Last weekend I went to the countryside, and as expected, it was an enormous departure from the concentrated city of São Paulo. I’ve been out there several times (even living for a month when I first arrived to Brazil), but what struck me this time was the enormous sky. It was an insurmountable canopy, stretched out as far as the eye could see. I realized how rare, if not impossible, it is to see such an open sky in the city, without the interruption of high rises or tangled cables.

It’s funny to think how it’s in the big city where I navigate narrow or restricted spaces, particularly as a pedestrian that has to fight for my right to walk across the street. In the countryside though, everything feels immense — the sugarcane fields, the highway, the quietness, and above all, the sky.

Organized Chaos: The São Paulo Bus System

I’m quite positive I spend more time on the bus than anywhere else in São Paulo. My sense of direction is through the bus routes and my views of landmarks are usually through plastic windows. It’s taught me how to navigate the city and interact with people. As a regular passenger, I’ve assembled a list of tips and observations.

1. The first few times I go somewhere, I like to pay attention to what’s outside so I know the surroundings and the route. I also like to pay extra attention to what buses arrive at the same stop, which has paid off in those crucial moments when I need a bus, any bus, to get me home.

2. Wear good shoes and develop good leg muscles. You will often have to stand, and with the way some drivers go, you will have to hold on for dear life.

3. When the bus is crowded, start making your way to the exit a few stops ahead. When the bus is really crowded, you need to announce loudly, “Vou descer!”

4. It’s considered courteous for passengers to offer to hold your bag if you’re standing. I was skeptical at first, but I realized it’s not like they can really run off with it.

5. Cobradores (those working the till) are usually pretty helpful and will let you know when your stop is coming up if you ask them to. This is especially handy when the bus is so crowded you can’t see out the window to determine when your stop is coming up.

6. Leave early because there’s a chance the bus will break down. (This isn’t often, but it’s happened to me a few times.)

7. When it’s raining, leave extra early.

8. Give your seat up to the elderly, the disabled, women with babies and anyone else who may need it more than you. Of course it’s common courtesy in most places, but people really do practice it here. In fact, I find most passengers to be pretty considerate of each other overall.

9. Some buses have TVs that show the news headlines, celebrity gossip, novela recaps, and the occasional cute cat video. These can actually become good conversation starters. (“Did you hear what the UN did today?”)

10. When deciding between metro or bus: the metro tends to be faster, but during peak hours where you’re traveling in a sea of people to get to the platform, it’s far more exhausting.

Finally, the best feeling I get is when a stranger asks me for bus information, and I can confidently give them accurate information. I will never fully learn this system, but I manage to get by.

São Paulo vs Mexico City

Despite being born and raised in the U.S., when I first moved to São Paulo, I instinctively compared it to Mexico City, a place where I’ve traveled to throughout my life because of family. Being both Latin American mega cities, I can’t help it. The similarities are easy to spot, but it’s the differences that are the most interesting to me.

What’s Similar:

1. Social Life — Gatherings are spontaneous, you invite your friend of a friend of a friend, and you give a kiss to everyone in the room. There’s also no end time, and you say good bye about five times before you actually leave.

2. Bikes — Bike culture is slowly growing in both, thanks to the implementation of bike lanes and bikes to rent. On Sundays, both Mexico and São Paulo close off lanes in their major avenues — Reforma and Paulista respectively — for cyclists.

La Roma, Mexico City

La Roma, Mexico City

3. LGBT Nightlife — Mexico has la Zona Rosa, SP has Frei Caneca (plus the largest Pride parade in the world), but despite these two major hubs, I would consider neither city to be that queer-friendly.

4. O Jeitinho — In Spanish, there’s no real name for it, but both cities heavily employ the famed jeitinho, or creative solutions to everyday problems.

5. Bookstores — In both cities, books are expensive yet somehow bookstores are found everywhere. Not that I’m complaining, I just wonder how they stay in business.

6. TV — Both have their one nearly omnipotent network — Televisa and Globo — that are the major source for cliché telenovelas and government propaganda.

7. Traffic — It’s always congested, drivers need to have the instincts of a hawk, and pedestrians never have the right of way.

View from Ibirapuera, São Paulo

View from Ibirapuera, São Paulo

8. Appearances — They are vital. In both cultures, bad behavior is called being feo/feio, or ugly, and particularly on women, there’s pressure to be bonita and appealing.

What’s Different:

1. Formalities — Mexico City culture has much more formalities than São Paulo, evidenced by the use of usted. São Paulo is much more informal and relaxed. I’ve been called senhora a handful of times in São Paulo, but people generally say você. In Mexico, if a stranger called me tú, they’d be considered mal educado.

2. Informal Sector — Both have a strong informal sector, but it’s much more evident in Mexico City, where you can see people everywhere with their stands on the corners, performing at stop lights, directing you to park, selling just about any kind of item in traffic and more. São Paulo has these things too, but it’s not as intense as it is in Mexico.

3. Diversity — São Paulo’s immigrant history is definitely more apparent than Mexico’s. While Mexicans certainly don’t look alike, there’s much more diversity in São Paulo, physically and ethnically speaking.


4. Concentration — They’re both enormous cities, but Mexico is the national center for culture, commerce and government. Brazil tends to spread its sectors out, with the capital in Brasilia, and commerce and culture shared between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There’s definitely the sense that everything important goes through São Paulo, but it’s not the one and only center for everything like Mexico City is.

5. History — Mexico City’s character and history are evident the moment you set foot there. Hundreds of years of history are felt, in part because it was the capital of the Aztec Empire, Spanish Empire and now Republic of Mexico. São Paulo is a rather old city too, but it started off as a town and didn’t become an important city until several centuries later. In the Centro, there are definitely older looking buildings, but old as in late 19th century. Mexico’s National Palace dates back to 15th century Aztecs.

Post office in Centro, São Paulo

Centro, São Paulo

Centro, Mexico City

Centro, Mexico City

6. National Brands — In Mexico, American brands are king. It can be rather difficult to find Mexican brands, although that’s slowly changing with small indie labels. In Brazil, almost everything’s made in Brazil, and anything that’s not is 10 times more expensive. That said…

7. Patriotism — Mexicans make a big deal out of Independence Day, while in Brazil, you wouldn’t know it was Independence Day unless you consulted a history book. Mexicans tend to be very proud of their country, while Brazilians tend to not show any (until the World Cup comes around…and even then, until Brazil is disqualified.)

8. Corn — This is basically the backbone of my culture, so I take this one seriously. Both cities sell corn as street food, but in very different ways. In Mexico City, the roasted white elotes come with mayonnaise or crema, lime, fresh white cheese, and chili powder. Esquites are the same thing but in a styrofoam cup, with the corn shaved off the cob and in its juice, like a thick soup. In São Paulo, vendors serve steamed yellow milho simply with butter. They also have canjica, which is like a corn porridge with condensed milk, and pamonha, which are the same thing as Mexican tamales except they’re plain with no filling.

Credit: Passamal

Credit: Passamal

Credit: Raul Macias []

Credit: Raul Macias