Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Three Reasons Why I Like Sao Paulo’s Trains and Subways

When home time isn't your favourite time of day!
A couple of months ago I blogged about surviving the CPTM during rush hour. I wrote about this because for me this train line is easily Sao Paulo's most chaotic at this time, and I also wanted to pass on my tips for riding it. I also friggin hate the CPTM, so the blog didn't take me too long to write at all! As I finished the post and clicked on the ‘publish’ button, I really felt like I’d said everything I wanted to on the subject.

Yet the more I thought about my post afterwards, the more I began to reflect on just how predictable a post trashing the trains and subways in Sao Paulo was. I mean, a quick search on Google already pulls up an abundance of material on how bad rush hour is in this city. My post then (rush-hour-on-cptm) had merely just added to the host of stuff already out there, painting the transport links in a negative light.

And this got me thinking…were the train and subway lines REALLY as bad as the internet (and indeed myself) would have you believe? Was it possible for me to do the unthinkable and write a complementary post on these parts of Sao Paulo’s urban transport links?

Well, I decided to give it a go, and surprisingly once I started it didn’t take me that long at all. So here they are then….my three reasons for liking Sao Paulo’s subways and trains:

Reason 1:You can recharge your Bilhete Unico (smart card) with a large note in the stations

If you’re not familiar with buying anything with cash in this city, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now, thinking ‘nice one Andrew, what a REEEEEEALLLLLLLY exciting way to kick off the list!’ But bear with me....because getting anybody to give you change in Sao Paulo can be a challenge. For example, as I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog I wrote on shopping, when you come face to face with the checkout woman in a supermarket, you will notice that there is one thing the she seems to hate more than her job / living itself. That is someone paying with a note larger than a 20. Shop assistants HATE 50 and 100 real bills! If you pay with a large note, the following is likely to happen:

These notes to shop assistants are what garlic is to vampires!

  • The cashier will glare at you, like you have just gone into her home on Christmas morning and pissed all over her kid’s presents. 
  • She will then look at the note, and then look back at you, and then ask you if you have any change. 
  • When you tell her that you don’t, she will probably sigh in your face, letting you know that you have just REALLY inconvenienced her life, before calling someone over to get some change. 
  • This is likely to add an extra five or ten minutes to your trip to the supermarket, and is almost certain to get you a few death stares from the people waiting in the queue behind you.

Problems with change aren’t limited to the supermarkets either....oh no!  A lot of busses for example have these big stickers in their windows letting you know that they won’t change anything over 10 reais. And just last week a woman tried to stare me out when I gave her a 50 real note to pay for my dinner in a shopping centre. She actually stood there and STARED at me, like she thought she could intimidate me into giving her a smaller note. Well….I didn't have any other notes, and after telling her I had no change I stared right back at 'Miss Salad Creations'. I stared back really HARD! We were like this for a good 5 seconds until she reluctantly gave in and handed over my change, the change she told me that she didn't have.

Look at my face!
I love my credit card as much as a Brazilian does!
As that awful band Aqua from the 90's once sang, ‘life in plastic, it’s fantastic’ and these words have never really been truer than when talking about Sao Paulo’s attitude towards using credit and debit cards. It is fair to say that in general, Sao Paulo is a card based society, which really makes sense when you think about it. With crime being ever prevalent in the city, having large amounts of cash on you isnt really ideal.  

Which brings me right back to the subway stations (whatcha mean finally!) as over at the little CCTV monitored booths in the train and subway lines, you can recharge your Bilhete Único card, and there is change a plenty. So if you’re ever worried about being able to get a large note broken, head down to the subway station, put a little money on your card with your large note...and the chances are you won’t need to eyeball anyone for your change!

Reason 2: Outside of rush hour, the subways and trains aren’t that bad.

"Doesn't open until 7am? Are you shitting me!?!"
Yes, there may not be nearly as many lines as the city needs and yes, they can be uncomfortable; but if you’re lucky enough to be riding the subway or train mid morning or mid afternoon (when there aren’t so many people on them), it’s likely that you will have a pleasant experience. Hell, you might even be lucky enough to get yourself a seat!
And another thing, the trains and subways start at 4.40am, every day of the week here, regardless of if it's a weekend, holiday or otherwise. I was in Rio a couple of months ago and was pleasantly surprised to discover the nightclub my friend and I planned to  go to was near a subway station. After tiring ourselves out with some killer moves on the dance floor, we left the club at 5am and headed straight to the station….only to discover that the subway in Rio doesn’t open until 7am on a Sunday morning. 


We ended up taking a taxi back to the hostel, which is a big deal for a tight ass like me! I was surprised when I found myself sat in the taxi thinking to myself, "too bad the subway in Rio doesn't open early like the one in Sao Paulo does"

Reason 3. People Sometimes Fight When Getting On / Off The Trains!

So let me get back to the rush hour commute on the CPTM, because after a lot of thinking I believe I’ve managed to come up with a reason why I like this too. Here goes...

As there are a lot of hot, sweaty bodies all squashed together in such a claustrophobic environment during rush hour, there are of course going to be plenty of unhappy passengers. With this being Brazil, the country in which people aren't backward when it comes to being forward, every once in a while something happens....something my inner 15 year old appreciates a whole lot more than it should.

A playground style fight!

I LOVE busy trains...has said nobody, EVER!
I’m not talking about proper brawls here. No! I’m talking about a bit of pushing, a bit of shoving and a lot of unnecessary name-calling, which can create a bit of excitement to an otherwise awful journey. I should point out that seeing this happening is definitely not a daily occurrence. Far from it. It’s so rare that I’ve only witnessed it about five times in the whole two years I've been using this train line…and when you consider how bad conditions can be on this train and how hot Sao Paulo gets, I think that’s a pretty low amount.

The memory of one of these incidents has stayed with me for a long time, and it is my pleasure to be sharing this with you right now. But before I do, let me set the scene:

The Scene

It was about 8.45am on a Thursday morning and the sun had already risen over Sao Paulo. Its rays were beginning to heat up both the city and the fragrant Tiete river (Mmmmm…that raw sewage smell after breakfast never grows old!). I got on the train at Vila Olimpia after my class and found myself stood just inside the doors, next to an overweight, full bosomed woman who was talking into her phone. She must have been in her mid-forties, she had her hair scraped back into a greasy looking ponytail, and she was sporting a baggy white tee-shirt (that she had quite clearly worn for breakfast!). She also had on and some skin tight, purple leggings....which unfortunately made her legs look like two bags stuffed full of old meat.

View of the Tiete river from Vila Olimpia.....SEXY
This woman was deep in conversation and clearly had no problem sharing it with the rest of the train because she was being REALLY loud! As I looked up at her face, she was cackling at something that had been said to her. She was clearly focused on this call.

The train pulled into Pinheiros station two stops later and I looked through the window. As the train slowed down, the blurred faces of the crowd stood on the platform became clearer, and when the train eventually came to a stop, I could see another woman of a similar build and appearance standing directly opposite this woman (who was still on her phone, and was still stood laughing into it like a dirty Aunt at an Anne Summer’s party!). The two were now merely inches apart with just the door separating them. As I looked through the glass I remember thinking that they could have been mirror images of each other. The difference being that the woman on the platform had on black leggings....and had a look of pure determination on her face, a look that told me that there wasn't a cat in hell's chance she wasn't getting on that train.

Then it happened.

The train doors opened and as the woman on the phone stepped out without looking, the woman on the platform simultaneously stepped in, shoulder first. The two collided with such force that the phone in the woman’s hand flew up in the air and the woman on the platform fell back. Then the mobile crashed down onto the platform, smashing into pieces as it collided with the concrete. It soon found itself under the feet of the commuters who were stampeding off the train.

I’d already stepped off the train at this point, yet as I continued walking my eyes were still being drawn to what was happening just a few feet away from me. The woman who’d just stepped off the train was mad. REAL MAD! Her eyes had grown bigger and rounder, and she began cursing at the other woman (who was still on the platform having not actually made it onto the train). As she screamed, the rolls under her neck began to shake. I am in little doubt that this anger is what drove her to do what she did next.

Sorry Pat! That has nothing on how the ladies slap over 'ere!
With her palm and fingers perfectly straight, she swung her arm round with force, and slapped it into the side of platform woman’s face. It was the kind of slap any self respecting soap actress would have been proud of. I wouldn't have wanted to have messed with either of these two women, and so quickly made sure that I was out of their way. As I reached the safety of the stairs I resumed watching from this prime viewing location, and looked down at the spectacle unfolding beneath me. I wasn’t alone in my curiosity either. In fact, within less than 30 seconds a decent sized circle surrounding the two volatile women had assembled, and the stairs also had a large amount of commuters stood watching too.

The Clash of the Titans was well and truly underway. Because both of these women were of a similar stature, the winner was anyone’s guess. As I looked down I saw phone woman struggle to release her hair from platform woman’s grip. The train had pulled away by the time she eventually managed to break free and as soon as she had done this, she quickly composed herself, and launched herself into this woman.

"Look at what you've done to my phone!
Look at my face...not happy!"
It was like watching something from a great wildlife documentary; for a full minute these two women pushed each other, exchanged obscenities and tried to rip out each other’s greasy ponytails. In that time two security guys had tried to intervene, but obviously thought better of it and stepped out of the newly created arena, leaving them to battle it out.

Phone woman eventually tired and gave up, but not before pointing at her new nemesis and screaming something that I can only imagine was threatening before turning her back in defeat. Then it was over. In a matter of seconds it was as if nothing had happened and the crowd moved on, leaving phone woman to collect the pieces of her broken phone from the platform.

The moral of this story is, of course, be careful when using your phones as you get off the train or subway.

Rush hour on the CPTM commuter train from hell may be uncomfortable and often tediousbut remember, if youre lucky, the people on it may surprise you by bringing a little unexpected drama to your commute. 

So there you have it, my three reasons for liking the trains and subways in Sao Paulo.

Have I missed any other reasons?

1 comment:

  1. Not even a Brazilian could have written better reasons to enjoy Sao Paulo’s Trains and Subways, hahaha... Everything you wrote is an accurate portrayal of the São Paulo daily!