Friday, December 31, 2010

Touring Sao Paulo by Metro

Sao Paulo is described in the guidebooks as being the New York City of Brazil. A huge sprawling metropolis, the Rough Guide describes the city as having South America's Park Ave - Avenida Paulista, and 100s of art museums, cultural centers, and theater venues. In fact, not only does the city have above ground monuments and places of historical interest, but the below ground arts scene is also worth noting. When I say underground, I really mean it. The Sao Paulo metro system has an extensive art collection with millions of visitors each day.

In addition to this novel idea of showcasing public art at approximately 60% of all metro stations (see above station map), the Sao Paulo metro system runs guided tours of the city using the metro. A collaboration between the city of Sao Paulo and the Sao Paulo metro, Turismetro is a free program which offers two tours per day on the weekend. For the cost of a metro ticket (about US $1.75), visitors get a one hour guided tour in English/Portuguese of a particular city neighborhood (and the metro station, of course!).

Here's how Turismetro describes itself:
TurisMetro is a great way to get to know Sao Paulo. There are 6 itineraries to the city's historical landmarks, totally assisted by specialized tourist guides and the readiness of the fast Subway system. Take a trip to the best of what Sao Paulo has to offer. Embark on the TurisMetro.

Our itinerary took us to Luz, the red light district that the city is working hard to revitalize. There, were introduced to the neighborhood's importance in Sao Paulo's cultural and financial history. Our tour included one English and Portuguese speaking guide and one assistant (see picture below - our guide is in red and the assistant in yellow). Our guide provided us with historical details while the assistant's main purpose was to keep track of all of us (we were only 6 people) in the busy metro system.

At the Luz station, our guide showed us the largest work of art in the metro system which was inspired by objects in the lost and found! Located between the Luz metro station and the Luz suburban train station, the piece is 73 meters long by 3 meters tall and was built by an artist named Maria Bonomi. The color yellow represents the northeast of Brazil; white, the peace that Sao Paulo (a city filled with lots of violence) wants to find; and red, the richness of the soil which enables coffee plantation to grow two crops per year.

Talking to our guide I found out that 3 million people ride the Sao Paulo metro per day (measured in number of rides). I also learned that the maximum speed of all trains on the metro is 88 km/hr. This struck me as quite fast, especially in comparison with how slow car traffic moves on the city streets during rush hour or other random times of the day. The Sao Paulo metro is expanding and building a new line, the yellow line, which will have a maximum speed of 100 km/hr.

Another interesting thing to note is that on some of Sao Paulo's green line trains there is no operator. Our guide told us that soon they will be transitioning all of Sao Paulo's metro system to be operator-less. For the meantime, however, to assuage any passenger concerns, they tint the windows on the control cabin on the first car of the train so that people won't know if their train has an operator or not!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Long Lines at Gas Stations around Buenos Aires

It's been really hot this week (in the upper 90s) in Buenos Aires. A combination of higher demand for gasoline as people flee the heat of the city on summer holidays and disruption in supply routes has led to shortages in supply. Until the past couple days, I thought of lines at gas stations as a something from 1973 and the US oil crisis. But evidence of gas shortages are all over as you go around the city, from gas stations with no lines (meaning they have no fuel available), to gas stations with lines stretching back 10-20 cars (meaning they actually have fuel available).

And to top it off, I just found out today that gasoline prices in Argentina are highly regulated, so all gas stations have just about the same price. So even as the supply dwindles, the price stays the same instead of going up with demand. When panic about lack of gasoline grips the city, drivers are inclined to fill up the tank to maximum, in turn further decreasing supply.

Here is a selection of English and Spanish articles on the current state of affairs:

Friday, December 24, 2010

Not your average Greyhound trip!

In the US, a huge national debate is raging over high speed rail and its costs and benefits. Will people choose rail over driving their cars or flying? Is it just a political move on the part of some politicians? Is it worth the billions of dollars needed in investment to make people move just a little bit faster (but not nearly as fast as high speed rail in other countries)?

In Argentina, no such debate is occurring. The thought of resurrecting the country's ancient rail system built by the British over a century ago is nowhere close to being on a politician's political platform or making the papers. But then again, Argentina is in a completely different situation than the US. While the US has a struggling intercity bus network, Argentina's private intercity bus companies are thriving. There is so much demand for long distance buses that companies offer service to remote cities and towns with high frequencies and multiple classes of service. Let's not forget that Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world in terms of land mass. While Buenos Aires is far and away the the country's biggest city with a population of 13 million the metropolitan area, there are many population centers spread out across the country with very sparsely populated areas in between (take for example the region of Patagonia).

Last month, I took one of these long distance buses with Raja to Posadas where we transferred buses to go to San Ignacio, a small town on the way to Iguazu Falls. San Ignacio is known for its well-preserved Jesuit Mission which operated between 1632 and 1767, housed a couple of Jesuit priests and thousands of Guarani people, and cultivated mate, the preferred local tea of Argentines. We had bought our tickets beforehand from the Retiro Bus Station (it's still not completely possible to buy tickets online and this way we got to ask an actual person all the questions we had about departure, service, etc) located right next to the Retiro Train Station (which still operates suburban trains).

When we arrived at the station half an hour before our bus left, the energy at the station was palpable. For a Monday at 8pm, the station was hopping with travelers. Cafes, jewelry and trinket shops dotted the departure level while the floor above was completely filled with bus company ticket counters. There were over 100 bus bays and approximately 50% of them were full at any given time. I had chosen cama-suite, the top line in bus travel as I wanted to sleep well and the distance from Buenos Aires to Posadas is about 1000 km or 12 hours. Wow was I impressed by the quality of service! I don't know if you can tell by the photos, but in cama-suite, the chair extends almost completely flat. If you're not traveling with someone you know and happen to be on the side with two people, there's a curtain you can pull so you don't have to watch your seatmate sleep. (But conversely, if you are traveling with someone you know, the curtain does not give the two of you more privacy, like a private compartment on a train would.)

I wasn't sure about what sort of food we'd get so I'd packed a bunch of sandwiches. But it turns out that our tickets included an appetizer (rolls with prochiutto and cheese), a full dinner (Raja had steak and mashed potatoes while I had pasta) complete with beer and/or wine, a post dinner glass of champagne, and breakfast served with a copy of that day's local paper from Posadas (one of the biggest cities in Northeast Argentina).

Entertainment featured a movie called Mother and Child which I had the choice of listening to in either English or Spanish (dubbed) with a personal headset. When I decided around midnight after the movie finished that it was time to sleep, I put on my blinders - mine and not the bus company's - unrolled the blanket, and rested my head on the pillow. I woke up to hot cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and a second floor view of rolling sugarcane fields and rich red earth. All in all, it was a very smooth ride and I slept right through the night. In terms of monetary value and convenience, taking the bus to visit the Jesuit Mission at San Ignacio Mini made a lot of sense and in terms of value for money, we definitely chose well.

So what is it that makes Argentina's intercity bus network a success? Is it the impeccable service (similar to flying first class on Emirates) that makes people take the bus? Is it the reliability in terms of quality and frequency (Argentina's two airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas and LAN, tend to go on strike a few times a year, grounding flights and passengers)? Or is it economic (owning a personal vehicle is expensive in Argentina)? I tend to think that the reason is a little bit of all of the above and I must say that I'm not sure what occured first. Certainly the high quality of service on intercity bus transportation in Argentina could serve as a model to bus companies in the US. However, the cost of hiring a driver and on-board attendent in the US could be cost prohibitive since wages are higher there than in Argentina. Certainly though, it seems at least on the east coast, bus companies are pushing a business model of high quality service (complete with WIFI and other amenities) to induce travelers onto the bus and out of their car.