Mad dogs and motorcycles
Sao Paulo, Brazil
By Paulo Whitaker
Riding on two wheels in South America’s biggest city is not very safe. Authorities say three motorcyclists die every day in Sao Paulo.
The term “motoboy” in Sao Paulo is synonymous with an angry rebel, one of the thousands of motorcycle couriers also known as “cachorros loucos,” or “mad dogs.” Most of them are totally reckless, racing along the high speed corridors formed between the rows of vehicles stuck in heavy traffic. The driver of any car who doesn’t give the right of way to the “mad dog” will be cursed, kicked and likely lose their rear view mirror to a motorcycle handlebar or a gloved fist.
Whenever we Paulistanos are in traffic and a motorcyclist stops next to us, our hearts start beating faster. Apart from the aggressive behaviour of motoboys, not all of them are true couriers. Thieves take advantage of the sheer quantity of them to hide amongst them and drive like them, but to rob vehicles of bags, purses, and anything else in sight.
Recently, laptops have become the prime target for those “moto-crooks.” When a traveler arrives at Sao Paulo airport, taxis will usually recommend not to use any laptop along the way, because the risk of a passing motorcyclist stealing the computer is big.
The city of Sao Paulo has approximately 950,250 licensed motorcycles, of which around 200,000 are registered to couriers. In a city of some 20 million inhabitants, that means motoboy couriers make up one percent of the population.
When I began this story I thought it would be easy to get good pictures. I drove my car through the city listening to a radio station that only broadcasts traffic reports. I expected that whenever I heard of an accident involving a motorcycle, I could race to the scene and shoot. But in practice that was far from what happened.
Moving quickly in Sao Paulo is impossible. In a city where traffic jams of 100 miles (160 km) are common, traffic is heavy all day long. I also found that the perspective from the ground wasn’t ideal to show the quantity of bikes on the streets. I needed to shoot higher from bridges, but walking with photo gear here is very dangerous. Theft of photographer’s equipment has increased greatly, even during big events.
The best solution I found to document the life of the motoboys became quickly obvious – I had to become one myself.
When I was in college here in Sao Paulo I used a motorcycle, so I had some experience. But I did get scared the first days of this story, because both the city and I had changed a lot in the past 20 years. Two days into the story, I began to feel comfortable.
The professional motoboys are incredibly fast, always racing and desperate to make their deliveries. Accidents always happen, either with other types of vehicles or even between two or more bikes. One day I photographed two motoboys who had crashed into each other, and as they awaited the ambulance they argued over whose fault it was. One of them was cruising along the dotted line between rows of cars, and the other crossed between two cars and right into his path without looking.
Another day I came across the body of another motoboy who became a statistic. He was racing between lanes when he lost control of the bike, bounced off the rear of a car stopped in traffic, and into the bus lane.
His helmet was cracked in two by the impact with the bus, and he died. I was extra cautious returning home that afternoon, after that lesson on the fragility of life.
Riding a bike can be a great pleasure, with the wind blowing in your face, the feeling of freedom, agility of evading traffic, and the convenience of parking. All this is especially true in the megalopolis that is Sao Paulo, but these are all minor when compared to the risk of becoming involved in an accident.
After two weeks back riding a bike and fighting for my space with some five million cars, I felt relieved to get back into my own car, never mind the hundred-mile traffic jams.