About a decade ago, I worked with a travel company based in Bangalore. Among other responsibilities, I was required to organise and lead group tours. Out of the several I led, over a period of one year, one was to Egypt. It turned out to be one of the most entertaining as well as embarrassing experiences of my life.
It was a group of cement dealers. Most of them hadn’t had much, by way of formal education but they were all entrepreneurs and very successful ones at that. Some of them were travelling with their spouses. We started out very early in the morning from Bangalore. The flight was via Mumbai. We arrived in Cairo around noon. By the time, we checked into our hotel, I was famished and headed to lunch immediately. The group was already there but almost nobody was eating. The menu consisted of an exotic mix of salads and local Egyptian food with little Indian food thrown in. The group wanted Indian food (we hadn’t been informed of this earlier). I, then changed the restaurant booking for every subsequent meal in Cairo. So, for dinner, we went to a restaurant called Kandahar that served Indian food. Two of the cooks there, were from Dehradun and hence, could cater to us. Once there, the group decided to eat each meal at this restaurant. So, I had to cancel all other bookings again. Anyways, much to my relief, everyone enjoyed the meal. After main course got over and before dessert arrived, curiously, some people got up and started walking around in the restaurant (with hands crossed at their backs like they were out on astroll in a park), looking at what other patrons had ordered and a few of them going as far as actually bending down at some tables to figure out dishes they didn’t recognise. The patrons at those tables looked very confused, not knowing how to respond to such a behaviour. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and sunk lower into my seat. Making me invisible, however, is an impossible task. I was also afraid, that they might ask those patrons, for a taste of the dishes. Inspite of my request and warning to them later on, this was repeated at every meal and finally after our fourth meal, the manager sought me out and looking very confused, asked, “why do they not remain in their seats?” He thought, there might be a plausible explanation, maybe something to do with our culture……..I couldn’t make up any.
After Cairo, we embarked on a cruise from Aswan, over the Nile, to Luxor. We faced food problem again. I had to go into kitchen and guide the team there on how to cook dal and chawal. When I explained the recipe, the chef there, very proudly took out his masala box which contained turmeric and red chilli powder among other masalas. I heaved a sight of relief. We put toor dal in a large vessel for boiling. After it cooked a little with salt and turmeric, I asked him to put chilli powder. He put in 1 tsp of chilli in dal for some thirty people. I asked him to put more. He took out another tsp of powder. I asked him to put more. At 8th or was it 9th spoon, by which time his eyeballs seemed to have popped out in amazement, I decided to go easy and let the group have bland food. Steamed rice, thankfully was easy- peasy. I went back to dining room and divided the whole group in four teams for the remainder of the four meals so that they could go and cook a meal of their choice. A couple of them had brought pickle and sambhar masala. I, thankfully, didn’t have to step inside the kitchen again. On all days, I also ended up eating bland Indian food. Didn’t get even a whiff of Egyptian cuisine.
There were three different groups on our ship, we Indians, a group of Swiss nationals and a group of Japanese. The crew on the ship had planned some fun and games for us, as there was nothing much to do in the evenings. On our second evening of the cruise, they gave each group a theme and asked us to enact a play. First to act were the Japanese, followed by the Swiss and we were last. We needed a walking stick and a hat for our play. Two of the Swiss nationals carried both. After their play got over, one of ‘MY men’, went over and snatched the stick from one man’s hand and plucked hat from another man’s head. There seemed to be no concept of permission. Those Swiss nationals looked seriously alarmed and actually, looked a little abused too. I thought to myself, aaj toh ladai definite hai (today, a fight is certain). With a few fists in air, Swiss said a few things loudly in German, which thankfully, no one understood and MY team threw a few words loudly back at them which thankfully, no one, including me, understood. Both sides jibberred a little, jabberred a little, paused a little, then mumbled some, and that was that. My team’s act began. Once again, I heaved a sigh of relief and stepped out on to the deck. I spent remainder of the evening on the deck, gazing soulfully into the Nile.