Fun fact: the original title of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen was First Impressions, which the publisher changed after concluding that it was insufficiently snappy.

My first impression of Brazil is that it shares an important characteristic with the American South: a tendency to consider things that make no sense charming or otherwise integral to the character of the place. Things open and close randomly, websites contain no information for the prospective traveler (and what information is posted is unlikely to be accurate or timely), and there is little expectation of logic applying to anything. For the longtime resident, the fact that Brasilia has no addresses is not relevant. For a visitor – and certainly a city of 2 million that fancies itself a Major City should expect those, right? – the lack of information is goddamn baffling.

A brief example: the city has an extensive bus system. There are literally thousands of them. They are everywhere and everyone rides them. What the bus system does not have, however, is a map. I am serious. I have asked people who have lived here their whole lives, tourists who have been here for weeks and months, police, random strangers, bus drivers…nobody has ever seen a map. I went to the main bus station and the offices of the transit department, and it appears to have never occurred to them to have a map. So, for example, the airport website can tell me that buses 102 and 102.1 go to the airport. However, I have no way of knowing what routes those two buses travel on. Which stops can I wait at to get them? What major streets do they use? Nobody knows. You just have to know.

A minor complaint from a stuck up American traveler, right? The problem is that this city is weeks away from hosting as many as half a million foreign visitors for the World Cup. Brazil seems to be confused about whether it is a major industrialized country or a developing third world one. If I went to the Sudan I would expect no information to be available about anything. However, if I went to Germany, Australia, Japan, Singapore, or Mexico I would expect at least a half-useful paper map if not information online. Obviously Brazil would prefer to think of itself like the latter group of countries and not like Sudan. But the little things (and there are a lot of little issues like this) set it apart.

That is my first impression. Brazil is an incredible place with first world wealth (and the accompanying first world inequality) and some third world habits. I am excited to see more of it.

And before you use the comments to explain to me like I am retarded how I should have found information about public transit, donĀ“t. This was a multi-month project involving several people including a research librarian who can find every piece of information about you online in about 90 seconds. And nobody found anything because, as I discovered when I arrived, there is no information to find. You just have to know.


  • "First Impressions" was the working title of "Pride and Prejudice," not of "Sense and Sensibility."

  • A lot of sympathy from Bangkok. The bus routes here appear to be systematic (I mean, they have route numbers and everything), but the system is inscrutable to the recent transplant yet simultaneously intuitively obvious to all the locals who take it. I've pored over all the information I can find, trying to find the patterns, thinking something like, "The 76 and 77 start at the same place and go in opposite directions, which makes a little bit of sense—except wait, the 502, 503, and 504 follow roughly the same track, so maybe that's the usual pattern—nope, the 501 and 505 are nowhere near those!"

    It's not near as bad as you make Brasilia out to be, though. There are signs (weathered and beaten, sun-bleached and graffitied and not always legible) at most of the major bus stops that have the buses that stop there, and somebody finally put together a Google Maps mash-up that will generate something kind of like a route map using the known stops of any specific bus number. But as far as your experience of "Nobody knows. You just have to know," man, that sounds familiar.

    That said, if I spoke the language enough to ask someone on the street which bus to take, I might have a drastically different experience. Nothing to relate on that front.

  • Many parts of the Philippines are similar. The Jeepney operators buy permits in order to run numbered routes, but more or less whenever they want. One route might have 20 vehicles on it, another 2. Dwellings and businesses outside the big cities don't have numbered addresses, but that doesn't keep Fedex from making a delivery. The best way to get around is to pair up with a friend or family member who lives locally and knows the system.

  • Ed: I am guessing that the football fans will have shuttles at their disposal. Or they'll just be left to wandering around like zombies. Which is kind of fun to imagine, really.

  • Please keep in mind while waiting for a bus that may or may not arrive that the authorities would prefer that you not scream while being robbed. This apparently annoys the criminals.

  • I have dreams about using public transit in which this is true. The idea of experiencing it in waking life is disturbing.

  • I feel your pain, Ed. It sounds a lot like Providence, RI. What worked for me was just planning to get lost a lot during the first couple of months and eventually learning my way around by landmarks. Asking people helped, but the general attitude was that nobody needed signs and such because everybody knew where stuff was, and if you were from out of state, (a) it was your own fault, and (b) you could ask. It may be different there now, of course; that was thirty years ago.

  • Try looking at the LonelyPlanet guide. Having traveled many places, my sympathy for stereotypically clueless Americans (and Europeans, and Australians, etc.) isn't much'; expecting places to a differe expect places to be like a medium to large US metropolis, you're missing the point of travel. Outside of the racism and a legacy of slavery, Brazil is quite different from the South–for one thing it has more radical political currents and Catholicism (i.e., communitarian social structure). the South is filled with white people who are satisfied with second class citizenship as long as there are third class citizens. Brazil isn't that simple.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Having lived most of my life either in NY City or the surrounding area, I used buses occasionally. More often, I used subway's – or trains to NY City, and then subways. But, buses, too.
    I'd take a bus down the NYC, and then get around via the subways.

    When I first moved to NC in early 2000, my job was in Raleigh, while my apartment was in Chapel Hill.
    Not a short stretch – but not one that was too long either. Much, much, shorter than where my parents lived in Upstate NY, to NYC, and whichever borough I was living in at the time.

    Now, being a diligent employee, I looked for alternative ways to get to work just in case something happened to my car.
    No subways.
    No trains.
    Ah, BUSES, thinks I!
    Maybe I can get a Greyhound from CH to Raleigh, and then find a city bus that would get me near work?


    To take (not A SINGLE bus, but) buses from CH to Raleigh – about 30-40 miles – would involve… I don't remember how many transfers, but A LOT!
    Not just between the cities, but within Raleigh and CH, themselves.

    In short, when I sat and figure it all out, to make that trip to work would take about 6+ hours – and even more time to get home, since the buses ran less frequently the later in the evening it got.

    Ok, I figured, this is an easy choice!
    If my car needs work, I CALL IN SICK!

    In America's South, you either have a car, or you're SOL!
    The buses ain't worth a damn – either between cities or towns, or within them!

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Oh, and I hope you continue to have a good time, Ed!

    PS: The best time to go to South – or Central – America, is when it's motherfucking cold, wet/snowy, in the US. Not the springtime, when it's (FINALLY!!!) starting to warm-up here.

  • Do you or your professional internet searcher speak Portuguese (or utilize an online translator to help you search)? I find that very helpful.
    I am also currently in a South American country and frequently see Americans paralyzed by the lack of 4G service everywhere and an inability to readily google anything (in English). Its occasionally frustrating, but overall, i enjoy it.
    Just remember; talk slower and louder and they will eventually understand…

  • My wife suggested that maybe it is all in smartphone apps, but looking at Google Play, even the map apps had horrible ratings, leading me to think they are outdated/incomplete as well.

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