As a young girl sitting in her home in the small farming town of Valleyview, Alberta, Lynn Gervais was obsessed with National Geographic Magazine, reading every copy she could find. She dreamed of traveling the world and seeing something beyond the wheat fields of her home province — even collecting old Lonely Planet guidebooks for inspiration. She thought the “big time” would be to eventually find a job in the metropolis of Edmonton, Alberta. Little did she know her passion for travel would eventually land her a job as a hotel industry executive …in Abu Dhabi.
After college, Gervais went to work in the Canadian resort area of Lake Louise. She enjoyed the contact with a worldwide clientele and later transferred to a hotel in Whistler, British Colombia, in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics. With the global event, her travel ambitions expanded. She took every opportunity to vacation abroad but was still looking for a chance to “fully immerse” herself in a foreign culture.
Exploring the worldwide hotel network, she found a posting with Ritz Carlton — in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Having passed through the city before, Gervais knew it was cosmopolitan and worldly. Without hesitation, she leaped at the chance — and found herself a stranger in a strange land.
While Dubai was booming, attracting masses of business people from around the world (the population is often estimated to be 90 percent expatriates), the city was having a few growing pains. “You learn patience in a hurry. Rules and regulations were kind of getting made up as they go — the country is hardly 40 years old. And there were almost no addressees there,” Gervais recalls. “New streets were getting created every day. The cabbies were all from other countries, and they didn’t have a clue how to get around either. It made for an interesting commute.”
Hired to coordinate public relations for the new hotel, Gervais discovered there were a few challenges for its unique clientele. “The promotional materials were all from North America. They certainly didn’t have anything on how to organize an Arab wedding reception or an Indian bridal shower.”
When faced with such challenges, she reacted in a typically Canadian way. “It really wasn’t too hard; I just politely asked people for help. Everyone was great. They helped me learn and get settled.” Her Canadian roots posed a different kind of challenge during the hotel’s “come in your native costume day.” While her international co-workers arrived in the flowing, formal national dresses of India, Sudan, Lebanon, and the Emirates, Gervais showed up wearing a borrowed ice hockey sweater and helmet. “That got a few laughs, but I honestly didn’t know what else to wear as a national costume.”
To ease her immersion in this new culture, Gervais took night classes in Arabic. She progressed well in the language but had one problem. There was nobody to practice it with. “Ninety percent of the people around me spoke only in English and some other foreign language. I could just try it out in a few cafes in town.”
Once the Dubai hotel was up and running, she moved on to a new property in Abu Dhabi. Considered the “older brother” in the UAE, Abu Dhabi is more of a traditional government center rather than a tourism and banking destination. “I had to keep my shoulders covered indoors,” Lynn said, “but that wasn’t really a problem, since they always had the air conditioning cranked up so high it was freezing, and I needed a sweater anyway.” And having woman-specific rules sometimes worked to her advantage. “I liked the woman-only metro cars, cabs, and lines in offices. Made my days easier.”
The international nature of both the communities helped Gervais, as a single woman, navigate both professional and personal life in the Middle East. “There really wasn’t any hassle at all. I felt safe, the people were friendly, and it was just a great opportunity to see the world,” she says. The UAE’s location between Europe and Asia made it easy for her to take weekend trips around the Middle East and to India, Thailand, and Africa. Although they certainly can’t compare to Edmonton.
But in a country with such wealth, there was one safety concern — driving on highways filled with supercars. “I had to commute from Dubai to Abu Dhabi for a while, and I felt like I was taking my life in my hands each day. I was cruising at 100 mph and was nearly getting run over in the slow lane.” And there’s no more typical Dubai experience than the one she had watching one Lamborghini cruising the evening streets with an actual tiger in the passenger seat, the pet of some prince out to impress the local gals. “In Dubai, that stuff doesn’t even faze you after a while.”
After three and a half years in the Emirates, Gervais decided it was time to return home to reunite with family and friends and start a new job in Vancouver. Her worldly experience gave her the confidence to tackle any new job, as well as a new appreciation for her homeland (despite the speed limits). “After being in the Middle East, it really makes you thankful for everything we have here,” she said. “I worked with people from Lebanon, from Syria, who had lived in war zones. Africans who grew up without safe water, all kinds of people who didn’t have the same freedoms as we take for granted on a daily basis.” But don’t expect Lynn to move back to the farm anytime soon — her bags are still packed for her next adventure.