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A first ride on a São Paulo bus


I leave a meeting at a little after 2pm. As the lift travels back down 18 floors I decide that as I have nothing else to do for the rest of the day I should wet my feet in São Paulo’s public transportation system.

The metro, how far is it? I ask

I’m pretty sure I’m asking the same receptionist who had checked my ID on arrival, who had told me to go to the 18th floor, but she is looking at me blankly and I think she doesn’t understand English now. I ask myself whether I am brave enough to dabble in Portuguese. I’m not.

No, she says. Too far. You must take bus.

Where? That road there?

She nods. I turn and look outside.

This road here?

It sounds too vague, and I vaguely feel that I need more to go on, but if the bus stops there, what more can she say? I turn back round to her but she’s checking some other man in a suit’s ID.

I swap the air-conditioned block of air for a steamy-hot pavement. It feels fantastic, exotic. My sunglasses tame the brightness of the sun. I walk towards what is obviously a bus-stop. People are waiting, and there is a pictogram with a complicated mass of lines and numbers fixed to a bus-stop but as I’m not sure where I am or where I’m going it is of no help.

Just as confusion and heat are evaporating my sense of adventure and I am beginning to wonder whether I should move a little away from the bus stop before trying to hail one of the pale cream-coloured taxis (I don’t want those I have been briefly waiting with to witness my personal defeat) a green bus turns the corner at the end of the road and lumbers towards us. It has a sign that says ‘Pinheiros’ above another name I don’t recognise. I’m pretty sure the Metro station is between me and Pinheiros. The worst case scenario is being taken to Pinheiros, which I know is closer to my temporary apartment than where I now am. From there I can then take my public transportedly-wetted feet into a taxi and a cheaper fare home.

The bus is busy but not rammed and I wait until everyone else has got on and follow them and their example in getting in the front door and filing through a turnstile in the middle of the bus. I have no idea how much a ticket costs so I decide to give him a R$10 note (about £4). I think it must be enough but no so large as to create an issue with change. I practise my question as I wait my turn.

Nos vamos a Pinheiros?

The man doesn’t look at me but grunts, grasps the red banknote and puts change on his little tray. I take it, thrust it into my pocket (not into my wallet, so as not to give away its location to potential pickpockets) and sit down next to the window on an empty double seat.

I try to follow the bus’s route on my map but I am paranoid about looking like a tourist so I try to read it from inside my bag. It isn’t easy and I cannot find the road ‘Santo Amaro’ that I’ve see we are driving down. It’s a big road, dual carriageway both ways, and I reckon a road of this size has to be worthy of a yellow designation on my map. Which makes my inability to find it on the map even more confusing – there aren’t that many yellow ones.

After about twenty minutes I give up looking. I’ll wait till Pinheiros. I notice the bus has pretty much emptied – hardly anyone is getting on to replace the steady stream of exiters at each stop. I look outside. This part of São Paulo looks different to what I’ve seen before. It slowly dawns on me: there are no tall buildings here, the tallest are just two storeys. There are lots of gaps, missing buildings in the middle of blocks. The shops have no shop fronts. Dogs and men sleep in the road where cars should be parked. I look back around the bus. I’m pretty sure I was the only passenger wearing a suit when I got on. I am now the only man wearing a long-sleeved shirt. A couple of my fellow male passengers are wearing vests, one is string. Another, young and thin, is topless. I am suddenly very aware I am wearing my grandfather’s 1950s Rolex and in my suit pocket my wallet feels larger, more obvious.

A man had got on and sat down next to me about quarter of an hour ago. I look at him in profile; I think I need help but that means revealing I am lost, a foreigner who can’t speak Portuguese, which seems reckless. But, at least in profile, he looks like a nice guy. I decide to go for it.

Por favour. Nos vamos a Pinheros?

Nao! He smiles. Nao!

He talks at me and I get the sense he is telling me I need to get off and take another bus. I nod but the noise of blood pumping through my body is in my ears and I am getting hot under the bus’s only collar. Every time the bus stops I say “Aqui?” and go to get off but he appears to say not to, to wait. This goes on for a couple of stops when I say Aqui? while standing up. He shrugs. I’m not sure if here is right or he senses I want to go and so lets me.

I’m the only one to disembark. I don’t know what to do. I set off one way, purposefully like I know what I’m doing, change my mind, and set off purposefully in another direction, before stopping. I feel very conspicuous and I imagine everyone is watching me. I feel helpless and then, oddly, begin to relax. Then I see a green bus coming up the road in the opposite direction with Pinheiros written on the front. I see the stop it’s aiming for, run for it, get on, pay the man in the middle, go through the turnstile and sit down. I watch the average height of the buildings rise as we head the way I had come. Half an hour later I see a metro station from where I catch a train to MASP and walk home.

I get into the flat and log-on. There’s an email from Debora, who is out of town today. “What are you up to?” she has asked. “Not much,” I type. “Although I did ride the bus today.”

More by this author at his highly amusing blog.

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