We set off early every day to be at the refinery by eight. R. is an engineer from Texas and his southern drawl couldn’t get any more laid back; neither could his general mood. He is basically on a kind of holiday. Called in from the U.S. to diagnose and hopefully fix an ailing valve, he is working alongside Felipe from São Paulo in this petrochemical plant in North Eastern Brazil, where the pace of their working schedule is a little, well…less frenetic. It is HOT here, and it is the hottest time of the year, in the run up to carnival.
We pass through the security gates, 8 a.m., R. commenting, “Well, here we are. I guess we’ll start work around three or four in the afternoon.”
I am here to interpret for him and at this point I just smile, slightly bemused. But R. has worked here once before.
My day is busy, almost non-stop. We meet various managers, engineers and other employees of all levels. We are taken all over the plant, given all sorts of instructions, given protective clothing to wear. We have meetings and then wait and then more meetings and then wait. And all the while there are people buzzing around asking things, discussing back and forth. It’s my job to keep on top of all this communication and make sure nothing is missed between the American and the Brazilians – and it’s exhausting. But R. is still waiting to get going. In lunch break I interpret the chat between him and Felipe, who doesn’t speak any English. Over chicken, beans and rice they tell a few jokes; I relay them, they both laugh, I don’t get it. Maybe it’s an engineer thing. (With experience, I’d know now to point out that was my lunch break, and could I just sit in peace please…).
Somewhere around half past three I get to say the phrase “Let’s go and look at the valve now.” R. was spot on.
There has been so much talk and hanging about, I’m amazed R. isn’t frustrated, but he is the least agitated of them all. We head out up the scaffolding – boots, helmets, goggles and ear protectors, and I shout the instructions back and forth. R. does a few adjustments, there are some issues, we head back inside to talk some more about what happened and what might happen next. And this is how the days go for at least a week and a half.
The Brazilian way of working can require some patience. Luckily, I was with a man who didn’t much mind. Felipe too was enjoying the respite from his day job and the final thing I had to explain to R. was why my agent and Felipe kept talking about a black chicken. In Bahia, the black chicken – in some contexts, particularly in Candomblé – can represent wishing bad luck on something. They wanted the bad luck to continue. He, like R., was secretly hoping more problems might crop up needing his expertise, so he wouldn’t have to go home. “Remember and leave that black chicken in there!” he shouted on the last day to R, as he rolled slowly out the car park and away, soaking up the sun, taking in the scenery, hoping to freewheel it through to carnival.