The Arab world is a study in opposites. Egypt is in a perpetual state of meltdown, where every Friday, massive crowds gather in Tahrir Square to fight for their right to an honest government.
In Jordan, you can't go more than two kilometres without a poster of King Abdullah II staring down at you from hoardings, building walls, hotel roofs etc. Everyone is in a hurry to tell you how much they love him.
In Egypt, several houses under construction are left abandoned, as if their owners had no money to finish the project. In Jordan, even the poor seem to live in one-storeyed homes with huge backyards.
There's plenty that the guide books won't warn you about. Luckily for you, we jotted down the five top things we learnt in the Arab world.
Security, no safety
First, we see a cop at Cairo airport accept a bribe to allow a contraband item to be taken on board our aircraft. The item in question, a toy grenade and gun set. Or at least we hope it's a toy. Then the female airport guard doesn't ask a passenger to lift her face veil to check if she is indeed the woman in the passport photo. What our trusting officer does do, in the curtained room, is grope the lady's hair bun. We assume this is the surest way of identifying people. Photos, biometrics, frisking be damned.
What they won't tell you before you get to the Red Sea, is that it really is more of a cove. Standing on Aqaba's main beach, the guide points to a resort town on the other side. "That's Israel." The building two degrees left of the spot. "That's Egypt." Then you see a signboard that mentions Saudi Arabia is only about 30 kms away. The thought that your neighbours would happily bomb the living daylights out of each other, and the tiny country you're in is literally the only thing standing in the way, puts the real in realisation.
Belly dance with mom
In Amman, the real action is in their myriad sheesha lounges, locally known as argeeleh or hubbly-bubbly. Little children, pre-teens, young couples and veterans sit together puffing on their hookahs, listening to the local musician belt out catchy Arabic tunes. The environment has a strange side effect: women in burqas will suddenly walk to the middle of the room, and start dancing in front of about 300 strangers.
The audience -- husbands and fathers included -- happily cheer. Who's afraid of the moral police?
Alex is Mumbai
Arriving in Alexandria is like seeing the mirror image of the Maximum City. The main train terminal is Churchgate station's identical twin. They also have their version of Marine Drive, where young couples sit elbow-to-elbow, hawkers dish out 'chakna' of the Egyptian variety, and Victoria horse carriages stalk tourists on the street.
Ice cream architecture
Ice cream seems to be the Arab vice of choice. But the Jordanian version is nothing short of food art, where even the tiniest neighbourhood joint features cones topped with three multi-coloured scoops wearing mini waffle cone hats and smiley faces made out of sprinkles and gems.