Turquoise Taxi Talk

I love meeting people from all over the world, and hearing about their unique life stories. With foreign expats making up over 80% of Qatar’s population, there are infinite opportunities for such exchanges to take place.

Unfortunately, small talk is not my forte. Chit chat, the skimming of the surface that occurs after every Sunday church service, is just not my thing. It’s like testing the water with just one toe; something a clumsy, Accidental Asshole like myself does not do well. I tend to stumble on my words before completely falling in headfirst. Luckily, that flaw has resulted in some of the most interesting conversations I never thought I’d have.

While J flew to Moscow and back, I met up with my favorite Swede. We shopped around yet another mall in hopes of finding winter wear for our December trips home, and stopped for coffee at Krispy Kreme. After going our separate ways, I jumped in one of the turquoise taxis waiting outside the mall.

“How long have you lived here?” I asked the driver. That question, coupled with, “Where are you from?” are my icebreakers of choice.

In no time at all, I had the taxi driver, *Aadarsh, telling me about life in Qatar from his perspective. Although many of the taxi drivers here have incredibly poor English, Aadarsh’s English was pretty good. I reveled in the opportunity for a comprehensible conversation with someone experiencing a whole other side of expat life.

A native Sri Lankan, Aadarsh learned English as a child in his school near Colombo. He’s lived in Qatar for about 4 months, but this isn’t his first gig in the Middle East. Before coming here, he spent 3 years living and working in Saudi Arabia. He said the traffic fines are not as bad in Saudi as they are here, but the people there are much worse. His wife and 4-year old son are back in Sri Lanka. He signed a 2-year contract with the taxi company here, and expects to return to Sri Lanka as soon as his contract is over to be with his wife and son, as their son will begin school at that time.

My own personal beliefs aside, I find religious devotion fascinating. In Sri Lanka, Aadarsh explained, people are “Buddhist (70%), Hindu, Muslim, then Christian.” He said he is Hindu, because his father is Hindu. We talked about eating meat, and agreed Buddhism would be good for me, because I’m vegetarian! He thought it was pretty funny that I don’t cook meat for J. I told him J gets all the meat he ever wanted outside our home!

I asked how it was to work for the taxi company. He described 16-hour work days, beginning at 6:00am and ending at 10:00pm. He has 2 days off each month. I asked if he knew before he started the job that he would only have 2 days off each month. He said no, adding that another company in town gives its drivers 1 day off each week, but, unfortunately, his company does not. Continually referring to his company’s “scheme,” he explained how he pays the equivalent of $82 each day to “rent” the taxi he drives, in addition to paying about $95 each week in gas. At the end of a 16-hour shift, after paying for gas and renting the taxi, he takes home about $27.

Curious about all of the claims I’ve read about worker treatment here, I asked him where his Passport is. He said the company has it. I asked about his living accommodations, which are provided by the company. He reiterated what one of my building staff members had previously told me: 8 men share one room. I asked about their kitchen. He said they don’t have a kitchen, but they are provided food at the “canteen” (cafeteria).

Finally, we reached my building. I thanked him, tipped him nicely, greeted my building’s nighttime concierge as I headed upstairs, and opened my apartment door to an enthusiastically meowing Cheese Louise McFlufferstein.

We have it so damn good.

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This Morning’s Migrant Workers

Somebody, somewhere, is selling their used, unairconditioned school buses to somebody over here who uses them to transport imported, blue collar workers. These old, yellow school buses packed full of worker bees are a common sight around these parts.

the wheels on the bus go to a labor camp

the wheels on the bus go to a labor camp

Where in the world could they be coming from?!

Oh, right.

Oh, right.

Much more plentiful than the yellow school buses are the big, white Tatas.

No, seriously. Big, white Tatas.

Tata buses

Tata buses taking migrant workers to work

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Tata buses taking migrant workers “home” (restricted access)

The Country has been under extra scrutiny, as of late, for alleged mistreatment (forced labor, Passport confiscation, non-payment of wages, denial of drinking water, assault, etc.) of its migrant workers.

All reports of alleged “slave labor” have been vehemently denied by labor officials.

This morning, I woke up at 4:00am. After returning from the US last week, I have had the worst case of jet lag of my life. I fought the urge to play Candy Crush for over an hour, then finally decided to just go on a walk. I headed outside, thinking about how I probably never would have gone on a walk when it was still dark out in Kansas City, MO, but I feel so physically safe here. An American in the Middle East. It’s not at all what Fox news would have you think.

I took “the big dog” aka our Sony fancy-pants camera with me. I’m pretty sure everyone I meet thinks I’m a complete nut anyway, so I really don’t care too much anymore how ridiculous I look walking around at 5:00am in workout clothes and a tourist-style camera hanging around my neck.

As I was leaving, I stopped to chat with one of our building staff members. We have daytime staff and nighttime staff, both consisting of maintenance workers, concierge, and security guards. They are all very nice people, mostly from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Philipines. As poor as those countries are, they produce some of the friendliest people on the planet. This particular staff member sleepily described their 6:00pm-6:00am shift, and how the bus was coming soon to take them on the hour long trip to their accommodations in the Industrial Area. I asked how it was to sleep during the day there, as I’d heard some areas out there are without electricity at different times throughout the day. The staff member said it’s very difficult. I started to ask, “How many…” when my sentence was finished for me: “In one room? Eight.” Eight workers share one room.

On my walk this morning, I got a little brave. Instead of dropping my eyes to the ground when passing a blue collar worker, instead of pretending they are as invisible as they probably feel, I greeted them and (in hand gestures and diluted English) asked if I could take their picture. I expected a lot of heads shaking “no,” and even to get yelled at by some unidentifiable supervisors. Surprisingly, these guys were quite eager to have their photos snapped. Many seemed as surprised as I was, and politely tried to assemble their very best “Good morning!”

Below are some shots from my morning walk.

I have attempted to protect and censor the identity of all individuals pictured, to include company and country details.

worker1

A for effort, but most worker bees don't speak - let alone READ - English

A for effort, but most worker bees don’t speak – let alone READ – English

Clearly, safety is a priority!

Safety is #1 priority, just read the board…

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from the morning bus to the job site

from the morning bus to the job site

"Are you conscious about comply others to do work safely?"

“Are you conscious about comply others to do work safely?”

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Fire Safety

fire safety station close-up

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How does your garden grow?

How does your garden grow?

bus "terminal"

bus “terminal”

If patience is a virtue, these guys are as virtuous as they come.

If patience is a virtue, these guys are as virtuous as they come.

Poseidon and the sea

Poseidon and the sea

paintbrush trident

paintbrush trident

In 1984, George Orwell describes modern war between Eurasia, Oceania and Eastasia. He writes, “…there is no longer, in a material sense, anything to fight about … it is a war for labor power.” Detailing the disputed territories, home to “about a fifth of the population of the earth,” he goes on to say, “…they all contain a bottomless reserve of cheap labor. Whichever power controls equatorial Africa, or the countries of the Middle East, or Southern India, or the Indonesian Archipelago, disposes also of the bodies of scores of hundreds of millions of ill-paid and hard-working coolies. The inhabitants of these areas, reduced more or less openly to the status of slaves, pass continually from conqueror to conqueror…”

Knowing that having moved here makes me a contributor to my surroundings, like staying here makes me a contributor, like looking away makes me a contributor, like not doing or saying anything to advocate something better makes me a contributor, weighs heavily on my conscience. I am part of the demand. But what to do? It is exhausting to care so much about a bad situation you can’t improve, but to care less, or not at all, is surely criminal.

Inaction is action.

“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein