waterway in Abu Dhabi, UAE

Leaving Abu Dhabi: When the good life is not enough

Maya in the desertDuring the past two years, Maya has built an active, fun-filled life in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She has a comfortable position at a university — but she’s decided it’s time to move on.

What’s your travel story?

I’ve always wanted to live abroad. My father was in the military, so as a small child I lived in Germany. I travelled a lot as a young adult; I went to Swaziland and other African countries in college. And once I became a nurse, I had the income to support my travel habit.

I came to the UAE on birthday trip to visit a friend who was living here. Right away I found this place to be amazing. It’s new, clean, and safe. Everything is 5-star — the hotels, the restaurants.

I met someone who is a nurse working for an American university here. I sent her my resume, then met her for coffee. Once I had that conversation with her, it kind of made my mind up. I decided, “I’m going to do this.” Then I had an interview with the director, and they offered me the job.

But then it took months to get the paperwork done! They had to make sure I could get licensed here. They also had to do a background screening for my security clearance. It was stressful time because I was in Philadelphia waiting for everything to clear and my job there was wondering if I was staying or going. I was also in a long-term relationship that wasn’t working. Seven months later, I finally got my official offer to work in the university’s student health clinic.

It’s so different from the U.S., but because of the infrastructure and high quality of living, I figured it would be easy to transition working abroad here. That turned out not to be true!

What made your transition challenging?

I arrived towards the end of Ramadan. Like a lot of countries in this region, the UAE totally shuts down during Ramadan. I was also working, so I only had a couple of hours a day to look for housing. I’d never experienced anything like it. It felt like nothing was getting done.

There are a lot of 3-bedroom apartments that were built to attract more families to this area. So it was hard to find a 1-bedroom. Thankfully, my employer connected me with a couple of realtors who helped me find properties within my housing allowance.

The real estate market moves really quickly. Once you find a place you like, you have to put down a deposit (in cash) immediately or it will be gone. One time, even after I gave place a deposit, they later told me to come pick up my deposit; they’d given the apartment away to someone else. So frustrating!

It’s pretty expensive compared to Dubai or even Philly, I think because there’s less real estate available. It’s about $2700 for a 1-bedroom apartment; that’s more than my 3-bedroom house in Philly.

What’s the difference between Abu Dhabi and Dubai?

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. Each emirate has its own ruling family. The city of Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and the Emir of Abu Dhabi is also the President of the UAE.

Dubai is a center for tourism. People go there to party, to shop in the high-end malls, to see the Burj Khalifa tower and other attractions. You don’t see people in traditional clothes there. People there tend to dress a lot less modestly, some foreigners might even be more scantily clad.

I live in Abu Dhabi, which is about an hour from Dubai. It’s more family-oriented, less touristy than Dubai. In Abu Dhabi, you feel more like you’re surrounded by local people. Women here wear the abaya (a sort of shapeless dress) and the shayla (headscarf) outside the home. Men will wear the all-white kandora.

What are some of the things you like best about being in the UAE?

I love the 5-star life! I have more access to these amazing restaurants in fancy hotels . They have coupons, like a buy-one get-one entree, and other deals to attract expats. I’m living a better spoiled life, indulging in a lot of things that I wouldn’t at home.

I live on the Corniche — the main road where the beach is. Literally if I walk across the street from my building, the beach is right there. It’s pretty central to the main attractions, like Emirates Palace. It’s a newer building in an older neighborhood of high rises.  It’s connected to an international hotel, which is pretty common here. So we have our own pool, but we share the gym with the hotel. There are three restaurants. I have a doorman, which helps me feel comfortable and safe.

In addition to my salary, my employer gives me a flight home every year, time off, and a housing allowance; pretty much everyone here gets a housing allowance. I get to pocket more money than I would in the States. A lot of people travel around the region. I’ve been to Lebanon and Morocco. It’s not that far to go for the weekend.

There’s a large expat community. The government is trying to entertain us to keep us here. It’s almost like a playground for us. I go out a few nights during the week and on the weekend.  I went to Arabic classes at first, but I dropped them because they were interfering with my social life! People think we don’t drink here, but we do lots of happy hours with free champagne, free cocktails for ladies. They do brunch big here, with lots of drinks.

It’s Sharia law here. So If you’re muslim, you’re not supposed to drink. Public displays of drunkenness are illegal. If you’re an expat, you need to get a liquor license to purchase alcohol. Even to serve alcohol to guests in your home you need to have a liquor license. When you apply for it, they review your salary, which determines how much alcohol you can purchase.

What are some of your biggest challenges there?

Dating out here is stressful. We do have Tinder, Bumble and Happn. I use Tinder a lot to meet people. Everybody out here is on Tinder, including some of my co-workers (yikes!) But it’s sometimes depressing, because it’s the same stuff I was dealing with back home.

There are a lot of men here, but everyone is in transition. They’re not here long-term, so they’re not thinking of having anything serious. I have heard of the rare cases of people meeting their spouse here. But generally, it’s just a date, to have a good time. People don’t want to invest in real friendships, either.

There’s prostitution here. There are a lot of women from the African diaspora and the Philippines here who work in that industry. Being a black woman, I sometimes get a look that makes me feel like they think I’m a working girl. That’s why I would never sit at a bar alone or eat out alone here; I feel like it could get uncomfortable really fast.

Another thing: There’s a big separation between expats and local people. I have no local Emirati friends, which is not what I was thinking would happen when I came here. The university students are local, but my colleagues and friends are expats. That’s one of my biggest regrets, that I haven’t been able to meet more local people.

[Note: Emiratis constitute only about 10% of the UAE population.]

What’s next for you?

I moved here in May 2015, and I’m leaving next month. I’m going back to the States, but I’m not going back permanently. This is just an opportunity for me to push the reset button.

I love travel,  and I like nice things, and I’m so comfortable here, but unfortunately there’s no professional growth for me here. My employer has given me a pretty sweet deal. Looking around I’m only seeing things here that might be a worse situation for me, not better.

There are only two places in the world where nurses make money: the United States and the Middle East. These countries are pulling in expats to do health care jobs and teach at medical schools. Anywhere that there’s a universal health care structure, they’re not paying as well. And I would need to do nursing in a place that uses the technology that I’ve been trained on. Australia might be a possibility — but it’s so far! I want to be able to get back home to family easily if need be.

I love this travel life and I’m hoping to figure out some kind of remote work. I’ve had the goal since college of living somewhere in Africa. I’m looking into the possibilities. I’m stepping out on faith to create a life where travel is more central. I see myself living 6 months in the U.S., and 6 months abroad.

What’s your advice for women who want to move abroad?

You have to get away from your fear. In the beginning, I was very afraid. Then I talked to myself and realized: I have the skill set. I’ll be all right.

There are great things about living abroad. I love my life here. Professionally, I didn’t see myself going anywhere, but I’m so happy I did this for myself.

There’s crime and crazy people everywhere, but if you have that interest, make a plan and go for it. Always have a backup plan! And don’t be afraid of coming back home to regroup.

You can find Maya on Instagram at coffy_oliver.

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