Diaspora Diaries 3

As a truck driver in Saudi Arabia, I am always on the move. That’s how it has been since 2011.

Jeddah is almost 1,500km from Jubail, where I live. Places en route like Riyadh only allow trucks at certain hours of the day, so we take stops in between and wait. Including sleeping breaks, it takes us almost 36 hours one way to reach our destination.

The road goes on and on and on. You feel like you have been driving forever, only to realise there is still 1,000km of asphalt left.

It tests your patience. Fortunately, there are other Nepali drivers on the road.  The dreary driving is mutual so we keep each other company on the phone throughout our journey. When my phone is quiet for a bit, I get a call from a fellow long hauler who reminds me to stay awake. Then he tells me a joke.

This is the camaraderie I share with my fellow gurus. Yes, just like back home in Nepal, we call drivers ‘guru’ here in the desert, too.

In Nepal, trucks have funny or inspirational messages painted on their back. It is not allowed here. But some of us have managed to just write ‘Nepal’ on our trucks.

Read also: In the mind of Nepali migrant workers, Upasana Khadka

During food stops, we pool our resources and cook together in our tiny makeshift kitchen in the truck. It is more fun and easier that way, but also saves us money. Of course, we always opt for dal, bhat and chicken curry.

After doing this for 10 years, I have never got tired of the magical way the sand dunes on either side of the highway change their colours and textures. These are shades of reds and browns that I have never seen before.

We get to the point from where there is another 600km more to go, and that is when I start feeling more upbeat. As we get closer to our destination, our mood starts to shift. By the time we have less than 50km left, we start honking at each other in celebration and there is a huge sense of relief and accomplishment even though we may have done the route many times.

My first few trips were exciting. I had places to be, things to deliver. But it soon started feeling monotonous. Day turns into night, and into day again,  and you are driving along in that endless ribbon of road.

Of late, I have started opting for shorter routes which are quicker and also better for my health. Now that I have worked in the company for many years, I have a say on my route preferences.

It is easy to get lost in thought on the road here in the Saudi desert. I ran away from my home at age 11 to India to be a domestic worker, taking care of my employer’s children who were older than me. Life has not been easy.

Before driving these humongous trucks, I worked as an auto-rickshaw driver and then a personal driver in India for a pittance. My license in India was fake, since I was only 15. I shaved my chin so that my facial hair would grow, but it did not. When I was questioned about my youthful looks, I blamed my Nepali genes. The sahu employer bought it. Or maybe they just wanted someone sojho he could trust to work for cheap.

The first time I came to Saudi Arabia after paying Rs70,000 to a manpower company, I landed a terrible employer and returned to Nepal prematurely after getting sick. But I knew I had to go overseas again -- what other option did I have?

With my second child on the way, I was so desperate when I came to Saudi Arabia the second time that I thought to myself: “Even if things do not go any better and I die there, it will still be better for my family because they will at least get around15 lakhs from the Foreign Employment Board and insurance as compensation.”

Read also: Migrant worker finds farming in Nepal more rewarding, Naresh Newar

This time, though, I landed a good employer and have not looked back since. This coincided with my daughter’s birth -- and as they say, with her arrival so did Laxmi enter our house.

Even with a good job, I again started feeling ill in Saudi Arabia just like I had the first time. I was always drowsy and weak, and it was difficult to muster the strength to even get through the day driving the truck.

One of my Indian colleagues noticed this, told me, “For the next two weeks, drink four to six liters of water a day.” I did that and immediately started feeling better. It was a miracle, and something as simple as drinking lots of water. I did not know that I was severely dehydrated.

My life could have taken a completely different turn had it not been for this small piece of advice from a colleague. I remember him with gratitude.

I share my room with three other Nepalis. But even in the cramped space, we have managed to create our own individual corners. Our work and sleep schedules do not always match. But even when we are in the same room, we are all glued to our phones most of the time speaking to family, or reading news from Nepal.

Even though I have lived in Saudi Arabia for over a decade now, I have barely had any interaction with local people other than people at the airport. Just like in India, my supervisors in Saudi Arabia have all been Indians. My colleagues are either Nepalis or ajnabi foreigners. I speak mostly Hindi and Nepali, although I have picked up some basic Arabic.

I think domestic workers here are the ones who learn to speak Arabic fastest since since they live with locals families and deal directly with them on a daily basis.

Unlike many Nepalis, my colleagues and I were lucky during Covid-19, as we had work. We continued to deliver goods from the port to nearby markets. Everything was shut down and the no-entry rules during certain hours in cities meant the roads were empty. We drove like kings.

But soon, I tested positive. Again, unlike many Nepalis who even lost their lives in Saudi Arabia during the pandemic, I was well taken care of. But when I was in isolation, my mother passed away in Nepal to a non-Covid related cause.

I was trapped as I was Covid positive, but also because of the travel bans that had shut out the world. I mourned the loss of my mother in isolation. It was also painful that neither my brother nor me, both of us migrants in the Gulf, could be there for her final rites.

Read also:  His last journey home to Nepal, Shankar Dahal

We had made enough money to take care of her long-term illness that may have even extended her life by a few years. But we had failed to be there with her in the last moments. An uncle performed the funeral on our behalf.

Perhaps it is that experience or because I recently turned 36 that during my dreary journeys on the road, that I have started longing for home more intensely. I want to spend time with my family now, it has been too long and my children are all grown up.

How many more times must I call my wife to confirm that I have sent her money for that month's expenses, and that she should spend it wisely? Hemanta Rana captured it very well when he sang “चालिस काटेसी रमाउँला”. I am now nearing age 40 that he sings about, when we can start taking things easy after years of toil.

My friends tell me there are better opportunities in places like Portugal for drivers like me, and I am tempted. But just for a moment. But I quickly decide against it. I want to be back home in Nepal soon, and make up for the time I have lost to be close to my family.

Till then, म खाडीमै छु, म गाडी मै छु. Here I am still in the Gulf, still in my truck.   

Translated from a conversation with a Nepali driver in Saudi Arabia. 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.

Read also: Mindful of migrants' mental health, Upasana Khadka

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