Two things would strike Indians on a visit to Egypt — the warmth that the hoi polloi exude when they run into Indians and, the phenomenal popularity of "Big B" Amitabh Bachchan.
Egypt is one country in the world where Indians are actually liked, perhaps the only country in the world where they are.
No one reviles the "Ugly Indian" in the Land of the Nile. Shopkeepers don't shoo away window shopping Indians as in Hong Kong.
On the contrary, they are welcomed with open arms. Bazaar touts trail them saying: "India? Amitabh Bachchaaan! Come, I'll take you to the Souq."
The moment Egyptians, whether young or old, see an Indian, they would exclaim in a chorus: "Amitabh Bachchaaaan! We like India!"
In Egypt, Big B is synonymous with India. He is one of the three Indians who every Egyptian may know, the other two being Dharmendra and Mithun Chakraborty!
The trio headed by Big B have done what Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru could not - make India a lovable country.
And what do they like about Amitabh Bachchan? Is it his acting ability, his poise, sophistication, or the way he speaks his lines?
None of these.
"He strong man!" they would say, thumping their chests. The generally big-made Egyptians seem to go for brawn and action.
In a time warp
Author (R) with his daughter in Cairo, Egypt
Strangely enough, Egyptians are in a time warp in regard to Indian films. Fans here are hooked on to movies of the 70s and 80s, which run even now in the many ramshackle theatres in small towns.
DVDs of these old films sell like hot cakes. One couldn't figure out why they were clueless about the latest ones or why so few had even heard of Shahrukh Khan, for example.
Hindi film music is another attraction, but less than the movies. And here again, Old is Gold.
The ring tone in our driver's cell phone was Awara hoon, the theme song of the 1950s Raj Kapoor classic Awara.
The Bachchan phenomenon, and the role that Indian film songs are playing in making India acceptable abroad should make Indians shed their cavalier attitude to their film industry and start treating its problems with seriousness.
Bachchan himself said this in parliament long years ago when he was an elected MP.
"We are treated as jokers," he had said in anger to a stunned Lok Sabha.
Sharp bargains the norm
The man in the street in Egypt seemed very eager to link up with India. Though this could be seen as a sales gimmick, shop keepers would point to their skin and yours, and proclaim: "We, brothers! See, skin same colour! Come, I will give good price."
Which, of course, will be ten times the actual price.
Bargaining is the norm, even when one takes a taxi. The shop keeper's price would go through the roof, but you should strike the rock bottom.
You should stand like a rock as he tries to cajole and flatter you into submission.
An oft repeated gimmick was to tell my son-in-law Ujjal: "Wow ! you've got a beautiful wife! How many camels did you give her? 2,000? I'll give you 3,000, will you give her to me?"
Then turning to me, an elderly gent, he would say: "Father? You've done a good job Sir!"
I would be flattered but Ujjal and Kadambari, being hardened Abu Dhabians, would pay no heed.
In the beach resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh, we were forced to negotiate the price of the meal at the restaurant we went to!
It was my hawk-eyed son-in-law who discovered that the menu card did not mention the price. It only had numbers against the dishes. No sign of the currency!
An unwary traveller could have ended up paying 50 Euros for a dish which was meant to cost only 50 Egyptian Pounds!
When this was pointed out to the owner/manager, the gentleman started negotiating the price of the meal. We had no option but to walk out.
The other golden rule in Egypt is: never get into a taxi without fixing the price. You are sure to be taken for a ride if you don't.
Prices in Egypt seemed to be high. Nothing was less that 10 Egyptian pounds or "Dhen Bounds" as they say. Egyptians pronounce 't' and 'p". as "dh" and "b".
According to our tour guide Shayma (pronounced Shaymey) salaries are so low that people have to survive on sharp bargaining, tips and baksheesh to make both ends meet.
One has to be street smart here. If it was not for Ujjal, who kept a tight rein on our expenses and drove hard bargains untiringly, we would have returned penniless.