Monday, March 9, 2015

"Where's Waldo?" and other Vignettes


Tea at the Riyadh in Chefchaouen
It’s approaching the wee hours of a new morning when you and 11 other people spill out of a cramped minivan into the cold night air.  After 7.5 hours in the car, your knees are a little sore and the chill permeates you almost instantly, but you’re determined that the trip will be worth the travel so you ignore the discomfort for the time being.  Instead, you concentrate on seeing the blue walls of the town through the darkness while you wait for directions to the guesthouse from the square.  When he finally appears to collect the group, the slight Moroccan man who owns the Riyadh the group has booked out for the weekend is a bit too cheerful for your mood, especially as the path to the guesthouse is spotted with trash and a smattering of dirty wild dogs nipping your toes.  It’s clear through the dim lights that the walls have a blueish hue, but nothing that inspires cheerfulness in your mind.   The Riyadh is also painted blue and once inside, you spend 20 minutes with the group navigating the tight winding stairwells and tiny guestrooms to lay out sleeping arrangements and lay your things down on the freezing brick floors.  The moment when you realize that the guesthouse has no central heat and no ceiling over the courtyard where all the guestroom "doors" face is the final straw and a moment of near meltdown; it’s just 4 degrees Celsius, maybe 8 in the room, and no amount of northern upbringing can make sleeping in those elements pleasant.  But just as you return downstairs thinking that this whole idea was a huge mistake, you realize that the mysteriously cheerful Riyadh owner is passing around tiny cups of steaming Moroccan Mint tea and shouting for blankets from the store rooms.  The tea, normally too sweet for your taste, is perfect and perfectly hot in your belly.  Your hands start to thaw with the tiny cup nestled between them.  And you notice something you hadn’t before; there are spots of sunny red and orange and yellow decorating the cold blue walls of the guesthouse, and everyone around you is laughing.  You find yourself starting to laugh too, even though you missed the joke.

“Where’s Waldo?”

Music and Dance crowds outside the Kasalabah
Saturday Morning in Chefchaouen dawned sunny and cold, and most of the team stayed under the covers well after they awoke enjoying the warm pressure of the rough thick blankets.  But eventually the promise of coffee and breakfast was enough to lure everyone into action and the sun was creeping over the walls of the courtyard, surprisingly hot and bright compared to the chilly shadows in the morning.   After a carb-laden breakfast, we set out into the “hidden” blue city of northern Morocco, where we explored alleys and doors packed with spices and carpets and jewelry.  We lingered over shawls and posed for photos.  Eventually we
The least crowded alley
stumbled on a group of young people spanning a wide range of the stages of dress and undress dancing and singing in the middle of the central market square outside the Kasbah.  After some furtive dancing on the edges of the crowd, we took a short break over tea and made our way once more into the alleys.  Suddenly, someone asks, “Where’s Waldo”?  Of course, I'm changing the name to avoid poking my friend too much in the eye on the internet, but actually its a very apt comparison that amidst the crush of people and colors in the close quarters of the Medina at midday. All at once, 10 of IBM's finest go into crisis-management mode as we try to determine where we lost him.  Scouts are dispatched and calls are made, until Waldo comes around the corner smiling and holding a gift they had just purchased for a loved one.  Lesson learned:  you’re never too old or too professional for the buddy system in a Moroccan Medina.

Shades of Blue

One of the things that amazes me about Morocco in general and really struck me this weekend in Chefchaouen is the seemingly clashing coexistence of old and new.  The withered man in his pointed wicker hat and wool robe is a pro at taking selfies with tourists in Casablanca.  The woman in a traditional hood is leading a donkey packed with Fanta down the street while talking on a cell phone in Chefchaouen.  Vendors dressed in skinny jeans and pointy leather shoes will explain in detail the process of traditional Berber carpet making.  Older vendors slinging herbs and spices in the street will shoo photographers away angrily or duck into doorways to avoid a camera, while young girls and boys do whatever they can to photobomb our group photos and peek out at our lenses while we shoot.   It’s also something we’re finding on our assignment.  Our client provides a marketplace for Moroccan job seekers to develop and find jobs in this crazy market, and miraculously do it pretty well by my estimation.  Targeting employment services to a population as diverse and technically polarized as Morocco is one of the finest challenges I can think of for a company like IBM.  How do we deliver remote services to a population where mobile phones outnumber people but there are some job seekers without internet access?  It’s a reality that defines the Moroccan emergence into the 21st century and - I've seen from other experiences - is also present in so many emerging markets around the world as technology becomes a global economic “flattener”.    As my client told Kavya, Juani and I this afternoon, nothing is static and innovation is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

“Where’s Waldo?” Part II

Selfie break overlooking the Pont de Dieu
“No one tell Boutaina” (our fabulous coordinator), we all joked as we emerged at top of a craggy mountainside and hauled ourselves onto the path before climbing on spiky rocks near the edge to take selfies.  The “Pont de Dieu”, or “Bridge of God”, was by all accounts to be a relatively straightforward 45 minute hike into the mountains to look at one of the most lovely and enormous natural bridges on the planet.  The bridge was indeed magnificent, enormous and glowing red as the clay gleamed from the light reflecting off the water rushing below.  The way up was not as straightforward as we had hoped, partially because of some navigational errors on our part – rather than a path, we took a more direct and less traveled route.  We were sweaty and exhausted but exhilarated when we finally made it to the top, saw the bridge across the valley, and paused for selfies on the rocks.  But our selfies were missing one hiker.  “Where’s Waldo?” I asked after counting heads returning to the path to finish the hike.   This time, Waldo may have had the right of it. They had decided to skip selfies in favor of relaxing with a mint tea and the company of a charming old man in a wooden hut at the entrance to the Pont de Dieu itself.  Waldo was sitting not 50 yards ahead on the path with the tea when we found him, and probably watching the selfies unfold in real time from across the gorge.  We celebrated with a bollywood-inspired dance and descended, via the actual path this time, to our waiting car and the trip home.

#ibmcsc morocco6 
Chefchaouen at night