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.

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