37 Years; The Dubai Life of KJ Bhatia

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37 Years; The Dubai Life of KJ Bhatia

He arrived in Dubai just as the UAE came into existence. He started working at the Dubai airport in a time where there were no computers and this town was nothing more than a stopover for flights on their way somewhere.  In his 37 years as a Dubai resident, KJ Bhatia raised a family, developed a career, and enjoyed a front row seat to see a world of change in both the city and the region.

As luck would have it, one day as I was shopping for postcards, we struck up a conversation in his shop which would eventually lead to this podcast. This is one man’s story, a rare voice of experience, that runs parallel to the story of a nation. One of my favorite voices from Dubai, Mr. KJ Bhatia.

Al From Manila: Passion for Your Work

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Al From Manila: Passion for Your Work

“You are this guy in the newspaper, who is writing about taxi drivers?” Al catches me off guard as he runs a comb through my hair calculating where his first scissor incursions will be.  I’ve said three sentences to him about where I’m from and what I do and he immediately deduced that I’m the guy featured in a small article in the local 7 Days Dubai newspaper.

12091018683_ba06c40a3eAl is a middle aged bachelor from Manila, who has been cutting hair in Dubai for the past 7 years. With his calm demeanor, he seems to never be impressed by anything, yet at the same time he’s proud to show that he pays attention to what goes on in this city.  He’s a seasoned veteran when it comes to reading people, thanks to years of cutting hair, even before arriving in Dubai.

After almost three weeks of talking with taxi drivers I forget that not everyone bounces from job to job in an effort to stay in the country and send enough money home. When I ask Al what other jobs he has done over the years, he stops cutting to make his response perfectly clear, “I cut hair, this is my passion. It has always been my thing. In this life a person should follow their passion otherwise the job will never be well done or enjoyable.” I look up at the well groomed wise man and blink my eyes slowly to acknowledge his very important point.  After a brief moment of mutual understanding, he gets back to cutting.  “Before this I worked on cruise ships. I saw the world. But always cutting hair.” Al is a rare bird in a city where many people seem to do whatever they can or whatever earns them the most. He cuts hair with great energy, pausing periodically to step back and see what is taking shape.  The salon is not his, but you can feel the respect emanating from his colleagues and even the boss who is sitting a few steps away from us near the cash register.

“Have you gotten many taxi drivers from the Philippines?” he asks with the kind of smile that says, I know the answer. This is a trick question of course, as Al confirms, Philippino people rarely drive taxis in Dubai. “Buses yes! Housekeeping. Hospitality. Everything else. Just not taxi.”

Al proceeds to quiz me about what I am learning from the people I talk with. He even adds some of his own experience he has gotten from behind the salon chair. His observations of Dubai reveal a great appreciation for its diversity and beyond that, as a place where he can do what he loves. I had expected the sharp criticism of labor practices and social separation between  classes that so often gets talked about, especially by my taxi drivers, but Al moves right past that, speaking instead about the country as a multinational land of opportunity.

As the haircut comes to an end, I ask for a shave. Al happily obliges me and it gives us more time to talk. Family, travel, work, the two of us weave in and out of numerous life topics. With the completion of the shave he offers me some other small touches for my hair, which I happily accept. He finishes up, shakes my hand, and tells me it was a pleasure to meet me and all the best with my project. I seize the oppertunity, I ask Al if I can come back and ask him more questions. “It would be my pleasure, anytime in the evening when I finish work.”

Unfortunately for me I didn’t realize that only 24 hours remained of my journey. Errands, goodbyes, and a few more taxi rides would keep me busy and far from the salon. In my last few hours before heading to the airport, I run over to the salon hoping to catch Al on his way home and ask him more specific questions about his life.  As I walk in, a few unfamiliar employees are cleaning up. I’m warmly greeted by the owner who delivers the bad news that Al had already left for the day. He shakes my hand and promises to deliver my goodbye message. “Come back and see us sir, we’d be happy to hear from you and good luck with that project of yours!”

So it goes sometimes, my Dubai adventure goes from a surprising encounter to a missed opportunity.

The Creative Soul of Jumeirah Beach

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The Creative Soul of Jumeirah Beach

Somewhere along the neverending Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai, within view of world famous sky scrapers and people enjoying themselves on the beach, you’ll find a little oasis of healthy food and unique style. The place is Comptoir 102, a concept cafe created and run by my guests on today’s podcast: Alexandra de Montaudouin and Emma Sawko. While their place may not be far from downtown, this little cafe is in a very different world from the brand name corporate culture that took root in Dubai more than a decade ago.

One Day Off Sir

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One Day Off Sir

It is a busy Wednesday evening near the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s most recognized architectural symbol, and there is a line of taxis waiting for passengers. I position myself just out of view of the drivers and watch as people stream out of the shopping mall and into each taxi.  Some drivers argue as they wait, something about a sloppy parking job. One guy gets out of the taxi and is waving his arms around in anger.  He is speaking Urdu I think, with occasional English expressions mixed in. At one point I distinctly hear the gentleman shout towards another driver “go back to Pakistan!”  Ironically I’m almost certain they are both Pakistani. No matter, anger is anger. An Indian gentleman in an official looking uniform comes over with an angry look on his face, he puts himself between the car and the angry man and orders the driver back into his car. He seems to scold them both. Suddenly the argument is over. Back in his vehicle, the frustrated driver revs the engine and dramatically pulls forward into the first position for the next possible pickup.  I stay out of site, determined not to get into a cab with an angry driver.

12091416216_0fa1abd283When I do finally see a cab that seems to eminate positive energy, I hop in and find myself seated next to Dev from Bangladesh.  He and I are immediately interrupted by my phone, as a local photographer is calling to say he has been delayed by a helicopter crash. From my side of the phone I repeat his words in astonishment – “A Helicopter crashed?” – Dev turns his head towards me in a panic, “Sir, where?” The call gets disconnected and I tell him the little information that I know; there was a crash nearby. He politely asks me to call my friend back and ask for more info, there is an air of “concerned driver” and “curious citizen” in his voice. I tell Dev I haven’t got any credit left on my phone to call anyone,  like a reflex he pulls out his phone and hands it to me, “please sir, feel free, you are my guest.” I’m stunned by his kindness and his passion to know about a helicopter crash somewhere on one of the exclusive closed-to-the-pubic islands. I make the call and even as I try to get more facts from my friend, Dev is whispering more questions to me, “casualties sir, any cusualties?” Based on the suffering tone in his voice, you would think he had family on the helicopter. A minute later I hung up the phone and explained that there isn’t much more information at this time.  Dev looked forward at the bumper to bumper traffic with a defeated look on his face, “not much chance to survive that type of crash.”

After a brief few minutes of silence, he asks me about my work. I explain my interest in people working in Dubai, especially taxi drivers. He seems surprised and pleased to hear this, he quickly lays out his main point that he would like the world to know:

“As you have surely seen, Dubai is a city that is very developed and there is so much to do, so much entertainment. It can be a very interesting place and a place where you can forget or enjoy some distraction in a cinema or some musical performance. But we taxi drivers, we work everyday of the week, 12 hours per day. We are tired, often in a bad mood, or else we are confronted with a customer who is in a bad mood and takes it out on us. What we really need is one day off per week. Everyone should have a right to that. One day of per week. That is my one wish I would tell the government and the company, one day off would benefit everyone involved.”

12038890123_94a1ffff61_nHis statement was clear and simple, words that sounded like he had been crafting them over the past few years behind the wheel of this taxi.  I suggested other possible ways to improve the spirit of taxi drivers but he insisted nothing else was important. “We have our salaries, or commission, and for us it is fine and it is enough to send home to our people. But it shouldn’t be so miserable all the time. We could enjoy one day to relax, recharge, and come back in good spirits. We would also be helping the economy by spending some money on entertainment. But the most important thing would be to improve morale. Because as you might have noticed, it is getting worse among drivers.”

His point about morale rang especially true based on my almost 50 taxi rides over the course of 3 weeks. Though many drivers were modest and refused to complain, once you get them talking you hear about the pressure they are dealing with. It is not hard to notice a city wide depression slowly taking hold of these hard working individuals who take thousands of people from point A to point B everyday.  Some passengers might feel like they are the victims of bad drivers who make mistakes or are dishonest in some way, but further research can easily reveal that this is a side effect of a high stress work arrangement.  Yet right here in this 4 door sedan, a man named Dev from Bangladesh is laying out a clear plan for how to address this issue. It was the most constructive conversation about the job I had ever experienced.

As we make our way towards Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dev moves on to talking about marriage and the pains of being away from the person you love most in this world. He explained how he had married for love with a woman he met at university (bachelors degree in economics) and not by family arrangement, going against the tradition of his culture. He was proud of his decisions, including not having had a traditional wedding with hundreds of guests. “My wife and I agreed that we would not be wasting money on some huge traditional wedding, we wanted instead to use this to invest in a house and our future. This is seen as going against tradition but we didn’t care. Some traditions need changing,” he laughed at his own words.

Within 2 blocks of my destination traffic comes to a halt. Dev squints into the sea of tail lights and offers me advice, “You would have better luck walking from here, you’ll get there faster and you’re young, two blocks walking is good for your health.” We both laugh at the suggestion and I count out the money I owe him plus a little extra. Before I’m even done figuring out the money he surprises me by extending a hand to shake mine, “Can I tell you sir, it is a real pleasure to have had this time with you. Something really unexpected and enjoyable. Thank you so much and I’m going to pray for you sir.” I shake his hand and tell him he has taught me many things on this trip. Caught up in the moment, despite not being religious, I tell him I will pray for him and his family as well; that they have good health and a wonderful future together.  As I open the door, another customer is ready to get in. I pause and tell her, “Take care of him, he’s a great person!”