I don’t particularly love Dubai. I don’t hate it either. It’s a place on my comme ci, comme ça list.
Before traveling to the United Arab Emirates with my mom, I was hooked on an artist named Xyza Cruz Bacani; her black and white photographs and her somewhat similar journey in life to Vivian Maier, a nanny and a photographer. We’re both Filipinas, so that made it even more interesting for me. At the airport, I decided to try something new on this trip – photographing solely in black and white. Somehow, the images and their lack of colors translated into how I felt about the place (which was different from how I felt about the trip) – a sense of magnanimous contrasts yet a developing discovery of similitude in the nature of humanity.
Aside from exploring the mosques and malls and deserts and souks of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we also came to visit relatives from my homeland – the Philippines. We stayed at my aunt’s house for the entire trip. I would observe the everyday life of a working Filipino, while at the same time being a tourist in a country not my own but somehow appearing like my own. In Dubai, 20% of the population are Filipinos. I observed them walking and talking and working all types of jobs all over the city.
So, what is life like really there?
In a quiet village situated near the Dubai International Airport stands a particular concrete house where six people dwell. As early as before the sun rises, my younger aunt and her housemates stir in their bunk-beds and start their day. They eat a typical Filipino rice meal for breakfast and sip instant coffee. The remaining food is placed in lunch boxes and will be eaten later for the rest of the day’s meals. Sometimes, my mom, her older sister and I would head out late in the morning, the cold still hanging in the February air. We would walk to the nearest grocery and wet market. My aunt would be greeted by the vendors with familiarity.
Then it’s time for work.
Usually, to get to their workplace, they hire a taxi driver the day before, who also contacts other passengers – so it’s like a carpool. If a full-time job is not enough, some seek part-time rackets to be able to finance the brutally high rent and daily food and transportation expenses. A huge percentage of their wages must go to their respective families back in the Philippines. Some return from work early in the afternoon. Others extend until late at night. If, upon arrival in the country, one is not able to get employment within a certain period, he or she spends time on Kish Island, offshore from mainland Iran for a visa run. They say that staying there is far from comfortable.
As for us, we would hop on trains and roam in the day until blackness and colder temperature of the night would hint we should return to the house. We would enter briefly into the huge and sophisticated architecture of malls; picnic on the shores of Jumeirah Beach and be amazed by the Burj Al Arab from a distance; walk inside mosques too beautiful to describe; squeeze into the famous gold souk teeming with other interesting merchandises; visit the Dubai Museum in the Bastakiya Quarter; watch the dancing fountain near the Burj Khalifa; get lost in the blooming and colorful pathways of Miracle Garden; appreciate the desert landscapes and ride camels; eat dates while watching a belly-dancing performance.
However, the most enjoyable (non-)activity I found myself doing was people-watching, almost everywhere, and slipping into trances during sunset everyday – inside the car or train, along highways, in mosques and parks. It was always a joy to capture the combinatorial splendor of people and nature.
While people-watching, it’s inevitable to notice the discrepancies in the ways of living. I was enlightened on the heart-aching and risky stories of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who leave their homeland for a promising life of abundance abroad. On the other hand, I was also able to glimpse the luxuries of the United Arab Emirates as a country. The rich locals drive the most expensive cars and reside in mansions right at the center of the city. The Westerners, who also work in a country that is foreign, equally enjoy a lavish lifestyle, as they hold higher positions and receive higher salaries than the rest of the workforce.
In the middle of it all, I was merely an observer of the paradox. Life can either be painfully hard or fortunately easy and yet it’s not that simple to categorize. However, one can trace a similar and repetitive pattern in the cycle of wants and needs of humanity. It can be consuming, no doubt, and sometimes energy-depleting as we focus heavily on our tunnel visions of achieving better, fuller lives, often based on the standards of society. Obligations, goals and achievements chase us as we chase them.
I’m not sure if the residents of Dubai tilt their heads to gaze at the majestic sun; if in between the friction of bodies working and consuming, they pause and step aside to ponder on the organic rhythm of life; if amidst the silvery and golden glow of man-made infrastructures, they absorb more of the natural landscapes and views before them.
Who knows, when they finally do, what may be perceived previously in black and white could ultimately turn into a whirl and splash of colors.
First published in ROAM Magazine