Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Adventures in the Middle East

My interest in the "mysterious east" probably started with Disney's Aladdin back in *mumble* when I saw it in the theater with my mom and sister. Flying carpets, genies, great monsters made out of sand ... Sultans and Allah and tigers as pets: that stuff isn't real, but it sure was exciting to watch.

But that stuff (some of it) is really out there. And though I didn't see one single cheetah on a leash, I experienced some pretty fancy stuff.

starry night on the plane
before the crowd
Last week, I finally got the opportunity to visit Dubai, and I flew the wonderful Emirates to get there.

The food onboard is delicious, the seats are comfortable, and they keep first class on another floor so they don't flaunt their good fortune in our faces.
Dubai from the air 
Our hotel was nicer than our apartment at home. One bedroom, 2 bath, kitchen, living room, and a view of one of the plainer mosques in the city.

still pretty

The first morning, I woke up at 5 with a "what the hell is that??" feeling. It was the call to prayer, which I'd never heard in its natural habitat before. The second morning, I slept right through. Just like church bells, I really enjoyed listening to the call for prayer throughout the day. In NYC, no religion is "good" ("follow your own thing and don't talk about it" is the general attitude), so it was nice to have at least one openly celebrated. No one bothered me to cover my head (I didn't go into any mosques) or treated me badly because of my race or gender. There are a ton of tourists and expats, so I never felt out of place.

The weather was another thing. I've never really been in a desert climate before, so I wasn't prepared for how dry my lips and sinuses would get. I was constantly thirsty. Evenings were mild, almost cool, and daytime sizzled. During both parts of the day, the air conditioner ran full blast, bringing back to mind the head-exploding sensation I had growing up in Memphis when I went from scorching to freezing in 2 seconds. Everything from the malls to the subway stations to the bus stops to certain covered street crossings are air conditioned. 

And here's something about the subways: there are doors on the platform keeping the cool air in, and nothing at all anywhere smelled of urine. Everything was clean. I think there were 2 homeless people in the whole city.

Dubai vs...
What the actual fuck, New York?
But it is hot outside, and BO is inevitable.

During rush hour, the "Ladies and Families Only" sections are very nice. It's not that a woman won't squish right up on you when there's no space (they will ... everyone will), but for some reason it feels safer than when a man's big, stupid elbow is taking up unnecessary space right at boob level. Though women have their own section, they are free to move throughout the train if they wish -- they're just given some breathing room away from guys. The only thing better would be a "no babies" section.

The NYC subway upsets me because I'm usually on it during rush hour, and people smush right up on me for the whole hour and a half trip. Enter anxiety attack. Dubai's subway was just as crowded every time I got on. At one stop, I needed to stay on the car, but almost everyone else got off. There was nowhere for me to get out of the way, so they pushed and streamed around in a torrent, and I think I actually screamed in trample-induced panic. Now, romantic human contact is strictly forbidden, but at that moment, my husband pulled me away from the crowd and gave me a big "calm the fuck down" hug.  I've never realized how much he and I touch and kiss each other in public. Nothing graphic, just a peck, a hug, a head on the shoulder. They're automatic responses, so when one of us would say something cute and go in for a kiss, we'd both catch ourselves and step away. This particular time, I stayed in the hug and wished I could go one single day without being crowd-tortured.

Anyone who visits New York knows you don't make eye contact on the subway (or pretty much anywhere else). Not so in Dubai. People will look you up and down, make eye contact and generally stare. I'm white and my husband is Indian (the majority in Dubai), and we both had the same experience. While it's weird, nobody approached or bothered me, and absolutely no one catcalled me. I'm guessing staring isn't rude in this culture, so I gave myself permission to look at the people around me, and it was nice.

You can always pick out the Emiratis because they wear white gowns with white or red checked headscarves. I'm not sure what the Emirati women wear. Probably the full black niqab? The abayas and hijabs were so beautiful -- but in the heat I can't understand how they do it. I saw a few women wearing a full face covering -- like a big piece of chiffon draped over their head and face that they can see through. It's eerie and gorgeous.

The Dubai Mall
If you like shopping, Dubai is the place to be. And because it's hot, there are malls everywhere. The one I liked best was the Mall of Dubai with its aquarium, souk, and various themed areas. You can enjoy this place without spending any money at all.

Sharks at the mall 
The Souk area
A waterfall with diving statues
Fancy-pants restaurants
The Burj Khalifa, right outside the mall with a pretty brilliant fountain show every 30 minutes
The gold/spice Souk
Arguably the place I was most excited to see, and the place I went almost every single day.

The flag was literally everywhere in the city
the scarves were limitless and beautiful
and stray cats made me miss my kitty
10th anniversary wedding bands from the Gold Souk!
But all this foreign-ness didn't stop me from noticing the similarities to my own home and culture. Though all the stores had names in English and Arabic, almost everything was something I'd seen before.

Donuts, anyone?
Al Fanar Restaurant was what I expected the Middle East to look like. This place was described as "Authentic Emirati cuisine", which of course raised a little, watchful BS flag in my head. I was sure there would only be tourists inside. But wait -- inside the restaurant I was floored at how many actual Emirati people were eating.

Outside the restaurant were seating areas decorated with plastic statues of old-timey Emiratis going about their old-timey lives.
and lots of plastic goats

The Dubai Museum is also a great place to go if you want to see what the city looked like back in the olde days.

While this is a modern city, parts of which could double for Anytown USA, there are bits everywhere to remind you you're far from home. When it comes to vacations, I want to be somewhere I can forget everything familiar. Maybe next time I'll go somewhere where the words "oh hey, they've got a Dunkin Donuts!" don't pop out of my mouth.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Guest Blogger D. J. Donaldson

Things are getting tight for me in the time department. You all know how it goes: work, 2nd job, writing, other exciting, yet secret plans. They're a time-suck. As such, I haven't posted anything here in so long you guys probably have given up hope. I should have a book release coming soon!

A little while ago, I reviewed a book by D. J. Donaldson and liked it very much. While I'm reading another of his mysteries, he's agreed to do a guest blog for me. Enjoy!

Outbreak… Breakdown
A Forensic/Medical Author’s Take on Ebola and the CDC

My book, Louisiana Fever, involves the spread of a bleeding disease known as Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever. This is a real disease that, like its close relative, Ebola, is caused by an infectious virus.  And having researched this thoroughly (and having come from a forensic/health background) I feel compelled to weigh in on the Ebola outbreak.

When I was plotting Louisiana Fever, I figured I ought to have a character in the book that was once an infectious disease specialist at the CDC.  It seemed like a logical idea because the CDC is this country’s unquestioned champion against virulent organisms, an organization staffed with experts that know every nuance of tropical viruses and how they can be controlled.

To make sure my writing about the CDC would have an authentic ring to it, I asked the public relations office of the CDC if I might be given a tour of the place.  “Sorry,” I was told.  “We don’t give tours.”  Considering how many dangerous viruses are stored in the various labs there, that seemed like a good policy, even to me.  So there would be no tour.  But then I heard from someone in my department at the U. of Tennessee Medical Center that one of our former graduate students now worked at the CDC.  I began to wonder if this connection might work to my advantage. 

And it certainly did.  The former student was now a virology section chief. A SECTION CHIEF…. Holy cow! This could be my way in.  But would the man be generous by nature and sympathetic to writers?  He proved to be both of those.

On the day of my visit, I reported to the security office as instructed.  There, I had to wait until my host came to escort me into the bowels of the place… no wandering around on my own with a visitor’s badge.  That day I saw the hot zone in action and spoke with experts in many fields of virology, even spent some time with the world expert on porcine retroviruses.  At the end of my visit—including all the cumbersome clinical protocols I had to engage in both before and during said visit—I not only left feeling more educated, but actually more safe and secure that no tropical virus would ever be a threat to this country… not with the meticulous, detail-oriented, security conscious, microbe fighters at the CDC watching out for us.      

So, it’s with much regret and… yes, even a little fear, that I witnessed the head of the CDC recently assuring us that the Ebola virus is very difficult to transmit and that we know exactly how to control it.  Instead of (what looked like) his clumsy attempts to soothe an ignorant and paranoid public, the CDC head should have given a blunt assessment, educated everyone like adults, and encouraged them to exercise precaution. Then, seemingly in answer, two nurses who cared for the index patient from Liberia become Ebola positive.  And the CDC clears one of those nurses to take a commercial airline flight, even though she was in the early stages of Ebola infection…depressing.  From a medical professional standpoint, this was practically criminal negligence. At present, the disease is not transmitted by air ("airborne"), but any scientist worth his/her salt cannot account for mutations the virus may undergo.  This is why the job of the CDC is to contain harmful microbes, issue protocols to protect the public against them and ultimately eradicate them... period.  It is not to be PR professionals for television cameras and fostering carelessness.

I’m still convinced that the combined knowledge and brainpower of the CDC staff will be a major impediment to any virus taking over this country.  But Ebola probably has some tricks we haven’t seen yet. That means we may lose a few more battles before we can declare that this particular threat is behind us.

Meanwhile, how is development of that Ebola vaccine coming?

D.J. Donaldson is a retired professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Tennessee, Health Science Center—where he taught and published dozens of papers on wound-healing and other health issues.  He is the author of Louisiana Fever, one of the seven in the Andy Broussard/Kit Franklyn series of forensic mystery thrillers.

Louisiana Fever:  http://bit.ly/1u5ohGC