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This part of my life is called "riding the bus"

It's a simple idea really. Just take the bus to school. It's like taking a car, but you don't have to drive. Who knew that such a simple task could provide so much, how should I say, excitement.

The first two days I rode with a family friend who lives nearby (apparently... I haven't seen him since). His name is Leo and he was incredibly friendly. He didn't say much to me, but when he did, it was important. For instance, the man sitting in the back of the bus giving you the death glare as you enter has the sole intention of taking your money. And you need to give it to him. (He operates the turnstile.) Leo would give me a friendly nudge whenever it was time to wedge myself between my neighbors in an attempt to worm my way to the front of the bus, the exit, and to the limited supply of only twice-recycled oxygen. But perhaps the most useful words Leo said to me were "em frente" meaning "in front". I didn't know what he meant by it at first either, but after an impromptu game of charades on the crowded but it became clear. My backpack, em frente. A 'frontpack' if you will. It's actually not that bad. All of your pockets are readily available and it provides much appreciated breathing room between your mouth and the armpit of your neighbor. It also allows you to watch as the pick-pocketers artfully sneak into your pack and snag your lunch money. (Literally lunch money.) Or there is the less subtle approach, which involves slashing your backpack, catching the contents as they spill out, and dashing off into the streets (so I'm told). It's much less exciting for them to do it behind your back. Fortunately I haven't had the opportunity to witness these talented pocketeers at work, undoubtedly thanks to my main man Leo and the revered "em frente" technique.

Fortaleza is a city of more than 3 million. Were it in the States, it would rank third largest behind New York and Los Angeles. But unlike US cities, here the city spans horizontally rather than vertically. It its huge. I still do not have a realistic grasp of where the city limits end. In addition, the concentration of wealth is very high meaning that most of the city consists of lower and middle class families. In fact, Fortaleza is in the top 10 cities in the world with the highest rates of income inequality. As a result, many citizens do not have cars or motorcycles and rely on public transportation to get to work. Luckily there are lots of buses and lots of different bus routes. But do not for one second think that this means the buses aren't crowded or that the system is well planned out, or that you will be able to find a bus map or bus schedule anywhere.

For some perspective, I ride two buses with a commute time of anywhere between 45 min and 1:30 each way in order to get to school. Not to mention my (unfortunately infrequent) escapades to the beach and other entertaining destinations. And after an accidental 3-hour bus ride yesterday (more on this later) I feel like somewhat of a regular when it comes to riding the bus. I will do my best to give you a glimpse of what it's like, but I encourage you to give it a go yourself, there's really nothing like it.

First off, some buses load from the back, some from the front. But if you go to the wrong door at first, don't worry because they will certainly drive off before you realize your mistake. Furthermore, if you intend to be congenial, courteous, chivalrous, or whatever you want to call it, don't bother. You won't make it. Once you have made the first step (literally stepping onto the bus, harder than it sounds) immediately locate a handrail or neighbor to hold on to. There is no friendly warning that the doors are closing for in fact sometimes they don't, so unless you want to become a tapioca pancake, you had best hold on. All of the vehicles here have manual transmissions and although the drivers are quite skilled, they have not yet mastered the art of acceleration or deceleration. (Or perhaps it is the opposite, and we in the States don't watch enough Formula 1.) Either way, as with rock climbing it is best to have at least three limbs in contact with a hold at all times. Ironically it is often the least crowded buses that are hardest to maintain your balance because of what I call the jello effect, which only exists when the posted legal capacity is exceeded by at least 3 fold. Once you have secured a square foot in the bus, hopefully already with your bag tightly grasped in your field of view, it is best not to breathe. As I mentioned earlier, air is scarce so preserve all you can. One nice thing is that I've noticed that Brazilians are very pleasant smelling people. They often shower multiple times a day and sweat very little. So being pinned up against your neighbor can feel kind of homey at times, it's all about frame of mind. That being said, not all areas you will drive through have access to adequate trash disposal or sewage systems so occasionally you'll get to enjoy the aromatic by-products of human civilization. In addition to not breathing, be sure not to surrender any of that square foot that you have worked so hard to secure. If you do it will almost immediately be taken and you will find yourself standing on one leg (something that has happened to me on multiple occasions thus far).

As you squirm, slither, duck, dip, dive, and dodge your way through the turnstile and into the heartland, be aware of the false promise of escape. One thing I am still grasping to understand is why the middle set of doors only opens occasionally to allow the flow of traffic outwards. If you find yourself waiting at this door for your stop, you will either be sadly disappointed as you watch your destination fly by or trampled during the mass exodus that occurs at these rare and auspicious moments of opening.

The system seems to be that as you get closer and closer to your destination, you are to work your way further and further forward as people exit at each stop from the front (or visa versa), until eventually you find yourself standing next to the driver with your stop approaching.  In theory it's great. But don't be fooled and don't expect that all of the passengers in front of you are aware of this system. More often than not you will need to step on a few toes in order to ensure you aren't getting off more than 3 stops after your intended destination. It also doesn't help that you can't really see outside of the bus unless you bend over and momentarily get a glimpse of your surroundings (which often you don't have the space to do) because the windows are intended only for those who were lucky enough to get on the bus in the wee hours of the night and find themselves an available seat. Instead, it's better to memorize the left and right turns that the bus takes en route to your stop and take your best guess. Just like you would if you were ever blindfolded and thrown into someone's trunk.

Eventually you will get off the bus, and that moment is always glorious. Take a deep breath, enjoy the scenery. Fortaleza truly is quite beautiful. Don't worry that you have no idea where you are, how you got there, or where to go next, you can always ride the bus you just got off of all the way around its circuit and end up where you started. Although be warned, its been known to take 3 hours.

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