Saturday, June 4, 2016

Peak Dubai

I'm starting this post in a bit of an emotional mood, having in the past week said goodbye to two ladies who've basically saved my sanity during the past year and a bit.

The first is a friend who I met at a baby yoga group. She spotted me managing to look both socially inadequate and weird while clutching a squalling Desert Baby, and clearly thought "that's the kind of lady I want my own baby to hang out with, I'll invite her and her baby to join my friends and I for lunch." We hit it off, due to having certain things in common - a rather "matter of fact" approach to parenting being one of them. And while I knew the day when she had to go back to the UK would come, and Dubai is a transient place and we must get used to these things, and so on ad infinitum, I am feeling distinctly Eeyeore-like about her departure.


*Brief pause while I wallow in self-pity*

The second was the lady who, over the past year, cleaned my house once per week and sometimes babysat for Desert Baby, so I had time to try to find work, speak to someone who knew other concepts beyond "milk", "nappy", and "no I shall not take a daytime nap no matter how exhausted I may be". This is a First World Problem of the highest order - losing one's' cleaner and babysitter when it's just so damn hard to get the staff these days, but, I am often reminded of a line from Kathryn Stockett's intensely readable novel The Help, when I think about her. It goes something along the lines of "good help is hard to find, it's like falling in love, it happens once in a lifetime". There was something about her that meant we just clicked. She's going home for not particularly happy reasons, and I felt decidedly wretched as I dropped her off at the Metro station for the last time earlier this week, not least because her experience reminded me of how miserable the lives of those in some of the poorer sections of UAE society can be.

I've talked about my British guilt about needing someone to help me around the house in this post, but honestly, the women I have met that do this kind of job in the UAE are way better women than me. Many of them do the dirty work in the homes of people like me who think they've got it hard because it's a bit too hot to go to the beach, or, they're out of money for a manicure that month. Domestic workers in the UAE often get paid less than 2,000dhs per month (around GBP377). Many get accommodation paid for as part of their job, but considering the high cost of living, it's not a lot.

And then there's the fact that many of them have left their own children in their home country to be cared for by family members. Received wisdom on this is that it's so much easier these days for them to "parent at a distance" thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and things like Skype, but I'm not sure that would be enough to stop me going insane with misery were I in that position.  I realise that with time, such arrangements must become easier to bare, but I can't imagine it.

The reason that so many of them do this, of course, is that if they want to improve their family's financial position and give hope of a better lives to their offspring, they have very little choice. There is an army of low paid workers in the UAE and the wider Gulf, not just in the domestic sector, but in hospitality, customer service and so on, without whom the super privileged lifestyles of some locals and expats would be unsustainable.

I recently talked to one lady from the Philippines, who has a job in a beauty salon. She told me that the minimum wage in the Philippines is 34dhs per day (GBP6.40). "This is why where ever you go, you will find lots of us working", she said. While in Sri Lanka, the latest info I could find suggests that the minimum wage is less than GBP2 per day, which probably makes getting several times that with accommodation thrown in seem fairly attractive. To be clear, some of them live out, which means a higher basic salary, but the cost of living must mean living on practically nothing in order to send the bulk of their salaries back to their home countries.

Another lady I met a while ago, also from the Philippines, was working in a coffee shop. She struck up conversation with me, and it became pretty obvious that she had done so because she was absolutely desperate to talk to someone who had recently had a baby. She had just left her little boy back home to be looked after by his grandparents, having taken the UAE's standard 100 days maternity leave - 45 days paid, the rest unpaid. While I may have taken Desert Baby to a freelance job meeting with me when she was aged just four and a half months, I can't imagine being back at work full time that early, even though it's officially the norm in this country and I know people who have done it.

I think this lady was fairly traumatised by it, as I probably would have been, as I was barely in a fit state to leave the house eight weeks after Desert Baby's birth, let alone ready to think about full time work. Leaving her behind while going to work in another country would have been, and still is, out of the question.

I chatted away to the lady about the healing cesarean scars, feeding, nappies, sleep - all the things that people like me had the luxury of nattering away about for hours at various coffee mornings and mummy meet ups, until duty called and she had to go back and serve coffee. And back she went to work, with colleagues who in all likelihood had kids of their own in their home countries and may also have understood what it was like to be working thousands of miles away from your newborn while still healing from giving birth.

I once tried to talk to my "helper" (for this is the preferred term for those of us who balk at the term "maid") about what it is like leaving your children to go and work in a foreign country. "What to do? Need money," was her succinct response. Point taken: Talking about it to someone who cannot imagine doing it was unlikely to make her feel good about the situation, so I backed off.

Life in the UAE has an interesting dual effect on your perspective when it comes to your standard of living which I am fairly sure I have alluded to in a post before. There is conspicuous consumption and wealth everywhere: Enormous shopping malls crammed with luxury stores of every description, more super expensive hotels than you can shake your Louis Vuitton luggage at, car parks groaning with super cars and the blingiest of four-wheel-drives, days spent lounging on the beaches and by the pools of aforesaid luxury hotels, embarrassingly excessive weekend brunches where you consume your weekly calorie allowance in one sitting while pouring unlimited glasses of champagne down your throat.

These rich fripperies and baubles become part of your every day life, along with being able to pick up the phone your local supermarket and have someone who earns less in a week than you do in half a day deliver cans of cola to your door within minutes, incredibly cheap petrol to fill up your four-wheel-drive's fuel tank for next to nothing and shopping for "real fake" sweatshop-made handbags in Karama.

But, if you are willing to look beyond the end of your nose before you stick it in the brunch trough, it doesn't half have the ability to make you appreciate your life compared with those of many in the UAE.

I remember when I first arrived, noticing, for example, gardeners sweating away in the heat to maintain the lush green lawns and foliage of the UAE's luxury hotels, and thinking, it's only the accident of my birth - that I happened to be born in the West while he was born into a poor family in a developing country, that means I am inside enjoying the air con and slurping a cool drink while he's out there. I wondered then, as I still do now, how people can apparently not notice such workers when the mercury tops 50C and go about their highly privileged lives as if they simply aren't there.

I suppose that after a while, the workers and their discomfort simply blend into the scenery for some people. Personally, I think, when that happens, you've reached "Peak Dubai" and it's probably time to cash in your chips and go home.

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