Brazil by bus: It’s smooth sailing, despite the strange bedfellow

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A few days ago, Rio police picked up a World Cup visitor dragging his luggage down the middle of a major highway, trying to walk to Copacabana. It was probably going pretty well until they forced him to get in a car. That’s when his hell began.


In order to cross Brazil, you have two choices – drive or fly. In order to take a plane, you have to drive to the airport. Which, owing to the hideous traffic, is a guaranteed disaster.


No, if you’re going anywhere, you’re going to have to drive some part of the way. And if you’re already in a motor vehicle, you may as well ride your luck.


The first thing you want to get out of the way is the risk of banditry. In this, you will be disappointed.


Everyone Brazilian you talk to back home has a horror story about a hijacking, from which they are always three people removed. I ask Manuela, the researcher in The Globe and Mail’s Rio bureau, if I have anything to worry about. Apparently, I do.


Manuela is an uncommonly charming person and a bright spirit. She lives in Santa Teresa, a neighbourhood pulled straight from your Borgesian fantasies, crammed with crumbling mansions. By Rio’s insane standards, Santa Teresa is affordable for two reasons – you have to climb a virtual cliffside to get to your house, and it’s riven by crime.


“Getting mugged twice a year is probably worth it, considering the rent I pay,” Manuela says, laughing.




That’s the uncrushable spirit of Rio right there. It’s also the reason I’m worried about bandits.


People do get robbed on buses, Manuela tells me. “Quite common,” she says. Once in a while, they’ll take hostages. That’s news.


“Another common thing” is for thieves to light the buses on fire. Normally, they let the passengers off first. That should be in quotes – “normally.”


In 2010, during an army invasion of Rio slums, the Comando Vermelho gang began randomly torching dozens of occupied vehicles across the city. And you think your commute is a nightmare.


The good news is that if you’re going to die on a bus, it tends to be something more prosaic, like a plunge into a ravine.


So off to the bus station to buy tickets! The terminal is 12 kilometres across town. It takes me an hour-and-a-half to get there in a cab. Start doing the math.


Sao Paulo is 500 klicks away. By Google Maps, it should take 5 1/2 hours. I’m told to count on seven. Or maybe 10. On rare occasions, infinity hours. You may leave for Sao Paulo and just expire of grief along the way.


At the station, they present me with three comfort options. I don’t bother with the bottom two. I picture being wedged between a cage full of fighting cocks and a barnstorming pig.


“Executivo” costs $170, round-trip. It leaves at midnight.


At that hour, the terminal is overrun. There is no variety store selling water. There is, however, a lingerie shop.


One of my road companions, George, will go into the bathroom to wash his hands. Along with the usual bus station contingent of shirtless (and, in one alarming case, pantless) gentlemen bathing in the sinks, there is a guy furiously washing a potato. Says George: “That is not something I’d expect to see in Calgary.”


Well, I’m not so sure. But one doesn’t want to ruffle urban cowboy sensibilities.


Over in a corner, six cops are rifling through some poor kid’s bags. There are several varieties of police here, varying in levels of scariness. Later, I will end up wedged between two guys from the Policia Federal in a packed elevator. Both are carrying machine guns. Both are wearing Grim Reaper shoulder patches. That poor kid.


Full disclosure – I’d prefer this to be a total nightmare. That would make for a better war story. I am going to be disappointed.


The Executivo is the most luxurious conveyance I have ever taken. And I’ve sailed.


It’s double-decker, but bigger than that – close to four metres high (which will become a problem later). There are only 16 berths on the second level. All recline 180 degrees flat. to nearly 90 degrees????. The seats are more comfortable than the beds in our $3,000-a-week Rio apartment. On a plane, this same accommodation would cost you a month’s salary.


One problem with going to bed on the road – you don’t get to pick who you go to bed with. The guy sitting beside me is deeply unhappy to see me. He may be Brazilian. I can’t be sure. I give him the usual: “Tudo bem?” He reacts as if I’ve gently placed my hand in his lap. He looks furious at this intrusion. We will not be exchanging e-mails.


The bus driver comes upstairs and inspects each of our seat belts. He encourages us to get under the provided blanket. He motions that I should eat something out of the care package. My Brazilian dad is driving the bus.


I had been hoping to see something of the countryside. But Angry Man beside me refuses to open the crepe curtains. Neither will anyone else. It is close to total darkness in the cabin. You’re being ferried around in a coffin with wheels.


The first generation of American astronauts – John Glenn et al – revolted when they learned NASA engineers didn’t plan to put windows on the Apollo spacecraft. They weren’t “flying” the rocket, but they wanted the illusion of control. You don’t realize how important that is until you’re a passenger in a vehicle you can’t see out of.


Here’s a wrinkle – Brazil’s roads are not in the best shape. They’re not crumbling. It is as if they have been mined. For 20 kilometres or so out of town, we are trapped in a rinse cycle. The height of the bus encourages a structural wave effect. The bus is not only heaving, it’s swaying wildly from side to side. A woman ahead of me unwisely rises and tries to get to the bathroom on the first level. Halfway there, she topples over into my lap. Without saying anything, she manages to get herself planted on all fours and crawls back to her seat. I feel her pain.


I’m looking around for a bag. There is no bag. Angry Man beside me is about to hate me a whole lot more.


Then it evens out. We pick up speed. How fast? I don’t know. Faster than sound. That’s how it feels. Everyone else is sleeping by now. I’m waiting for skidding and the weightlessness of free-fall.


Angry man has already reclined flat. Here’s a new problem. You don’t want to be the second guy to lie down in what is very like a double bed. It’s bizarrely intimate. So I wait until he’s turned away and snoring. Then I get into bed with him.


The best part of covering these tournaments is not the football. It’s the small moments of clarity you can only find while on the road. Routine dulls our senses. Travel sharpens them. It provides big-picture context to life and makes you ruminative. I don’t listen to much music while travelling in my daily life. On the road, I consume it. Every big event I’ve ever covered plays back in my mind with a soundtrack – Metric for Germany 2006, M-83 for Euro 2008, Jack Parow in South Africa, Sky Ferreira in Sochi. This time around it’s War on Drugs and Real Estate.


I’m all blissed out when the bus stops. We’ve been talking a lot about banditry among ourselves, trying to figure out who goes for the gun and who gets to survive. From behind I can hear another one of my road pals, Morris, say, “Brigands?!” That’s the word he used. Honest.


It isn’t brigands. It’s a smoke break.


I fall asleep during the second half of the trip. I am woken shortly before arrival when one of Morris’s shoes – which he has placed in the overhead rack like an IED – falls off and hits me square in the face. While I’m yowling, Angry Man looks over happily.


We’re dumped into an even less appealing bus station at 6 in the morning. So much for traffic. So much for bandits. This is all coming together.


Sixteen hours later, we’re back in the terminal, feeling grimy, drinking Brahma beers in a dingy little coffee shop tucked into an extreme corner of the terminus. We’re surrounded by blind drunk fans, one of whom has brought a speaker. He’s bullhorning mariachi music, and very badly harshing my calm.


There is, for no good reason at all, a baby grand piano set among the tables. From nowhere and seemingly alone, a young man appears and sits down at it. He begins to play.


Without any sighing, the drunken fans turn off their stereo and quiet down. Others begin to drift over. By the look of them, some are vagrants who live here. I’m not up on my classical, but I spot some Beethoven and some Bach. I begin to construct a story in my mind for this kid – that he comes here to play late at night because he has nowhere else to practise.


He’s deeply into it now, compacting the works into medley. He comes to the end of one dramatic piece and stops with great flourish. The crowd bursts into applause.


Our bus leaves in 10 minutes. But I’d rather not.

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