Maybe it’s just me, but I really feel that, in order to really know a place, you need to know its public transit system. I think this is really the key to travel: not only does it enable you to get from place to place, but it means you are going through the same daily actions as locals. It’s another way to get closer to the “underground” (haha) culture of the city. It’s rarely beautiful, often frustrating, crowded without being touristy, and most of all, functional. Knowing a transit system means you know the layout of the city. It means you can sympathize when someone complains about the cost, the terrible musician in such-and-such a station, and the inconvenient construction at your end of the line. The subway literally maps out the most important destinations in any city, and stops are usually named after neighbourhoods, so it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The bus can be a little trickier, but it’s the cheapest way to get an above-ground tour of the lay of the land. For a traveller, the cost of transit beats cabs almost every time, with the exception of late nights or excessive luggage. Personally, once I’ve conquered a city’s transit, I feel a great sense of accomplishment and connection to that place.
Some of the places whose transit I’ve “conquered” include (among others): Toronto, Ottawa, New York City, London (UK), Paris, Rome, Naples, Rio and São Paulo. These are obviously some pretty major world cities, and their transit networks are both vast and intricate. I didn’t pull this off easily; in fact I frequently got lost, had to retrace my steps, ask for directions, or pay to re-enter the system. However, I have always been proud of my ability to read a map and locate myself geographically, and this has served me well. I’ve also had to get over any shyness about asking for help and admitting to being a foreigner/non-local. It’s definitely not cool to be the clueless person on the subway, but the longer you go without asking, the longer you’ll look like a fool.
This brings me to another point: it can actually be dangerous to appear as that clueless passenger. It marks you as an outsider, a tourist, and a great opportunity for pickpocketing. I always try to blend in with the locals on transit, not just because it makes me happy to be adapting to their culture so accurately, but because I don’t want to get accosted or robbed. That being said, nothing makes me happier than when I get mistaken for a local when people ask me for directions. It happened to me in Toronto over Christmas, even though I’d just gotten off the airplane and was hauling a massive suitcase through Spadina station (I proudly pointed the way to the Northbound train). Even more delightfully, it happened to me in Rio as I was waiting at a bus stop with some friends. I explained, in Portuguese, that I wasn’t Brazilian, but I gave as much accurate information as I could. I turned back to my friends with a grin – they don’t speak any Portuguese, so I felt pretty cool.
Rio and São Paulo were my most recent conquests during my January trip. First of all, it must be said that these cities have done a lot to upgrade their metros recently in anticipation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so they were sparkling with new bilingual signs, brand new lines, and high-tech safety features (the new Sampa lines have glass doors that prevent passengers from falling onto the track). There was really no excuse for me not to find my way around in these cities, all things considered. Even better, though, was taking the bus in Rio. The Cidade Maravilhosa runs along a curvaceous coastline of beaches on one side and buildings on the other, interrupted by the famous towering hills. It really is as breathtaking as you’d imagine, and fortunately it can be experienced in all its gritty glory for the low cost of R$2.75 (or sometimes R$3.00). Fortunately, the hostel where I stayed in Lapa was good about giving out bus information, and the hostel residents were quick to share their knowledge, so after about two days I knew the names of the buses that would take me anywhere I wanted to go and back again. Additionally, I was getting braver with my Portuguese, and began verifying my destination with the bus drivers before I got on the bus. All were friendly, and some were even helpful enough to get out and ask another driver if they weren’t sure themselves. I felt like the city was mine on the day I told my friends to go ahead without me while I continued shopping; I knew I could get back on my own.
Some of you may have noticed that I did not include Manaus in the “conquered” list above. There is a reason for this, although I’m afraid it isn’t really a good one. To be honest, up ’til now I have been a huge baby about learning transit in my own city. Part of this was out of fear: what if I got lost somewhere in the city and couldn’t get back home? What if I was late? Another part of it was the minimal amount of time I actually spent in Manaus last semester – two days a week, but a good part of one of those was spent teaching – but really that’s an excuse. Another excuse was that, since my host family never uses public transit, nobody was able to teach me. The real reason I didn’t learn the bus system is because I was too afraid to speak Portuguese. Really, it’s a stupid reason. I could tell taxi drivers where I wanted to go, and I had to learn specific language for that, so why not for the bus?
After Rio, I realized that I was certainly able to do it on my own. My language skills were up to par, and (as I mentioned before) I have enough spatial awareness to know when I’m in the right or wrong part of town. The difference is that in Rio I was forced to use my resources to take the bus, with effective results. Here in Manaus, I have friends and family who often drive me around. Last semester I usually took cabs when going out at night (sensible) or when coming back from the bus station (realistic). I definitely did not need to cab to the mall or home from class, but I did because it was easier and less scary than the bus. This semester, I came back with a new resolve to try. It also turns out I have a need as well, as my classes are in the Centro school, and at times when my host mom won’t be able to drive me. I have zero excuses – all the buses actually lead to Centro at some point during their route. And I’m pleased to say that, as of Monday, I have officially taken the Manaus bus by myself! Today is Day Three of going to and from work on my own, and it’s started to turn into routine. Maybe by next week I’ll stop sitting on the edge of my seat during the last 15 minutes of my journey and take my eyes off the road long enough to read a book! Despite the dangers and discomforts (yeah, 40 degrees Celsius and raining) of bus travel, I’m looking forward to saving myself some cash and getting into the local rhythm, and adding one more city to my “conquered” list.