Out and about: an email from Dubai

Out and about is a column where we chat with people who currently live abroad, or who used to live and work there. This week we chat with Genevievé Fourie who lives in Dubai.

Where in South Africa are you from and what made you decide to go live overseas?

I am from Nelspruit (I always refer to it as a big town and a small city).

According to my parents I was always obsessed with the idea of travelling, living in America, and seeing the world. I suspect it had something to do with my childhood dream of being a red-carpet celebrity in Los Angeles.  

At school and university I was passionate about my tourism subjects and I would dream for hours about what awaited me on the other side of our country’s borders. When I got the once in a lifetime chance to realise my American dream, I didn’t have to think twice. I applied for a hospitality and hotel internship in America, I never thought it would happen!

Three months later I packed my few items of winters clothing and my pink Bible into a suitcase and got on the plane to Nashville, Tennessee for a 12-month internship, with one additional month to travel America.

After thirteen months of getting to know new cultures, meeting interesting people and earning money in a different, stronger currency, my heart didn’t feel quite ready to return home (especially since I had not worked so hard on my English in America!). So, I decided to dive in headfirst and move to Dubai with a suitcase that was somewhat heavier, containing my summer clothes, no winter clothes, and my pink Bible.

Originally, I planned on working in Dubai for one year before moving on to the next country. Dubai can trap you very easily. Time goes by so quickly in this large city, I have been here now for almost five hears and I enjoy every minute.

Was it a big adjustment, and what was the strangest thing for you to get used to?

I am generally very adaptable and like change and new challenges, it makes things more exciting. Dubai is a very advanced country with 87% expats, it is therefore easy to find a crowd of people where you fit in and can adjust to. There is a lot of international food.

The summer was the biggest adjustment – it gets anything between 47 and 50 degrees here with 100% humidity, and during the evenings at midnight it is still 38 degrees.  

Another thing is the safety! You can lose your home or car keys and never have to stress about getting a new one, you can leave your food and shopping on the table in a busy food court to order your food and it will still be there if you return 20 minutes later. My friends have left their phones in taxis numerous times and always found it within 48 hours.

But I have to say the biggest (and probably the funniest) adjustment was a proper SHOCK to my system. During my first night in Dubai, I slept very soundly after the long flight. Although it was mentioned to me, I didn’t take it seriously that Muslims pray five times a day and that prayers start before dawn (in January the sun rises just before 05:00 and they start praying at 04:30). It was still pitch black outside and my flat was literally spitting distance from the closest mosque, when they started the song-like prayers in Arabic over speakers. I was scared out of my senses, thinking it was the end of the world. I woke up and thought: “Well great, leave it to me to have my first day in Dubai also being the day of the rapture.” It took me about ten seconds to realise I was in Dubai and that it wasn’t the final reckoning.  

There are many South Africans in Dubai. Do you sometimes get together?

Yes! I have many South African friends and we have a social at least once every weekend. There are even monthly “sokkie” evenings for all South Africans (with brandy specials and boerewors rolls, of course). It is like an extended family, every time you go to a get-together or braai you meet new South Africans, which is a nice way of building your network of Saffas, as we call ourselves here.

The purpose of travelling and working in other countries is to meet new people from new cultures and languages and to learn from them. As nice as it is to have a piece of home here, nothing beats a friendship with a foreigner.

A South African Christmas party

How does the cost of living compare to that in South Africa?

I always compare it like this:  

I am in a low to medium level specialist role in marketing. My salary in rand is exactly the same as my friends who are pharmacists for big pharmacies or hospitals.

I stay in a studio that is as big as our living room in South Africa (at least it has a view). My rent in rand is exactly the same (or maybe even a few hundred rands more per month) as my pharmacist friend’s rent for a three-bedroom townhouse in Pretoria.

The cost of living is unbelievably high, a quick night out with three drinks and a main course can easily cost you R1 000 per person and a single brandy at its cheapest is R180 (this illustrates why you should never convert to rands). On the other hand, brunches, and what they call “unlimited” is very popular. On Saturdays you can pay R800 to R1 000 for three to four hours of unlimited food and drinks – now that is a bargain!

I have to add, I will struggle to find a job in South Africa that offers me the salary and perks I get here. We get free medical insurance, and annual plane ticket home, and we do not pay income tax, which all makes a very big difference.

Do you still speak Afrikaans?

It depends on where you work. When I just arrived in Dubai, I worked in a hotel with no other South Africans, and I had only one South African friend. Back then I never spoke any Afrikaans, except when I phoned my family.

There are MANY South Africans at my current job, and I also have more South African friends now, so we speak Afrikaans when we are together.

There is also an Afrikaans church in Dubai and all the sermons are in Afrikaans. We also have an Afrikaans women’s Bible study group.

Do you get the opportunity to travel?

Definitely, Dubai is so centrally located and accessible to and for the whole world. We also get 30 days leave per year with an annual plane ticket home, but you can also use your ticket for any other country as long as the value is similar.

Since coming to Dubai, I’ve been to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India, the Philippines, Georgia (the country) and Turkiye. Next on my list are Zanzibar, Ireland, Vietnam and once again America.

The location and strong currency make it impossible not to treat yourself to an overseas trip twice a year, especially because there is so much to see nearby!

Scuba diving is one of my favourite pastimes

Do you still have ties to South Africa, and will you ever return?

I don’t think I will ever lose contact with South Africa, I come home at least once a year and often phone friends and family.

It sounds like a cliché, but South Africa stays in your blood and in your soul, no matter where you are. My heart will always long for potjiekos Sundays and KykNet, and brandy specials and “sokkies”. Even if you try to replicate it here, it is never the same as doing it with your feet on South African soil.

As things stand now, a permanent move back to South Africa is not on the cards. I would really like to, especially since we are a very close-knit family, and our family is in the process of expanding (congratulations to my sister and my brother-in-law!). But the opportunities in other parts of the world are something one cannot let slip through one’s fingers. And to be honest, it is quite nice not to stress when I realise in the middle of the day that I forgot to lock my house, and not to be startled by burglar alarms while I’m asleep (fire alarms that are activated unnecessarily is very common here).

Still, it is nice to know that I will always have a haven and a place I can return to and be welcomed with open arms, because heaven knows, South Africa is a friendly place.  

Is there anything you would like to add?

If you ever wonder whether you should travel, the answer is yes! Travelling opens your eyes and your soul for so many beautiful things. You look at the world and its people with a lot more empathy, sympathy and understanding. The memories sometimes hurt, but it is worth every tear and longing, because the adventures are indescribable. Take that gap year (but first get your degree), grab that job opportunity, go on that once in a lifetime. I promise you, you will return a better person.

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