PUBLISHED ON RAPPLER: OFW in Dubai: Life isn’t as glamorous as it seems

The Burj Al Arab 7-star hotel: The one that put the glitzy city on the world map

When I first arrived in Dubai, I thought that all OFWs were rolling in the dough and living the high life that the glitzy desert city was all about.

I sat in the back of our friend’s newly bought American brand SUV that early morning, jetlagged. “Finally! Welcome to Dubai!” he exclaimed, keeping his eyes on the road, while handing me a nondescript plastic bag. I didn’t expect a welcome gift since picking up my husband and me at the airport at an ungodly hour was more than enough of a gift already. I opened the bag and saw it was an ultra HD portable camera.

Later that morning, my husband drove me to the nearest medical testing center as all Dubai visa holders were required to be tested for tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV. And everyone from all corners of the world, who was waiting for his turn, was donning polo shirts with thoroughbreds, crocodiles and laurel wreaths and lugging bags emblazoned with monograms and gold insignias. The deafening medical laboratory silence was broken with pings and bleeps from the mobile phone-of-the-moment owned by the Filipino nurse, who drew my blood.

Even later that evening, my husband and I met up with his friends for dinner and coffee. And everyone was teasing him to get a one of those monogrammed and insignia-ed bags as a wedding gift.

Apparently, every telecom engineer’s wife in Dubai had one.

Apart from designer bags, designer cars also littered the Dubai scene

Designer bags were starting to become the rage in Manila then. The social networks suddenly seemed to be littered with photos of newly acquired designer bags. I knew then that it wasn’t worth it if a hooligan slashed its perfectly primed leather as I alighted the tricycle on my commute or if it were dunked in murky floodwater.

“No, but thanks. I already have a bag,” I said, patting my then favorite bedraggled handbag.

But after month after month of seeing ladies on the Dubai Metro sashaying into the train cars gingerly parading their handbags, hearing constant chatter among acquaintances and colleagues about where they bought their new bags and tagging along window shopping trips to the mall to these brightly-lit shops, I slowly found myself seriously considering purchasing a designer bag of my own.

Since I did live in Dubai, I had less worries about bag slashers and floodwaters, so the designer bag idea was becoming more viable. I started browsing websites of designer bags. I started asking more questions whenever designer bags became the topic of conversation. I started wandering into those shops and asking about prices of bags that caught my fancy.

I even nudged and gave my husband a go ahead to maybe, just maybe, gift me with a designer bag on my birthday. Whenever he answered that same adamant “No!” to my designer bag aspirations, I jumped into my Excel sheet, revisiting my salary and calculating my basic expenses, personal savings and financial responsibilities.

The glitzy ballroom of the Min a’Salam hotel during Ramadan’s Iftar

My salary was barely enough to cover them all. So it didn’t make any sense to buy a bag that is actually worth as much, as or even more than, a month’s salary. “You could purchase it on installment with your credit card,” whispered the golden line that crept up at every designer bag purchase conversation.

How could this be? How could I have been bitten by the bag bug? How could I have suddenly wanted keep up with the overseas Juans?

I sat down and faced my Excel sheet again. I had to sacrifice at least two or three items to afford the designer bag dream; it was a choice between my basic needs – rent, food, utilities, transportation, communication, personal savings or financial responsibilities to my family – and that bag.

Or did I want to swipe my credit card and borrow money that I may or may not even be able to return?

I stopped myself and recalled the innumerable stories of fellow hard-working Filipino expats in Dubai and the rest of the UAE (United Arab Emirates), who unknowingly rode the high life waveswept away by the hypnotizing illusion of free money from credit cards and loans. Some were, in the end, jailed because of bounced security checks from defaulting on their credit card payments or loans, a criminal offense in the Muslim country.

The outrageous centerpiece at the lobby The Atlantis hotel, Dubai

Did I really want to enjoy a few moments of basking in the glow of praise and put at risk losing the ability to sustain myself and assist my family?

Being an OFW in a country that will never ever embrace you as an adopted permanent resident or citizen, one thing is certain – its impermanence. No job is 100% secure. One’s salary could rise or fall; one may even lose it all.

No OFW should ever forget that.

So I readjusted the head on my shoulders and put on blinders, blocking out the alluring glare of the desert high life, and focused my finances on where they truly needed to go in the indefinite period of time that the stars allowed me to work abroad.

I still ended up buying a new bag though. It wasn’t one covered in monograms or one that carried a distinct golden emblem, which could have garnered the gushes and swoons of the rest of the overseas Juans.

But I now look into my Excel sheet happy and at peace because my time working in the desert eventually came to an end.

Original essay published on Rappler

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  1. Phillip Reyes says

    Hi Didi. It will be my first time working in Dubai. Are there any drug tests for employment or just the medical exam( for HIV/ Hepatitis / HIV) just to check if i’m fit to work? Im kinda worried because my friends gave me this what they call “space cake” 2 months ago. Im afraid if there is a drug test and I came up positive, I might be imprisoned, I dont want that to happen of course. Thanks and I love your blog btw.

  2. Gopal says

    I just happened to browse through and read a post on “What is your excuse for not trying Filipino food” . I don’t know who wrote it but she suggested “Didi’s blog D for Delicious” . I am in Dubai for a very long time and never tried Filipino food ! Recently I asked a colleague that I would like to try Filipino cuisine. I also thought I would do some research. But I did not find any refined restaurants and I see that you also agree with it. I am very curious to try the cuisine and I do not want it to be a disappointment probably due to ignorance. I will highly welcome your suggestions.

    • says

      Hi Gopal.

      Thanks for dropping by. Unfortunately, if you are looking for Filipino cuisine done in a fine dining setting, you would not find that in Dubai. You’re better off finding that in the Philippines, specifically in Manila, Cebu or Davao. All Filipino food i restaurants in Dubai are cooked home style, so they are authentic. Restaurants you can visit include Tipanan in Deira, Bulwagan in Karama (both are owned by the same group), Barrio Fiesta in Burjuman, Max’s Fried Chicken in Bur Dubai or the newly opened Jollibee in Dubai Mall.

      Some entry level dishes are adobo (which can also be vegetarian), bulalo (clear beef shank w/ marrow soup), Bikol express (chilis w/ pork or shrimp and shrimp paste in coconut milk), kaldereta (beef stew in tomato liver sauce) and ginisang monggo (mung bean stew) all eaten with steamed white rice or garlic rice.

      Best if you could take a Filipino friend with you to help you navigate through the dishes. Those are easy to make in Dubai as there are hundreds of thousands living and working there anyway :)