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.

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