March 8, 2007
I had a quick two-hour bus ride to the small city of Joao Pessoa, with a population of just over half a million, this afternoon. I was supposed to meet with someone from Couchsurfing, but my plans started falling apart immediately. Once again, the only map I had was of the very center of the city, but the bus station was in the outskirts. In the center of the map was the "lagoa," a big lagoon, and that's where all the hotels were supposed to be. That seemed like an easy enough reference point, but when I asked how to get there, all I got were long, drawn out responses spoken in rapid Portuguese. While standing near several buses, I asked one guy who seemed to know what he was talking about, but kept mentioning specific street names and neighboorhoods that I had never heard of. Finally, I went to a binary strategy: "Does this bus go to the lagoon?" "How about this one?" The answer was always "no" so I went to a different part of the terminal to search some more.
Right away, I saw a bus with "Lagoa" listed as its primary location and jumped aboard. I rode the bus for a long time looking for the lagoon but never saw it. I eventually did see a lot of tall buildings and figured it must be the center of town. Just after the buildings, there was an unlit area and I thought it must be the lagoon. I got off the bus and asked some people where the lagoon was, and one lady pointed back to the area with the big buildings. I waited forever for another bus to come and went back to that area once again.
I walked around for awhile but saw no hotels, so I decided that I still needed to go to the lagoon. I asked the checkout girl at a supermarket how to get there and she said "Oh, you need to go to the center of the city." But I was in the area with all the big buildings, the big plaza, and the busy palm-lined main street! How could that not be the center? She told me to take bus 15 or 11 (as I understood her). At least I had a specific bus number.
While waiting for the bus once again, a lot of other buses passed me. The peculiar thing I noticed about them was that all of them claimed to go to the lagoon! I couldn't believe how crazy this system was. Eventually a bus labeled 1500 came. I hadn't seen a bus numbered in the thousands until then. I thought maybe the girl actually said "1511," not "15 or 11," or maybe the local slang for 1500 is "15." I didn't want to take any chances, so I boarded the bus and asked the attendant. Nope, it was the wrong bus, but it was too late for me because the bus was already moving. The bus dropped me off at another stop and the guy told me that 1511 would pass there for sure.
At this point, I was beyond frustrated. All I wanted to do was get to the center of the city, but that didn't seem possible. I had spent over two hours carrying a heavy backpack on crowded buses that always took me to the wrong place, it was getting late, and I was in a city that I knew nothing about. Sure, waiting for a ride all day in the Guianas was also frustrating, but at least I knew that once I got a ride, it would take me where I wanted to go.
Bus 1511 finally showed up and took me far, far away to a run-down area with lots of dark alleys and one small lagoon. For the first time all night, I saw a hotel and promptly checked in. By that time it was already 10:00, I wasn't in the mood to go out anymore, and I didn't even have the Couchsurfing guy's number because it was in an email and all the Internet cafes were already closed for the night. On top of that, I already had plans to meet someone else in Olinda tomorrow, so Joao Pessoa turned out to be a complete waste of time for me.