Saturday, June 28, 2014

Llorente of Arabia

After two weeks of careful consideration, my decision narrowed down to a safe job selling art onboard a cruise ship, or exploring some options in Dubai. On the one hand, a cruise job would be a fantastic opportunity to combine art and travel seamlessly, yet the promising prospects and vibrant car culture in Dubai proved hard to resist. After a few talks with Mr. NN, my first connection in the city and head of a promising marketing start-up, we agreed on the logistics of my accommodation and a general to-do list of my 1.5-week visit.

Dawn upon my hometown. Photo courtesy of Carlos Ochoa Lopez.
With my father's blessing and the encouraging enthusiasm of my Leonese peers, I packed a suitcase with my lightest clothing and booked a cheap flight to Dubai. On my last night in my hometown, I had a pizza with my roommate and lulled myself to sleep with documentaries and forum posts by Western expats living in the Emirates. Five hours after my alarm clock rang in the darkness of my room, I found myself in a deserted airport, my eyes still heavy.

Yep, that flight was cheap for a reason.
At the break of dawn, a humongous Airbus A380 belonging to Qatar Airways sailed across the empty pavement in Barajas. The flight proved pleasant, with a variety of entertainment worthy of a first class flight and the polished service by each and every one of the gorgeous, impeccably dressed flight attendants. Then came the sweaty mess of a Doha layover, to finally arrive to the Dubai airport feeling sticky and exhausted. Mr. NN was there to greet me with a beaming smile brimming with excitement, and together we drove to my accommodation in Business Bay.

Utter chaos at the Doha airport!
In the following days I not only became closer to Mr. NN, but met a colleague closer to my age, JS, as well as our charming secretary and one of the Chairmen of the company, CEO of two reputed airlines in Pakistan. I was thrilled. By the end of the week I had done a great deal of sightseeing in the good company of JS, and met MC, a friendly Australian-Maltese man in sore need of a corporate video for his axle company. After a short meeting with Mr. NN and the Chairman, who patiently heard the story prior to my Dubai visit, I landed a job as the Creative Director of the marketing company, and was assigned two projects, one of them being MC's corporate video... in China.

I skipped my return flight to Madrid and started working on my Chinese visa with the help of Akhtar, the energetic company driver. Akhtar is a Pashto man with a strange physical likeness to Abrahan Lincoln, with strong will and soft heart. Father of six and devout Muslim, he moved to Dubai from his native Pakistan, where he had been a chauffeur for the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi. Every morning he would come to pick me up and run errands when needed; over time, and through future difficulties, we would become very close friends.

Akhtar does not understand that selfies are meant for teenage girls!

For the two weeks prior to the trip to China, we checked every possible store in search of a suitable, versatile 4K Black Magic camera. However, when it came to commitment to buy, I only saw promises to get in touch later on. As time kept ticking away, my gut told me something wasn't quite right. A week before the China trip, I found to my dismay that all 4K cameras were sold out, with a month-long wait-list. In a last-minute decision, I proposed to buy a good Canon DSLR camera and some basic accessories to get us out of the bind. Still, we kept on price-checking, despite my insistence to buy. Time started to run out, and I started to become increasingly nervous. Would I go to China with no equipment? How shameful would that be? Why on Earth would MC pay for my flight, visa, meals and accommodation for a week if I couldn't do anything? I phoned the Chairman with my concerns, to be confronted by Mr. NN the next day. Two days before the trip, we finally got a prosumer camera with borrowed money. I was relieved to be able to test it, but by this point I knew this incident was at the tip of a larger problem. However, there was no time to worry: China awaited.

Who would think a surprise trip to Dubai would land me in Hong Kong?
Colorful neon amongst all the stores selling electronics, jewelry and watches!
A charming local alley, close to the ferry terminal.
By the way, should you want to buy any camera gear, it's about 40% cheaper here.
'Claustrophobic' is just a mild term for this vibrant metropolis.
There's not much that I can say or picture on my visit to China, mostly because it was a highly confidential project with tons of touchy industrial secrets. I will say, however, that China is bound to be the future master of the planet. I was deeply intimidated by the sheer amount of manufacture and construction in the province of Guangdong, and had a saddening flashback of all the closed businesses in my native Spain. I developed a critical attitude towards Europe's tendency to over-regulate business and sink entrepreneurs in red tape, but at the same time understood that this competition was not being fair. With the lack of respect for anything from intellectual property laws to labor rights, from the environment to quality control, Chinese manufacturers have cut production costs to pennies on the dollar. However, by some crooked logic, the products that are not up to the West's manufacturing standards are sold freely at home. How can we invite such cheaters to a game where everybody toils to play fair?

No dollie? No crane? No problem! A forklift will do just fine.
I will say, however, that Chinese manufacturing is changing, as technology and innovation are beginning to flow into the country. Electric scooters are widespread in most cities. Rivers are cleaned up almost overnight. Solar panels crown the roofs of many warehouses. Worker's quarters seem better than most government housing in Spain. In a country so open to drastic change, some decisions are not left to corporate greed, but rather, to long-term sustainable and economical development. How will the West react? I honestly do not know, but I better start learning Chinese soon.

MC, who originally started off as a customer, quickly became a cherished friend, as we shared life stories and sorted language barriers in an environment where we were the only ones to speak English. We dared to explore some remote areas, gesticulated vigorously at pushy street touts, settled to draw pictures of food items at restaurants, bought a toxic-smelling phone case, admired fine watches, visited 5-star hotel suites for future trips, drove out to the rice fields, joked about some striking menu translations and got sliced apples, green tea and spine-shattering back massages in questionable-looking parlors. All in all, about some of the best experiences a 25-year-old could ask for.

The Burj Khalifa, as seen from the bottom of the building where I used to live (Business Bay).
Back in Dubai, I requested to spend one week in Spain to terminate my lease, kiss my family goodbye and get the remainder of my things. As I was booking the flight on my laptop, I selected a cheap round trip fare and I passed the computer to Mr. NN for the credit card payment section...

—"I do not have a credit card", he said.
—"How come? What do I do, then?"
—"We'll reimburse you, don't worry".

I spent 3/4 of my bank balance on that flight, as my gut began to feel a strong sense of alarm. What was I getting into? Who should I trust? Would this be an ongoing problem, or just growing pains?

My week at home went relatively fast. In 7 days, I got a new set of transition eyeglasses made, ended my lease without penalties, closed my bank account and borrowed 3,000€ for the high upfront costs of renting an apartment in Dubai (usually the norm is to pay 1/2 a year in advance). In such a small, provincial place, I felt like an astronaut about to take off for an unknown planet: Dubai, the land where streets are paved with gold and sheiks gift Ferraris to strangers.

My father and I, next to the site of the future Four Lions Brewery
Back in Dubai, I started settling in a sense of conscientious routine. For an entire month, I spent between 10 to 12 hours a day editing ten minutes of beautifully-shot industrial machinery. The prospect of delivering the film a month in advance was no less than thrilling, especially to a friend who had been so hospitable and accommodating in my visit to China.

Royal quarters in Dubai (note all my life belongings, in two suitcases).
View from the aforementioned quarters.
Just settled! Celebratory photo at the marketing firm.
As the end of the month approached, I began to face a series of issues, starting with my housing. With the lease approaching its end for the Chairman's airline, I was in dire need of a new apartment, so for that matter, I requested my salary a week in advance. No dice. I moved in with JS, my coworker, and what originally was supposed to be a week's stay turned to be close to an entire month. Soon I realized our driver, Akhtar, had not been paid in the last two months. Our secretary complained she wasn't being paid, either. To top it off, our company's bank was taking too long to open the company account. So, upon much insistence, Mr. NN ended up borrowing my salary's amount from the Chairman's airline. I finally had money to work with, to get myself some food —instead of surviving on dates like the Berebers of the desert—, pay the hefty upfront amount of my apartment lease, and lend some cash to Akhtar to pay rent and send to his family in Pakistan.

By the end of the month, the editing was done, so the video was ready to be sent to our in-house composer and his motion graphics specialist. That month I resolved to have my resident visa on my passport, and despite the relative facilities the government provides, the process took about two weeks. Once I got my visa, I rode to the realtor's office and got my keys to a little studio in a high-rise in the middle of the desert, the cheapest property I could find anywhere near the office.

So much hard work for this little pink piece of paper!

Things were marching well. I could concentrate on my other project while the composer and motion graphics specialist worked on the finishing touches for my video. The Chairman, despite not having much time to supervise the marketing firm, had kindly given me his blessings to take any furniture/appliances from the old quarters and furnish my apartment.

Not much to look at... for now!

As the deadline for the video started to approach, I got most color correction, yet I still had no music, and no motion graphics. I was puzzled, and angry. Why hadn't anyone gotten back to me? A few emails got me some answers, and some less-than-satisfactory animated logo. I kept sending specific corrections, to be greeted by more mediocre template results. The deadline hit the calendar, and I was greeted by total radio silence. MC visited the office just as I was leaving, just to give me a polite reminder that masked some disappointment. By missing that deadline I felt like I had completely and utterly failed him. That night, I wrote an apologetic email that set off an unfortunate chain of events.

In my frustration, I explained him the people that I had been working with were terribly late in their delivery, my frustrations on Indian/Pakistani artists often recurring to template work (an awful generalizing remark that I regret to this day) and that had I known earlier, I would have pooled people from my college's entourage to finish it on time. I offered to produce an 'emergency film' to be delivered in 48 hours with my best attempts at motion graphics and basic titles.

My boss, Mr. NN, got a call from MC asking about the progress of the film, demanding the composer/graphics guy to work harder and deliver as soon as possible. Soon enough I was told to forward my apology email to Mr. NN, who found it infuriating to see the company's malfunctioning revealed to a customer/friend. The resulting clash led to a heated conversation on workflow problems, leading to a wider discussion on the company's internal problems related to policy, communication, pay, and clarity affecting all aspects of work. Two days later, I received a call telling me that Mr. NN had blocked all furniture from being sent to my apartment, followed by a termination email two hours later.

I was fired.

Despite not having received my paycheck yet, my computer and company car were taken away from me. For two weeks I was confined to an air mattress in an isolated building in the middle of the desert, with no internet. I tried my best using the wifi in a local restaurant through my iPhone, just to stay in touch. During this time, I wrote a heartfelt apology letter to everyone at the marketing firm for my behavior, and handed it to Mr. NN in good faith. Two weeks after my termination, I got my paycheck... and a strong telephonic threat to surrender my passport to the firm's paperwork consultants or be subject to trial and jail time.

The check bounced. Twice.

Twenty days later, now with the involvement of the Chairman —deeply shocked and surprised, as he never received my apology letter through Mr. NN—, finally got my month's pay and a personal loan of $1,300 to get back on my feet. Still, to this day, the company owes me close to $1,000 in previous dues (most of it being my flights).

The mountains surrounding Dubai. Not too far from here are some excellent rug salesmen.
Dubai has malls of all sizes, for all tastes. This one is called "Ibn Battuta".

The Dubai experience has gone terribly wrong for me in these last few weeks, but I am still not giving up the ghost. I can confidently say my finances are in a better spot than they were in Spain, with much better opportunities ahead of me. The Mercedes 300GD I bought last year has finally gone for sale on eBay and I should be cashing it through Oliden Group fairly soon.

What's next for me? I do not know. I just got a good friend, Bree, to visit and stay with me, and together we are sending out our resumés throughout the marketing/advertising scene in town. Whether we get a new job, set up a business or are forced to leave for home, we'll see... 

Stay tuned for more. This time it won't be 4 months for a new update, I promise.