October 23, 2009

Tea Time

There are times in my life when I feel particularly American. In France, I felt most American when confronted with a lot of nationalism. Here, just now, I feel it keenly in the office and in the shops. The caste system of India apparently has migrated to Abu Dhabi with the Indians, and I'm not comfortable with it.
Perhaps this has to do with my own social standing -- very solidly middle class.
At work, we have "tea boys" who are, in fact, men. They wear uniforms and silently move among us, offering tea or coffee served just the way we like it. Others on my desk seem quite pleased at this service. The idea is you pay a sort of gratuity monthly (50 dirham per month, about $14, is recommended) and then when you get to your desk in the afternoon your hot beverage arrives just as you like it. I don't drink coffee or tea and so I'm at a loss as to what to do here. But it's more than that. I don't like being waited on like this. One of the men came over to me the other day, after I'd been studiously avoiding him several days. He asked "would you like water, madam?" I did, in fact, want water -- I had been outside longer than usual and was very hot.
But it's no chore for me to get up, walk 30 paces and get it myself out of the machine. So I didn't know what to do. I said OK, yes, thank you. And he said quietly "two dirham." Now water from the machine costs 1 dirham (27 cents), so I guess the two dirham (the plural of dirham is ... dirham) includes the gratuity. I handed him a five dirham note. He brought my water, and then some time later, came back with four dirham. Since we had said two, I wasn't clear what I was supposed to do. I think I should have said please keep the rest of it for later in the week. That, I suppose, would have been the proper thing. But I got nervous. Already uncomfortable with the entire arrangement, and not wanting to make a big deal out of this (and yes, I realize it already was too late) I just waved him away generically with the change. And all of this is over 27 cents. But it's more than that. It's the servant aspect of things. While there have been many, many times in my newspaper career where I haven't had time to get up for the bathroom, much less for a bottle of water, this is not one of them. It's different, though, when a friend is already going to the machine and picks up a soda for you, too. I don't know why, it just is.
And then it extends to the grocery store as well. Our first trip to the grocery store, the boy (and he was a boy) grabbed our shopping cart and pushed it across a major street and down the block to our apartment. Yesterday, the boy bagged my groceries and I remembered reading that I was supposed to tip him, but I couldn't remember how much. I asked the cashier about home delivery for groceries -- things like water and other beverages are too heavy to lug, even if it weren't 90 degrees out. She told me they didn't have that, but that the boy could take the water to my home. I had taken a cab to the store; this certainly wouldn't work. I saw later, while waiting for the taxi, that other people had the grocery boys wheel their carts to the cab stand, wait in line with them, and put the groceries -- water and all -- into the trunk. For a mere five dirham.
I understand that these guys are trying to eke out a living. They wouldn't be here doing what they do if they had better options, would they? What I don't know is how formal their relationships are with the newspaper, or at the grocery. Have they been hired? (And yesterday, one of them came by with an envelope that said: "The tea boy is going on vacation for two months. Donations accepted.") Did they just show up, because this sort of thing is common in this part of the world? I don't know. There is nothing like this, in the States.
I don't think I'll get used to this anytime soon, and I'm sure it's the American in me.


Constantino said...

How is this different than the resorts that you have visited in the developing world? In Mexico, don't you have people bringing you drinks and you tip them? These workers aren't looking for a hand-out, you are paying them for their service. They are probably making a lot more than they would have in India or Pakistan. By not using them, you are depriving them of income, and its not a major amount of money for you. You are also helping their families back home because they are sending the money back home. Won't you help them?

Leah Oberjuerge said...

It's different because I'm at work. I don't bring my computer to the beach; I don't expect drinks brought to me at my desk.