From Washington DC to New York to Dubai to Cape Town and Johannesburg and to Bahrain and Frankfurt, the men and women, who work the shifts at the Duty Free stores, the taxi ranks, the watering and coffee holes and the check-in points at the airports, tell stories that put another life and circumstance into perspective.
Yusuf from Pakistan have been a taxi driver in Dubai for 6 years and he prefers working at night – less hassles, less traffic and the passengers are nicer. But a night shift can start at 5pm and end the next morning when he picked me up for my 8.30am flight. His Indian colleague, who provided my transport on yet another Arabian night, mused over the complexities of leaving his family to cut out a chunk of the meagre takings for foreigners – a chunk that he wished was bigger. “Expensive…expensive…Dubai is expensive for everyone,” he muttered before a long silence interrupted our new attempt to make sense of life.
Harmony, who showed me his ID to prove that it is his real name and not an effort to make pronunciation easier on the Western tongue, radiates with a smile at the check-in counter at Oliver Tambo International airport in South Africa. His journey to work starts at 4.00am – a must for him if he is to arrive in time to start work at 6.00am. How he manages that smile is a mystery. He muses, with another smile, that the morning shift is the worst as finishing at 2.00pm seems like a half-day of work, him ambling off to do either shopping or visiting a friend, often bringing him home around 7.00pm.
My first ever VIP driver was the tall Andreas, who interpreted all the prior information fed to him by my host as the reasons to call himself Andy – a sin that I asked him to carefully repent of. It is not German and he should let visitors to Frankfurt do what residents in Frankfurt do – call Andreas by his real name. He smoked like a chimney when waiting for me outside in the fresh air of an early autumn morning and planned to visit America as soon as this job pays more and his friend in New York keeps his promise to help.
I did not get her name, but she was from the Philippines and she wondered if I spoke Swahili – I was from Africa, after all. She singlehandedly took orders for coffee and snacks for Caribou, multi-tasking as only women can do and managing to calculate the exchange rates for a variety of currencies at a time of day when weary passengers streaming through Bahrain international airport depressingly stopped counting the hours as they wait for connecting flights.
Hassan just arrived on duty when I crossed his path, or rather, he blocked my path, to conduct one last check of my boarding pass before sending me off to embark for New York. He wakes up at 4am to get ready for the early morning prayer and then heads off for the love of his life: deep-sea diving! If money was no object, he would be diving and he admits that it is not always profitable. I did not probe what it is he is diving for that explains his economic woes. A spear was mentioned. Although he has a family, by all calculations, when the diving and the work at Dubai international are done, there could not be much time left for life.
Beverley represented all the Beverleys in Cape Town with the charm that became necessary to keep tourists coming back for more. She did not want me to meet anyone by accident being careful to remind me that the rule of the road is different from America and that one should do in Cape Town what Capetonians do – keep left. “But you should know, Mr Van,” she reminded me recalling our earlier conversations of my own global journey that started on a hillside road overlooking the Cape Town harbour a good 20 years before Beverley became the newest addition to her family. Before she handed me the keys to the rental car, she shoved in one more “mother-superior” warning related to safety measures. I was wiser.