15 Years ago I arrived in Dubai as an excited and eager decorative painter, ready to start a new challenge. I was accompanied by three South African colleagues and we all had mixed feelings about arriving in what was then a relatively unknown place called Dubai.
I remember the day was warm and clear and everything looked immaculate compared to the hustle and bustle of messy South Africa!
The buildings sparkled like diamonds in the bright morning light and I remember being amazed at how the city seemed perched on the sand dunes…back then the road system was in its infancy and there was really only one main road (with two lanes either way) called Sheikh Zayed Road.
It is now a thriving city and there is very little sand to be seen between the high rise steel and glass towers and villas which make up Dubai, and with all the development, I have to say, a lot of the initial charm and fascination I felt in those early days has given way to my somewhat jaded view of life in this strangely surreal place!!
I have learned a LOT living here…I have learned that I love meeting people from all cultures and all walks of life.
I have learned that I have integrity and grit that no matter what, I can still stand strong. I have learned to love Middle Eastern food and that Indian food does not agree with me……I have learned that I HATE shopping in malls (I know I know…what is that all about?) and that I have come to tire of the ” newness” and lack of age and patina which Dubai prides itself on.
I have learned to live in a luxury three bedroom apartment with gym , pool and sauna and I have learned to live in a tiny studio apartment in a suburb almost half an hour out of the city…I have learned to drive really well under conditions which would have most sane people curled up into a ball under a table sobbing and which would challenge the most competent of F1 drivers!
I have learned that while I love good design and style, labels now mean almost nothing to me anymore because almost everyone has Chanel sunglasses, a Louis Vuitton bag or Prada heels. Its a case of overkill I think and I have become almost numbed by the wealth of designer gear I see on a daily basis. (Does that sound awful? I think it might but I don’t mean it to!I know a lot of people feel the same way)
I have learned to speak Hindi and a little Arabic and I have learned to bargain and haggle like a seasoned trader in a marketplace.
I have learned to deal with pressure on projects which 15 years ago would have given me a nervous breakdown and I have learned the phrase ” Inshallah” which basically means all in God’s time! I have learned that here you hurry and wait…you issue quotations based on a prescribed time for your work, the project begins and your work is delayed and delayed until you end up packing 6 months work into 2 months…all for the same price of course. I have learned to work at the strangest of hours in order to complete projects on time and under budget!
I have learned the meaning of true friendship…your friends become your family here because you are so far away from your family back home. I have also learned that while people may appear to be friends, when times are hard a lot of them simply disappear and leave you stranded.
I have learned patience and tolerance for people of all nationalities and all colours and I have learned business skills which I am certain will stand me in good stead in my future endeavors, because nowhere can be as challenging to do business as Dubai, of that I am sure!
I have learned that my heart can ache with an indescribable longing for the country of my birth-something which surprises me regularly…the longing for the smell of the rain , the wide open spaces and the blue of the African sky on a hot summer day. The sadness I feel at the fact that I no longer feel part of what made me the person I am today, is something I constantly push to the back of my mind, yet it is always there, catching me off-guard at the strangest times.
I have learned that as an expat living in a Muslim country I have had to open my mind to the nuances of a religion not dissimilar to my own, and yet perceived by so many to be foreign and unknown. One of the greatest experiences I have had here has been discovering that fundamentally, no matter our religion or Nationality, every human wants almost exactly the same thing for themselves and their children.
I have learned that living in a country ruled by a Monarchy can be an incredibly positive experience and that our ruler, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum , is an inspirational and dynamic leader and is taking this incredible country to unimaginable success.
I have learned of the most incredible acts of charity by our leaders, who donate massive amounts of money to help war torn refugees in Syria and Lebanon, children in Africa and India who have no access to clean water and even expats in the UAE who require medical care and are unable to pay for it. The generosity and hospitality of the local Emirati nation has surprised and delighted me on numerous occasions.
All in all, living the expat life as I have for 15 years, I have grown so much as a person …far more so than I would have had I continued to stay on in South Africa. I think in my heart of hearts I know I will probably not ever live in South Africa again and even if I did, it would be an unsettled existence because of the freedom and safety I have experienced here and the opportunities to travel…Dubai truly is a travel hub and is about 3 hours away from India, Lebanon and Turkey…all incredible destinations to spend a long weekend away. Travel from our airport is the simplest I have ever had to negotiate anywhere in the world -in terms of ease of access and comfort. It is always a thrill to leave from Terminal 3 , even though I am incredibly uptight about flying!!
When it comes to comfort, our lives here are very easy. Salon services are very affordable and one can have nails done, eyebrows threaded and tinted and perhaps a massage for under $70. How are we ever going to go back to “real-life” ? Most of us have domestic help too…I have a wonderful lady who comes once a week to clean my floors ,dust and also do my ironing! Because I usually work until after 6pm every night, this is a huge help as I , like most working women, simply do not have time to do housework after I get home, and having just a Friday as a day off means I do most of my chores (wash clothes, shop for the week etc) on that day and then I am back at work on Saturday…no rest for the wicked it seems!
I do feel that the city has grown at the speed of light and in so doing has lost a lot of its ” Arabic charm” as well as a lot of intimacy …back in the day, it was a lot easier to get around the city very quickly and I knew a lot more people because there were two or three “watering holes” and only one or two clubs and everyone went there after work and at weekends. The infamous “brunches” which have landed more than one inebriated young thing on the front pages of the British tabloids, were much more sedate and far less pricey occasions. There were challenges then too of course…I used to have to air freight paints and glazes from South Africa and brushes from the UK because they were just NOT available here . Not only was that inconvenient but costly too ,but slowly the suppliers started bringing in specialist paints and brushes and now I can get pretty much whatever I need…as long as I know where to go!
I am often asked how much longer I will stay here…in short…while there is still work for me, I will continue to stay, but there are plans to move of course..as an expat I can never live here with any sense of permanence and it is most certainly not a place for old people. Too flashy, too fast and too expensive…its a city built for excitement and glamour , not slippers and bingo!
When I do eventually leave, I will miss so much about this insanely busy, maddeningly chaotic city with its glittering buildings, congested roads and more exotic cars than we know what to do with! As I said before, how am I ever going to go back to real life?