Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Modern Day Hobo: Life Lessons From The Desert

"Fi gurfa?", he asked in an impatient tone.
"Mafi.", I bit my lip feeling a bit restless.
"Lesh?!", a question I was anticipating.
"Uhm...", not sure how to explain myself. "Full. Baden."
"Okay, shukran.", and he stalked off.

I heaved a sigh of relief. I nervously glanced at my Moroccan boss who was eyeing me from afar. She nodded her head without the slightest smile, which I assumed was her way of saying 'good job'. I sat down. At least the front office staff has chairs here unlike in other hotels, I thought. A quick look at the calendar reminded me that it has just been a few days since I first stepped on the Middle East, yet there I was pretending to be fluent in Arabic. In less than a week I memorized enough words to get by, learned how to read numbers in Arabic writing, and was taught by colleagues how to stand my ground even when guests become too demanding.

Me and one of my life teachers, the desert.

The hotel that employed me was in United Arab Emirates, not in Dubai nor in central Abu Dhabi, but in Al Ain City which is located more than a hundred kilometers away from the other two. Deep into the heart of the desert, sharing a border with Oman.

Let me pause this story for a moment to share with you a flashback of a much earlier date. About three years ago I got fed up being a customer service representative for an overseas telecommunications company, stationed in a cubicle, talking to sixty different strangers a day. The job left me feeling hollow every time I logged out of the phone. However awesome I did with my tasks, I felt unimportant knowing that even if I'd be absent the next day, sure as hell someone could fill in for me.

You could call me Jill of all trades, master of none. It's pathetic to admit, but I got an inkling that there's no 'right job' for me (unless there's someone who'll pay me just for backpacking, with an emphasis on just) because I am not highly skilled on any field. So with this sad notion, I decided to apply for a job overseas. I thought, if I'm going to have another unfulfilling job, might as well live some place distant with a different environment. It would be a good opportunity to fully explore a country I have never been in.

A newspaper ad lead me to an interview by the owner of the hotel himself. Well, technically, his translator. Out of ten applicants, I was the one chosen even if I had no experience with front desk. "If I am customer, what do you do to me?", was the only question I had to answer. However vague it was, it only took me a millisecond to think. My reply (with an exaggerated American accent) must have been impressive, or it could be have been my crisp suit. Beats me.

The visa processing only took a couple of months. My immediate resignation was thankfully accepted, and with the help of a lending company I was able to pay my placement fee. Finally I was set free to a new world as an OFW (overseas Filipino worker).

And so that is how I landed there. My workplace for six months (I had a contract for two years, but I quit early to do backpacking in South East Asia). Most shifts that I covered alone, when not insanely busy, I was usually spaced out. Lost in my sentiments and realizations. Living in U.A.E. taught me a lot of things about life and about myself which I wouldn't have learned had I visited the country as a tourist.

Top: 1. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Sneaking food in a drawer cause we didn't have a lunch break. 2. Mo' Money, Mo' Different Problems. A group of uni students invited the whole faculty for a desert camping trip out of the blue. One of the students owned that particular part of the desert. 3. Work hard, party harder. Dancing to a Jamaican band's beats in Dubai. Bottom: 4. Unity in Diversity. In a service van with other workmates from various countries. 5. There's no place like home. Spent the New Year's eve with kabayans in Dubai whom I've never met before.

1. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

I came to U.A.E. with the hopes of seeing architectural marvels Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa, a ski resort in the desert, camels, oases, and well, Emiratis. While other expatriates or migrant workers or uhm, modern day hobos, came primarily for the job.

You prolly have heard about laborers pushed to work beyond their limits under harsh conditions, with ridiculously long shifts day and night (the desert in the summer is a topnotch hostile place), and sleeping in uncongenial spaces. It is a fact and I have witnessed it.

One shift in our hotel lasts eight hours (six days a week), without a lunch break. Let me clarify that we weren't encouraged to starve to death, in fact, we were allowed to eat at our station. I'm just saying a few minutes off duty is humane ( but since we didn't want an extra hour added to our shift, we didn't pursue a complaint). In consolation, we were provided with free fully furnished and spacious accommodation. Mind you, other employees who don't have such benefit and opt for cheap accommodation could only get bunk beds at rundown apartments (without even a space for a closet).

2. Mo' Money, Mo' Different Problems

My then boyfriend (the hubby now) worked as a robotics lab assistant in a uni which only accepted Emirati students. The massive (for its student population) swanky building only had one cafeteria. Beside the cafeteria, is a jewelry shop. Yep, inside a campus. My wild imagination suggests this scene on a normal school day: Student heading to another room for her next class thinking "Hmm, I should go buy a new diamond pendant for Programming 101. Totally suits the next subject".

Folks, mo' money doesn't really mean mo' problems to me. Richer people just have different issues. Because IMO, there's no bigger problem than not having money for meals.

3. Work hard. Party Harder. Fill up the Balikbayan box.

In that order. I never thought that the trait of generosity can be infectious. If you're surrounded by breadwinners, you subconsciously learn to be selfless. However in my case, I know how important it is to leave something to myself. It just keeps me sane. But yeah, I sent a Balikbayan box home. Two boxes in fact. Corned beef, chocolates, bottles of lotion, souvenir shirts and stuff.

4. Unity in Diversity

Filipina front desk officers and waitresses, Bangladeshi guards and chefs, Indian and Sri Lankan housekeepers, Omani executive assistant, Moroccan day shift manager, Egyptian night shift manager... That's how diverse the hotel's manpower is. It is amazing how people from different cultures work together to get things done.

I miss Mohammad who tips me off when arbab ('boss' in Arabic) is arriving so I could stash my manicure kit (yes I do my nails at our station sometimes), Muneer who fries fish and chips for us (though we're not allowed to eat food from the hotel kitchen), Dinesh who sneaks a can of soda out of the mini bar for me, Mr. Tamer and Ms. Rajah who cover our arses when we get in trouble for arguing with our guests.

We were all expats. All of us left our respective countries and families to pursue more decent jobs. There's no other people who would look after every one of us but each other.

5. There's no place like home.

This is one truth that I never really get to think about when I'm a tourist in a foreign land.

Al Ain's one of those places that I took for granted. I never fully appreciated its beauty when I resided there. For six months I was constantly infuriated by the fact that my passport was kept by our employer. It made me feel enslaved in some way. Still, I hope someday I get to revisit the city's buzzing streets, smell the freshly baked Arabic bread and spices sold by bulk, see the shops selling perfumes in fabulous bottles and over the top jewelry... I really hope... To meet again one of my life teachers, the dressed up desert that is U.A.E.


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Markyramone said...
August 1, 2011 at 12:44 PM

Heard the stories from yourself and it was entertaining while you narrate it, putting it on writing ads more depth to your overall experience as an OFW. It has that effect on our countrymen who works abroad, the diversity, different culture enriches them more than the money they earn...I wouldn't mind being one someday.

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 1, 2011 at 1:07 PM

Marky, the whole experience made me see how dedicated our countrymen are to their families. Well, not only Pinoys but other nationalities as well. It's a heartwarming feeling!

Anonymous said...
August 1, 2011 at 3:28 PM

wow. agencies keep the passports? sucks...
buti nakaalis ka kahit di tapos yon contract...

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 1, 2011 at 3:51 PM

It is common, unfortunately. I had to pay for 2 months worth of salary.

JourneysandTravels said...
August 1, 2011 at 5:52 PM

this is one great leap of faith. Thank you for your blog post. this gives me the idea of how you have to work hard and party harder haha and of course, sacrificing much to be where you are.

Thanks ulit. God bless you in your journeys!

Go Tara Lets! said...
August 1, 2011 at 6:55 PM

6 mos mdming experience nading babaunin pabalik yun :) buti 2 months lang binayadan mo (but the Q is, how much worth ang 2 mos?) I have a friend almost 1 yr ata nagbayad nun d nya tinapos contrct nya, dunno w/c part of middle east though. pero saludo sa mga hardworking OFW's nating kababayan :)

byaheng barok said...
August 1, 2011 at 7:25 PM

i envy you and some of my friends who has the courage to leave home and work some place, somewhere foreign. it takes guts to do that. i can't. i'd probably die being homesick first than last a job out there for a week.

bertN said...
August 1, 2011 at 7:38 PM

An eight hour shift with no lunch break? I hope you did not tell your employer, "You can take this job and shove it!" when you quit LOL.

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 1, 2011 at 8:34 PM

Doc Wends, thanks! OFWs deserve to party hardEST!

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 1, 2011 at 8:44 PM

Go Tara Let's, it's a policy in UAE to pay 2 months worth of the salary if you don't finish the contract :) Dunno with other countries.

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 1, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Audrey, it took me years to finally consider working overseas. It was one of the best decisions I have made... met the significant other there too (naks!).

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 1, 2011 at 9:15 PM

bertN, haha! Well, couldn't be that angry to him... If not for him, I wouldn't have experienced this!

Nonoy said...
August 1, 2011 at 9:36 PM

Nasa U.A.E ka na pala. wow. thanks for sharing the lessons you've learned on your adventure. Mas maraming matutunan kapak OFW ka than being just a tourist. Galeng mo Pinaytraveljunkie! :-)

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 1, 2011 at 9:39 PM

Hi Nonoy! This was almost 3 years ago na :)

Micamyx|Senyorita said...
August 2, 2011 at 3:53 AM

this is my most favorite post of you so far (not unless i find some love-related entries LOLOLOL). I remember celebrating Christmas and New Year in England will kababayans din. Kakaibang feeling lalo na kapag nagvivideoke na sila. To be honest, the reason why i am still not exerting an effort to look for an office job is because i don't want to go corporate her in Manila na. I think i need a new working environment. I have some friends working in Dubai and i am quite tempted to go and apply for a job there. Yikes. Wah. Must think :D

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 2, 2011 at 6:44 AM

Thank Mica, it's one (if not the) of the most heartfelt posts I've written for the blog. I was very emotional while I reminisced about those days. Try Dubai, very interesting city. Heaps of Pinoys too.

adventurousfeet said...
August 2, 2011 at 11:08 AM

Kudos to our fellow kababayan for the hardwork and dedication for their families. My mother used to be an OFW too, and now she's already married to a Kuwaiti citizen. I do miss her, and I'm pretty sure she missed being here a lot.

Kudos to you for sharing this one. You're an inspiration too, hope I have the guts to work abroad. hehe.

tina said...
August 2, 2011 at 11:37 AM

This is a very nice post Gay, from now on, magiging mabait na ako sa Kuya ko. He works Al Khobar now.

I can never endure this things, idol ka Gay! :D

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 2, 2011 at 11:39 AM

I'm certain your mom misses Pinas, Ca! Every Pinoy overseas does :) Maybe someday you'll consider it too.

Lawstude said...
August 2, 2011 at 12:57 PM

life's lesson well-shared gay. your experiences are truly worth sharing.

oman, hmmm, my namesake :)

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 2, 2011 at 2:52 PM

Tina, saludo ako kay kuya! It's really hard, especially if an OFW works in the Middle East. Andaming bawal :(

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 2, 2011 at 2:53 PM

Thanks Oman. Is that your full name?

Mar said...
August 3, 2011 at 1:21 PM

Interesting read! I feel for other OFW, my mum is one, I know how my other kababayans must be feeling, the hardships of being in a foreign country. Thanks for sharing! - Mar
Btw,I'm hosting a giveaway with a beautiful neck piece inspired from the House of Harlow at stake plus an additional scarf too! Do join if you can, it's open international!

Angel said...
August 4, 2011 at 12:30 AM

Napakakulay talaga ng buhay mo Gaye, you know I always dreamed of working on a very far away land, but I guess takot ako kaya andito pa din ako. :D

Now nacurious ako kung ano ang reply mo dun sa nag interview sa iyo :D

Malditang "Kura"cha said...
August 4, 2011 at 8:27 AM

So that's where the love story begun.. hihi! Really, I admire the courage of overseas workers like you. It is never easy going out of the comfort zone and try your luck somewhere not knowing what to expect.. makakita lang ako ng arabo natatakot na ko promise. No offense to them.. I'm just saying. Ganun talaga e.

Thanks for sharing this Gay. Girl power entry to!

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 4, 2011 at 9:51 AM

Angel, if I had other good opportunities at the time, I would have stayed in Pinas too. Also, working overseas for me was an escape... a breath of fresh air :)

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 4, 2011 at 9:53 AM

Kurach gurl na may bagong oto... Me too, I was kinda scared of Emiratis. But they're actually very kind and curious about other cultures as well.

Nelieta said...
August 4, 2011 at 10:12 AM

I thoroughly enjoyed this! Fascinating story :)Thank you for sharing!!!

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 4, 2011 at 10:22 AM

Thanks Nelieta!

Ed said...
August 4, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Di ko alam anong nangyari sa previous comment ko. Anyway, I agree and I enjoy reading this post. OFW na OFW ang dating mo gay (kasi nga naman nag OFW talaga! haha).

hope to become an OFW one of these days. kahit magfreelance lang ako. basta mabuhay sa ibang bansa. :D

plus points sa patagong lunch break! these are days that we remember the most. :D

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 4, 2011 at 7:38 PM

Did not see your previous comment Ed. Proud ex-OFW! Lol.

JIM said...
August 4, 2011 at 8:03 PM

Great post..You say you have not mastered anything ..I think your overlooking two ares that you seem to have a great grasp of. Communications, This is many fields is the number one skill that so many can't/haven't mastered. Writing!! You put your communication skill into your writing not an east task for many. Love your blog and always look forward to hearing from a brave, strong women!!!

eks said...
August 4, 2011 at 9:08 PM

wow. hindi ko alam kung sign ba ito na nakita ko ang post mo. i was thinking how i can send a gift to a friend of mine who's in al ain,,, and i was actually about to contact you if i can send it to you so i can surprise her. then, when i started reading your post... matagal na pala ang story na ito. hehehe. ganyang ganyang ang kwento niya sa akin.

kudos, my fellow filipinos!

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 5, 2011 at 10:07 AM

Thanks so much Jim, you are so sweet!

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 5, 2011 at 10:09 AM

Eks, haha yeah, it has been almost 3 years. I miss Al Ain so much. We'll probably revisit someday. Hopefully your friend will still be there.

The Nomadic Pinoy said...
August 7, 2011 at 10:43 AM

keif halak ya sadeekha? kwayes inti?

I'm struggling with my Arabic now but I used to be able to converse too in that language while working in Jeddah. Being an OFW was in itself an experience I'll forever cherish. And of course, that first chance to say "I went abroad" haha!

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 7, 2011 at 5:51 PM

Dennis, so that was your first time overseas? Must have been an intense experience for you :)

Tripper10 said...
August 11, 2011 at 11:25 AM

Lalo ko tuloy hinangaan lahat ng mga OFW's...
Galing nyo Ma'am..
ewan ko pero di ko ata kayang malayo sa pamilya ko... baka isang araw palang sumakay nakong eroplano pabalik... hehehe.. :)

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
August 11, 2011 at 11:57 AM

Haha! Since what I was doing was for my family, I was able to go through it. But then again, I didn't last two years. LOL!

Pinoy Boy Journals said...
August 21, 2011 at 10:55 AM

you have a beautiful story to share, gay!

docgelo said...
October 4, 2011 at 12:52 PM

gay, the ofw/expat in me likes this post so much! i can relate of course. natawa lang ako sa food platter na nasa cabinet!
thanks for sharing, seriously.

Pinay Travel Junkie said...
October 4, 2011 at 1:04 PM

Hahaha! Pathetic ain't it? But all I could do now is laugh about it Doc Gelo.

leandra said...
August 7, 2012 at 12:30 AM

Salam Ms. Gay... Love this post! siguro dahil super relate... at andito pa rin hnggang ngaun hehe. Just makin the most of everything. Wat to do yani? :)

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