Yambao (L) and Ocampo (R) will celebrate 31 years at Dubai Golf in July Image Credit: Gulf News

Let me introduce you to Lizandro Yambao and Jesus (Jessie) Ocampo, the Filipino friends who have been joint at the hip since moving to the UAE to work for Dubai Golf almost 31 years ago.

Their story starts in 1993, when the pair were part of the original groundskeeping team at Nad Al Sheba Golf Club.

After successfully applying for jobs in landscaping and greenkeeping at only the third grass golf course in Dubai at the time, the duo met for the first time at the agency that had opened the door to an exciting new chapter in the land of opportunities.

“We were two of the first fourteen people who were flown over to work and live in the employee accommodation at Nad Al Sheba Golf Club,” Ocampo tells me when I met the duo at Emirates Golf Club, where they continue to work for Dubai Golf 31 years later.

Yambao adds, “They call us the pioneers!”

While the duo were no strangers to hot climates having come from the tropical paradise that is the Philippines, Yambao and Ocampo were shocked at just how warm the UAE was after stepping off the plane for the first time at Dubai Airport.

“We stepped down from the plane and into a van and it was scorching hot, I assumed it was because we were so near to the plane’s engines,” says Yambao.

Ocampo carries on the story, “When we got inside the airport we had cooled down, but when we met the guys who were meeting and greeting us outside, the heat hit us once again. We’re both thinking, ‘it must just be because we’re still so near the planes’, but once we get to our accommodation, we quickly realise this is the normal heat and it’s a challenge we must face.

After being welcomed into their new accommodation and given a welcome briefing of what their work would entail, the 14 Filipinos were keen to get to going in their new home, but one burning question was on their minds.

Ocampo and Yambao enjoy some down time with a colleague at Nad Al Sheba Golf Club
Ocampo and Yambao enjoy some down time with a colleague at Nad Al Sheba Golf Club Image Credit: Supplied

Where would they play basketball?

“One of the first things the guys at Nad Al Sheba said to us was ‘we know you guys love to play basketball’” says Ocampo, who is one of millions on Filipinos who enjoy the country’s favourite sport.

“They told us they would try to build a court for us, but after a while we decided to create our own court in the desert using wood and other material. One hour before we played, we would put water on the sand to make it firmer, while we also made our own nets for the hoops. Back then, there were no cell phones of anything like that, so that was our entertainment.

Yambao adds, “In time, we dug up some concrete in the sand by our accommodation. It must have been from a demolished building or something like that. Once we found that, we created a full size court that we could play on.”

Well-kept greens and manicured fairways that we see in abundance across the UAE’s golf clubs in 2024 is no easy task and requires a whole lot of hard work from dusk until dawn.

While that job has got a lot easier with the advancements in technology in recent years, back in the early nineties the machinery we see in this day and age didn’t exist.

“We’ve seen both sides of Dubai having been in the industry for so long,” says Ocampo.

“The way we work today is a lot different to how we used to work when we first came over here. The updates in the machinery over the years has made our jobs a lot easier than it used to be. Everything back then was manual.

“You’d have your grass cutter and push a wheelbarrow around with it, which would have a container of petrol, bottle of water, garbage bag and rakes; you’d push all of them around the golf course to get the job done. There was no assistance of using a golf buggy then.

“If something went wrong with your machine, you’d have to wait until someone came around and spotted you. You didn’t have a cell phone to reach out to someone back then like we would do now.

Ocampo asks Yambao to be godfather of his first child Image Credit: Supplied

Yambao adds, “During that time, Nad Al Sheba had no tall trees as it was inside the race track, so there was no shadows to hide under. No matter where you were on the course, someone could spot you as it was so open!”

In his role as a landscaper, Yambao would help create some shade for the workers by planting some of the course’s first trees, which is arguably when the duo’s bond grew stronger than ever before.

“The first trees that were planted, they were only tiny little things, but we would huddle underneath them for some shade,” jokes Ocampo.

“We became really good friends and that’s where I asked Lizandro to be the godfather of my first child.

“My daughter is now married and asked Lizandro to be godfather, so he’s a double godfather now!”

'Camels crossing Sheikh Zayed Road'

The duo go on to tell me how life was somewhat easier back then.

Instead of the hustle and bustle of daily life in the metropolis that is Dubai in 2024, the roads were relatively quiet, with camels frequently crossing Sheikh Zayed Road, while you could also cross the busy highway from Emirates Golf Club to go for a dip in the sea.

Ocampo is also filled with joy when telling me how much petrol and diesel cost back then.

“How much do you think petrol was in 1994,” he says, grinning from ear to ear.

“I have no idea,” I reply, in the hope of not making a fool of myself with a wild guess.

“It was 0.90AED for a gallon of diesel and 1.10 AED for a gallon of petrol! Now you pay around 3.24AED and that’s for a litre rather than a gallon. You could use your car for four days driving around the UAE and it would only cost you a maximum of 10AED.

Yambao adds, “If I’m not mistaken, a small bottle of water was more expensive than a gallon of petrol back then!”

While the roads may have been quieter and petrol was cheaper than water, one thing certainly wasn’t any easier – communicating with friends and family back home in the Philippines.

If I want to speak to my mum or dad back home in England, I could pick up the phone right now and see their face in mere seconds on a video call, or message them instantly through WhastApp or Facebook Messenger.

I could even send them a voice message if I so wished, which is something Ocampo and Yambao would also do back then.

There’s just one catch, instead of getting a reply instantly, it could take as long as four months.

“A challenging thing for us back then was sending messages and letters to family,” says Ocampo.

“We actually used to send voice tapes back home by recording our voices on a tape player…”

Yambao interjects and asks me, “You remember before the CD era, right?”

“Of course I do,” is my response.

Ocampo continues, “So we’d record our voices on a blank cassette tape and listen to it back. If it was good, we’d be done with it, if it needed improvement then we’d start all over again.

Ocampo with his first radio cassette that he would record voice messages on Image Credit: Supplied

“We’d then send that back home and receive a reply around three to four months later. Sometimes your family would be telling you about a problem back home, but by the time you received it, the problem was usually sorted!

“You could also call but even landline phones weren’t a big thing in the Philippines back then, so you’d write to loved ones with a time and date to go round a family member’s that had a phone. We’d then que at that date and time at the phone box near our accommodation, but sometimes the guys would take so long that you’d be a couple of hours late to the time you’d agreed!”

Moving on

After 14 years of loyal service to Nad Al Sheba Golf Club, which saw the pair earn promotions in that time, Ocampo and Yambao were transferred to another of Dubai Golf’s properties, Emirates Golf Club, after Nad Al Sheba closed its doors to make way for Meydan Racecourse in 2007.

Having banked years of vital experience in their time at Nad Al Sheba, the duo were more than equipped for the task at the hand at Dubai’s most iconic golf club, even if they were now working on two courses instead of one.

The biggest difference between working at the two clubs would be the hosting of world-class golf tournaments, with Emirates Golf Club home to the Dubai Desert Classic, which has been won by many of the game’s greatest players, including Seve Ballesteros, Rory McIlroy and 15-time Major champion Tiger Woods.

“In the lead up to the Dubai Desert Classic you get little sleep,” jokes Ocampo.

“It’s an early start and late finish to ensure the course is in shape for the tournament. The actual work to prepare for the event begins months in advance though.

“The whole team really gets together as one to ensure the job gets done.”

Seventeen years after moving to Emirates Golf Club, the pair remain at the property to this day and will celebrate 31 years working for Dubai Golf on July 27.

In that time, they’ve remained the closest of friends and have also welcomed family members along the way with both Ocampo and Yambao having seven children between them since moving to the UAE.

Yambao actually met his wife out here at Nad Al Sheba Golf Club, where she was an assistant to Ocampo. His wife’s father? One of the original 14 Filipinos who was flown over to work on the course.

If you thought family might get in the way of their beautiful friendship, think again. When the pair moved out of staff accommodation and into their own places, they decided to move to next door to one another.

The neighbors have no plans to call it a day any time soon, even if Ocampo admits he has been saying “one more year” for the last few years.

“If you love your job, it’s good. I love my job,” says Yambao, who now has the job title of Landscape Foreman.

“I like designing the plants and doing my own thing with them. It’s great. Dubai Golf is one big family and they treat us like family.”

Yambao, who is now a Senior Administrator, adds, “I’ve learned so much from my time in Dubai. The biggest thing is how to connect with other nationalities. I don’t look at anyone being any different to me, we are all one family who strive to achieve our goals. We’ve got such a close knit team here at Dubai Golf who overcome any obstacle that is thrown our way – just look at the rains we had recently and at last year’s Dubai Desert Classic. We’re one big family.”