Mountain to desert to oceanNepali overseas worker rises up the ranks from cleaner to manager on a cruise ship
This is the 33rd instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.
I still remember the first day I landed in the UAE in 2009. Dubai airport was sparkling clean, spotless. Outside, there was a fancy air-conditioned van with a smartly uniformed driver waiting to pick us up.
As he cruised through the wide and clean roads effortlessly, I thought to myself that the driver looked more like a pilot. But reality soon hit. It was past 3 AM, and the scene outside started looking dirtier and dimmer as we drove further away from the airport. We had reached our labour camp and were dropped off in a dingy part of the city.
This was our reality, not the glamour and the glitter of the first impression. At 18, I, too, had come to work in the country as a cleaner to add to the sparkle.
Despite the disparity that quickly became evident, I found a sense of warmth in the way the Nepalis at the camp welcomed us. There were no cups, I cannot recall why. But the dais cut water bottles in half, and used the lower half to serve us tea with bread.
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They went out of their way to feed us after our long journey as they told us about our new home. I will never forget their 4 AM hospitality.
As I was brushing my teeth after waking up, uncertain about what awaited me, I heard someone shout out my name. It turns out two of my school friends were already working in the same company for two years. What were the odds, I thought.
I had finished Grade 12 and landed in Dubai to work so as to better my life. I used to get jealous of the village boys who came home from bidesh every two years or so for a month to relax and splurge money. It was one of those acquaintances on vacation who had advised me to make my passport.
Like other Nepali youth, this was my foreign dream. My father was getting old so I had to assume responsibility of a provider.
My induction training in Dubai, even for a cleaning job, was three weeks long. I had not thought of cleaning as a professional job, but here, it was being taught like it was a science. We were not going to mindlessly scrub floors, we were required to have a deeper understanding of the chemicals and cleaning tools.
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I learnt a lot and as I scored over 80% in my assessment exam, and got placed in hotels. Those who scored lower had to work in office buildings and malls.
At the hotel the manager had been secretly watching my work. He was obviously impressed because when a supervisor left he offered me the job. At just 20, I was unsure if I was up for the task as I would have to manage people significantly older than me. But I took a chance and was promoted from cleaner to supervisor.
Over the next nine years in the UAE, I worked in about six hotels. I could not stay put in the same place for long because once the work would start getting repetitive, I wanted to move on to better things. From a normal hotel to a five star and subsequently to a luxury five star.
I was also getting a degree in tourism on the side at an Indian-affiliated open university in Dubai. I did not manage to attend all classes because of my hectic work schedule, but I knew I needed the credentials for my future so somehow managed to complete it.
My last employer in Dubai was Fairmont. Working at a five-star hotel has its perks. It is more professional, the staff is more competent. The managers had significantly better skills and experience that made you want to emulate them.
There were also a lot of training opportunities. Lessons from books like Emotional Intelligence and Who Moved My Cheese? were taught in ways that injected Fairmont's values in our blood. I enjoyed my work and even got the 2018 Manager of the Year award, something I had never even dreamt would happen.
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At a get-together at a colleague's home, I saw a wall that was full of pictures from all over the world. I asked my friend's husband what countries he had been to. He laughed and said, "Perhaps it would be easier if you asked me what countries I have not been to." Indeed, as a flight crew, he had traveled the world.
That was a turning point in my life. I had been stuck in one country for nine years, when there was a whole wide world out there. I made it a point to look for jobs that would allow me the same kind of mobility so I could broaden my horizon.
Within a month, I identified a recruitment drive in Dubai for a cruise ship and passed the interview. I was to work on an Italian cruise ship as Assistant Chief Housekeeper. I remember the mixture of excitement and nervousness I felt when I first saw the ship at the dock: it had over 1,250 guest cabins and 800 crew cabins.
It was so gigantic that when I tried to take pictures, the ship would not fit on my screen. My colleagues laughed at me saying it was a relatively small ship by industry standards and that they had worked in much bigger ones.
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Life onboard is busy. Most of our guests are older people from all over the world who have the time and the money to travel around. As we hustle around the clock, it is easy to forget that we are in the middle of the ocean because the vessel is a world of its own.
It does not matter where we are, really. Whether in the middle of the desert or ocean, we are working day and night to make money and provide for our families. Regardless of land or water, our lives revolve around that one day every month when we get our salary notification in our cell phone, this is what all this hustle is about. Everything else is secondary.
I have now sailed to over 45 countries across the world in 17 months. It is like reading the review of a 300-page book: you just get a little taste of what those countries have to offer. At every port stop, we get to see the few main tourist spots, visit a couple of malls and have a meal before we hop back on to continue our journey. I make it a point to get good Indian or Nepali food, something I miss on board.
But now that I am married, I am restless again. I am not as excited about traveling and meeting new people as I have been. My longing for home, to be with family, is growing stronger by the day.
I can feel my priorities shifting, and it is just a matter of time before I act on it.
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Translated from a conversation with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with 'Diaspora Diaries' in the subject line.