"Hey Mike, hold on one second, just gotta feed the croc." My host in Dubai, Francis, was a bit busy when I came to visit him at his day job: it was lunchtime for the 1700 pound, 17 foot long King Croc at the Dubai Underwater Zoo and Aquarium and Francis, normally a scuba diver for the zoo, was asked to fill in as crocodile chef. Moments later Francis dangled a half chicken out to an animal with the biggest bite force in the world, pleasing the live crowd that had gathered here inside the biggest mall in the world, just next door to the tallest building in the world, all situated on what should be unlivable middle eastern desert. Supersized life where life shouldn't be- you'd get a headache trying to make sense of it all so I learned quickly it was easier to accept it for what it was: just another day in Dubai.
I was in Dubai after snatching a qualifying spot for the Dubai Squash Cup, a major tournament that I was lucky just to have the chance to qualify for. I slipped by an older Pakistani player in my first match and in the second and final round of qualifying, edged out a 17-year old Egyptian, 3-2, to punch a ticket into the main draw. Easily the best win of my season, if not my short career so far. Every player aims to be prepared to outlast the other guy and find those last few points when it's two a piece heading into the fifth and deciding game. It's what you train for. Afterward I called my parents and then celebrated with my small but loyal first time squash fans in my corner, Francis' kids Frankie and Franco and one of their friends. They didn't know what was going on. Neither did I.
A second memorable squash result came from a loss in my next match to Pakistan #1 and world #44, Nasir Iqbal. I had survived qualifying and was rewarded by playing a top-50 player in the world- a guy I would have paid to be on court with when I was sitting at my desk in Boston six months ago. I threw the kitchen sink at him and came away with a game, losing 3-1. I was ecstatic: a little over a year ago, I lost my first pro match to the world #90 and lost it badly- I could barely breath in between games as I went down fast. On court on Sunday, I had tangible proof of real progress: decent rallies, a couple drop winners, a game going my way. The weekend results would push me 30 spots up in the new world rankings to a personal best of #222, up from ~#300 in June. More to myself than to anyone else, the matches in Dubai made me feel like I belonged with the other guys out there, like everything invested leading up to it - my time, my training, my matches - was so worth it.
When not feeding monster crocs, my host Francis Uy spends his day as an expert diver for the world famous zoo, giving check ups to the fish, feeding the sharks, making sure all living things are swimming smoothly. Through my friend Anderson and her dad Juan's introduction, Francis invited me to stay with him and his wife Dobs and their two kids, Frankie, 6, and Franco, 2. Francis greeted me like an old friend when I landed at the airport at 2 AM the night before my first tournament match, having never met and spoken once a couple weeks before. We squeezed my racquet bag next to his scuba flippers and headed south to Al Khaid Gate, where for the next ten days, I was home.
There's a vibrant and generous community of about half a million Filipinos living in Dubai and I think I may have met nearly all of them while living with the Uy family. The home welcomed any family relative, friend, or passerby at any hour, and I was no exception: Dobs told me with a smile that the morning after I arrived, Francis whispered to her in bed, "I have another friend visiting- he's sleeping on the futon in the living room- but it's ok, he's a friend of Juan's." We lived in the heart of a massive immigrant housing complex comprised of Filipinos but also Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangledeshis among others. I quickly became well versed in Filipino cuisine (synopsis: rice on anything) and was given the name Uncle Mike on my first night, when the family had me join them to a Frozen themed birthday party for their neighbors' six year old daughter.
In Dubai, if they don't have it but want it, they'll build it or buy it. Indoor ski slopes, man made islands, golf courses with imported grass alongside imported palm trees. A friend who grew up here pointed to the enormous city skyline stretching across the horizon- "see that little white one" he said, pointing to a tiny white building in the distance, "ten years ago, that was the only building here." A few days later, right before National Day, the 43rd anniversary of the formation of the United Arab Emirates, Francis took me to "Old Dubai": a small collection of limestone huts with straw roofs tucked away in a space neatly called "Heritage Village". It was the only part of Dubai with no tourists. "This is what it must have all looked like here a hundred years ago." I thought out loud, looking at the dust and plain rocks of the huts. Francis laughed, "try thirty."
It's Vegas on steroids, New York with no crime, LA without the endless sprawl (yet). All of this just 100 miles across the water from Iran, next door to Oman, a couple hours from Baghdad. No one is actually from Dubai: nine out of ten residents are expats from almost every country in the world. Serbs to South Africans, Kiwis to Colombians- colliding with the different nationalities was interesting, hearing how they each ended up in the desert was even more so.
On Thanksgiving Day I played in a doubles exhibition match prior to the tournament final, held at the private squash club of a Dubai sheikh, one of the four sons of the King of Dubai. I tried not to smile while chasing the ball around the sheiks' court in disbelief, half expecting someone to tell me this was all a joke. Afterward, a Spanish friend of a friend, Claudia, let me pile in her car along with a Frenchman and two Argentines and we headed out camping in the desert to celebrate their Indian friends' birthday.
Spicy chicken on the grill and homemade hummus mixed with lively chatter and the occasional American hip hop jam from portable speakers, bringing out life amongst the combed, untouched sand surrounded by darkness. Someone brought Christmas lights, which served as only the faintest reminder that it was the holiday season somewhere. An Argentine strummed pop hits to a chorus of singers around the fire as I dusted off my fourth grade camping skills and taught the art of s'mores as my token cultural addition to the festivities. When we left the sun was just starting to pick up along the horizon, bringing with it another hot November day to the supersized Arab desert.