São Paulo Stories: Touching little courtesies and one enormous worm keep 20 million citizens on the move

Click to follow
The Independent US

Getting around is one of the most exhausting aspects of daily life in this city of nearly 20 million people. Most have to travel by bus - but getting the right one is not easy.

While European bus numbers might have two or three digits, here they are far longer, and often have an extra appendage - one typical example is 1275b - making them impossible to remember. I try to rely on destination names, such as Vila Madalena, but different buses often reach the same destination by different routes, which are listed on the side of the bus.

This might help you to work out where you are going, were it not for another problem: all bus stops in São Paulo are request stops. You have a split second to read the bus route, decide if it's the right bus and flag it down. I often admire the excellent eyesight, quick decision-making and assertive arm-waving of even the most elderly Paulistanos.

Once aboard, you are usually unable to move, since rush hour in São Paulo is the norm rather than the exception. One has to hold on tight to stay upright while the buses confront the gaping holes, and the drivers display erratic clutch control, often throwing passengers together.

But amid such craziness and agitation, the lucky few who are seated will offer to take whatever you're holding on their knees, allowing you to concentrate on holding on. It doesn't matter what you are holding - a folder, a handbag, a shopping bag, a backpack, or all of the above. In this city of violence and fear, this one gesture on buses shows total faith in one's fellow citizens.

* * *

For some, going anywhere by bus is simply too much. In fact, any road transport is; the elite of the elite opt to travel by helicopter. As I was walking down Avenida Berrini on a perfectly mild day, I suddenly felt a huge gust of wind, something akin to the opening scene of The Wizard of Oz. The leaves on the ground whirled into a vortex and, blinking to empty the dust from my eyes, I realised a nearby helipad was being used for landing.

While other cities might suffer aircraft noise on the outskirts, central São Paulo has noise pollution from helicopters. As I was talking to a friend who lives on Praça Republica, we had to cut the call short. A chopper was touching down near her window; the din made conversation impossible.

* * *

The only relief from the urban stress in São Paulo comes on Sundays, when the city's inhabitants typically see their families and eat lunch mid-afternoon. One of starkest examples of this change takes place on the Minhocão (in English, the "Big Worm"), the popular name given to the Elevado Presidente Costa e Silva multi-lane flyover.

In 1971, when the highway was opened, those living in apartment blocks along its length found they were only feet away from what is in effect a motorway heaving with vehicles, exposed to noise level of up to 92 decibels. But on Sunday the Big Worm is closed to vehicles, and entire neighbourhoods spill out on to the roadway.

People barbecue meat; men wheel metal trolleys with caramelised and savoury popcorn; boys improve their skateboarding skills; adolescents flirt and smoke joints; young mums push their prams, invariably with multiple children in tow; the more athletic go running or cycling in tight Lycra, and alcoholics and homeless folk remain unhassled by police.

One of my favourite activities on a late Sunday afternoon is to walk along the Big Worm just before sunset, when the multi-storey buildings are bathed in orange light. For a moment the city is livable, before Monday morning sees the traffic, the hooting and the pollution begin all over again.

Comments