Even back home, where there’s no language barrier and the residential voltage is a consistent 120V, this would have been ill-advised. After all, you know hardly anything about electricity. Hz, amps, volts, watts – it’s all a mystery. Change a light bulb? Sure. Start fussing with wires? Probably shouldn’t.
But then again, you don’t have a lot to do right now. You don't just move overseas and pick up where you left off as a freelancer. Maybe fixing the light fixture in the kitchen would be a way for you to feel useful and important. Maybe it will open new avenues of cultural understanding. Before you came, someone advised you to ask your new neighbors for help. It can be a great way to make friends, they said.
And so you ask Jorge for directions to the hardware store. And you go there, and you throw yourself at the mercy of the clerks. In your wretched Portuguese, you profess your ignorance of Brazilian electrical standards and fixtures – slyly and falsely implying some higher level of familiarity with American ones. (The point isn’t to seem like a plain idiot; the point is to seem like a competent do-it-yourselfer who just happens to be a bit out of context).
The clerk asks you a series of questions about the project at hand. You do not know the answers. You do not even fully understand the questions, so you say “yes,” emphatically, and buy something that looks more or less like the component you need.
At home, after consulting the dictionary and the diagram on the back of the component, you surmise that the clerk’s questions dealt with the fact that electrical circuits here in Porto Alegre can either be 127V or 220V. You’re pretty confident you’re dealing with a 127V situation. Why? You couldn’t explain it. You just kind of think so.
Inside the breaker box, you discover that the labels by the switches clearly don’t correspond with reality. I.e., the switch labeled "living room lights" does not kill the living room lights. So even though you’ve turned off the "kitchen lights" breaker, you work very carefully, as if defusing a bomb. Maybe the wires are still live. (The broken light is the only kitchen light, so there's no handy way to tell for sure).
Get things connected and fastened and set back in place. Flip the breaker that may or may not control the kitchen lights. Hit the light switch. BOOM. A flash, a plume of smoke, a shower of sparks, a spectacular fail. Oh shit.
Some days later, an actual repairman comes. He is friendly, and you chat, and you tell him about your accomplishment earlier in the week. You don’t know the words for “flash” or “plume of smoke” or “shower of sparks” but dramatic gestures and expressions, plus some show-and-tell with the blackened component, get the point across.
You’d figured that the problem was that 127V hunch. Must’ve been wrong. Must have put a 220V peg in a 127V hole, with explosive results. But no, the repairman assures you, the kitchen light is a 127V deal.
Although you are not cut out for even basic electrical work, you do understand the difference between red wires and black wires and white wires. You are certain that you indeed wired things up correctly for a 127V situation but yet, things went spectacularly awry. What?
This is not the first time, here. It certainly won’t be the last: You thought you knew what to do, you were wrong, and your attempts to get to the bottom of the matter have only confused things further. Oh shit.