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Ben Talus Ben Talus Ben Talus is a Junior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in Culture and Politics with a concentration in the role of collective memory in policymaking. Although originally from Philadelphia, Ben has come to fully embrace Washington, DC as...

All Letters

“Tudo Bom?”
November 16, 2012


Junior Year Abroad Network 2012/2013

Junior Year Abroad Network

The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.



The Van: Rio’s Truly Public Transportation

October 24, 2012 | 2 COMMENTS

How to get from Point A to Point B is an essential question in virtually all cities across the globe. Transportation is inextricably linked to labor, education, and leisure, and in cities these linkages are even more pronounced. Conventional means of transportation like cars, buses, taxis, and subway systems fail to adequately serve a city’s needs. Here in Rio de Janeiro, I have used the extensive, yet often very confusing, public bus system, the rather limited subway system, and I have occasionally splurged and hailed a taxi. Despite the availability of these traditional means, a fairly unique method of transport has emerged in Rio: the van.

“The van,” the blanket term that refers to the ubiquitous white van/bus/truck borderline-street-worthy vehicles, graces the Rio streets twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. On the surface, these vans seem to be just another form of transportation. However, after routinely riding in them I have discovered a microcosm of that embracive yet elusive carioca culture. The van system initially began as a relatively inexpensive transportation service to and from Rio’s sprawling favelas, or slums. The routes tend to originate and terminate in the favelas and traverse the most affluent areas of the city, like the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. They provide resources that city-funded public transportation fails to supply.

By connecting socio-economically disparate neighborhoods, they provide a forum for rather interesting cultural, political, economic, and even religious exchanges. Personally, I was rather nervous the first time I rode in a van. I heard a language that was far from the Portuguese that I was learning in class, and I had very little knowledge of the streets it was whizzing by. Nonetheless, as van rides are becoming more common in my everyday routine, I’m able to get past the initial discomfort and absorb the nuances of my immediate surroundings.

Due to its original purpose, the van’s passengers tend to live in extremely low-income neighborhoods. However, they are joined more and more by Brazilians of all types and economic classes. In a city where the two ends of the socio-economic spectrum seem to almost never come into contact, the van offers a rare opportunity to witness a convergence. In the van, class seems to disappear. Everyone is just trying to get from Point A to Point B, and everyone pays the same fare to do so; the van strips away status. In the van, I have had conversations about the upcoming municipal elections, conversations about where to get the city’s best açaí, and I have even discussed the religious significance of Rio’s famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

My friends and I often joke that no two van rides are the same. During one ride, the driver might be dancing in his seat as samba music blasts out of the radio, and during another ride, the passengers might be intensely debating whether or not the city will be ready in time for the 2016 Olympics. Every time I enter the van, I know that somehow I will be educated on the carioca way of life. People keep to themselves on busses, but in the van, passengers are forced to squeeze together on ripped pleather benches. They welcome new passengers in as they invite perfect strangers to join the conversations, the debates, the complaints, and even at times the parties. In a city where there is noticeable bifurcation between rich and poor, the van is a truly democratic space.




In my first days at the University of Costa Rica, officials from the U.S. State Department came to talk to the students in my program about safety and security. The one piece of advice they shared that most stuck with me was a warning it was impossible for me to heed - never take the public bus.

For better or for worse, public buses are my primary means of transportation through Costa Rica's capital of San Jose and across the country. However, as Ben indicated - and I assume is true almost everywhere - these frequent rides don't yield access or insight into the diversity of opinions I know are held by my travel companions.

From time to time, I get a peek into the nation's political undercurrents - popular opinions of the president, perspectives on U.S. foreign policy regarding Central America, the state of the nation's economy - when in the presence of a particularly chatty cab driver. However, attending university is a suburb of San Jose and living in a different suburb has introduced me to a rather specific subset of the Costa Rica population - its middle class. While middle class Costa Rica doesn't directly translate to the same socio-economic status in the United States, I rarely have the opportunity to interact with, or even watch, the country's upper class or its poor.

Yet, I know that they exist. I've passed some incredible homes while on my daily bus rides and personally know several people that have come to Costa Rica for service projects. Yet the country's richest and its poorest strata of people are hidden from me. I would like to assume that, living with a host family and being directly matriculated in classes at the nation's largest public university, I'm mimicking the life of the average Costa Rican 20-year-old. However, I know that this isn't the only experience of this country, and that I'm getting a very narrow of view of what life here is truly like.

I only wish that I had the same easy access to experiencing the diversity that I know exists in this country, just outside of my bubble.


Upon seeing the title of Ben’s article, I chuckled to myself and knew I had to read its entirety. After a three hour morning commute to class today in Buenos Aires, any analysis of public transportation seemed a fitting piece to end my day. Ben mentions the “extensive, yet often very confusing, public bus system” and the “rather limited subway system” that he has encountered in Rio de Janeiro.

As for Buenos Aires, the terms “confusing” and “limited” are generous when describing the public transportation system. My three hour commute that, with normally functioning public transport, should have only taken about 35 minutes, is testament to the inefficiency of the system in Buenos Aires. The concept of a “van” seems like an impressive and innovative way to ameliorate the many kinks that public transportation dutifully provides. In Buenos Aires, no such mechanism as the van exists.

However, I identify with Ben and his cultural experiences while using this form of public transportation. Traveling on the subway, the “Subte,” or on one of the hundreds of buses, or “colectivos,” in the capital of Argentina is quite the experience, to say the least. I, like Ben, have heard some of the most informative and intriguing conversations between native Argentines while utilizing public transport. Discussions of the weather quickly melt into discussions of politics which then quickly turn towards the economy and, undoubtedly, end up as a lively debate on fútbol.

So while Ben may have felt a little uncomfortable and nervous during his first rides in the vans and I constantly begrudge the inefficiency of the Buenos Aires public transportation system, Ben’s article made me stop, smile, and reflect on all of the positive cultural awareness that comes out of spending time on public transportation. At the very least, I have learned a plethora of curse words used by other frustrated commuters and that is an experience unique to studying abroad.

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