We were originally considering spending Christmas in Santos, the closest coastal city to São Paulo. But when we checked the weather report once in Brazil, we realized it would be a big gamble—rain was forecast for São Paulo, and downpours were expected in Santos.
A change of plan is easy when you didn’t really have one in the first place. Rio de Janeiro seemed to be the best option with hotel rooms available and a direct bus from São Paulo, plus we were going to stop there anyway.
We tried to buy our bus tickets online but the transaction was declined. For “security reasons,” our respective credit card companies usually block international transactions, even if we call to give them a travel notice. It’s very annoying—and it kind of defeats the purpose of credit cards—and we gave up on spending half an hour on Skype spelling out our mother maiden’s name and other passwords we can’t remember just to try and try again until it goes through.
Never mind, we’d go to the bus terminal to buy the tickets the next day.
“Think it’s gonna be okay?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Christmas and all…”
“Oh, I don’t think Brazil experiences a Chinese New Year-style mass exodus around Christmas,” I replied. “Christmas is usually a family affair and it’s a short two-day holiday. Besides, Brazil seems to have a car culture and there are plenty of low-cost airlines as well… people have options, it shouldn’t be like Guangdong train station before the Lunar New Year.”
The next day, we took the subway to the Terminal Rodoviário do Tietê, São Paulo’s bus terminal.
Fuck. It did look like the Guangdong train station before the Chinese New Year.
There were long queues everywhere, it was about 40⁰C inside and the 120,000 square metres of the terminal were packed with people eating, buying tickets, going to their boarding platform or making their way to the exit.
Duh. Painfully obvious moment. The second-largest bus terminal in the world with 65 bus companies, 135 ticket counters, and 304 bus lines, serving 1,010 cities in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay and located in the biggest city in Latin America was packed before a major holiday. Shocking, eh?
We joined the queue.
“Feng… there’s a bus going to Santiago. Like, seriously? Oh, that company has service to Argentina and this one goes to… you gotta be kidding me, Peru!”
I took a walk around this part of the terminal while Feng was queuing and Mark was annoying. There was a bus service to Santiago—a 52-hour trip! Crazy. I saw a guy buying a ticket to Lima. I don’t even want to know how long he’s going to spend on the bus, Peru isn’t exactly next door. It never ceases to amaze me how far people travel by bus in South America. Can you imagine buying a ticket to San José, Costa Rica, in a New York bus station?
We eventually made it to the counter and bought three tickets for the 9:45 a.m. bus leaving on Sunday to Rio de Janeiro.
The next morning, we boarded the bus half asleep (Mark and I) and excited (Feng, who was looking forward to this “classic” bus trip we did in 2002).
I wish I could give you great parenting tips about keeping your six-year-old entertained during a 6.5-hour bus trip but really, it all comes down to 1) a bit of sleep because said kid stays up past midnight 2) a fully charged tablet and the hope the battery lasts for a while 3) the occasional bribe, like chips on top of the ham-and-cheese sandwiches made by yours truly the night before. As for me, I sleep for three hours (that was my plan, I even brought a throw!) then I sorted out the São Paulo pictures.
The bus stopped at 1 p.m. for a 30-minute lunch break—Brazilians never miss lunch—and we arrived in Rio de Janeiro at exactly 4:15 p.m. as scheduled, which is pretty amazing considering the distance and the many factors that can affect a long trip (traffic, etc.).
The Rodoviária Novo Rio had changed a bit since our last visit in 2009—slightly shinier, but still tiny and very chaotic. I stepped outside for a smoke, while other passengers were stepping out to buy booze from a guy selling shots on the street. The military police and the no-so-safe area added to the atmosphere… yeah, we got the hell out of there.
Whatever, we made it to Rio de Janeiro and it was a good bus trip.