As I may have mentioned in a recent, somewhat grumpy post, I spend a lot of time on public transit. In fact, I think I have now taken every form of public transportation available here. My first, and in my opinion by far the best, is the metro. It is pretty cheap (R$3), easy to use, relatively clean, and it reliably arrives every 2-3 of minutes. The huge downside, as anyone will tell you, is that it is far from extensive. In fact it’s kind of a nice surprise when I can get where I want to go using the metro. There is an upside to this too though. Once when I was in a particularly large hurry, I was pleased to see that I’d somehow caught the yellow line express, which apparently skipped about 3 stops I didn’t need. Curious to know for future reference how I would know which trains were express, I asked a friend. She laughed, telling me that there are no express trains in Sao Paulo; those three stations simply had yet to be built! Apparently the supposed completion of the metro is a big joke to Paulistanos, as is the construction of a monorail, which was to be completed prior to the World Cup.
All around the city, there are a number of train lines supplementing the metro. However, I’ve only used them once as they rarely go where I need to and they are slower than the metro. What all this amounts to is that I spend the vast majority of my time on buses, which is always something of an adventure. First, many parts of the city have bus stops delineated solely by a metal pole or stick in the ground. The other day, I asked a group of women standing around talking whether we were at a bus stop and, if so, how I could tell. They laughed and said, “Yes, of course it’s a bus stop. It’s obvious because two buses just stopped here!” The more established bus stops have shelters and occasionally even a posting with the numbers of the buses that pass by. And yet, even then, I have found that if you flag down a bus not included on the posting, the motorist will stop (for a millisecond) to snap you up. Usually you have just enough time to leap onto the bus before it jolts forward, flinging you toward the back. Luckily your flight is interrupted as your stomach jams into a turnstile, reminding you to hold up your “bilhete unico” bus pass or pay R$3 to the guy sitting next to it, who is calmly watching you flail. And somehow, now that you need to use all your strength to push through an inexplicably heavy turnstile while also employing enough finesse to lift your bag over the top, the momentum of the bus has changed to pull you back toward the front.
I think I remember a time, not so long ago, where I worried about how I appeared to strangers on public transportation, but that time has long past. Now I just want to stay upright. Just yesterday, I saw a woman fall headfirst down the stairs from her perch standing next to me. And even finding a seat is no great victory. The backs of the seats are plastic so your knees jam into them, bracing you from the curves and jolts resulting from a suspension system that easily rivals my childhood neighbor’s much-vaunted Gary Fisher’s Rockshox. Needless to say, I long since gave up trying to read or prepare for class on the bus. I also learned pretty quickly that buying the deliciously greasy mini Pão de queijo at the Vila Madalena bus station terminal, immediately prior to boarding, was a huge mistake. I think there is an expression here something like, “eat in the street, die at home.” I would just make a slight adjustment and replace home with bus.
I feel like at this point, work has sent me everywhere in the southern and western parts of the city. Still, no matter how many times I go there, my own personal impasse is near Berrini train station, land of popsicles and physicists. My first time going there, a trip that should have taken an hour (and involved only three simple transfers and a few wind sprints across busy interstates) lasted an hour and a half, making my arrival just late enough to be unclear of whether my students had left for lunch already or had never been there to begin with. I ended up sitting in Nestlé’s reception for 30 minutes, waiting for updates from the receptionist and watching the lunch crowd trickle in with popsicle after popsicle. I don’t know where everyone is getting them from (and believe me, I have now walked the entire length of Berrini avenue), but I am quite sure that people in the Berrini area subsist solely on popsicles! My next journey to Berrini was far smoother, and I arrived only marginally breathless, confused and lost as to where to meet my students. Of course the students never showed up, but the bigger problem this time was in returning. Googlemaps indicated several bus stops nearby, but there were no metal or wooden poles to be seen, and motorists sneered at my waving arm as they flew by on United Nations Highway.
Still, although there is clearly no love lost between me and SP buses or the barren desert that is Berrini, it is still somehow extremely rewarding to feel like I can stand on my own two feet here. I have always known myself to have a terrible sense of direction, and I have never lived in a big city, so it is doubly rewarding to realize that I have never gotten lost and I have always been able to figure out where I needed to go. That’s not to say that I’ve done it alone, I have many many friends and random strangers to thank, but it’s empowering too to feel that my Portuguese is decent enough that I can ask for help when I need to. When all is said and done, I actually enjoy feeling a little like a city girl!