Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

‘The Lunatic Express’ by Carl Hoffman, An Encouraging Read for Local Travelites

This article originally appeared on the Local Travel Movement.  See the article here.  August, 2010.
The article was reposted on The Travel Word. See the article here.  September, 2010.
The article was reposted on Travel Off the Radar. See the article here.  November, 2010.

If local travel means putting oneself in the shoes of a local, then travel writer Carl Hoffman has earned status as an expert local travelite with a compelling story to tell. In his latest book, The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, Hoffman relays his round-the-world jaunt aboard the rickety and rusty human conveyances that represent how the global majority transports itself. His trip utilises everything from airlines in Cuba and railways in Africa to ferries in Indonesia and long rides through the United States via Greyhound bus, logging more than 50,000 miles in total.

The Lunatic Express book cover

Hoffman was first attracted to local transport in all of its harrowing forms through the media’s coverage of various transportation disasters. Each chapter therefore begins with a journalistic excerpt about a fateful incident on some form of public transit. Exploring these anecdotes and researching statistics about injuries and deaths, Hoffman charts his course aboard the world’s worst transportation systems. His goal is not sensationalism or stuntman’s bravado. Rather, he aims to contrast the luxury of leisure tourism with the harsh journeys of the global poor for whom travel is simply a means of getting from point A to point B.

“I gradually began to realize,” he writes, “that the big numbers of today’s tourism industry obscured a parallel reality, excluded a whole river of people on the move. Excluded, in fact, most of the world’s travelers.”

Each segment of the trip is its own complete story, but common threads weave this journey together. Dualisms and paradoxes emerge. Hoffman begins by comparing affluent travel with public mass transit. Transportation reflects the security, comfort and regulation of affluent societies versus the danger, overcrowding and lack of controls in the less developed world. As he traverses South America on its notorious bus system, Hoffman writes “I was starting to trust the efficiency of this whole ad-hoc, unregulated system.”

One regularly recurring theme is the lack of personal space aboard the majority of mass transit. In the economics of third world transportation, “speed and maximum capacity are of the essence.” Hoffman rides matatus, the minibuses in Kenya that pull people aboard until they reach the absolute limit. He rides trains in Mumbai where the crushing pressure of the crowds becomes fatal. In an interview about the book, Hoffman reflects that the trip was a re-evaluation of what affluence means. “I’ve always sort of thought of it as objects, as things. Traveling as I did for five months, I decided that it really had nothing to do with things. It was all about space. In places like Indonesia, you’re with 3,000 people and no personal space whatsoever.” Spaces that are private and quiet and clean occur to him as a “luxury that is profound.”

Hoffman – who lives in Washington, DC – travels as the locals do but is an obvious outsider. At times the language barriers and cultural divides between himself and his fellow passengers overwhelm him. He spends pages in isolation, retreating into himself. Yet the best moments of the book are the ones where he is able to break through the cultural boundaries in order to connect with locals. On a packed ferry in Indonesia, he achieves this sort of communion: “The more I shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, the more they embraced me. In the weeks ahead I would accelerate what had started gradually over the miles. I would do whatever my fellow travelers and hosts did. If they drank the tap water of Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangladesh, so would I. If they bought tea from street-corner vendors, so would I. If they ate with their fingers, even if I was given utensils, I ate with my fingers. Doing so prompted an outpouring of generosity and curiosity that never ceased to amaze me. It opened the door, made people take me in. That I shared their food, their discomfort, their danger, fascinated them and validated them in a powerful way.”

This passage, like the book as a whole, beautifully illustrates the ideas of the Local Travel Movement. Hoffman continually chooses authenticity and connection with locals over the beckoning camaraderie of other foreigners. He plunges directly into the dense humanity along his route and discovers what life is like for the majority of the world’s people on the move. Turn here for encouragement as a local travelite or a reality check for one who complains on an air-conditioned flight.


11 2010

Book review: ‘The Art of Political Murder’ by Francisco Goldman

This article originally appeared in EntreMundos, Guatemala’s bilingual human rights publication. View the original version here (PDF).  May, 2009.

Good fiction weaves threads of truth into a fabric of narrative invention. In The Art of Political Murder, Francisco Goldman inverts this order. He gives a non-fiction account of the Guatemalan human rights activist and bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. In Goldman’s journalistic investigation of the murder and its aftermath, he untangles threads of governmental secrecy and deceit, of opaque military brutality and impunity, and of media spin and invention. He then weaves them into a fabric of historical record so compelling that it reads like pulsating fiction.

The Art of Political Murder book cover

The book opens with the release of Guamtemala, Never Again!, a 1,400 page report covering the systematic violence of the armed conflict beginning in the early 1960s and formally ending with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. The report was an unprecedented account of atrocity, torture, and human rights violations during a war that claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 civilians. In 1997, the Catholic Church’s Office of Human Rights in Guatemala, ODHA, launched an investigation called the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI in Spanish). Bishop Gerardi had been serving as director of ODHA and Guatemala, Never Again! was the product of the REMHI investigation. The report was released to the public on April 24, 1998, and two days later Bishop Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death in the garage of his parish home in Guatemala City.

Theoretically, the signing of the Peace Accords would put an end to things such as state-sponsored murder in Guatemala. Yet Gerardi and the report had incriminated the military in human rights abuses of genocidal scale. In a culture of persistent impunity in which no governmental or military figure had ever been found guilty of human rights violations, Gerardi’s murder seemed suspiciously political.

Several different investigations of the murder unfold, each revealing its own version of the truth. Military intelligence officers were quick to paint the murder as a crime of passion, the result of a sordid homosexual love affair gone awry. Prosecution investigators followed extraneous leads, first arresting a homeless man who is soon released. The involvement of Gerardi’s assistant priest Father Mario Orantes and his German shepard Baloo is investigated, and both are taken into custody. A morbid farce of forensic evidence includes the exhumation of the bishop’s body to look for dog bites, and the medical “expertise” of an eccentric Spanish forensics doctor who removed a thumb from the corpse to display in his macabre museum in Spain.

At the heart of the story is the independent investigation of the “Untouchables,” a group of students and young lawyers from the Church’s human rights group ODHA who sought the truth of the political murder despite its dangerous implications. With the hope of tracing the murder to military forces and then holding the accountable for the crime, the Untouchables found key witnesses and ex-military informants, offering protection for those who would testify. Facing threats against their families whispered through cell phones or years of exile abroad, a series of witnesses did come forward. In 2000, three members of the Presidential Military Staff were implicated and brought to trial. In 2001, they were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison, an historic moment for human rights prosecution in Guatemala.

Goldman’s book reflects the bittersweet complexity of this triumph. The verdicts are eventually overturned on appeal, before being reinstated once again. Meanwhile, other human rights activist murder trials found the Guatemalan state guilty, only for the verdict to be overturned later. Striking in its very recent and still unresolved denouement, The Art of Political Murder is a story whose truth is entrenched in uncertainty, beset by danger, and stranger than political fiction.


11 2010