Bus Hustle

I was absolutely dumbstruck by the sight: Brazilians standing in line. No pushing, no shoving, no line-cutting. A neat, orderly line that wound around the block. All waiting for the bus. I don’t think that I’d ever seen anything like it before in Brazil. Clearly metropolitan living is a whole new ball game.

There’s just one bus stop in downtown Belo Horizonte for the bus I want to take. Just one. It’s marked by a hand-drawn sign that indicates the bus line number: “2830.” The streets are crowded with cars and pedestrians and other buses. The fact that our bus can weave itself to the curb twice (once to drop off, once to pick up) is miraculous in and of itself. It slides to a stop past the line of people waiting, pulling exactly even with the sign.

We patiently wait our turn to climb on, slowly filing forward one by one. That is until someone at the front of the line decides that the bus is too full and stops to wait for the next bus. Here is where the system breaks down, because what they’re gauging is the odds that they’ll get a seat, not the actual bus capacity. Moreover, more often than not they’re wrong. At this point what you need to do is abandon the line and rush past the fifteen people waiting in front of you to form a shorter line of people all ready to hop on that bus.

Now that you’ve completed level 1 of bus saavy, the 2nd level is the ability to gauge the number of empty seats to the number of people in front of you in this shorter line. This ratio should play a large part in whether or not you rush/hop. It also determines where you sit inside the bus. See, the fare collector sits midway down the bus and keeps an eye on people exiting the back door and stragglers rushing to catch the bus. She calls out or taps a coin on metal to signal an “all clear” for the bus driver to start moving again. CLANG CLANG—YOU CAN GO NOW. To get to the majority of the seats on the bus you have to go through a turnstile by the fare collector. It’s the point of no return. There’s a few yellow seats at the front of the bus reserved for the “elderly, pregnant, carrying kids, handicapped, and the obese.” Brazilians courteously leave these preferential seats open unless all other seats are taken. But if everything is full, they’re fair game.

So if you want to sit (and believe you me, on a hour-long bus ride in 85-90F heat you want to sit) then you have to hop that bus and then quickly count the heads ahead of you and compare it to the number of open seats. Getting close? Grab a seat up front before crossing the turnstile Rubicon, because once you move to the back of the bus there’s no going back. You might have to give up your yellow seat if a more deserving rider comes along, but heck, you would’ve been standing anyhow.

The bus ride itself is a real-life enactment of the Harry Potter Knight Bus. Careening through the streets, squeezing through unbelievably tight places, traveling at blurry speeds. Just as I thoroughly respect Ecuadorian airline pilots for landing on Andes airstrips one half the size of normal runways, I marvel at the skill of these Brazilian bus drivers to careen through the tight favela streets at speeds that I wouldn’t attempt in a compact car. They barely slow for the hairpin curves, and slide past other cars and buses by bare inches. They cross several lanes of congested traffic to get to their stops. Over and over, all day long. Amazing.

(photos courtesy of marduck and Nao Iizuka under Creative Commons licenses)

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