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Commuters look out of a bus window as they are sit in rush hour traffic along the promenade beside the iconic Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro June 9, 2014.  (Reuters)

Commuters look out of a bus window as they are sit in rush hour traffic along the promenade beside the iconic Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro June 9, 2014. 


Cathal Kelly

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

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. 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.

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