Rafael stared down the barrel of the gun pointed at his head, and wondered if he would ever see his family again. Weeks earlier, a friend had been shot and left for dead, another victim of a “mini-kidnapping”. Armed bandits abduct an unsuspecting person, take them to an ATM, and demand that they withdraw as much money as possible. Sometimes, the process is repeated until the account is empty, sometimes, the person is let go, other times, they are killed to keep from identifying their captors.
I met Rafael in the parking lot of my hotel. He drives a private shuttle van in Orlando, ferrying tourists to various local attractions. Each morning, I would take two coffees with me and go and chat with him about life in Brazil, and his immigration experience. The mini-kidnapping incident is what finally prompted him to leave his town of San Paulo. Rafael is easy to like, and his 6ft plus height makes him stand out from the gaggle of drivers that hover outside of major hotels to earn fares. His English is flawless, though he and his friends prefer to communicate in Portugese. He introduced me to his friends, and other drivers there who came to the U.S. from Haiti, Somalia, Columbia, and of course, Brazil. I was struck by how many of them spoke almost perfect English. In their limos and vans, I could spot English textbooks alongside books about business. Each of them seemed to have a dream to one day own a business, and they work from 6:00 a.m. to well past 11:00 p.m. in that pursuit. I’m convinced most of them will one day achieve that goal.
Angela and Twime are making coffee, and stocking their shelves with donuts and fruit, getting ready for the morning throng of tourists that visit the hotel deli each morning. It wasn’t hard to tell that they were good friends. On my first morning there, I was attracted to what I thought was singing emanating from behind their counter, turns out it was Swahili, their native tongue. Angela talks almost non-stop, while Twime listens intently, and periodically bursts out in laughter. Though I couldn’t understand a thing, before long I was laughing right along with them. At this hour of the morning, the other hotel employees all stop by to grab coffee or juice and exchange gossip. By day two of my visit, I was invited to stand in the back with them, and I learned that Diego*, the hotel security man, had set his sights on the new girl assigned to clean rooms in Tower One. As it turns out, Twime, Angela, and every other employee all speak English. Twime is from Tanzania, and Angela is from Kenya. Coincidentally, they met applying for work, and discovered that they had both been born in the U.S., but left as infants, so they remembered nothing of America. Naturally, I asked them why they came to the U.S., and was shocked to learn that in both of their cultures, having many children scattered throughout the world is quite a status symbol. Both of them had siblings in places like Canada, Switzerland, South America, and Germany among others. Apparently, they all meet occasionally, and though they all speak English, most of them know at least two other languages, the other common language is Swahili. We talked every morning, and I learned quite a bit about both of them. I was sad to learn that the biggest obstacle they faced when they arrived in the U.S. was being shunned by American Blacks who were threatened by their work ethic and proper English. (I suppose I should make it clear that I have no point to make here, I am simply relaying what they said) So, in response, they bonded with other African immigrants, and have a pretty good network that assists new arrivals seeking employment. One other interesting thing I learned was that they find the concept of credit and debt a bit unsettling. Angela has a car note, but informed me that in Kenya, people save and make major purchases, including land, with cash. Most houses are constructed by the family that will ultimately live in it. She is taken aback by how much debt the average person here has, and admits that her own car payment takes too much of her take-home pay. She intends to pay cash for her next car.
One advantage I have as an early riser is that usually, the only other people awake are the hotel employees. I think once they get past the fact that someone is asking them personal questions, they seem to like interacting with a curious tourist. All of them seemed eager to share bits and pieces of their personal experiences with me, and by my third day, I couldn’t buy coffee or muffins if I had tried. I was given so much fruit that I had to take much of it back to my kids to eat when they got up. Getting to know these people was the best part of my vacation, hands down.
* Diego has “hero” status with my family, since he rescued my children from a broken elevator. Apparently, it trapped them inside when they had gone to the lobby to get a toothbrush, and kept whisking them up and down, penthouse to lobby, without opening it’s doors. By the third trip, my terrified daughter had the presence of mind to use the elevator phone to call for help. Diego was dispatched, and plucked them from the jaws of death at the penthouse level, and escorted back to our room. My daughter made me tip him. I think they are writing a song about him. I’m wondering how he made out with that little hottie in Tower One.