from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Five Years Dispatch

natal from airDecember 8, 2011 marked five years in our house on Cotovelo Beach in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil. All the clichés about time apply.





Here is the city of Natal from the air, with the Potengi River in the foreground, the Atlantic Ocean in the background. Cotovelo is to the south.




We had relatives arriving within days, so bought mattresses and ordered beds to be made by the local rustic furniture makers. An old sofa, two old chairs and an old table had been left behind on the veranda, and the living room had a built-in sofa…that was IT. We scrambled to find dishes, sheets, towels, pots and pans and discovered that household items, no matter how shoddy, were costly here. We now know the Brazilian government taxes all items many times over.

We had no idea how long this experiment in Brazil would last, so I was cautious about adding too many things to the house that we would never be able to carry back, having arrived with suitcases only. Eventually, we furnished the place, though it had a sort of bank lobby sparseness. This look has since fallen subject to the laws of the universe, and little by little additional pieces of furniture, plants, and objets have materialized. On travels we took to stuffing suitcases with items from our upstate NY storage bin and with comparatively inexpensive treasures from Target and Ikea. This is really our home now, and we just bought actual flatware to replace the plastic-handled Brazilian version, to demonstrate our current commitment to who-knows-how many more years?


Comparing the early days to now, I think of how we decided to approach some people at the next table in a restaurant who were speaking a mix of Portuguese and English to see if we could kick-start a social life. All of our surrounding houses were empty beach houses, soon to be filled up with January relatives and guests – none of whom would even make eye contact on the way to the beach. Then my English antenna would go off in the supermarket and I’d get contact info for social opportunities, though the resulting chemistry was sometimes lacking a few molecules.

Our group of friends has since grown and grown; some move away, as Natal seems to attract a sort of gypsy spirit, and the wealthy natives (our beach neighbors in summer) still keep to themselves – but the explorers who arrive on this shore are curious, intelligent, fun and, oddly enough, physically beautiful. Sometimes we feel like there are not enough days in a week to celebrate this charmed life with all of the many friends we cherish!

Faith Vilma Mary Sandy reducedWe just partied this week with friends almost non-stop from Wednesday to Sunday. Whew. More than typical for a week, but was it ever fun! I rather recently have three girlfriends who lunch: (l to r) Faith – an American who has spent her whole life in Brazil; Vilma – a Potiquar from the interior of the state who was married to a Scottish entomologist (recently deceased) and lived 20 years in Manhattan, as well as consulted for many years in Africa for the United Nations. She divides life between Cotovelo Beach and Loch Ness, Scotland; and Mary, the rare American I’ve known for some time who just ‘retired’ from editing for the Stanford University Press. They all live nearby. Besides the fact that these friends are brilliant, my favorite part is that we belly-laugh for entire afternoons!

The culmination of the week was the wedding of our friends Hian and Ana Paula. They met 13 years ago in Stockholm and have an 8-year-old daughter, but had never tied the knot. Most of our friends were there, witnessing a ceremony beside the ocean with a full, golden moon rising on cue! What a delicious and romantic dress-up occasion for us all. I also participated in the bride’s “hen party” in the nearby beach town of Pipa!

Hian & Ana Paula

In the early days here, I spent countless hours alone in the breeze on the veranda, hand-sewing my Japanese quilt, making jewelry, reading in the balcony hammock, following my yoga practice. I continue to consider such hours the gift of calm bequeathed to the frantic life I led prior to Brazil. I still respond to “what do you do here?” with “I am still resting from my life in the US.” Some people get it, and some get upset. How nice that it makes no difference to me and I embrace the contentment in ever deeper ways.

DSCN4054Quilt reducedDSC03726

This reverie is punctuated with regular jaunts into town for my free semi-weekly Português por Estrangeiros class at the university. This class has produced lasting friends, if not lasting Portuguese! So far, I’ve aced the tests but still say whatever I need to with suspiciously English syntax. What has improved is my ability to follow a rapid conversation among several people…more or less. Some people also get upset that I’m not killing myself to speak as well as possible. If I forget to call a string bean a ‘she,’ I can live with it.

Nowadays, Newton and I have come to love our routines and rituals together. We would surely grow tired of them if our travels did not intervene, but they do!

He works at his big desk, communicating at all hours with various spots on the globe. I spend far too much time on the computer at my little desk next to his. The computer used to make me physically sicker than it does now, an acclimation about which I am ambivalent…this can’t be good for me! Not to mention that when I am not communicating with far-flung relatives and friends via e-mail or Facebook – connections crucial to this move – I am monitoring the sad slippage of American democracy further into oligarchy/corporatocracy in the countless, inescapable ways this is documented online. It is painful-yet-compelling (compulsive?). I find that people are registering anti-American remarks increasingly.

On Fridays¸ I usher in the weekend by going to the next beach town south for produce at the little grocery, for shrimp at the fish store, and for a container of açaí berry sherbet at the beach. We pack up hot buffalo chicken wings our empregada has learned to make perfectly and consistently (a Potiquar feat), some cucumber salad with two toothpicks, beer out of the freezer in stryro holders along with two frosted glasses, also in stryo holders (‘estupidamente gelada:’ ‘ridiculously cold’). We grab two beach chairs and head off for the shady grassy knoll above the sandy beach below. Back home is the açaí dessert (Newton adds the granola and banana) and perfect espresso from our Nespresso machine.

The shrimp, you ask? That gets cooked and shelled early Saturday morning by the caretaker. Newton buys the lettuce/arugula/parsley/collard greens just delivered to the local bodega from the nearby fields in Pium Valley. While he deveins the shrimp, I wash all the greens. He steams the cut-up collard greens and cuts up loads of garlic. THEN we grab the same two beach chairs, the umbrella, my hat, and a small cooler of beer and head down to the beach by the water. Lunchtime: I make a salad while Newt sautés the collard greens with garlic and the shrimp with garlic. This is our lunch menu for every Saturday and Sunday after the beach.

We’ve been following several US cable series on DVD over the five years (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, and Damages, so far), along with sanity-preserving Jon Stewart and thought-provoking (with an adolescent slant) Bill Maher. We often set up the projector and pull down the screen Newton mounted near the living room ceiling to create our ‘theater.’

And we go out. A lot.

Early on, when we had made friends with several musicians who play rock and blues regularly around town, I made the offer to help a couple of singers with their pronunciation of English lyrics free of charge, as a ‘patron of the arts.’ Finally, just the other day, Gustavo of “Blue Mountain” blues band called me up to accompany him to the recording studio to lay down the vocal track over the instrumental for their first CD! It was such a fun afternoon and evening. First we went over lyrics he had collected while listening to quite a good, classic blues repertoire. I was able to correct many phrases and attempted to explain the meaning of such things as “warm or chill” or “ol’ van’s racking up the miles.” There were also instances of incorrect lyrics from online, not to mention pronunciation problems. Even with the slightly slurred diction of authentic Delta blues, Gustavo was making a mess of “pretty little.” I had no idea about the incredible recording technology nowadays, where Gustavo could literally redo just the smallest phrase and have it all blend. We said “pret-ty lit-tle, pret-ty lit-tle” together a few times, and then he would record that lyric immediately before the impression left him! He was a bit nervous recording for the first time, so the larger problem became his tendency to sometimes sing off-key. I really thought it important that the recording be right, so I started trying to help him with this, having a pretty good ear myself after an entire childhood in church choir. He tended to sing sharp, so I kept trying to get him to feel his feet on the floor, to take deep breaths and relax, but the improvement was random. What amazed me was that the recording technology actually allows for a degree of correction in the tone, so the playback always improved on the live voice! A free CD awaits me the next time I see Gustavo.

DSC03045Another adventure was a weekend trip with our new Spanish friends (from my class) who live in Natal, but own a beautiful pousada (sort of like a motel/beach hotel) in Baia Formosa, a quiet little town and beach near the popular tourist destination of Pipa. Ernesto and Alicia have completely engaged themselves in the local life of their beach. It was really special to witness the way their six-year-old son Carlito studies jujitsu, surfing and futebol (soccer) on the beach with the natives, receiving the kindest help from some of the accomplished local athletes. Their daughter, Alicita, 4, is taken for walks by the young adolescent girls, who love nothing more than babysitting; Alicia takes a capoeira lesson (Brazilian martial art/dance) from the beach-roving instructor; Ernesto is in the middle of all of the above, an enthusiastic friend to everyone. There is no way to describe the particular local life that is buzzing on this beach and the simultaneous serenity of it. As Alicia said, “You have to see it to know.” We’ll never forget the spectacle at the far end of the beach when a small truck sunk lower and lower with the weight of load after load of fresh-caught fish (aceoba and tuna) that were carried by way of poles across two men’s shoulders from the boat to the shore. The vehicle strained off to market with the additional burden of four men, but that gleaming, silvery, slippery cargo miraculously stayed put!

From the beginning in our paradise, we expected an annual rhythm of rain and wind, of those swarms of yellow butterflies that made us feel like we were in the middle of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, of recurring birds passing through with their distinctive songs, of an end to the mosquitoes after ‘winter.’ While there is a slight change of temperature between July and January which we can count on, we have found that the rainy season begins and ends in an unidentifiable, spotty way; the windy season hardly begins or ends – rather just shows up in more or less strident, random ways. IMG_0098We never saw the swarms of yellow butterflies again, though this year a gigantic yellow and black specimen has been spotted a couple of times. The hummingbirds of two-different-tails have ceased to vie for the hibiscus bush, though the stubby one has appeared a bit this year; the parade of birds has rarely formed a pattern, which means we hear new songs on any given morning. I’m not sure if global warming has hampered the predictability of recurrence, along with causing beaches to shrink, but I suspect. MosquiteiroWe have retired our mosquito net in September every year until this very itchy year. We experimented last night by not re-installing the newly washed net, this being mid-December. At 3:00 am - being still-awake swatting and thoroughly bitten - we had a snack, pulled the bed out a bit and installed the damn thing, then finally slept like rocks.

The rich observation of nature and its profound way of teaching has been one of the biggest surprises and bonuses of these five years. The ants, lizards, frogs, large ‘water bug’ cock roaches and mosquitoes that share our house now seem like the normal consequence of all this beauty and burgeoning life around us. There is not a morning that I am not conscious of taking my time, stretching and twisting out the cricks while in bed with no thought of the clock, continuing the morning stretches on the balcony with the panoply of sea and sky and tropical foliage greeting me. Bursting into the light on the front garden as I round the corner of the house to the veranda with the breakfast tray gives me a daily fix. Gathering laundry off the clothesline beside a full moon on the ocean...yes. I wish I had an album of the hundreds of changing moods of the horizon. And I wish the iguana would stop shitting by the front gate!

I recently read an exciting article in The New Yorker about the Roman poet, Lucretius, who documented in a poem, “On the Nature of Things,” the epicurean philosophy of pleasure in all of life’s offerings. The debauched impression we have of this philosophy was manufactured by the church that followed, its doctrines of sin and punishment threatened by this embracing of joy and pleasure in the beauty of the elements of which we are physically a part; the stars, the here and now. I am an epicurean. It was thrilling for me to find an actual name for what I have discovered about myself in this place. 

Every morning when I’m trying to work some of the tension out of my neck and shoulder muscles, what I want after five years is to be more Potiguar. I’m not sure I’ll ever succeed in eradicating these muscle knots, these emblems of such earnest striving to do…what was it again? And as much as I can become frustrated by the Potiguar tortoise pace, the lack of logic, the non-linear way of driving or even cutting a cake, I get the distinct sense that Potiguars do not have tension in their necks.

Here are some highlights from five years on Cotovelo Beach:

Our son Jake in the dunes:                                                                                     Our daughter Elise at Tabatinga Beach:                      

Jake duneDSC02717

My three sisters, Donna, Janet & Dorothy, on a visit in 2008:                              My best friend, Lenna Baranoff Kottke, celebrating our 60th’s in 2009:

Sandra,Donna,Janet, Dorothy 2008On the beach

Newton on Zumbi Beach:                                                                                    The Nigerian fishermen who lost power and washed up on the beach south of here in 2009:

Praia ZumbiP9040199

The moon out our bedroom window:


Our kids are arriving for Christmas this week. Let the holidays begin!





  1. An amazing account of those years, what's been important and what should be left behind. In some ways I envy the relaxed life you lead and in some ways I would suffer from it. I don't believe I could entirely stop the active life I've done all my years. Congratulations to you on successful release of all of those needed activities. Five years and counting seems like you have successfully settled your foundation on that beach. May you enjoy it many many more.


  2. Five years has gone by so fast...


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