Breaking the mould

Having worked in Dubai for almost five years, as a valet parking attendant and a limousine driver, Elena has driven members of Dubai's royal family.

Elena Villa has lived in the emirates for the past five years and has been a valet parking attendant and a limousine driver. Now she drives a bus for Zuma restaurant in Dubai.
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Elena Villa who is originally from Balaoan in the province of La Union, on the north-west coast of Luzon in the Philippines, has a bus as her main mode of transport. The friendly 32-year-old was hired as the bus driver for Zuma, the upmarket Japanese restaurant in the Dubai International Financial Centre. To begin with, her job was driving Zuma's management to and from the staff accommodation in Discovery Gardens to the restaurant. However, her expertise and enthusiasm has seen her role at Zuma expand to include duties such as airport pick-ups, shopping jobs for the restaurant and she helps her front- of-house colleagues set up the restaurant. Having worked in Dubai for almost five years, as a valet parking attendant and a limousine driver, Elena has driven members of Dubai's royal family.

"It was a great honour to drive for the ruling family and an experience I will never forget," says Elena. "I worked as a valet at some of Dubai's top hotels and I loved having the opportunity to get behind the wheel of some of the world's top cars, including Aston Martins, Lamborghinis and Bentleys - the owners usually tipped me well," she laughs. However, with two children living in the Philippines, Elena has sacrificed much to work in the UAE as a professional driver.

"I enjoy living and working here but sometimes I feel homesick and I miss my children in the Philippines. "Dubai is definitely a more progressive place than the Philippines and life is easier here - but I wish my children were here too. I was a housewife when I was back home and devoted all of my time to my children," she says. Elena adds, "Driving is what I am good at. I came to Dubai on a visit visa and managed to quickly get a job through a friend with a valet parking company as I'm an experienced professional driver."

In 2008 alone, 294 people were killed in road traffic accidents, so Elena is well aware of the dangers. "Being a driver in Dubai is a very tough job. You have to be patient and careful, alert and cautious. My passengers are the single most important aspect of my job and it is more important to get them to their destinations safely rather than taking risks in order to be on time," Elena says. "The most common question people ask me is 'how do you deal with Dubai traffic?' and they always say to me that it's worse than ever. However, I still manage to reach my destination on time almost all of the time.

"Driving a bus is very different compared to driving a car, especially because the bus is a manual and most cars here are not. I do find the bus a lot of fun and I love being part of the Zuma team," she says. "Out of all of the cars in the world I would love to own a Ford Mustang, which is surely one of the best looking muscle cars on the street. When it comes to professional transport, I have to admit that the best bus I would like to be in control of is an Airbus!"

Elena's employers claim she is the only female bus driver in Dubai and, while this is by no means certain, she is definitely something of an oddity for many, who turn their heads and honk their horns at her. "I attract a lot of attention from other drivers. However, most of this is very respectful. In fact, I find that one of the best things about being a lady bus driver is that I feel that more of my fellow drivers are inclined to give way and allow me to overtake," says Elena.

She adds, "My least favourite aspect of working as a bus driver is during a breakdown. If you are alone it is no big deal, but the inconvenience for a bus full of passengers is a completely different story. I also remember being followed by the police while driving for Zuma and then being pulled over. The policeman asked for my licence because he could not believe a woman would have a bus licence and could be capable of driving such a vehicle. He was surprised and shocked when I showed him my documents and he actually apologised, which made things better.

"There is always a certain surprise from people who see a lady bus driver and I can see the disbelief or curiosity in their eyes." Despite being homesick, Elena is happy to stay in Dubai in her unique job for the foreseeable future. "The managers are very approachable and staff accommodation standards are high and the pay is good, so I am hoping to stay here and drive for a long time."