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Taking the Bus in Portugal
What would people think?
I will admit, I’ve never been much of a public transportation kind of girl. Even during the gas shortages throughout the 1970’s, I wasn’t keen on taking a bus to go shopping or to work in downtown Providence. I tried it a few times, but it wasn’t for me. I preferred to sit in my car for 2 hours in a gas line waiting for my 10-gallon allotment of fossil fuel and opted to pay an astronomical price for monthly reserved car parking in the city. But then again, I was young. And naive. And not especially interested in the environment at that time.
It's been more than 40 years since I’ve been on a public bus. I always felt creepy on them. To me, they were kind of dirty, tinny, chrome-bumper gas-guzzlers with smelly exhaust fumes and worn-out interiors (and yes, I’ve always been somewhat of a germaphobe). The bus driver would be annoyed if you didn’t have the exact change, and people wouldn’t look at you or say hello (unless you were a ‘regular’), and I always got unsavory men with liquor on their breaths trying to sit next to me.
I’m sure buses are better now in Rhode Island or any other place in America – cleaner and more fuel-efficient, I hope - but I admit to having deep-rooted negative impressions about public transportation.
What would people think?
I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing my phobia on this subject, but I suspect that some of my negativity about public transportation could be the result of my sheltered suburban life growing up in a nice neighborhood of East Providence, Rhode Island where cars were plentiful, and a ride was always available. But maybe there’s another underlying, not-so-nice reason that I don’t want to admit to myself: in suburban America, it’s not cool to ride a bus. What would people think?
Trains yes – but a bus?
Fast-forward to my new life in Portugal. I don’t have a car – for the first time in my adult life, I can’t get in a car and run off to the store, take a little ride in the country, drive to a restaurant, or go out for an ice cream cone or some other silly thing. I must take public transportation, or walk, or both to get to wherever I need to go. Of course, I knew this when I moved to Portugal. Paul and I consciously chose to live without the convenience of a car. But I worried about this. What would people think?
We learned how to take the train and found it not at all unpleasant since most of the ride from Lisbon to Cascais takes you along the coastline and the trains that travel to other parts of Portugal go through some very nice scenic areas. Interiors of the trains are relatively clean. People on the trains are polite. There’s a mix of working people, families, older folks, students, and tourists on the train. They may not talk to you, but they’re polite. The conductors who come along to check your transit cards say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ Even the kids (there are no school buses here) are respectful and mind their own business by staring at their phones or chatting with their friends. But take a bus? I wasn’t sure I could manage that. What would people think?
If you want to go shopping, you take the bus
There’s a shopping mall in an area of Cascais called CascaiShopping. I’m not a big mall person either but that’s a story for another time. However, when you’re in a new country, you need stuff. Malls are good for that and this one is very modern and nice.
Getting there is a problem if you don’t have a car. We have taken a taxi there (when we were new in town and completely clueless), but it’s not cheap to make it a regular thing. Luckily, MobiCascais, the municipal bus line, stops right down the street from our condo and takes you all the way to the entrance to CascaiShopping. Paul and I have Navegante cards which allows us to use the trains, buses, and ferries in the greater Lisbon area for 20 euros each a month (the senior citizen discount). As temporary residents in Portugal, our cards are personalized with our name and photo and have a chip so that you can zap it touchless at the public transportation fare kiosks.
Now, about the bus
A few weeks ago, I reluctantly mapped out the bus line from the stop right down our street to CascaiShopping. The bus number was the M-01. It made several stops (including the hospital) before getting to the mall. I estimated that it would take 20-25 minutes from our stop to the mall. Paul and I walked down the street to the bus stop and checked the schedule sign on the post just to be sure. Yup. It matched what I had read online.
We nonchalantly hung out near the some of the local bus stops trying not to look weird, to see what people did – how they got on the bus, and how they paid for their fare. We were also curious to see who rode the bus (turns out many folks like us). Simple stuff I know but as I mentioned before, I have been sheltered and spoiled, but mostly ignorant.
It didn’t seem hard, so one day, I said to Paul, “today’s the day we take the bus.” He looked at me with that little teasing smirk he uses when he knows I’m trying to avoid something, and said, “are you sure?” I was sure. Time to put my big girl panties on.
We walked down the street and waited for the next M-01 bus. It came right on time, and I boarded first, with Paul close on my heels. I knew our Navegante cards would work to pay for the fare, but I didn’t know how to put it on or in the little machine. So, I asked (in English), “I’ve never done this before. How does it work?” The woman bus driver didn’t say anything but showed me how to place the chip on the top of the scanner. Then when you see a green checkmark appear on the screen, you’re good to go. Whew! I was on a public bus, and I was pleasantly surprised!
There are about 40 seats on the bus – I thought there’d be more. The seats are made of heavy-duty plastic which makes them easier to keep clean (always a plus in my book). The black seats are for anyone to use. The blue seats are for the elderly, or for the physically challenged, or for people with kids. There’s also space for a wheelchair. Halfway down the aisle, there’s a step-up to more black seats so you can have a birds-eye view from the huge bus windows. There are transoms for fresh air and there’s heat and air conditioning. There’s also a computerized information screen that tells you the name of the next stop.
There’s free wi-fi access and USB connections to charge mobile devices. There are little yellow holders on the rails with red buttons that you press when you want the driver to stop at the next bus stop. A little red STOP light appears near the bus driver when you press it.
Portugal has been actively involved for many years in reducing environmental waste and increasing fuel efficiency both in private and public transportation. To this end, many buses are fueled with natural gas and Cascais has recently purchased two fuel-cell buses. So, buses here don’t have that smelly gas exhaust and they’re contributing in a positive way to climate change and the environment (something I care about now that I’m older and more aware of these things). And by having modern buses with amenities like wifi, and an app you can download to your phone, they’re encouraging public transportation as convenient and environmentally responsible (and cool!).
Not motion-sickness friendly
The buses are big and most Portuguese streets are not. I marvel at the way bus drivers manage to maneuver around cars, curbs, and buildings without hitting anything or anyone! Having said that, the ride is far from smooth, so if you tend to get motion sickness (or have a very weak bladder), you might want to think twice (or at least be prepared).
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this post.
There is a reason, and it sparked the original idea for this article: people on buses in Portugal are polite and nobody cares who you are. I guess I wasn’t expecting this but it’s true – I would never have imagined that any bus driver would greet me as I boarded a bus. In fact, I didn’t acknowledge these greetings the first few times I boarded because I was shocked and wasn’t prepared with a response. “Bom dia” or “Boa tarde” (good morning/good afternoon) are standard greetings. The bus driver greets you - you greet the bus driver. I’ve even been asked by one driver (in Portuguese), “Good afternoon. How are you? Everything okay?” And it’s not just me or Paul – it’s to everyone who gets on the bus. I can’t imagine that I’d get that same type of greeting on an American bus.
And when it’s time for you to get off, people are polite and won’t try to push past you. And everyone says to the bus driver (in Portuguese), “Thank you.” Or they wave and the driver waves back. In fact, most bus drivers will give Paul a ‘thumbs-up’ and a wave as they’re driving away from our stop.
I sometimes think I’m living in a “Leave it to Beaver” episode instead of the present where most people in America you pass by don’t give a fig about you (but are secretly curious as to why you’re on a bus and not driving a car).
It’s a simple thing, I know, but it has made a big (positive) difference in my perception of public bus transportation and perhaps people in general. So much so, that Paul and I will be taking the bus line to other places to further our exploration of this country.
In America, status is everything
In America, status is everything. You are judged by what kind of car you drive, where you live, and by how much stuff you have. In Portugal, not so much. The Portuguese appreciate each other here. Nobody cares where you live or where you come from if you’re on a bus. No one judges you because you don’t have a car. You need transportation, you take transportation. It’s normal. It’s acceptable. No matter who you are.
What would people think in America if they knew I take the bus? Well, I can now say with confidence that I don’t really give a fig.
Another lesson learned for this sheltered old girl.
Until next time…