An Interpreter in “the City of Dreams”

A really surreal story


“The greatest city on the face of the Earth?”

By Pyotr Patrushev

Russian-English translation

illustration ©Simon and Schuster
(used with permission)

A few years back I got an email from a colleague, a French interpreter, that the City of Dreams was looking to hire international interpreters like myself for the Greatest Fun and Games event on earth.

I must say that although I had worked and interpreted for other major international events in the past I knew little about the Greatest Fun and Games on Earth and even less of the City of Dreams. A search on the Internet shed some light on the mystery. A nation of former fishermen and nomads has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world due to its natural resources For centuries, while occasionally dabbling in piracy, the natives traded in pearls and spices, sailing dangerous seas.

In the City of Dreams the Dreamers control its natural resources, real estate and wealth. They pay no taxes, enjoy free education and medicine, and have the average per capita income similar to most developed countries. But this is not the whole story. Aside from the native Dreamers, there are almost three times as many foreign (slave) workers.

I decided to send my résumé to the address supplied by my colleague and waited… and waited… I did more research on the Internet. Many expats and travelers reported that the City of Dreams was in reality “the most boring city on the face of the Earth.” That was encouraging!

Although the date for the core group of interpreters to arrive in the City of Dreams was rapidly approaching, none of my emails were answered. I also made a number of fruitless phone calls to the agent called Satyr.

Unexpectedly, while on another interpreting assignment, I received a brief message on my mobile that I was hired for the whole of the preparatory period as well as for the duration of the Fun and Games. When I attempted to question the terms of our contract, which were exceedingly skimpy, the response was, “everything will be sorted out upon your arrival in the City of Dreams.” It was a slow post-holiday period and, despite some reservations, I signed the contract.

I got my e-ticket just before the departure date. I was ready to travel. I foolishly assumed that it being a tropical place, the City of Dreams would be hot and packed my light clothes.

After an 20-hour flight I landed in the Transit City. The sprawling airport resembled a giant shopping mall. I managed to get myself a chair in a busy coffee shop and spent some hours waiting for a connecting flight to the City of Dreams. Along the corridors sleeping on the floors were colourful groups of migrant workers, looking bedraggled and bewildered.

Upon entry into the departure hall I was somewhat taken aback by the casual attitude of the security officers who heedlessly chatted with each other and drank coffee while largely ignoring their computer screens. But then I thought, “Who was going to blow up the City of Dreams anyway”?

We, the workforce

After a short flight I arrived in the City of Dreams and was met at the airport by Satyr’s friendly helpers who bundled me into a taxi. My ankles got swollen during the long flight. At the hotel I gratefully threw off my shoes, turned on the TV and got myself a cold drink.

In the evening ten core team interpreters were introduced to each other during a rather chaotic meeting. Among other things we had to sign a waiver saying we would consume neither alcohol nor tobacco in our rooms, nor bring them onto the premises. Someone found this waiver onerous and wanted to find out what would happen if he secretly had a drink in his room. The more experienced travelers jokingly assured him that there were probably no cameras in the rooms and, as long as he kept his mouth shut, everything would be OK.

We decamped to our rooms, which were rather oversized suites with common kitchen facilities. We were stationed at a hotel that I shall call ‘El Belaros’, which, as we found later, was completed well in advance of our arrival. That meant that all the facilities were reasonably comfortable, compared to some other hastily completed buildings, as we were soon to find out. El Belaros even boasted an outdoor swimming pool and a spa. The hotel manager was an elderly Philippine, trained as a plastic surgeon in his native country but working for many years in Berlin as a taxi driver. His English was elaborate and convoluted but his manner was friendly and courteous.

Next morning we collected our uniforms. What we did not realise at the time but came to learn rather painfully later on was that being interpreters we were neither journalists, nor delegates, nor VIPs, but “workforce”, alongside cooks and cleaners. Apparently, the whole idea of providing language interpreting at the Fun and Games was a bit of an afterthought. Interpreting booths at conference centres and other venues were hastily constructed and subdivided at the last minute (often unevenly, provoking rivalries for the most spacious booth) to provide for the requisite number of languages. Microphones and other equipment were still being installed and tested on the day the press centre was being officially opened.

Our uniforms were of colourful green, pink, yellow and white hues (somebody compared them to the plumage of tropical parrots), and made of synthetic material (which meant that in hot weather outside one sweated and then, on re-entering indoors, froze). Massive air-conditioning installations were working full pelt at most indoor premises, with blasters directing cold air in powerful streams (it was too cold to sleep at night under flimsy blankets). As soon as we were moved into our permanent accommodation (more about that later), I claimed that I suffered from claustrophobia and was moved into a room with street-facing windows that could be opened.

From then on I never switched on the air-conditioning, relying on the cool wind. The wind brought in swarms of harmless-looking locusts. Their presence, when detected by cleaners or (foolishly) reported by a guest, would draw into the room a team of exterminators, with industrial-sized spraying canisters on their backs. I posted graphic signs around the room, asking not to spray. I was happy to co-exist with the locusts.

We were taken to a canteen that resembled a huge army barrack. It could provide meals for a couple of thousand people at any one time. Queues swiftly moved past the counters (with signs exhorting one not to take more than the allotted number of food items – which everybody seemed to ignore). We were issued with the cheapest possible disposable plastic cutlery and crockery. Experience taught us to take at least two lots of plastic knives and forks because they inevitably broke under the slightest pressure.

During the first few days we complained about lack of choice in our food. Most of it seemed to be of the Indian variety, with lots of cheap hot curries and chilies. We knew that in the delegates’ dining hall next door there were five separate kitchens: Dreamers’, Chinese, Arabic, Continental and Indian-Thai, plus a great assortment of cold foods and salads, as well as fresh fruit. Our complaints and pleas to change the menu went unheeded; we were too far down the totem pole.

A few times I visited the local food court at the supermarket. I recall once sitting at the same table with a local man, no other tables being available. He courteously invited me to join in his meal. I was still dazed from the flight and, since I had already ordered a meal, I was unsure how to respond. So I politely declined. Although I have lived in and visited many exotic lands, nothing prepared me for dealing with locals in the City of Dreams.

Occasionally, I noticed an apprehension mixed with thinly veiled contempt. When I tried to taste some expensive (around US $100 a kilo) local honey at the market, the seller thought I could not afford to buy it (and was not enough of a man to splurge). Generally though the sellers were friendly, especially to our women interpreters, and willingly posed for photos. Only occasionally I sensed the guards’ resentment at various checkpoints when they exaggerated security precautions by unnecessarily frisking us and checking our bags.

A safe heaven lost and “Fawlty Towers” found

Since most of us did not like wearing uniforms we gradually began to discard items of our apparel one by one, replacing them with more comfortable clothing, wearing down the protests and the resistance of the management. But that was a minor battle. Soon we had to leave our spacious lodgings at El Belaros and move into a complex that we dubbed “Fawlty Towers.” The towers were huge forty-story-high blocks of units, luxurious-looking on the outside but uncomfortable on the inside, with barrack-like cafeterias submerged in cavernous and labyrinthine basements.

When we were moved into one of the towers we at first refused to be lodged there. The lifts were shaky and seemed unsafe, bathrooms leaked, rooms were dark, windowsills dirty, the windows themselves covered in layers of concrete and dust. The buildings were obviously hastily commissioned under pressure from the authorities, eager to start the Fun and Games on time. The pool at Fawlty Towers was full of building debris and was never opened, despite promises. Weeks into our occupancy, some rooms got telephones and a slow dial-up internet that we had to pay for by at the city shopping centre.

We were told by an aggressive-looking Englishwoman that everything will be OK, and that the buildings were safe and comfortable. Some of us tried to stay as long as possible in the check-in lounge but gradually it became clear that with something like 20,000 guests arriving that day in this City of Dreams, we had no chance. A group of interpreters threatened to pack up and fly back home in the morning.

No sooner than getting to our rooms and settling in just for the night, prepared to renew our fight to relocate in the morning, a wail of sirens started up, signalling that we evacuate the building. We hastily threw our belongings together and ran down the stairs, with wet paint from the freshly painted staircase sticking to our shoes. So it was back to El Belaros for a couple of nights until another “Fawlty Tower” was hastily prepared.

For the next thirty days we would be subjected nightly to the deafening fire alarms (occasionally three or four times a night). At first we would stagger out of bed and attempt to evacuate (as required by the rules) but eventually we ignored the alarms, trying to get as much sleep as we could (our shifts meant a 5:30 am rise). On one of those restless nights, as I peered into the corridor, barely awake, I was amazed to see our Japanese interpreter already at the exit, fully dressed, with a neatly packed suitcase at his side, and a uniform cap on. He must never have slept at all.

Nobody could tell us why the alarm malfunctioned. Finally, a slave worker was positioned at the fire alarm station round the clock to press the stop-button as soon as it went off.

As we got to know more referees and technical officials living in our building we found out that we were relatively fortunate. Some people had been moved four to five times. There was a shortage of about 2,500 beds, and three cruise boats in the City of Dreams harbour were commandeered to accommodate extra guests.
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Transport, science, and blood sports

Getting around to work areas and to the central canteen was a problem. In theory, we were provided with cars and drivers by Satyr. There were also official buses running between the hotel and the venues. Often it would have been easier to walk, instead of trying to adjust to the unpredictable and awkward schedules or faulty communication with our Dreamer drivers or the office. But there were no pedestrian walks and the roads were dusty and dangerous as the City of Dreams’ drivers had no respect whatsoever for pedestrians (nor other drivers for that matter). The height of driving prowess for a local driver is to move unexpectedly at 120 km an hour out of his lane at a roundabout across the screeching traffic and dash out to a side street causing confusion, curses and, with God’s help, accidents. “Slow down, slow down…” was the first Dreamer phrase that I learned. One literally took one’s life in one’s hands crossing busy roads. Some volunteers were actually run over and killed. I barely survived one close call. There were supposed to be taxis in the City of Dreams. In practice, you could sometimes find an expensive limousine at a luxury hotel. In desperate cases you tried to hail local drivers and were mostly ignored.

The work entailed waiting for meetings and press conferences to happen, often at the last minute. Occasionally, conferences were “wall-to-wall.” We had to interpret at early morning VIP’s meetings and also take care of the delegates’ needs. Other interpreters were sent into the media mill with those journalists who could not attend the events.

A few times when I went to the competition venues I was struck by the fact that seats were mostly filled by students brought from schools and colleges to create an impression of a good crowd. Journalists brought up this question of attendance on numerous occasions.

The huge wealth of the City of Dreams was going to be channelled into making the country one of the leading sporting nations in the region. Giant sporting arenas were being built and famous foreign coaches were recruited to bring local teams up to world standards. Yet native Dreamers generally seemed uninterested in sport. I never saw anyone jogging on the lovely esplanade that circled the harbour. Their only huge success at the Fun and Games was in cricket. Their victory created quite a pandemonium in the City of Dreams, with cars racing around all night, people sitting precariously on sun-roofs, and jubilant crowds everywhere.

The same could be said for science. Although science (together with folklore) featured large during the magnificent presentation emphasising the debt of western science to Dreamer innovation, names of leading scientists (shown on a wide screen) and their discoveries would have been utterly unfamiliar to the majority of the Dreamers. One of our bosses, a university educated professional, stunned us with his assertion that apes were derelict humans who did not follow the Dreamers’ rules.

Disregard for the environment and conservation was evident everywhere. Huge mascot figures of Sphinx were erected around the city for the Fun and Games. Exorbitantly priced birds for hunting were sold at markets, with almost no native prey left. Wealthy Dreamers amused themselves by flying to countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to hunt, where game still survived and where there were few restrictions on hunting.

The Sphinx and the Running Sands of Time

I gradually began to gain the impression that the whole purpose of the “Fun and Games” was to enhance the international prestige of the City of Dreams and impress the visiting VIP’s who were receiving royal treatment. The Fun and Games were reported to have cost enough money to pay a decent salary to all the slave workers for the next 100 years. More than 500,000 km was covered by the VIP’s in over 5,000 petrol-guzzling vehicles, as announced proudly by the organisers. It all really seemed an extravagant waste of money. Dreamers were proudly pointing out the skyscrapers that dotted the city’s skyline, with the city resembling a huge building site.

I imagined the skyscrapers being submerged once again by running sands in 30 years’ time, when the City of Dreams would run out of its supplies of cheap oil and gas (or when some substitute for them is discovered). The old Dreamers’ architecture seemed ecologically sound and sustainable– thick-walled buildings with good thermal mass and narrow, shaded windows. However the modern American and European steel and plate-glass buildings being sold to the Dreamers by unscrupulous developers and architects were totally unsuited to local conditions and needs. They seemed more like monuments to greed and wasteful extravagance. It would probably be cheaper after the Fun and Games to pull some of these buildings down rather than bring them up to any sort of decent standard. Their whole existence was predicated on an unlimited supply of cheap energy and slave labour.

Dreamers themselves took a hands-off approach to most “on-the-ground” matters. Jobs were supervised by hired contractors. Workers were ill-trained, lacked proper tools, and were poorly motivated. Theft of food and small items from our hotel rooms was rampant. I could hardly blame these lowly paid migrant workers as they were getting something like US $5 per day (out of which they paid for their food and lodgings, sent money back home and paid off the gang leaders who hired them).

The attitude to women in the City of Dreams was in accordance with Dreamer traditions. They were draped in dark clothes while men, on the contrary, sported colourful flowing robes. One could occasionally see a flash of cherry-black eyes and wonder what passions and, dare one say, thoughts, swirled behind them. The attitudes of men were much more “in your face.” During a trial of new video equipment in our booths local technicians put on a full-blown porno movie. There were shrieks of shock and surprise from our women colleagues (some of whom came from other Dreamer-like countries). The technicians thought it was a huge joke until the women complained and one of the technicians was (reportedly) sacked on the spot.

On another occasion one of our women interpreters was subjected to a rude sexual advance while visiting a local resident. If this could happen to a relatively well-protected and respected female, what could be said about the thousands of lower class women working as housekeepers, cooks and nannies in Dreamers’ homes? As foreign women mixing with men, they were legitimate prey.

We came from across the globe…

Logistic bungling was rampant. Teams were taken to wrong venues, food and supplements were confiscated from hotels. Some guests were left in the pouring rain and freezing wind for hours to allow the VIP’s to get to their buses first. Many complained of catching cold as a result. The weather was unseasonably cold and wet, with piercing winds blowing from the desert. Due to heavy rains the conditions were so difficult that an equestrian champion was killed. Horrified, we watched the unfortunate rider on a huge screen in front of us being crushed to death by a falling horse.

But there were moments of camaraderie among us notwithstanding the environment we had to work in. Anyone looking from outside would have thought that we were having a terrific time, with flying jokes and flashing smiles. I will cherish the concentrated look on the face of my colleague reading a trash detective story in the booth, tearing out one by one the pages that were read and tossing them into the bin (to lessen the weight of the book, no doubt).

Or us, sleeping and resting on dirty floors covered by newspapers at the deserted top floors of the administrative building (having been chased out of the lounge, as we were spoiling the official decorum). Or trying to brave the street crossings, holding hands and dashing madly across the road before the hordes of SUV’s would trample us under their wheels. Or the I Ching sessions where fortune-telling coins were cast during the waiting hours, amid discussions about our diverse cultures and backgrounds.

One tried to put on a brave face and soldier on. But the strain showed. At one point when I brought a delegate to the doctor to be examined, the doctor asked me to sit down, took my blood pressure and told me to leave work immediately and go to bed. I was apparently suffering from exhaustion due to lack of sleep (the nightly fire alarms!), stress, and unaccustomed food.

I wrote a humorous poem about our days in the City of Dreams. In a strange way, I was grateful for the experience (not that I would care to repeat it any time soon). I saw the City of Dreams in 20-30 years time possibly reverting to some form of (cyber?) piracy after its futile attempts at supremacy in sports and science, and the exhaustion of its oil and gas reserves. Somehow, I just could not see the Dreamers going to work as hired labourers for their former slaves. And I saw our own Western way of life as a milder version of the dream-like extravagance, haughtiness and folly.

I did not think that the City of Dreams was “the most boring place on the face of the Earth” after all. It was just another strange and yet a familiar mirror we could hold up to ourselves.

The Dream City

We came from across the globe

And despite the lengthy run,

We wanted to visit the desert

And take part in the Games and Fun.

We were lodged at El Belaros

Of which fond memories we nurse

But they moved us to Fawlty  Towers

Which caused us to fume and curse.

We were tested with fire and water

And woken up through the night.

You should have seen us totter

In pyjamas when taking a flight.

Brave Satyr, all courage and mastery,

Sprung to action with curious speed,

As we glimpsed in the mists of history

In full gallop Dreamerian steed.

And so Fun and Games kept rolling

Between the Press and the exposition,

Till we felt we broke all records

And fulfilled our lives’ ambition.

Our tummies were full of curry

And our brains were like scrambled eggs,

But still we continued onward

With our noble profession’s quest.

As we left the City’s calm waters

With its sands and pouring rains,

We returned to our own native quarters

To recall the Fun and Games.

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