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

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.

Taxi Psychiatry

When you set out on a mission of the type I chose with the Dubai Taxi Project, you never know exactly what is going to happen and what result you will come back with.  Based on previous journeys and a decade of experience in the field of personal media I knew that these individuals had stories to tell that anyone with a heart and a brain could appreciate. Stories that are not often heard because they come from people who are rarely, if ever, given the spotlight in this world of 24 hour news media and trending twitter topics.

Photo Credit: Satish Kumar / The National.

Photo Credit: Satish Kumar / The National.

Though I expected to get great personal stories, what I had not foreseen, was the positive role I would fulfill for taxi drivers.  In asking questions, sharing experiences, and listening without judgement, I inadvertently became an informal psychiatrist in the passenger seat. Whether we were sitting in traffic or speeding down the highway, these men were telling their life stories and talking about what was most on their mind. We would often discuss things that bring them both joy and sadness in their lives and by the end of the ride, something interesting – I would even say positive- had happened.

One particular driver was an avid football fan, playing in some mid-level league of the UAE when he wasn’t on duty. In the 30 minutes we spent together, he laid out his playing career, how it started in Iran, the dream to play first division, and the pressure to earn money and support a long list of family members back in Pakistan.  He told his story with a mix of pride, hope, and frustration, as he hadn’t managed to reach a level in football where he could earn enough money to send home. He wondered if he hadn’t missed his window of opportunity. As we drove he seemed to be taking stock of his own life so far and what his chances are to still achieve the dream.  Upon arrival at our destination, he stopped the car and said “Sir, you’ve really changed my day today. I  was kind of miserable and feeling sorry for myself, and now I’m feeling good, I have a good dream which I want to achieve.”

Other drivers thanked me repeatedly for my good attitude, which was really the result of asking them how their day is going, where they are from, details about their family, and what other work they had done or wish to do in the future. This was basically the blueprint for getting a taxi driver to open up and often – feel good.  They would talk about how most people don’t talk to them or ask them anything. Frequent mentions of being yelled at for not knowing a destination or making some other mistake.  Of course there were also the long hours, 12 hour shifts to be exact, which by the end would leave them tired and frustrated, looking forward to the end of their shifts though not really looking forward to going back to their cramped or messy apartments.

It seems to me, based on all the personal stories and the details of their day to day lives, when it comes to mental health, taxi drivers are being pushed to the edge in the year 2014. You could blame the city. You could also blame their employers.  But beyond either of those, I think the people who sit in these taxis everyday are a major part of the equation.  They are the ones who ignore or treat drivers with disrespect. Even though they may not do so purposely or even consciously, it is happening. And such a toxic combination is bad for all parties involved; bad for the drivers, bad for that next passenger, bad for other people on the road, and bad for the communities in which all these depressed workers live.

Obviously I and my brief project, am nobody in the grand scheme of Dubai life. A better, more well based analysis could surely be conducted by a professional sociologist or researcher. But if you ask me what I was surprised to learn from my 50+ taxi rides over the course of 3 weeks in this country, it would be that my story gathering project ended up being a kind of therapy for my interviewees.  I thought I was working for you the audience or my own curiosity, but I also ended up doing something for each individual driver that opened up to me.  Based on that, if a city official or concerned citizen ever asked me for a recommendation, I’d say be kind to your taxi driver, treat them with respect like you would your neighbors, for the good of your city. Otherwise, Dubai will go the way of every other shiny metropolis of miserable people on this planet.

Wasted My Life Chasing Money

Life wisdom comes from unexpected places at unexpected times. On one particular evening I was making my way from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and I found myself seated next to Mr. AJ from Nepal, a taxi driver-philosopher-extraordinaire.  As I got into the car I asked how is life? and his immediate response was, “I am a bad man, I have wasted my life chasing money.”  I knew right there, this was going to be an interesting ride.

Making a life in Nepal has become more and more difficult over the past 20 years and as a result, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese are now working outside the country and sending money home to family members. They can be found in countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the UAE, and until recently Saudi Arabia. Mr. AJ has tried working in many of these countries but a combination ofhostile politics and racism would eventually land him in Abu Dhabi, a place he doesn’t love, but has come to understand.  At the age of 36 he has arrived at a life altering realization, all these years spent “chasing money”, away from his family and the people he loves, have been wasted. The pursuit of material things has led him to the conclusion that he and many people like him have been focusing on the wrong things in life. What is needed to find true satisfaction and happiness, Mr. AJ explains, “is to either help someone or grow something.”

During this long car ride we talked at length about what humans are doing with this planet and with their lives, and what could be done to improve things, and what we as individuals will do in the coming years in an effort to reach that happy place so many of us wish for.  It’s an example of taxicab wisdom at its best and a great example of why I wanted to do this series in the first place.

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!”