In London we moan when trains and buses are delayed or cancelled. However, my wife always seemed happy that they turned up at all and she gasped in disbelief when the first ever train that she caught in the UK arrived promptly at 11.17, “They actually come at set times?” I remember her saying.
She could also never understand why if the next day the same train was delayed until 11.25 you would hear a chorus of tuts from passengers around you. “At least the train is coming” she would say optimistically.
However, her favourite thing about public transport when we lived in London was what she called “the talking buses” (i.e. the way they tell you the destination and what the next stop is). Similarly, when her sister came to visit in the summer of 2011 she thought it hilarious that the trains politely ask you to take your belongings with you at the end of your journey. “Very British” she said.
I though could never understand why she was so fond of our public transport, probably because as Brits we make complaining about it a national sport. Well, I understood soon enough when I first experienced public transport, buses in particular, in São Paulo.
To start with they don’t really do trains in Brazil. There are some in São Paulo but they function only as a very small part of the wider public transport system and whilst there are some inter-city trains in other parts of Brazil they are very far and few between.
The Metro system is deceptive. Aesthetically, it is clean, runs pretty smoothly and some carriages even have TVs and air-conditioning. What lets it down is that it cannot cope with the number of people in the city. There are not enough lines and the scope of those that there are is pretty limited. This means that during rush hour in particular your journey will be cramped, hot and very uncomfortable – though you might argue this is the same for a lot of Metro systems around the world!
And then there are the buses.
Built like tanks, they stand a good couple of feet off the ground and as such have little or no suspension – at least it feels that way. Needless to say, they aren’t a comfortable ride. The poor suspension is a perfect match for São Paulo’s lopsided roads and, of course, the buses’ ‘enthusiastic’ drivers. All in all it means that if you are not sitting down you need to hold on carefully otherwise you are quite likely to be thrown to the other side of the bus when driver turns a corner.
But there is something else. Something inexplicable. Something which makes the whole thing even more hellish. It is the presence of a bloody great big turnstile in the middle of the carriage. Yes, a TURNSTILE.
This contraption takes up at least 10% of the space of the whole bus, especially on the smaller ones. Seeing as the driver is left to play out his fantasies as a rally driver, the turnstile’s purpose is to ensure that all passengers pay their fare or touch their Bilhete Unico (the equivalent of an Oyster Card in the UK). They are manned and this is typically by a bloke who may be one or more of the following: overweight; in their civvies; sprawled fast asleep over their change box; muttering to himself.
However, the most annoying thing is that the turnstile creates a bloody big obstacle which you need to overcome before you can make it to a spot of relative safety. And given that the driver will have started to speed off as soon as you leap on this process can become fraught with dangers.
So with this in mind I have devised a simple 5 step plan to ensure that when I have to catch a bus each day I can avoid the possibility of being hospitalised. If you visit São Paulo I suggest you follow it too. Here goes:
1) Make sure you get a spot under an Anderson-esque bus stop (see below) as this will protect you from the sun / a hurricane (see here for more on this). Get your Bilhete Unico ready and wait. You may wait a while.
2) I wasn’t kidding you know, you are probably still waiting so have a cigarette, chew some gum, check your phone or have a random chat to the person next to you (see how long you can make the conversation last before the other person realises you cannot speak Portuguese – Brazilians like to talk so you’ll be surprised how long you can make this stretch out).
3) When the bus approaches stick the Bilhete Unico in your mouth and be prepared to pounce. When the door opens follow your fellow passengers (victims) and navigate the first hurdle (the steps) by taking a good leap and land clasping both hands on any available fitting. In monkey-like fashion pull yourself up onto and then along the bus from bar to bar until you reach either the end of the queue or get to the second hurdle (the turnstile). Either way wrap one arm and leg around any available fitting and when it is your turn use your free hand to take the Bilhete Unico from between your teeth so that you can slap it on the reader. You may be lucky enough to read how much credit you have on the reader but this may also made impossible by the glare of the sun. Alternatively the bus may have braked suddenly so you may now been thrown back towards the first hurdle (start Step 3 again).
4) When the reader confirms you have credit force your body through the turnstile and try to avoid falling over on the other side – again, clasp any fitting to try and prevent this. Quickly scan the bus to see whether a seat is available (unlikely) and if so run with the motion of the bus and throw yourself into it. If not, assess how crowded the bus is (very, most likely – see below), but, most importantly, find some space and clasp as many body parts on any available fittings that may be around you. Beware: the hand hoops hanging from the bars above your head look friendly but they actually slide along the poles they are attached to so if you are not careful they will potentially cause you more harm than good.
5) As you get closer to your destination you will need to think strategically about how you are going to get off the bus. As most exits are at the back of the bus your path will most likely be blocked by other victims so you will need to start to physically force yourself down the bus at least five minutes before you reach your destination (and remember the transport system is not your fellow victims’ fault so have some courtesy and mutter, “Com licença” – Excuse me). When you reach your destination push your way past the remaining victims and leap out the exit to your safety. Be sure to avoid unexpected obstacles outside the bus (drains, potholes, motorbikes, passerbys, etc).
You are now safe.
So there you have it, a foolproof guide to catching a bus in São Paulo. Follow these simple steps and I have no doubt that hopefully you too should be able to survive the commute in São Paulo.
But one last thing. Whilst a bus ride in São Paulo may not be the most pleasant experience in the world there is at least one thing which should induce a little smile everyday because it does, even for this grumpy, impatient Brit.