By Ricky Skelton
So, we set off on the bus for The Big Smog with all our little bags at our feet and the big bags underneath, and with the words of the Wise Ones bouncing in our heads. "Don't use the buses!" they said, "They set fire to them in Sao Paulo!" Yeah right. As if that was going to affect us in any way. What are the chances? Have you seen the streets there? There are about 2 million buses smoking their way around. A few (ok, quite a lot) of buses burning out in the suburbs and the favelas. So what? I laughed at their stupidity. Besides, I'm British. All my life we've had way bigger things to worry about, and we never let any of them worry us.
We had seats quite near the front for once, away from the toilet. Just eight hours. After a few months in South America, you don't even bat an eyelid at that length of journey. Eight hours? Settle down, check out the scenery, read a book, doze off, dribble, wake up, go to the toilet, repeat, and suddenly you're on the outskirts of The Big Smog. Pronto.
So during the second dribble, the bus crawls to the inside lane halfway up a hill. The driver's mate tells us we may have to stop somewhere ahead due to a problem with the bus. We make it to the top of the hill and roll down the other side. The bus is making a death rattle noise but we gamely carry on through the burbs. As we cross the river and turn the corner to drive alongside it, the driver slows as cars beep behind us and we have to stop on two lane highway. That's when the passengers notice the big plume of black smoke that was trailing out behind is now finding its way into our bus. Panic. Shouts of 'Fogo!' from the back. Everybody gets up and runs to the front. Obviously I didn't panic like the locals. I was just collecting my bags and heading for the door because I didn't want them to get burned, ok?
One sane voice shouts 'Só fumaça, só fumaça!'. Everybody realises nobody has torched our bus and they all sit down, most people laughing. I pick the old lady up off the floor and apologise for throwing her out of my way. We all get calmly off the bus. Now what? We're miles from a station, on the side of the river, even the driver doesn't know where. We have too much kit to walk anywhere far. This isn't a good start to our Sampa experience. We walk around a corner. A taxi rank! Plus taxis! We get in one and our driver says it's only ten minutes to our friends' house. Result. We don't have to go up to Tietê and traipse back across the city on the Metro and a city bus. The taxi drops us at the door for not much more money and a lot less hassle than without our bus-fire. We must now be the only people in the outside world who welcome them.
Plus - in a city as big as The Big Smog, you have to make a spectacular entrance to be noticed. What better way than to arrive on a bus with flames leaping from the back of it?