for a week. Having grown up in a third world country with an underfunded public transportation system...moreThis was my read on my daily NYC subway commute for a week. Having grown up in a third world country with an underfunded public transportation system (though not as bad as the places Hoffman chooses for his trip, mainly because it is nowhere near as poor as some of those places, nor as remote from the western world,) I know exactly how a large overnight bus hurtles into the darkness on winding, dark roads with sharp turns and barely enough space for one vehicle on the supposedly two-way road. I know the stench of many men and women who have not bathed for a week in a crowded bus, the holler of bus "boys," and bus drivers that fall asleep and swerve in and out in busy two-way highways (In fact, this happened in Mexico recently, from D. F. to Oaxaca... After the incident, two men took turns talking to the driver to keep him awake for the rest of the trip.) I know how interesting it is to board a bus with a bunch of guys with machetes... for crops, of course. And to think all of my travels were on pretty expensive, not-so-bad public transportation vehicles...
Hoffman captures the worst of the worst in his book with a candid eye. Perhaps what shocks him most is the lack of personal space and the amount of dirt everywhere, even more than the horrendous mortality rates. He is hugged by many men from across the world in their daily, dirty, unwashed outfits; his hand is held by many men, he drinks Vodka with Russian thugs on a train, he eats anything and everything served to him on every filthy transportation vehicle (and you know he is a seasoned traveler, as he only gets sick from the food once,) and he has vivid bathroom scenes to describe with piles of frozen or steaming shit everywhere. What amazes him most is how warm, delightful, helpful, friendly people are in most of the places he visits, how strangers watch out for him and his belongings, how they are willing to share their daily commuter experiences with him, how they will not let him pay for the food even though he is filthy rich compared to them. What amazes me is that Hoffman is amazed at any of this. He admits in several places in the book that Americans think the world revolves around them, and how could he not? He cannot communicate much with anyone unless they understand English, he has no idea how important Hz. Ali is in Islam, he tries to shake hands with a woman wearing a burqa... But he always means well, and he is always humbled by the kindness of strangers.
The parallel narrative to the travel is how Hoffman is in the process of destroying his marriage of 15 years. How he craves human contact yet runs away from it, how he is immersed in close contact with the people of the world on crowded and dangerous transportation vehicles yet utterly alone and distant. He whines a lot and there is some self-pity mixed in with awe at how the poor in the world live so together with their immediate and extended families. The poor have nothing but their kin. The several feet of personal space required by westerners is reduced to nil, and people find the proximity comforting. It holds them up, it is a way of life, it is a necessity. What to do?
I do not recommend this book to anyone who has serious phobias about cars, buses, planes, ferries, ships, trains, or any travel in general. I would urge all westerners and especially those New Yorkers who cannot appreciate the most efficient and comprehensive city public transport system in the USA to read this book. (less)
I wanted to read this book. I entered the giveaway on Goodreads. I did not win. But I was sent a pdf of the book anyway, which was very very nice. So...moreI wanted to read this book. I entered the giveaway on Goodreads. I did not win. But I was sent a pdf of the book anyway, which was very very nice. So I got to read it after all. Now, looking at the 5-star reviews, I feel a bit strange thinking that perhaps I missed something. I did not think the letters in the book were that extreme or unusual or shocking. Neither did I think that the authors tried to be subtle in their intention to shock and thrill, which ruined it for me. Perhaps a strong point, though I am not sure if it is intentional (not that it makes a difference), was that each letter seemed to have its own voice. Some letters were interesting to think about.(less)