Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dubai to Manila: 24 hours in a TRAVELIFE

We at Travelife Magazine lead never-ending Travelives. But this particular 24 hours I'm going to talk about began on Wednesday night in Dubai and ended Thursday night in Manila. I was due to fly back to Manila on Wednesday night -- or rather very early Thursday morning -- and hit the ground running, straight to work and a series of television shoots.


But before heading to Dubai airport to catch my flight, I went to dinner with Philippine Consul General Benito Valeriano and some of Dubai's most prominent members of the Philippine community together with journalist Teddy Montelibano, who was part of the small group I'd traveled with from Manila. It was our last evening in Dubai and the others had decided to do last-minute shopping; but I was very interested to find out more about what life in Dubai was really like, so I accepted the invitation of local and very wealthy businessman Ishwar Chugani to have dinner with him at his restaurant Barrio Fiesta.

Ishwar is Indian, but he might as well be Filipino. He speaks Tagalog, grew up in Manila and has very deep connections to the Philippines. He counts several top Philippine government officials and businessmen as his classmates or childhood friends. Anyway, Ishwar has a multitude of successful businesses in Dubai, and one of his smaller businesses is the franchise for Barrio Fiesta in Dubai. He's incredibly busy, of course, and in fact we caught up with him just as he was jetting off to Monaco for a holiday.

The Barrio Fiesta chain of restaurants in Dubai, too, is upscale and very much integrated into the local dining scene -- so much so that not just Filipinos eat here, but a multitude of other nationalities as well. It's the pride of the Philippine community here since it's a nice place where they can take their foreign friends for a taste of Filipino food.

So this is where we had dinner, and I was really curious as to what kind of food we would be eating considering pork is not served in Dubai.


The food was excellent and I didn't miss the pork dishes at all. To make up for the lack of pork, Ishwar had created a dish called chicken skin sisig, which is chicken skin fried to crackling and then cooked like sisig. It was really good, and even now, I'm getting hungry just writing about it. I'd commandeered two servings and placed these in front of me, but now I wish I'd had more.

We also had sinigang with bangus, lumpiang ubod, kare-kare and inihaw. After days of all kinds of food, and certainly platefuls of mezze, it was very nice to have Philippine food again.


Consul General Valeriano, who is a Middle East expert, told us about the situation of Filipinos in Dubai. There's a whole spectrum of Filipinos living and working here, so the consulate here understandably is faced with many challenges. There's a big business community here and a lot of professionals have already made Dubai their home. In fact, the UP Alumni network here is something like 4000+ strong. The hospitality industry, as well, is full of Filipinos -- almost every luxury hotel front desk is manned by a kababayan. There are also thousands of contract workers and domestic helpers.


During that dinner, we met some of the Filipino community's most prominent and successful expatriates. Foremost among them is Lucille Ong, a dynamic lady who worked in the fashion industry in Dubai for many years before setting up her own design consultancy. Today she supplies many of Dubai's luxury hotels with upscale interior items and lives in a great apartment in the Burj development, which is one of Dubai's poshest condominium districts, with a full-on view of the famous Dubai Fountains.

Lucille gave great insights into life in Dubai as she's one of the few expatriates (non-Filipinos included) who can speak the language and who actually has Emirati friends. During my stay, I met lots of expatriates of all nationalities, and so many of them said they didn't have close Emirati friends and had never been invited to a local home before. In fact, over lunch somewhere in the Burj district, one British lady who'd been living in Dubai for over ten years told me she'd never met an Emirati lady socially. I later learned that this was quite ordinary for many expatriates living in Dubai. Most foreigners mixed with other foreigners and rarely had real contact with locals.


With these surprising conversations in mind, the first thing I asked Lucille when I sat down next to her was this: "Do you know any Emiratis? And have you ever been invited to an Emirati's home?" I had a million questions about Dubai life and these were just pouring out.

Out of all the people I asked this question of, only she had said yes. "In fact, I've been to countless Emirati weddings," she told me. "And, yes, I have a lot of good friends among Emirati women." According to her, Emirati women are very well educated but they're also quite traditional and bound by local customs, so it's generally difficult for foreigners to meet them socially.


I'd really pushed myself to the limit to make this trip to Dubai, as it came on the heels of so many trips already. In fact, I'd just been in this same general area of the Middle East about a few days earlier than my Dubai trip. But I was so glad to go and learn more about this enigmatic destination, and I was really sorry to leave. There were lots of souks and shopping malls that still needed discovering, a couple of nice restaurants I wanted to go to, and two or three really lovely hotels I want to stay in.

But lots of work awaited in Manila. As usual I had a full schedule on the table as soon as I landed in the airport, so I made sure to get enough sleep on the plane. The minute it took off, I had my usual glass of champagne and then promptly went to sleep for the next 7 hours, skipping the midnight snack and breakfast.


When I reached Manila, I had 30 minutes to drop my bags off at home and change, and then I was off to the Dusit to meet with international celebrity chef Daniel Green. I'd already heard so much about him and I knew his life story well, so I was really looking forward to meeting him in person. Well, up close and personal, he's really nice and extremely energetic in spite of his killer schedule in Manila -- and in fact, in spite of his killer schedule throughout the year. We compared electronic diaries and travel schedules, and I must say, his schedule is almost as bad as mine. Fortunately we could laugh over it, and happily so over a couple of drinks and his famous no-fat but delicious dishes.


My second event for the evening was the Order Mondiale kaiseki dinner of the Chaine des Rotisseurs association of Manila. The Chaine has a Japanese dinner once a year and for 2011, they organized it at UMU, the Japanese restaurant of the Dusit Thani. Thank goodness that my two events for the night were coincidentally at the same hotel!

The Chaine dinner was very well attended and UMU really looked so beautiful, all dressed up. The food, too, was specially prepared for the Chaine and it was so different from the regular Japanese food served at UMU or elsewhere. There was a chawan mushi custard with blue cheese, for example, and fish wrapped in a slice of kurobuta pork. Such interesting selections.

The best part was that everyone was having so much fun with good food and wine. After the meal had ended and many people had left, I joined the last hardy bunch knocking back what was left of the wines and spirits. One of the guys in the group was a real livewire and he kept us laughing the rest of the night with his jokes and antics. When I finally checked my watch, it was past midnight and time to finally head home.

Just another 24 hours in a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful, Travelife.


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