“The cars will not stop for you.” —My academic adviser
I’ll never forget my first time driving in New York City. In a borrowed station wagon packed with a gig’s worth of gear and two drunk friends in the passenger seat, I weaved through late-night traffic, grateful to settle into a parking lot with the car intact and my pals free to puke on the sidewalk. I thought there was no worse city to drive in. That is, until I came to Fortaleza.
Nobody walks in Fortaleza. If you walk, jog or run more than a few blocks, there is a pretty significant chance that you will get a little love tap from a Fiat. And the stakes are a little bit higher because no one in the entire city has a map. Even the city bus system does not have a map. The result? People are always lost and relying on other equally confused people to figure out where the fuck they are going.
While the disorganized traffic system in Fortaleza initially pissed me off, after 3.5 weeks of reflection, I’ve come to realize its charm and appeal.
Lesson 1: Know where you’re going
On long road trips in our family’s Ford Taurus, my dad would bust out a giant map of New England and locate necessary detours with the help of my brother, AM radio and a little thing called gumption. At home, I barely can make it to the local mall without the aid of Mapquest or a friend’s portable GPS system. My dad’s recommendation of asking a gas station attendant for directions hardly yields fruitful results, as gas stations in my town often lack attendants and the sixteen-year-old selling cigarettes and slush puppies in the convenience store always gets lifts from her 25-year-old boyfriend.
Happy was I to know that Fortaleza’s buses, my preferred mode of transportation, feature drivers that don’t wait for passengers to get in the door and don’t stop unless they hear a screeching voice in their ear at a desired point of departure. I was forced to study a broad map of major city streets and track the general bus routes heading out from the terminal near my apartment, not wanting to rely on idiotic motoristas and seasoned bus passengers who have enough trouble pointing out their own bus stops beside the glorious McDonald’s or shopping mall. While I’ve occasionally ended up in undesired locations, my new-found independence has enabled me to respond to several struggling Cearenses (locals from the sate of Ceara) on the rua with the reassuring, “Sim, eu conheco este ponto. Vc precisa pegar o ônibus (insert number here) e dizer ao motorista, ‘Eu gostaria de descer no ponto do (insert bus stop here).’”
Lesson 2: Always pass the car in front of you
While the vast majority of Cearenses are incredibly content sitting on the rua in plastic lawn chairs, eating bread and drinking juice for hours before and after their mandatory telenovela viewing, no driver in town can sit behind another for more than three minutes on traffic-filled city streets or curvy two-lane highways in the interior. I used to hate traveling with aggressive drivers, yelling at my brother every time he neared a sluggish tail But, after witnessing Armstrong duck in and out of 18-wheelers and blind cars with his brights when they wouldn’t head out of the “fast lane,” I’ve come to understand that driving can be incredibly fun when you risk the lives of everyone in the car in order to earn 15 minutes of additional sitting on the street and/or eating rice and beans. Make sure to honk when you yell, “Aprenda a dirigir, putinha” out the window.
Lesson 3: Beat out competitors by screwing with local accents
Toyota has cornered the Honda market in Fortaleza with the release of their Toyota Ronda. Given that Brasilians treat Rs like Hs at a word’s start, Toyota has successfully confused the shit out of Cearenses, who don’t seem to know the difference between Japanese car companies.
Lesson 4: Toddlers are perfectly capable of riding on motorcycles
Three’s company on a motorcycle in the interior of Ceará. And while my program prohibits me from riding on a motorcycle, I’ve overcome my fear of the bi-wheeled method of travel after witnessing several 2-4 year-olds hold their own while sandwiched between their mom and 13-year-old sister on the family Suzuki, cruising down the rough, dirt roads of Quixeré.
Lesson Learned: An urban planner specializing in transportation systems could make a killing south of the boarder. But does Fortaleza really need pedestrian crosswalks and traffic lights?