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.

Five Places I’d Return To

There’s still a huge part of the world I yearn to see, but certain places I have visited remain forever imprinted in my mind. Prompted by the Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There challenge, here are five places I’d return to in a heartbeat:

paris - Garnier Opera House

1. Paris
Truth be told, I was a bit reluctant to go because I wanted to use the travel opportunity to see somewhere less popular, less obvious. But when I arrived, I literally gasped at the sight of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and I realized, there’s a reason why this city is so celebrated. It was also my first time visiting a place where I didn’t speak the language, which was humbling to say the least, and forced me to get creative. At one point when a waiter forgot how to translate the name of a meat in English, I asked him what sound the animal makes.

New Orleans

2. New Orleans
Despite being in my home country, this was much different than what I was used to. (Greeting strangers — what a concept!) I went there during Mardi Gras season but a week before Fat Tuesday, so I was able to see local neighborhood parades and celebrations. On our first day, my friend and I went to Cafe du Monde, which serves simply beignets and chicory coffee, and went back every day for the remainder of our stay. My favorite detail was seeing Mardi Gras decorations everywhere like it was Christmas (including decorated pine trees!)

santiago de chile

3. Santiago 
A few years ago back in the U.S., I volunteered at a social justice-oriented cultural center founded by Chileans recovering from the former dictatorship. I happened to arrive in Santiago a few days after the fortieth anniversary of the military coup (their September 11th, literally), and its legacy and efforts to preserve the collective memory were very much present. I left with a deeper understanding of the cultural center, the people I had worked with, and of course Chile. The city gave me an incredibly good feeling through its architecture, nature and friendly people. It’s also amazing to me that you can drive an hour east and reach the mountains or drive an hour west and reach the ocean, all the while passing by vineyards.

mexico city

4. Mexico City
If Mexico City could be summed up in one word, it would have to be stimulating. It is forever a busy, chaotic, messy city but with a lot of color, culture and beauty. There are Aztec ruins in the middle of downtown, alongside centuries old churches, fashionable boutiques, crafts markets and packed bars. Most importantly (for me), there’s nothing like going to the market to eat a blue corn quesadilla stuffed with squash blossoms. It’s the city with the best street food ever.

salvador bahía

5. Salvador
Located in northeastern Brazil, it’s known for two things — its Carnaval and its strong African roots. I’ve never experienced the former, but the latter can be felt everywhere, through its food, slang, rituals and sounds. On every corner there’s music, whether it be blaring from a parked car stereo or from people improvising with trash cans. It’s a very relaxed city, sometimes to a fault, but the people are always friendly and willing to chat. This place has stayed with me in such a way that I feel an immense sense of joy when I smell dendê oil and remember eating acarajé on the beach.

I’m nominating five blogs to take on the challenge: Grobetrotter, Ella Está Por Embarcar, Journeying Jeff,  The Travelling Chopsticks, and Braless in Brasil. It’s simple – 5 places you’d return to with 5 photos and 5 nominees. The winner, picked at random, will get a new iPhone 6. Rules and regulations here.

And of course feel free to add your favorite destinations in the comments!