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Those of us who were fortunate enough to be born into the middle-class or just a few thousand dollars short of it understand the stress that comes with using public transportation to reach our destinations in life.
I, for one, can remember riding these suicide tubes we call buses as early as the age of five or six. I would sit on my mother’s lap, throw tantrums because I was forbidden from pulling the stop signal rope (we had ropes before the stop buttons were installed). There was a thrill, really, in running up and down the bus, having the driver gently slam on the brakes just enough for us to fall, bang our heads on a seat but not suffer a concussion.
My mother, being a model citizen, would reach out and grab me or my brother and firmly compress the skin on our backside between her thumb and index finger to return our anarchic behavior to a semblance of aristocratic pupils. This thing, we can today define as pinching, was able to turn a delinquent child into a stoic statue in seconds.
Anyhow, I must inform you that using the public transportation system in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I was born and grew up, is quite different from the same avenue of transportation used in Orlando and Naples, Florida where I would later live.
One of the key factors about public transportation in Brazil is that muggings, bus hijackings, and bus burnings as a means to protest police brutality are by far, quite normal things to experience. I wouldn’t say we like it, I mean, only a select few criminals would, but we are far more aware of it there.
In case you’re wondering, I have not personally committed any of the crimes listed above, nor have any of my friends or family members. I don’t want you to presume that these are family traditions undertaken by the common Brazilian citizen. It’s more of a reality forced upon the commoner than a common behavior exhibited by the general populace.
I recall the rollercoaster-like elements of a trip from home to the supermarket. The rocketship pilot who just so happened to have a second job as a bus driver would bend the laws of physics to wield that behemoth through some of the finer stretches of the city. One time, I had to hold on to my mother as we would hit potholes, speedbumps, pedestrians, maybe, and we would levitate from our seats on the bus. My mother had a tough time holding on to her seat as well. Our fellow passengers had that juxtaposing look on their face of “just another day” mixed with “oh God this is it, this is it,” as some were forced up and down, front and back, and side to side like Ludacris’ song, Act a Fool. None of us wanted to act the part, though.
But in the end, we reached our destination, no one harmed, physically that is. The psychological damage done by the extremes of fight or flight stress is evident in me to this day. I can’t sit on a bus without grabbing onto something and hanging on for dear life. It’s fun, really. A roller coaster without the acrophobic element.
And I’ve never been amused by clowns rushing into or out of cars. How circus performers rush into a VW buggy with all their might, fitting ten, fifteen, or six million men into a cramped space for show. Not sure why circus goers always say that was an accomplishment. To me, it was a day-to-day nightmare. We would wait at bus stops with my mom and brother, and once the bus made the first intent to slow down, not stop but it just looked like it would slow down. We could feel the hair rise on the back of our necks.
“It’s ‘bus-mania’ time, baby.”
People would push, shove, cram, and thrust their will into the bus as people inside were attempting to exit in the midst of this pandemonium. It’s like a handful of marbles crashing into another handful of marbles with expletives in between.
And unlike the orderly method of ticket purchasing that takes place in American buses, in Brazil, you enter a bus from the rear passenger side doors. In the US, you step into the blessed transportation device, you’re kissed with air-conditioning, smiling passengers, kind greetings, and you greet the driver, scan your bus pass or insert a number of coins or dollar bills into a machine, there’s a chime for acceptance of payment or a buzz for the negation of access.
You know, first world stuff. It’s so proper. So American.
Back home, though, you enter through the rear door where you’re met with a cage-like entry area. Once you pay your fee to a man is possibly trapped in a builtin throne-like, part-cage, part-prison cell apparatus that he sits in by the door, he handles money and coins on the spot, whilst the bus is moving, whether you paid or not, and once he gives you the “okay” for entry, you can press your body through this spinning mechanism that makes you feel as if you’re either entering a penitentiary or squeezing your way out of one. It’s weird. At times, when we only had enough money for my mother and my brother, this bus-clerk-lord fella would allow my mother and I to go through at the same time.
Other times, when we had a full-fare and with tickets paid for each of us, the nightmare of going through the spinning doors first was horrible. I would be separated from my mother and my brother by a sea of sinister-looking individuals who were probably common everyday workers trying to make it to work an hour early when the bus was already an hour late. You can imagine their faces. Right? Those are the looks I was met with. It was something else.
Bus rides were like war-time bomb raid preparations. I’m exaggerating, of course, but the panic to make it to the bus stop in time for the bus to come by, which was never on time was horrible. It was either early and we would miss it or it was an hour late because it had broken down, went in for repair, had been hijacked, or had been hijacked and burned as a means to protest police brutality.
Its replacement was hours late, of course, and filled with the people from the first bus who managed to get out before it was burned to a crisp.
So happy times. And with our luck, it always rained.
But what brings my experience with public transportation to the forefront was the first trip we made to Shopping Parque Dom Pedro mall.
Here’s what you have to understand. This shopping center was to become the largest of its kind in all of South America, where entertainment was key, shopping experience resembled that found in Miami (simpler Miami), and it was host to a Walmart and an ETNA (Brazil’s version of IKEA). The place is massive.
This place was it. From restaurants, multi-floor shopping areas, a movie theatre, and enough to do for a small family like ours.
It was everything you wanted to do or buy in one place.
And on its inauguration, my mom, my brother, and I wanted to pay this fabulous shopping center a visit.
The problem is it would take us two hours and two, possibly three buses to get there. And that’s just to get there. To the common American this seems a bit much but for us veteran middle-class Brazilians it was just another day.
Anyway, we prepared for the trip. It’s a Saturday and everyone’s excited. We’re up early, dressed to the nines, whatever that means, and we’re waiting for the bus. The anticipation is high, fellow passengers are also on their way to the same spot, we believe the mall will make Disney World attendance numbers look minuscule in comparison.
You know what. It was one of the best days of our lives.
My mom had dressed me up in the nicest gear imaginable. I was no more than eleven, maybe twelve years old. I could competently dress myself at that age but there was no way my mother was going to allow me to ruin this day by dressing like a 90’s hip-hop listening, basket-ball jersey-wearing, gang-banging drug dealing, middle-class American teenager from Beverly Hills. No way. We were dressed like kings. Princes, actually.
So we’re at the bus stop, right, and we get on, fighting our way through the crowd, shoving strangers aside to get onto the rollercoaster ship so that we can be on our way. Everything is going as planned. Buses are on time. We see dozens of busses headed to the same part of town to drop people off at Parque Dom Pedro Shopping mall. The driver looked less murderous today. The ticket clerk wasn’t worried about getting mugged. The bus was packed. No bus hijackings or bus burnings to protest police brutality in sight.
It was the best day of my life.
So what you have to understand about Brazil is that at any given moment of the day, for as long as a bus is running there will always be at least one extremely drunk passenger on board. And by extremely drunk I mean just moments away from passing out on someone else’s shoulder and then falling down on their lap and drooling over their knees drunk.
So, well on our way to the mall, one of these sorts, these inebriated sorts decides he will spill his guts on the floor of the bus.
This isn’t surprising to me. It’s a common occurrence. Mind you, with the rollercoaster-like trips we’re forced to endure it’s quite an acceptable outcome.
But the greater problem is that the vomit, alcohol, breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the previous day were all spewing onto the floor right next to my feet.
I wasn’t aware of what was happening until at first, I noticed the smell, second, I felt wet spittle like droplets cover my left leg and soak my sock, and lastly, I heard the gentleman in question gag as he attempted to keep himself from drowning on his own vomit. All this took place on the bus, in front of a crowd, that was on its way to the mall.
I was the only victim of this man’s puke, that day.
We didn’t carry napkins, baby wipes, or warm damp towels as is customary in modern-day, middle-class American transit systems. I know, I’m making this part up.
So I had to ride the rest of this trip, onto different buses, until we arrived at the largest shopping center in South America with a vomit soiled sock and shoe for a day of shopping, entertainment, and fun.
We ran to the restroom once there, though, to further soak my sock in a family restroom sink, scrub food particles off of it, twist the water out of it, and then place it in my mom’s purse till it dried. I put my shoe back on. Sockless and all. And went on about my day.
We enjoyed that day. The faint smell of vomit followed me all day long but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the day. I’m serious.
All in all, until that day I hadn’t hated public transportation. I was always enamored by it, really. How cool it was to transport so many people to so many different places, alive.
But on that day, after tears of distress, contempt, and rage, I learned to hate taking the bus. I hated it.
I don’t hate the man whose vomit ruined my socks, the ambiance in the bus, the ambiance and atmosphere that followed me through the mall that day, but I do hate how inconvenient it was for bus hijackers and bus burners who burned busses to protest police brutality to miss our bus that day.
I have a car now. One that resembles a bus, almost. My kids are the ones who throw up in it, not occasionally, of course.
I, too, drive it, or rather, pilot the behemoth like a rocketship, a rollercoaster in its own right.
I’m not ashamed of how we got places in the past and I wouldn’t shame anyone who dares ride a bus, the metro, the sub, or taxi’s today. It’s quite an affordable means of getting around.
And you meet some interesting characters. People who, just like you and me (middle-classers), are trying to get from point A to point B and back, safe and sound. Their lives aren’t miserable, it’s just the stench of vomit and Brazilian tardiness that makes them look miserable, in my case, at least.
But either way, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the next time I’m on a bus, be it in Brazil, America, or here in Canada, I want to make sure that I’m the one doing the vomiting.
It’s about time I had a go at it. I want to ruin someone else’s public transportation experience too. It’s either that or a bus hijacking or bus burning to protest police brutality.
We’ll see in due time.
*Note to the reader: I want you to understand that my story is not to be used as a generalization of Brazilian culture, infrastructure, stability or lack thereof. Brazil is a wonderful nation, filled with heartwarming people who are obsessed with family-centric relationships and who will go out of their way to assist a stranger. Brazilians are welcoming, amicable, joyous, and more; all in light of a very dark past and current economic woes. There’s more to Brazil than Rio de Janeiro and soccer. Please see a few pictures below to restore your hope in humanity and also inform you of Brazil’s diverse beauty.