Back in Dubai. Briefly.

Just over one year since the Dubai Taxi Project, I found myself back in Dubai as a supporter of my partner and her teammates on the Dutch National Beach Ultimate Frisbee Team competing at the World Championships. A far different occasion than trying to record stories with taxi drivers and others who are pursuing some goal in Dubai. But nonetheless, a chance to reconnect with the city that left a lasting impression on me, that I have no shame in saying – I like.

IMG_8089One year later Dubai is as busy and bustling as I left it, with many buildings having been completed that were well underway some months ago. As a fan of urban planning, one very interesting development I got to experience regularly was a new tram line down at the Marina. First they impressed the world with their shiny efficient metro, now they’ve gotten into the tram game. And while some locals joked with me that you could walk faster than the tram goes and that you’ll feel rather lonely as no one uses it, I found the tram to be comfortable and good for getting me to places that the metro can’t. But yes it was a bit lonely in there.

The news tells us that the UAE is involved with the joint military operations against ISIS, which sounds heavy yet in Dubai, a very abstract idea. Here it is still what it has long been about- the projects, the work, the business opportunities. Money and development are the priority, later for all that talk about war, poverty, and the rise of the fundamentalist state.

I took far fewer taxi’s this year, both because my budget is small and public transport meets my needs when it comes to getting to a beach frisbee tournament on a daily basis. But when I did get into a taxi, it was very much a continuation of the podcast… minus the microphone.

“Best job I ever had was working for the metro. Good salary, steady work, and we built this beautiful line you see over us. It was a joint venture with a Japanese firm and they employed so many people,” Mo the driver explains as we drive down the busy Sheik Zayed highway which cuts through the middle of the city. “But now its finished. No more big projects like that. Now I just drive a cab. It’s no good.” In his almost 10 years in Dubai, Mo, who hails originally from the troubled city of Peshawar, Pakistan, has done a long list of odd jobs. Mostly as a driver; cars, trucks, loading vehicles, you name it. His story is a familiar one. Last year I drove with a gentleman from Kerala who had worked on the Burj Khalifa. Once the building was completed in 2010, he too was out of work and back to the low paying, long hours of driving a taxi.

Back to my man Mo and our conversation about life, he began to talk about things back home in Pakistan. “Some years ago, when money was better, I moved my family out of Peshawar to Islamabad. It was expensive to move but for the good of my children I did it. In Peshawar it is very difficult for girls to go to school, and we want our daughter to attend school, which now she does in the capital. It is sad but our home region is in a terrible state…” Mo’s voice trails off as he looks over the long line of traffic that has come to a standstill in front of us.

What followed was a very familiar and pleasant exchange about the evils of corruption and the importance of planning for a country or city. He complimented Dubai, despite his own disillusionment with his job, as a place that is not held back by the perils of corruption or lack of initiative. By the end of the taxi ride we were discussing a better world where people are honest and help one another. Again as I so often did in the past, I paid the fare with a generous tip and we shook hands and exchanged well wishes for family members and the future.

Some might say, there is nothing new here under the sun, we knew there were good people in this city, trying hard to make a better life for their loved ones doing work that is neither easy nor well compensated. For me there doesn’t have to be anything new in these stories. I’m happy to hear the voices of those who rarely get a chance to speak, to let them know they are not invisible or alone in wishing and working for a better future. It is brief. It is fleeting. But I still feel it is worth something.

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Live from Shanghai: In the Land of China

avatar Mark Fonseca Rendeiro
In Shanghai, China
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ctrp473_141128“Fate also plays a role, ” says the middle aged head of an investment group in the sky lobby of the world financial center as we look out over Shanghai, “just imagine the odds that you and I would be here in this building in this city at the same time and have this conversation.”  — Whether it is the result of fate or some of the most genius moves in recent history, I find myself in the world’s largest city, seemingly in the epicenter of the most important place in the world. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” has long been New York City’s motto, but while they were busy singing the same ol tune in the empire state, Shanghai kept chugging right along and one day the world awoke to find that it is now Shanghai where if you make it here, you can definitely make it anywhere. Sorry Frank, somewhere along the way Mao stole your thunder.

The following is a podcast of my reflections and things I have learned during my educational visit to Shanghai this week.  Have a listen!

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Zambians in China

15689664878_2f01c142b2_zThe Dubai to Shanghai Emirates flight is jam packed with people eager to get to the people’s republic. I’m in the aisle seat with two jovial middle aged men to my right. They’re joking about the food or the flight attendant who always ignores their requests for food or drink, they speak with different accents yet they seem to know each other fairly well. The jokes are funny and kind hearted- it is going to be a nice flight.

Along the way more jokes mixed with pearls of wisdom about travel, airplanes, doing business in China as well as life in Zambia. These two gentlemen live in Zambia. One is a native son of Zambia with a fantastic sense of humor and a kindness you rarely see on a long haul flight. The other, to my surprise, is Portuguese, working the last decade or so for a Portuguese construction company based in Zambia. Their destination, a construction vehicle exposition in Shanghai. Because as you should already know and these two gentlemen remind me, down in Africa, it is the Chinese that go for every contract and manufacture some of the most budget friendly vehicles for those big infrastructure projects.

“You never know what you’re going to get; sometimes the projects are done well and you can see it when roads or houses last over the years. Other times the projects are of poor quality; roads and structures are falling apart within only a few years… you have to be careful because choosing the lowest bidder is not always the best thing for the country in the long term.”

Again, themes we hear about in the press and from first hand observers over the past decade. The conversation carries on and each man shares experiences dealing with Chinese development corporations and machinery companies; the good sides, the bad sides, the in between details. They’re both pleased to be coming to Shanghai, a place that is tens of thousands of miles away from home but that plays a very significant role it what happens there in the coming years.

As we made our approach to Pudong Airport, the interesting conversation carried on, moving from Portuguese politics to Zambian politics and the intricacies of each. Pulling into the gate, cards are exchanged, handshakes, best wishes, and off we go to our respective missions in China.  I make a mental note, get over to Zambia, I’d like to see that lovely country.

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Welcome to the Future, China

photo by freshwater2006 / flickr
photo by freshwater2006 / flickr

During a presentation today, somewhere in Shanghai in a tall shiny building, a slide went up showing Shanghai’s PuDong skyline in 1990; green, flat, open space; and Pudong in 2014; packed with skyscaper after skyscraper, the new avatar of this megacity.  In 24 years it is almost unfathomable how much a place can change. It is pretty. It is cool. Is it good? Surely for somebody. Is it bad? Oh, surely in a few ways as well. But is it real – at this point I can tell you it is very real.

I feel like I grew up in the era where people said China would be an economic powerhouse, and now I live as an adult in that world. But somehow it is always a media story, always filtered through the internet and second hand stories, when you see it up close, that is when the world as you know it looks very different. That is when predictions and forecasts become reality.

“They don’t speak much english,” my fellow travelers often remark about people in Shanghai. — Why should they? It is their world. This one and the big one out there. And the way this powerful wind blows, it is for us to learn about them far less then it is for them to learn about us. Even if both of those would be beneficial to all and fun.

I can’t yet tell you about Shanghai. After seven days I probably still won’t be qualified or capable. But here on the ground in South Shanghai where buildings are low and the streets are empty at night, it is above all an interesting and intricate world. I’m only in the beginning phases of getting to know it.

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