Boncie is supposed to pick me up from this massive airport quite early, but she did mention she would probably oversleep. I tried ringing her back at the equally impressive Hamad airport in Doha but it was past midnight, and Face-timing her while hurrying to my departure gate is quite difficult to do. I don’t normally check my bags in as I usually like being the first person out of the airport terminal. I am wishing I hadn’t brought so many gadgets with me. Now they’re dangling all over my neck, from my armpits and an ear, that every once in awhile, the lady from behind in a beautiful sari would pick something up and hand over to me. It’s almost ten and still no Boncie in sight, so I decide to book a hotel room in the working-man’s district of Deira, the Emirate’s former center of commerce, in the off-chance that she might have forgotten I am coming today instead of yesterday or tomorrow.
I leave behind Dubai’s massive airport in the innards of the shiny Dubai Metro. Although it only has two lines, it is pretty extensive, so I shouldn’t have a problem getting anywhere. Immediately, the sound is familiar. Everybody on the subway seems to come from The Philippines or India—the mother telling her son on the phone to do a homework once-over before heading to school in her Northern dialect, the lovers ogling at each other without touching straight out of a telenovela. Or Pushing Daisies. The harried dad with the overstuffed luggage, meticulously tagged and saran-wrapped to oblivion as though his lifelong dream were in it. And it might be, who’s to say? The only thing preventing me from thinking I am back in Manila is the absence of a commuter’s elbow on my cheek or his breath down my neck. So many young Pinoys so that Dubai’s population is 21.3% Filipino. Second only to Indians and way ahead of the Emiratis. Unsurprising as over the last decade, the United Arab Emirates’ meteoric rise in the world economic stage and its active transition from energy-export into a more diverse economy has required a huge amount of English-speaking labor. At the top of my head, I know at least ten people I grew up or went to school with who now call Dubai home. One of them is Boncie.
After taking a quick nap and an equally speedy shower, I jump back onto the subway, but not before buying a socket adapter. I probably should be the last person to forget this, but yes, I always assume everyone’s lives are run by two, flat prongs. The other thing is that I always have a padlock in my backpack without the keys.
This is a very short visit as I need to get back to Kuala Lumpur to catch a flight back to the States where my school books lay uncuddled and unloved. So right away, I head to Burj Khalifa, which has become, due to its invasive vertical breadth, the emirate’s de facto compass. I am in a subway one moment, and on an elevated track the next as the metro glides into and out of desert tunnels. Sheikh Zayed Road, a flagrant underestimation for a road, zooms past in a canyon of glass and polished steel. Down below are fancy European cars in traffic and desert fairy dust. I overhear from another commuter talking to his mom on the phone in Cebuano that a sand storm just blanketed the city last Friday. I wander away in thought asking myself if I prefer rainstorms in the tropics, lightning storms in Florida, or sandstorms in the middle east. When I decide I hate them all, the train halts at my stop and I start the respectable trek to the massive Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa.
The Dubai Mall reminds me a little of the Suria KLCC in KL in that it has a miracle of engineering and physics in its backyard waiting to be explained to a six-year old. Hurrying to the other end for my awesome view, I walk past bespoke stores so nondescript, they are painfully trendy. I see another Italian storefront in my periphery and ask myself, who the heck would wear that?
The building is extremely imposing I forget how the sandwich I ordered at TGI Fridays tasted like. Everything around it literally fades into the background. There is a dancing fountain with some Venetian tricks that people ooh and aah to, but I am quite taken by the immensity of the tower, and by extension, the sheer power of the human brain. Well maybe the power of computers and truckloads of petrodollars, too, but the human brain, mostly.
Sunset begins and with some piped Arabic music; the place takes on a pinkish glow. I get a text from Boncie telling me she got caught up with something and that she’ll just meet me at my hotel and that she’s on her way. I quickly go to the 124th or 125th floor (Who cares anymore? After the 110th, you lose count) to scan the cityscape, but clouds obscure most of the view. So I zip back down, equalize my ear pressure scuba-style several times, take blurry photos and head back to Deira.
We check out of the hotel, grab some hummus and olives at a nearby restaurant and take a cab to her apartment on the other side of Dubai. She explains the quirks of her adopted society, its heavily leveraged economy, her lifestyle as an expat, and the palpable but oft-denied labor force food-chain, an almost caste system. Boncie works in both Dubai and London but amid all these, she still prefers Dubai. I ask her why, and she answers, “Where do I start?”
The beach. The sun. The food. The cost. The ease. And Emirates Airline. Boncie has her own share of globe-trotting because Emirates flies to anywhere it can fly its planes to (hello, Panama?). When I was in Brazil I could have sworn I saw a plane in their livery at Galeao. I ask her if Dubai were her end stop. She says no. And by that I read that she rather means for it to be a stop-over. And perhaps pragmatically so, because the UAE has strict rules on the road to citizenship, where basically, the road is non-existent. She also adds that her culture, being Filipino and mostly western, is so different from her host country, that it would be best to retire somewhere else than burden herself with mores she cannot organically abide by. What if a prince proposes to you, I rib her. She laughs and asks, “Do you wanna go off-roading in the sand dunes tomorrow or do you wanna go surfing?”
The next day, we hurry to Jumeirah beach to catch some sun. The water is warm and the sand is the color of honey. Save for the absence of bacchanalia, Jumeirah seems like Miami on steroids. Skyscrapers line the seashore like a wall of ochre sandstone dividing the bikinied from the heavily clothed. I ask Boncie how she reconciles this, to which she answers, Dubai is the most tolerant emirate in the UAE. It has instituted a sort of double standard for foreigners and for its nationals. You can still do a lot of things which do not warrant a bat of an eyelash in the west, as long as you do them in appropriate areas and at appropriate times.
Since I have a lot to cover and very little time, we decide to rent a car and forego the subway. We go to the Palm Islands, of which, in the not so distant boom-time past, celebrities from all over the world clamored for a piece. It is another sight to behold, I suppose, if you were wealthy enough to afford your own plane. Or middle class enough to afford a sky dive for 2,000.00 Dirhams or $550.00 to see a man-made archipelago resembling a palm tree. I am neither, and I could only afford a Toyota rental, so we drive over the causeway into the palm lined islands which look like Anytown, Florida, sans golf-carts and alligators. At the very tip, Boncie points to the Atlantis Dubai, a dead-ringer for Atlantis Nassau, whose launch in 2008 was a $16,000,000.00, fifteen-minute extravaganza of fireworks and Hollywood who’s-who—arguably the most expensive fifteen minutes of fame ever orchestrated. And then of course, you know what happened after 2008.
I get hungry and ask Boncie to bring me somewhere less ritzy, like a food truck or something. We drive back to Jumeirah where she takes me to the food highlight of my trip, which is a hollowed out cargo container serving slops of Kerala curry and rice, fried fish and shrimp, fresh off the dhows from the dock nearby. We squeeze into Bu Qtair with a crowd of laborers, a smattering of white-collared execs and two other tourists who probably saw the Anthony Bourdain show, and elbow to elbow, I begin eating with my right hand (because, Boncie warns, the the left is traditionally used for other purposes), in a communal table with the verve and finesse of a stevedore.
We take pictures of the nice, sailboat-looking, and extremely expensive Burj al Arab Hotel and drive up to the the older part of the emirate where Al Fahidi Fort houses the museum. It is a diminutive construction of coral rock and mortar which is probably smaller than it used to be when it was still being militarily employed. To one side is a tower used to funnel wind down into the lower level as a form of pre-electric air conditioning system. In the basement is a good collection of historical artifacts and dioramas depicting a utilitarian lifestyle before black gold changed everything.
We then walk across the street towards the Dubai Creek, again a drastic underestimation, to catch a dhow to the other side. Dubai Creek’s dhows are iconic in that they have been, and are still, giving the working public a convenient way to cross the banks, not unlike the Star Ferries in Kowloon. The sun begins to set and while my flight does not leave until nine pm, I feel nervous not making it. Boncie tells me to relax. This is Dubai, she says, and you are flying out of one of the most efficient airports in the world, so you should leave your Atlanta or O’hare fears behind. She walks me to a souk where I get everyone in my family pashminas (because shopping stresses me out), while she buys a pair of Aladdin shoes for my younger sister, her childhood playmate, and some frankincense for my mom. At the edge of the souk is a creekside cafe that serves the best mint lime juice I have ever tasted. We share a dessert and watch the sun set over the din of clanking dhow engines and the blunt thumping of rubber tire bumpers on steel jetties. Boncie sighs and tells me that these days, the people who take the dhows are mostly foreign workers and curious tourists and that it is getting harder and harder to get an affordable and authentic Dubai experience in the middle of all this development.
What I can make out of all our conversations is that Dubai has wisely played its cards. In its desire to wean itself of dependence from energy-based exports, it has used tolerance as capital to gain a sizeable chunk of the world tourism economy and the world knowledge economy. And though tourism is readily evident—upwards of thirteen million visitors in ‘14—innovation and education are steadily gaining momentum with a couple of western universities and research institutes opening branches in the emirate and in nearby Abu Dhabi. And because it is geographically strategic, trade becomes a byproduct, which also fuels its economy. All of these are good but are not rid of collateral damage, especially in the labor industry, that is why it is hard for me to look at buildings such as the Burj Kalifa and the Burj al Arab and fancy fountains and palm islands and beachside resorts and not think about stories of short-changed laborers or incarcerated single, pregnant women, and their dependent families in Kathmandu or Pune or Karachi. On the drive to the airport, Boncie reminds me that in all of this, we are but visitors who are expected to abide by the rules of the house.
No question about it. The house is grand, the food is excellent, and I am grateful for a most gracious host. But being in Dubai reminds me of that sweaty after-lunch feeling in Bu Qtair. Straight-up good food. No fancy nothing. Just a fish head staring back at you, punishing you with its bone stuck in your throat.