‘So do you want to volunteer for Expo 2020 Dubai?” my “bitter” half asked me one fine morning as he sat filling in his registration form online. “Well, OK.”
A day or so later came the email asking us to come along for “a friendly interview” at the House of Volunteers. And having chosen our time slots, here we both were a week later, cruising along Jebel Ali-Lahbab Road now known as the Expo Road, towards the Expo 2020 Dubai site. Construction vehicles rolled alongside, the ubiquitous cranes of Dubai dotted the skyline as our GPS guided us towards our destination.
Soon we could make out the pockmarked Al Wasl Plaza Dome, the very epicentre of the site. And at one point we had a view of a tilted flying saucer. “Hey, that’s Terra,” one of us said. Although very pedestrian a term for these fantastic structures, buildings they ultimately were, and thanks to a Gulf News centrespread published just that morning, we could easily pick them out in the hazy-with-sand patch of sky framed by our car windows.
The House of Volunteers turned out to be a relatively small shipping container-like cubicle painted green, two doors from a cafe. A friendly Emirati lady at the reception welcomed us and asked us to join all the wannabe volunteers who had chosen the same time slots as us, and who sat waiting.
In a corner an LED screen regurgitated clippings that alternated between videos highlighting the thrill of being part of the Expo volunteering team and a breathtaking spectacle of how Al Wasl dome — 800 tonnes of steel — was lifted to crown the main pavilion in an engineering feat of fine precision.
At precisely 11am, the first stage of our interview process began. Having whisked us all upstairs, we were given a short presentation on the Expo. In minutes, we walked through a corridor into an adjacent airy and sunlit boxlike room. A lady, a fellow volunteer herself, stood waiting next to a white screen.
Our eyes, however, were drawn to the room’s singular feature. One wall was made up entirely of hourglass slots scooped out to fit plastic stools — black and white, red and green. Together the humble stool made for a simple and yet eye-catching formation of the UAE flag. (A similarly simple yet striking display can be seen at Dubai International Airport where the UAE flag is made up of rolls of red, green, white and black towels squashed side by side.)
Each of us grabbed a stool from its perch and sat ourselves down for another interactive presentation on what was expected from us and what we could expect from our volunteering stint. The target, we were told, is to get 30,000 volunteers. For some perspective, we were asked to guess how many volunteers previous Expos had attracted. China supposedly got 70,000, because, strangely enough they opened out their registrations internationally!
This presentation done and stools back in formation, we were finally led to wait our turn for our “ten-minute friendly” interviews. Now, some of us finally got talking. As you would expect, we were a little melting pot of nationalities exchanging pleasantries, until each of us was called away.
My turn came, and I found myself seated in front of a young, very friendly Emirati dressed in an abaya. “How would you describe yourself?” she asked. I was just a bit flummoxed, pausing for a good few seconds to give myself a good hard thought. I managed to blabber a few traits that supposedly summed up my personality in my eyes.
Now came a series of hypothetical situations and what I would do in each of them. Talk about holding a mirror up to your own face. My interviewer was furiously typing into her computer as I spoke, urging me on with a word and a smile and lots of empathy.
It was strangely cathartic. We go through our days so self-absorbed and yet when forced to speak about ourselves, we find ourselves frantically rooting around in our minds. It’s like there is so much to say, and yet nothing to say about this person you have spent all your life with.
Footnote: I have since heard from the Expo Team and am proud to say that we are among the chosen ones! Hurrah!
— Maria Elizabeth Kallukaren is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.