from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Brazil Dispatch 36

We have made it through several home improvement swamps, though there still remain several places to paint in our house (you know, the yin/yang of the merely stale looking truly horrid next to the freshened-up!). I actually thought there might come a week or two, perhaps, when everything would be redone and nothing would have yet started to disintegrate. I would feel absolutely as if I were in heaven’s lap!

2013-11-02 16.38.24That was after the upholstery story (below) and before the day last weekend when Newton surveyed the repaired veranda from the far end where we eat…and discovered a new, quite long CRACK in the horizontal support opposite the front door. This is seven months after the repair work was done by Cyrela construction company, who had caused parts of the veranda to fall with their pile drivers at the luxurious In Mare condo construction across the road. When we moved in seven years ago, the same job by the inexpensive local guy and his team had lasted four years.

I will admit, I am currently a bit unhinged by the third world; at least the Northeast of Brazil version. It seems this year has been a series of trials – and we all know I am talking about little trials, not serious stuff. I think I took to heart too achingly the demise of our huge, spectacular hibiscus bush in front. The caretaker had cut it back while we traveled, as we had asked, but for the first time he cut it back to practically a stump. It never recovered from this shock and was devastated by disease soon after. It just did not seem like a good omen.

IMG_0098I’ll never forget you, Hibiscus Bush.








I bought three new hibiscus plants to plant in the newly naked front corner of our yard. The caretaker noticed immediately that they were also diseased, so I took them back and was given the last remaining three hibiscus plants, carefully examined. The next morning, the caretaker found that they, too, were diseased, so back they went. It was the first time in Brazil that I got my money refunded instead of a credit! Of course the gasoline at US$6.00 per gallon for three trips cost more than the plants. The search for new hibiscus’ will continue.

I took a dress to be hemmed that I brought from the US…except the seamstress hemmed it at a diagonal, twice. Measuring is a challenge of epidemic proportions in these parts. Finally, it was only mid-thigh because she cut it off each time, so I had to go buy some coordinating solid fabric to piece at the bottom. The new place to which I took this project first made it too long, then corrected it by making it mid-thigh again, with the extra fabric. I have had to abandon five seamstress projects that simply remained untenable in the end. The search for new seamstresses will continue.

2013-11-05 18.18.00One store that carries our interior paint couldn’t mix any colors because their machine was out of order; the second store would be out of the needed base for a couple of months; the third (and last) store was out of the pigment needed to mix that particular color.

Et cetera. I always try to acknowledge what goes well and easily here, because this can happen on occasion; it just gets overshadowed by the endless fails. That nice woodworker our friends discovered successfully extended our built-in sofa and adjusted the base of our dining room table in a timely way! The local furniture maker made this nice table for produce; the entire project was simply to camouflage that big black wine cooler plug in the middle of the wall where the outlets are mystifyingly positioned.




Here’s The Upholstery Story: The built-in sofa in our living room was too narrow and not cushy enough for comfort, so after the depth was extended, it was time for new, cushier cushions. I schlepped twelve yards of fabric from Los Angeles, but where to have the cushions made? One upholsterer had done a pretty good job on our new sofa cushions for the veranda, but had ignored the old cushion I had left with them to copy for the two chairs. They simply made chair cushions in some random dimensions that bore no resemblance to ours. Even though they redid them after much argument, I was suspicious of such cavalier work and cavalier versions of the facts. Just at that moment, our friend Hian mentioned that he had used a nice German guy for his dining room chairs and described where I could find him…near here! Well, BEWARE STEROTYPES, ALWAYS. Will we ever learn? I thought, A German! I’m sure he can measure! He’ll probably do careful work! And such serendipitous timing discovering him; it had to be fate!

Newton picked William up to come check out the sofa job because he had wrecked his car. William talked about his wife having just left him… a lot. He seemed very feeble and shaky to me, but hey, he was German and could measure! My breath caught slightly when he mentioned that he had come to Brazil at age two, but hey, his parents were German! I recall so vividly that he made a joke about all the careful diagrams with measurements I had drawn up (the sofa is ‘L’-shaped and the corner cushions are diagonal), but I explained that I had had much trouble getting things made according to my instructions here. We needed separate inside casings and covers with zippers for removal. He was supposed to consult with me when it was time to place the buttons on the cushions. He asked the rather inflated figure of R$1200 for the job (US$600) and wanted R$800 in advance instead of the usual half – ‘to buy the needed materials.’ We agreed to everything, anticipating beautiful and timely work…"done in a week,” he said.

William had US$250 worth of my fabric and US$400 of our money when he called the very next morning at 8:30 to say he had been robbed and would need more money to do the job. Newton told him to call someone who knew him to borrow money, that we really didn’t know him. We’re 99% positive that he was lying.

In the two months that ensued, Newton tried to reach William by phone many times, to no avail. The three trips Newton took to his workshop in order to check on progress found William falling down drunk and barely able to talk; one of the times he was literally lying on the sidewalk in front of his shop. Somehow he always managed to say the job would be done “next Wednesday.” We were at our wits’ end when Newton finally reached a woman there. Had his wife returned? We had learned from Hian that it was William’s wife who had organized the business, taken orders and picked up and delivered them. Whoever this woman was, she inquired if this was quite an overdue job. Yes. We were instructed to come pick it up in five days.

William called the morning of pick-up to say we had been four meters short of fabric, but that his son had found the very same fabric in the big city of Recife. We owed him an additional R$80 for this. William didn’t know I designed fabric for furniture for 27 years. He didn’t know that fabric from Los Angeles would not show up in Recife. It was clearly lies, but I still dreaded finding some oddball fabric on part of the job.

When we arrived we saw our cushions on a dirty floor, looking very understuffed and with dozens of buttons. The ‘flocos’ of foam used to stuff are costly, so he had put very little and tried to compensate with all the buttons, which were lined up crookedly despite the easy-to-follow stripes in the fabric. There were no casings inside, just flocos thrown inside the fabric.The corners were a mangled mess, and dark markings showed that had not made it into seams. Of course, there had been enough yardage originally, so no parts were made in a different fabric, though he persisted in lying about that. On closer examination, there were dots of blood: “Oh, the fabric came with mold on it”…so if that were true (NOT TRUE), why use that one area of the fabric on the top center of a one-way cushion?  The seams themselves were puckered and caught; a diagonal had been pieced without matching up the stripes…it was truly the most unprofessional job I could imagine. The woman sat there and said nothing, knowing it was totally unacceptable work. We were indignant about it all and said we had to see how it even fit the space; he insisted that he could correct anything wrong.

Besides the cushions looking bedraggled on our sofa, the longest back cushion going into the corner was reversed, so the wider dimension for the bottom was along the longer top measurement with the zipper. The opposite diagonal cushion was 20 centimeters short at the bottom. Newton retuned to tell him about these problems, that we would not allow him to touch the cushions again, that he must have been drunk when he made them, and that we would not pay him the balance of R$400 because we had to get them corrected. He went nuts and cursed out Newton, threatening to sue us. Go ahead, please.

Just in case, we did manage to document some of the problems:

Nice corner on modelHere is the nicely stuffed and squared-off green veranda sofa cushion we had shown him initially as a model. Note the curvy-cornered contrast:



Here’s the reversed cushion with zipper on top:

zipper on top; buttons

Marker showing on outside:             Drunken seams:


Drunken button placement:                                        Overall effect:

crazy buttonsoverall

I felt sick. But then I carefully diagramed how all the mistakes could be corrected using fabric cut from the bottoms of the two non-reversible diagonal seat cushions. I took all the cushions and these diagrams to the guy who made the nice veranda sofa cushions so he could remake them. He refused to fix this guy’s mistakes and said he would only make a new set from the beginning.

I spent the next three weeks wrestling with these cushions by hand. I had to cut off all the buttons and dump out all the foam flocos. [Note: one of the larger cushions had flocos, large scraps of fabric and debris from William’s workshop floor that all smelled like vomit. I had to throw it all out, wash the cover and hang it in the sun, then rain, then sun again to smell OK.] I bought a new 10-kilo package of flocos to re-stuff everything more fully, though the package also contained small pieces of plastic bags and brown paper bags and a couple of candy wrappers, all of which which made crackling sounds inside the cushions if not eliminated before stuffing. I cut large sections out of the bottom of the two non-reversible seat cushions to have fabric for the new diagonal piecing for the upside-down cushion and the too-short cushion. I matched up the stripes for the repaired diagonals and re-anchored the zipper, which had to be lopped off. I am neither an upholsterer nor an engineer, so these two corrections alone almost killed me! I bought some leatherette to sew into the vacated sections of the seat bottoms. Now, what about the button problem? The holes were dark (he had drunkenly marked them this crooked!), so I either shifted buttons in two directions the distance of the button radius in order to line them up better, or where more desperate, I painstakingly “painted” over the dark holes with yellow or red thread embroidery. I bought the longest needle I could find to re-install the buttons after stuffing the first cushion anew. The needle was too short for the job, and, besides feeling like I had wrestled three tigers for a day to put the buttons in, my hand was too crippled to use for a couple of days afterwards. The little “button man” at the other upholsterers not only showed me the homemade utensil he uses and how to use it, he gave it to me! This is a long, skinny piece of metal with a crochet-like hook sculpted at the end. He saved the day and I was back in business. The seven remaining cushions went much faster, and we now have a more comfortable, if not beautiful sofa. Throw pillows are essential to hide some of the still-dopey look.

redone cushions

The construction trucks have started up big time again in front of our house and along the side road, as well. These include two gigantic container trucks that constantly carry, pick-up and drop ten refuse containers along our road with that incessant beep-beeping that puts murderous thoughts in my head; two small bull dozers that traverse back and forth in front all day (beeping all the way). I call them trolls. In addition are flatbed delivery trucks (most notable for bilious fumes), ubiquitous cement mixers, and the perfect visual metaphor, a heavy orange truck that literally has a giant screw attached. Since the rainy season has officially ended, the dry road sends clouds of billowing dust to clobber and fill our freshly-painted house from two sides.

So…Newton had to travel and I had to contact Victor, our on-site liaison with the In Mare construction, about the outrage of the decade, the new crack in the repaired veranda after only seven months. Now my frame of mind was already affected by all the stories above, it was a Monday and on the previous night – on our one quiet day of the week – the weekend renters in the house across the side street had another evangelical service on their veranda. The minister shouted for two-and-a half hours in a terrifying tone. I was shaking, much less able to do my yoga anywhere inside or outside the house, as the voice reverberated from all sides. We were afraid to confront them with Newton traveling the next day, in case they’d want to exact some Brazilian revenge the next day when I’d be here alone. At one point I tried to understand what he was screaming; I am not kidding, he was screaming “Suco de maracuj√°!!!” Passion fruit juice. Oh my.

The only other time I stayed alone here without Newton, the electricity went out the first day just as darkness was descending. It happened again that day. I was incredulous. I stumbled and bumped my leg just trying to get from the balcony with my iPad and the last rays of sunset, through the black interior of the house to let Victor in the gate when he arrived. He could just see the crack in the dusk and immediately said, “maresia.” This is the salt/sand combination that blows from the ocean onto everything and causes eventual damage. When the veranda structure is repaired, the cement surrounding the post-and-lentil iron construction rods is broken and the rods are coated with a heavy black goo to protect them from exposure and eventual rust (which causes the cracks). Then they are covered with new cement and all is good for several years. We had noticed that the crazy cement-slinging guy that did our repairs was sometimes lax about putting the black goo, so Newton had shown a couple of places to the supervisor, who had the guy do it over again. We realized that we had not studied this particular spot during the repairs, but trusted that the guy would do it properly after having to re-do. So you see, the crack could not have happened in seven months if the work had been done properly. I said, “Are you really going to stand there and say this crack was caused by maresia? It was caused by bad work.” Victor said, no, that it was maresia, that this is an old house (immaterial), and that they do not guarantee their work. I was getting madder and madder with this egregious dishonesty, explaining the problems with the black goo the supervisor had addressed, describing the thousands and thousands of dollars we spent to finish and paint everything after the repairs were done. Eventually my “trabalho mau” became “shit work” in English. Victor speaks some English and, apparently, learned the curse words well. He was immediately indignant and said I could not say that. “But it is shit work,” I persisted. “And you are precioso demais!” (too precious). Now he was going nuts and said he was going to record me! That he could not speak to me, that he would have to wait and speak with Newton. The sexist tone was totally too much for me, so my language escalated accordingly. He stomped off in a huff muttering in a superior tone about how they do things differently in Brazil. According to Newton, they really do consider cursing worse than blatant dishonesty, which is pretty culturally ubiquitous. I did savor the opportunity to point out such a cultural clash when writing the company headquarters; that dishonesty is considered a much more serious character flaw in the USA than cursing after being double-crossed.

I re-entered my pitch black house pretty shaken, had no computer, no cell phone reception, which always goes when the electricity goes out; no land line connection – likewise, though Newton was able to reach me long distance on that line! I got out the little wind-up flashlight and the candles, changed clothes, drove into town and called my friend Ana Paula once the cell phone kicked in. Thank goodness, she was free and wishing for a nice dinner, so she saved the evening! The electricity was back when I got home, whew. A woman had run into a power line in the next beach town, so the entire area had been dark.

The next morning at 7:00, not only did the construction noises begin, but the sometime ocean-side neighbors out the bedroom window had sent a guy to cut down their coconuts, hack, hack. Except he opened up the trunk of his car with speakers to play music while he worked. OUCH.




  1. Darling,
    I'll make my remarks by know why:-)


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