The five people you’ll meet on the Brazilian bus

If, like me, you spend around 8 hours a week on Brazilian buses, here are some people you’re sure to see:

1. The person who offers to hold your stuff for you

When the bus is standing-room only, the seated passengers will offer to hold the purses/bags/books of those who are standing. I love this little courtesy! It makes things a bit more bearable for the people on foot, since it sucks to endure a 45-minute ride on a hot, crowded bus when your face is pressed up against the armpit of your neighbor.

2. The candy seller

These people get to hop onto the bus for free for a stop or two while they try to sell the passengers candy, gum, peanuts, and other assorted snacks. Some of them actually give a piece of candy to each passenger (“Doesn’t cost anything just to hold it, folks!”) – then give their sales pitch, then go back through the bus collecting either the candy or the payment. I don’t know how effective this is, because the thought of buying candy that’s been handled by who knows how many people on the bus… no thanks.

My favorite was a guy who performed a rap all about how the mints he was selling would make your breath so fresh that you’d be lucky in love, get married, and have a baby who would say, “Mommy, I don’t want to nurse; I want some of those mints!” I actually bought a mint just to support his creativity!

3. The Jesus-changed-me-from-a-drug-addict-to-a-peddler people

These folks wear T-shirts with the name of a Christian addiction-recovery center, and share their story of past drug use and life transformation through the program. They sell small flashlights, pens, and other trinkets to support the center’s operations. The distrustful side of me wonders if the center is exploiting their patients’ labor so that the leaders can live rich, cushy lives of luxury (sadly, not without precedent among Brazilian NGOs, even religious ones). But the hopeful side of me believes that there are honest people running the program, and that lives really have been transformed and people saved from the hell of drug and alcohol abuse.

4. The straight-up asker for money

These folks tell a story of personal tragedy, usually involving unemployment, sickness, five children, and/or a sick or injured child – then ask for “help” (i.e. spare change). I’m sure there are some honest askers in this group… but I’m told that many are drug users. My husband once came across the same woman, whose little  daughter had taken a bad fall “just now” – three times in the same week. I know it’s unfair to generalize, but I prefer to give my money to organizations that I know are doing good work and genuinely helping people.

5. People who throw trash out the bus windows.

Sadly, this is common in Brazil. Finished your sandwich/candy/chips/soda? Toss the wrapper or can out the window. Heck, some don’t even bother – I’ve seen people eating peanuts on the bus and just dropping the shells all over the floor. One of the little things I first noticed about my husband was that he finished a popsicle on the bus and held onto the stick until he got off and found a proper trash can to throw it into. Sounds so trivial, but it showed a level of education and respect that many lack – so it stood out!

BONUS PERSON (seen in tourist areas):
The gringo who tries to pay the R$2.50 bus fare with a R$50 bill

If you pay with R$20, the fare collector will give you the stink eye and may or may not have change for you, depending on how close the bus is to the beginning of its route, and how many people have paid with 20s before you. If you try to pay with R$50, he may not let you on the bus at all: “Tem troco não!!!” (“There’s no change!”)

I genuinely do not understand Brazil’s nationwide shortage of small bills. Maybe the politicians who steal public monies are stealing it all in R$2s and R$5s. Hmmm…

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  • The only buses I see here are tourist buses and school buses, but your list makes me want to take my car everywhere we go.

    Most of the time, when someone starts giving me a sob story, I tell them how they deserve better, that this is no life to lead- begging. I go on and on in that vein. I ask them about themselves. i ask if they are on Parole or Probation- or both. Some cry. Some get away fast. Some say can I stiil have money. But this is in the US, where it is rare to get a story for some money. If I’m really irritated I’ll ask a lot of details, tear up at the story, become so involved that they feel funny going on with the charade. Again, in the US.

    I just can’t imagine dealing with this level of desperation and learned helplessness daily. God bless you.