Meeting One’s Parallel, Past and Future Lives In Travels
“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”― David Mitchell
“Where are you from?” It’s the number one question we were asked and asked others on this trip. It was a question that had potentially layers of responses. This is not just what country we were raised in, but where were we living, where did our ancestors come from, and where did we aspire to live? One of the most interesting things about travel is the people you meet, if you give yourself the opportunity to exchange words with strangers. On this most recent trip to the UAE, we met people from India, Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal, Uganda, Egypt, Algeria, Greece, Germany, Singapore, England, Netherlands, and America. This is a tiny glimpse of who exists on this land.
Dubai is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The local population in the UAE is anywhere from 8-20%. One guide alluded to the fact that many of the locals do not work, having received large portions of their finances from oil. Oil was discovered only decades earlier, which brought the new found wealth to the country to a group of people who were nomadic bedouines. He noted that in addition to receiving free healthcare and education, some newlyweds are offered land or villas to assist with their new start in life. When we asked our tour guide if he was of local Emirates descent, he responded “would I be giving this tour if I was?” He said this as he drove us around six of the seven Emirates in one day, he worked seven days a week, giving group and private tours, and sleeps several hours a night balancing work life, family life, and playing professional cricket.
We know that a country can’t survive if nobody works, particularly countries such as the UAE that are developing at such a fast place. This means that 80-92% living in the UAE are expats. Newer digital nomads from Western countries move here due to tax breaks, with zero percent income tax. A fellow German explorer who was on this Emirates tour with us lived in Saudi Arabia for over the past ten years working as a HR consultant for a wealthy family and their multiple businesses. He loved the Middle East and wanted to move to Dubai with his Mexican wife who lives in Qatar, for these exact tax benefits and to expand his business. But not everyone has the financial freedom to live anywhere.
It’s been said that 50% of the population are from India, and another large majority are Filipino. Our Ugandan waitress at a Japanese restaurant asked my friend and I if it was the first time we went to this restaurant. We nodded are heads, as we were there during a Wednesday, which coincided with all you can eat sushi night. Shethought we were expats who were splurging on our night off. It made sense, because I am a mix of Filipina and Eastern European descent and my friend Isabella is Thai. We were brown just like everyone else we saw on the metro and streets. We looked like we could be living here, fellow servers in another restaurant. And if things were different, maybe we would be.
I couldn’t help but think of a parallel life I would have, if my grandmother never immigrated to America from the Philippines. I have mixed feelings with being American, particularly having lived in the UK and Europe for the past 10 years. But I often forget the world of opportunities that are available with an American passport and making a salary in USD.
The UAE is welcoming to those wanting to come to their country, allowing one to attain a work visa while on a tourist visa. But for some individuals in service industry jobs, one wonders what it is really like. Pay is low (although probably more than that of one’s third world country), health care is provided, transportation to and from one’s job is also offered. This is in addition to lodging, but transportation is on large school buses. Tourists are enamored by the bright lights of the skyskrapers and the fountain show in front of the flashing Burj Khalifa. One only has to look a little further outside a taxi or bus window to see the lines forming on the side entrances of malls or hotels, picking up and dropping off staff members at transitional hours. The UAE is expensive and therefore having housing benefits is a perk, but it’s been said that people may have up to 10 roommates in a 1bedroom apartment. I shared this story to friends in Paris, and they had heard rumors of passports being taken until debts are paid back to those who brought them over to the UAE. My ex-husband who was Italian American told me this years ago as he was sent to Dubai to open a new restaurant, but I couldn’t fathom the depths of struggle industry workers from third world countries were facing.
This blows my mind, and I wonder how this occurs in a land that many pilgrimage to in order to see these astounding feats of human creation. The UAE has created man made islands, engages in cloud seeding (where planes fly into clouds to produce rain), there are ever increasing skyscrapers and it boasts the most records in the Guinness Book of World Records, with such extravagances as the largest mall, the tallest building, and the largest gold piece of jewelry. These extravagances are built on the backs making meager income. It is a choice to work in the UAE, but how much freedom do these people have?
We often forget that physical space, such as one bedroom apartments, are a luxury many of us are privy to. Sacrifices are made to live in the UAE with one’s privacy, living situation, weather, and working hours. Oftentimes money is sent back to families in their homeland, expat parents may be providing money for grandparents or aunties and uncles caring for their own biological children they had to leave behind for all to lead “better” lives. I pondered what my life would have been like, if my grandmother, aunt, and mother never left the Philippines. Although they had great jobs in the medical field and we came from a wealthy family, who would I be if they hadn’t been willing to take the leap to move to a new land?
We talked with some of the people we met who moved to the UAE from other countries and now had aspirations to move to Nordic territories such as Finland or Sweden. Although these countries are also some of the most expensive in the world and can get extremely cold, it was an aspiration to live in these exotic lands. The UAE was to be a springboard for their next dream. They were paying their dues working hard there to aspire to advance to places with more freedom, income, and flexibility within the EU.
There were other moments of my future and past meeting me on this trip. On an hour long cruise along the Dubai Creek, we met three individuals travelling together. We thought they were a cute adult family, but it turns out two were Caucasian coworkers at a travel company and the other Hispanic individual who was travelling with them they had just met and asked to come along: Mike, Joan, and Toey. One of the individuals, Mike, was our ideal future travel self. Both Isabella and I set a goal recently to join the Travel Century Club (TCC) before we turn 50. To join TCC one must travel to at least 100 territories, which is more expansive than countries. After the UAE, I am currently at 75 territories and 53 countries. Mike was familiar with TCC, as he has travelled to over 165 territories, including the North Pole and Antarctica several times. This 68-year-old man was a kindred spirit because he encouraged us to go to Unesco World Heritage sites and National Parks. These are places Isabella always strives to visit, and this year I had applied to work at both of these organizations. Both Joan and Mike were on a cruise together throughout Greece and Egypt and met fellow passenger Toey. Mike was supposed to have his girlfriend come on this extended holiday with him, but she wasn’t able to make it, therefore they invited Toey for the ride. Toey was a young special education teacher from Texas, who bought a one way ticket to Europe, as he was on disability leave. He never had time or money to travel, as he was always working. Now was his chance, he had little plans and allowed moments of synchronicity to arise on this trip. Mike felt empathy and compassion for Toey, being a previous educator himself, and offered an invitation for him to tag along and take his girlfriend’s spot on the remainder of his Middle Eastern and European journey. Mike was paying travel privileges forward, and I had a feeling in the future Toey would do the same to another stranger.
On another excursion to the Dubai Spice and Gold Souks, we met two African American coworkers from Washington DC, who were court reporters. They appeared to be in their fifties to sixties and had travelled the world together. I had realized that Isabella and I were also prior coworkers, as we met on the set of filming a television show over twenty years ago on a set in Los Angeles. We have also taken trips around the world together. This was their second time in Dubai in two years. They loved it so much and there was more to experience on their UAE bucket list they had yet to achieve, so they returned. Their zest for life was how we aspire to continue to wander the world and make the most of the vacations we have. Time passed on the large souk tour, and we lost track of these fellow travellers. I noted to Isabella how we didn’t get to say goodbye, but the Universe wanted to ensure we did. That same evening, after getting lost in the world’s largest mall, the Dubai Mall, we ran into them, shared our days’ experiences, and grabbed a selfie. We were them and they were us.
The following day our jam packed adventure tour included two young 30 something men from Greece, and an African American fifty something married couple from Columbus Ohio. These young men were working as engineers on a construction project and were in Dubai for the past 20 days. That day was their first day off that month, and we could tell they were letting off steam as they glided and weaved in and out of their atvs or surfing on the sand dunes. Their past several years were filled with 12 hours work days in foreign countries, sacrifices made for their future selves. Both Isabella and I could relate to this offering much of our energy and time in our 30s to our jobs, making the most out of any amount of free time we had. In regards to the Ohio couple, he was retired working for the military, living in various places in America throughout his life, including Hawaii but being raised in New York. I was born in Ohio, and meeting someone from Ohio in the Middle East is simply wild. We talked story of Ohio State football culture, which has it’s own traditions. In addition, their military and New York and Hawaii life resonated with me, as I have worked with them, lived in NYC and Hawaii twice myself.
These are reflections I have on my Air France flight back to Spain, as an American, where I currently reside which has a layover in Paris, where I lived last year. All versions of me being an amalgamation on one trip. What’s so fascinating with this trip is that Dubai seemed like every place and no place. The downtown city skyline was endless and took the best brands from multiple countries of hotel chains, restaurants, cafes, grocery lines, and clothing stores and brought them all there. It’s a wealthy city which refreshingly smells of sandalwood everywhere you go, and is a melting pot of expat workers whose sole existence is to build, serve, and grow this land into a cosmopolitan luxury superpower and have bragging rights for as many world records as possible. With every person we met, regardless of their ethnicity or occupation, I could relate. In some way, whether in a past, present, future, or parallel world- they all could be me. It’s vital to see the similarities amidst the differences and to be able to see ourselves in others. Take the time to talk to strangers, whether fellow travelers or staff members. Who knows which version of you will be met on your next trip?