Learning the local language: “What Can We Do?” (or: seatbelts, milk powder, and rain in the desert)

Dubai was moody yesterday.  The sky was dark and threatened rain, a promise rarely made good in the desert.  I stood outside the hotel, the air thick with a coarse mixture of sand and humidity. The very worst of bad hair days.

A bell-boy flagged a cab down for me, but I ushered it on when I saw it had only two seat belts in the back.  The next taxi, similarly lacking, informed me I was wasting my time – all taxis in Dubai have only two seat belts in the back seat.  I held out, not wanting to choose which of my three children would travel without a seat belt on some of the world’s most dangerous roads.

Four taxis and as many frustrated drivers later, we clambered into a car with the required number of seat belts.  I smiled across at the driver, pleased with myself.  Just then, a voice from the back seat.  “Mum!  I can’t plug my seat belt in!  I can’t find the thing!”  I asked the driver to pull over to the verge while I thrust my hand into the bowels of the dirty seat searching in vain for the clicky-thingey.  My fingers came back with crumbs and hair.

“Not working madam.  Only two seat belts in the back.”

We drove on.  When we were finally settled, the driver looked at me in the rear view mirror and smiled reassuringly.  “Don’t worry madam, I am take it very slow.  I am very safe driver, very safe driver.”  I returned his smile, grateful for his kindness.  We now appeared to be reconciled.  I had swapped places with Cormac, my eldest child, giving him the front seat instead.   I reasoned that the airbag in the front, with a seatbelt, was a lesser risk than no seatbelt at all.  This was a view the taxi driver appeared not share, as our tangle of arms and legs pushed through the gap between the seats.  “He is too young for to be sitting in the front madam!” he had protested.

This led to an inevitable discussion about the traffic in Dubai.  The difficulty navigating the complex maze of arteries sweeping back and forth, to and from Sheikh Zayed Road, tying the city up in knots.  “Driving is not any problem, it’s very easy to drive in Dubai,”  the driver said as he answered his phone.  “Unless there is accident happening.  If accident happening, pwoof,” he said, swishing both hands, palm up, in the air.  What can we do? he meant, in local body language.

It was true that he knew the roads well though.  We took a back route towards Dubai Mall, joining the end of a slow, snaking queue that led towards the gaping mouth of the Trade Centre roundabout.  We came upon the junction slowly, passing three cars jaggedly stalled across the centre lanes.  A motorbike lay on its side at the nearest exit fork, its rider’s helmet sitting incongruently pretty on the curb nearby.  The rider, nowhere to be seen.  From the front seat, my eldest strained to see as we drove by.  “A pizza delivery bike, Mum” he said.

The taxi driver elaborated.  “Always hungry, bring me the food hurry hurry, the people say.  This is why the motorbikes is driving like this.  They are coming through the middle, so you don’t see them.  Then smash!”  he used a hand-to-fist action to illustrate.  “This is very dangerous job, very dangerous.  People want the food too fast.”

We came onto Sheikh Zayed Road and picked up a little speed.  We passed time by exchanging the usual pleasantries.  Where are you from?  (Bangladesh/New Zealand).  How long have you been here?  (Three years/Two years).  Your country is very good at cricket! (Thank you/Not really, but thank you also!).  It was when we were talking about his son, three years and 9 months old who he’d seen only twice since he left Bangladesh, that I noticed the cars had stopped up ahead.  The Dubai Mall exit was at a standstill.

I assumed heavy traffic inside the parking building, and we continued to talk.  The driver told me he qualified as a lawyer, but had been so dispirited by the corruption of the justice system in Bangladesh that he’d looked for work elsewhere.  But times are difficult in Bangladesh, he explained.  “Very dangerous” he said, “Same Afghanistan.  Not safe.”  Then, in 2008, tragedy struck.  His first born child, a son, died of food poisoning.

“Food poisoning?”

“Yes madam.  Very sad.  Very very sad.”  He looked across at Cormac who was kneading his fingers in his lap in the front seat, eyes downcast.  His listening posture.  “He is big boy, like him.”

What I managed to clarify is that if his son had survived, he would be a big boy by now.  But the baby had lived only 39 days.  The contaminated baby formula that had affected thousands in China, had also killed this man’s son in Bangladesh in 2008.  “His stomach is getting very big, very fat, and his skin is coming a white colour.  Very painful for him.  Very very painful.”

I googled it later.  Reports are sketchy, but there were at least 4 children reported dead in Bangladesh as a result of melamine poisoning, and several hundred more were hospitalised.  The taxi driver’s voice was hoarse as he told his story.  “It was the doctors.  The companies is paying them to say it is good milk.  Better than my wife’s milk.  It is corruption, always corruption.”

Inside, the car was becoming hot.  I noticed groups of people, presumably other taxi passengers, trudging along the shoulder towards the mall on foot.  Straining to see up ahead, I spotted the bowed elbow of a tow truck hard at work.  Behind us the tell-tale siren announced the arrival of another emergency vehicle.  “Pwoof.”  The driver said with his hands.  “Too much accidents today.”

When it became clear we might be there for another hour or more, we shook hands and bid the driver farewell.  My excessive tip did nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt – for what, I am not sure.  On the shoulder I made the children form a line and marched them along the highway as close to the barrier as I could.

The wet heat loomed like a weight on my shoulders as we walked.  The weight of my own thoughts loomed even heavier.

This town is tough.  Relationships with people outside your social or cultural grouping tend to be transactional.  I thought of Morshed, also Bangladeshi, who looked after our floor at the hotel where we stayed for three months when we first arrived to live in Abu Dhabi.  I thought of how he cried when we moved out.  He cried in a strangled voice that made me want to look away.  Bobbie was the same age as his daughter.  They both had short brown bob hair-cuts.  As the glass lift descended the 23 floors we watched Morshed push his trolley back along the corridor, his shoulders still shaking.  With wisdom beyond his years Cormac had said “Why did you make friends with him Mum?  You just made it harder for him.”

Distances are always hard to judge on foot.  It took us at least twenty minutes to reach the crash site.  By the time we passed, there was nothing to see, thankfully, except a scattered rainbow of glass and scrunched metal.  We stepped over the debris, and continued to walk.  The children, for once, did not complain. Sweat gathered under our eyes, a natural adhesive for the gusting sand.  Below us, the twelve lane highway of Sheikh Zayed pulsed.  Above us a thundering overpass announced each car with a muted pe-dung, pe-dung.

Up ahead, I realised with a sinking dread that we would have to get across a three lane motorway on-ramp to reach the safety of the mall entrance.  I tightened my grip on the kids’ hands, barked at Cormac to stay close.  I approached the curb, rigid with fear.  Cars flashed by in a blur, one-two, one-two.  I felt my breakfast turning to liquid inside.

A young couple, hand in hand, fell in beside us, gazing confidently into the distance for a gap in the traffic.  The woman had dark black hair and smelt of cigarettes and rich, opulent perfume.   She smiled across the top of the children’s heads, raising her hands in that familiar What can we do? gesture.  She noticed I was struggling and offered to help.  Like a taxi in want of seat belts, my two hands were insufficient for three children.  Later, she apologised for her poor command of English, which was infinitely better than my command of Arabic.  She told me she was from Tunisia (“Yes, we are famous now!”) visiting Dubai on holiday.

When they punted across the road with Liam between them, a moment’s hesitation on my part kept me rooted to the spot.  Now they were there, and we were over here.  Bobbie began to cry and clawed up my arm so I might carry her.  Cormac’s face was white.  My courage to cross the road was evaporating.

Then, out of nowhere, a big black SUV with tinted windows threw on its hazard lights and slowed down, the ripple effect causing others to follow suit.  I noticed the driver was in local dress, waving us across with a look of concern on his face.  When we made it to the mall the Tunisians laughed in their cheerful manner, hugging and kissing each of us in turn, before heading to a nearby bench for a quick cigarette.  The sweet smell of the woman’s perfume gave way to the overpowering stench of freshly applied manure.  A line-up of workers in green overalls were massaging the dank mixture into the soil of the perfectly manicured flower beds leading up to the the mall’s entrance.

An unusual smell, safety.

On the way back to the hotel, we got a taxi with three seatbelts and a driver whose knowledge of the back channels of the city suggested he was no stranger to Dubai’s roads either.  We didn’t trade pleasantries though.  I think Cormac, whose brow was still furrowed, was relieved about that.  Making our way through the hotel car park, a big black SUV with tinted windows pulled out suddenly, nearly ploughing into us.  “These local drivers!” the driver said with exasperation, blaring the horn.  “They don’t look.  They don’t care.”

That night, driving home to Abu Dhabi in the relative safety of our own car, the rain came after all.  Great white cracks appeared in the night sky and the rain escaped like shattered glass, lacing the windshield in silver rivulets.  The kids whooped with surprise and delight.  I looked out into the inky black night, thinking about milk powder and dead babies, and lawyers who are taxi drivers and housekeepers in faraway lands, and taxi drivers who have no patience for black SUVs with tinted windows, and locals who stop for unexpected highway pedestrians, and Tunisians who are famous for being Tunisian.  And I think about people who have the luxury to worry about seat belts and bad hair days.  And I wonder: What can we do?

11 thoughts on “Learning the local language: “What Can We Do?” (or: seatbelts, milk powder, and rain in the desert)

  1. I’ve just started reading J M Coetzee’s ‘The childhood of Jesus’. Just started in on the first few pages and I think I’m going to like it.

    Sent from my iPad

    • Let me know how you like it – I’ve read a few of Coetzee’s books, he’s not a fav (far too literary), but I do so enjoy books revisiting the gospels…CK Stead wrote one, and Pullman too, but the BEST I read recently (you have to find it) was the Book of Rachael by Lesley Cannold. She’s Australian. You have to find it, it’s brilliant.

    • Thanks! Enjoyed your Liwa blog too, it’s hard to write about this stuff isn’t it, we have to be careful what we say I find, some of these issues can be very controversial… It’s great to be linked up, will look forward to following your blog!

  2. Nadine Mansfield! como dejes de escribir y desperdicies tu talento te retiro el saludo! Man hacía tanto que no leía uno de tus relatos y cada vez se ponen mejor! Please seguime avisando cada vez que publiques algo porque no soy buena siguiendo blogs.

    • Thanks so much! And yes it’s hard living in a city and raising kids (or I sometimes ask myself if in fact we just tell ourselves that to assuage the guilt we feel for not trying harder to do other things, instead of just relying on the convenience of technology all the time….?)

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