Arrivée à Genève

11
Apr
2014

Since I always have to stop through another city on my way to Marrakech (there are, after all, no direct flights from NYC), I always look at it as an opportunity to take a mini side vacation for a few days. This time I noticed a route through Geneva, and that gave me an opportunity to  catch up with my friend Jonathan who I haven’t seen in a few years. He picked me up at the airport yesterday and then brought me to his beautiful house in the suburb/town of Versoix. Everything about his place is perfect, beautiful, and of course in order (as one would expect of the Swiss. Needless to say, I am in heaven. :)) And I finally got to meet Jonathan’s husband Michael for the first time, and we shared a tasty meal in the charming nearby town of  Carouge, followed by a gelato and short walk around.

Today I will go to the city center and have a general tourist walkabout. The last time I was in Geneva was over 20 years ago, and the only thing I remember about it from that time is that it was exceedingly boring.  I suspect that I will find it more interesting this time around, but I will let you know later tonight.

A somewhat frantic race to the finish line

9
Apr
2014

I really should plan for longer trips here, there is always so much to do, and today in particular I was running around like a mad man. I did work in time to have a couple of nice meals though, highlighted by pastilla and mechwi and friendly fun talk with friends and colleagues. I will probably be back again in a month or two for another round of project work, there is so much to do. That said, I am very happy with all that we accomplished, and it was nice catching up with people while here, and experiencing warm and sunny days for a change.

Tomorrow I will head to Geneva to visit my old friend Jonathan (no, not the other one) for a few days, and then I will finally head back to NYC.

How do you say “please don’t cut me” in Arabic?

8
Apr
2014

My trimmer broke in my suitcase on the trip over from the US, so I had been growing an ever longer, unintentional, almost-beard while here. But after over a week of not shaving down to my usual close stubble, I could not take it anymore. The combination of the increasing heat (we have been at 90 the last couple of days) and itchiness was getting to me. Several people suggested I go to a barber to have it trimmed, and always being the adventurous type, I went this evening. They didn’t speak French all that well, but I was pretty sure I got the point across by pointing to my face, then doing a kind of back and forth call with them over the number depth of the trimmer. They kept saying “1” and I kept saying “.5″ and through trial and error we came to an understanding.

The guy leaned me back in the chair and attacked my face with zeal, pulling and pinching the skin to get it to shave as requested. But of course it was hot and I was sweating and his hands were all sweaty, which made the whole thing rather more difficult, and made the metal of the clippers drag across my skin. In addition to that, at various moments I had the clipper blade, his palm or his fingers just about all the way inside my nose. I don’t want to read too much into his personal habits, but I can tell you he is a smoker and probably had lamb tagine for lunch eaten in the traditional way (with one’s fingers and bread). Overall, he managed to do a fair enough job (for the price anyway, it was only about 5 dollars). They then threw a wet, piping hot, smelly towel on my face which had come from the floor or perhaps the bathroom, and then sent me on my way. While I won’t win any beauty contests, I am more comfortable now without the beard, and should be ok until I get back home or break down and buy new clippers at a different voltage.

Upscale feast by accident

8
Apr
2014

Last night Anthea (the garden’s graphics consultant who is also in town and staying at the same hotel) and I decided to have dinner together, and asked the concierge for a recommendation close by. Without paying too much attention to the details, off we went to the hotel/restaurant nearby, a place called Dar Rhizlane. Upon arrival, my companion and I had the slightly horrible realization that this was probably going to be quite a bit beyond our means, everything was impeccable, opulent and just screamed call your bank to make sure you have enough to cover this. But since we were already there, and the place was so lovely, we just went with the flow. After ordering the wine, we were informed that there was only a tasting menu offered, and they would be bringing that out to us presently. What followed was the appetizers course, which looked like this:

apps

Each and every dish was delicious. I have had many meals in Morocco where they serve a variety of little plates or salads as appetizers, but this was hands down the best I have ever had. This was followed by a small chicken/mushroom entree, and then a lamb entree, then a pre-dessert sorbet, and finally dessert. Or should I say plate of several desserts, each one quite tasty.

We waited for the bill and played the money guessing game, but by that point I really didn’t care what it cost. It was one of the best meals I have had in Morocco, and one of the most beautiful settings:

tables

I really couldn’t have been more pleased. Or so I thought, until the bill arrived and it turned out to be less of an extravagance than I had feared. If you come to Marrakech, I would highly recommend having a meal at the Dar Rhizlane.

 

Sunday fun

7
Apr
2014

Yesterday I took a break from work stuff and hung out by the pool for a bit, then took a fascinating side trip with Madison and Jai to visit a local pottery manufacturer. It is a pretty small and very artisanal operation, with six guys working there doing everything. They get dirt from various places in Morocco, they crush and sift the dirt, then add water in several steps to produce clay, then put it in a dark room until it is cured and ready to spin, then make all kinds of large and small pots on the wheels, then dry them, then fire them. It was pretty fascinating to see the whole process and hear their story.

After that, we drove towards a nearby dam, then got a little lost on some very rough but beautiful side roads before finally making our way back (with the help of google satellite imagery) to the main road and back to Marrakech. We ended the day with the best French meal I have had in Morocco, which included a couple of the courses being flamboyantly prepared at our very table.

Maroc Telecom internet activation hell

6
Apr
2014

Last time I was in Morocco, I marveled at how easy it was at the Casablanca airport to buy a SIM, get it installed on my phone and activated (by the guy at the shop btw). Voila, for about 24 USD I had unlimited internet, calling and texting for a month. Returning this time, I thought how easy it would be, because I already had the SIM chip. I inserted it, bought  a recharge card for 100 dirham, sent the activation text and received a response. Voila…or so I thought. My problem was that this time, I had no internet. So, I consulted the Google from my hotel where there was wi-fi to try to get an answer. Nothing I tried worked, and it just got worse and worse.

First, it seemed that I didn’t have the APN correct on my phone, and I was advised to send “Config Internet Jawal” to 505, after which I received a response telling me (in French) to use wap.iamgprs.ma as my APN. I entered it, but nothing, no internet. So I restarted my phone several times, and…nothing.

I thought perhaps I didn’t have enough recharge credit to get internet, so I bought another 100 dirham card hoping it would give me internet. I hurriedly scratched off the silver part to reveal the code, but unfortunately damaged the number and entered it wrong a couple of times, which resulted in an SMS telling me my account was blocked and to call 888 for help.

So I called 888 for service, but the first 50 or so times I tried, it was always busy. This went on for the better part of a day. I noticed a strange thing though. It would ring through sometimes if I was connected to wi-fi. Unfortunately, the phone tree on the other end was in Arabic, and I could not understand anything. After calling about a hundred times and frenetically pushing all buttons, I hit upon a combination that proved useful. Hitting 2, then 2 again after a message change, the messages were suddenly in French. Hallelujah! I was finally able to understand what they were saying. I got through to an operator, who explained to me a couple of things. One, my account was locked by the system for 24 hours, and there was nothing I could do until then. And two (very very important), to activate internet using a recharge card, one needs to send the code FOLLOWED BY *3 to indicate internet activation instead of plain phone activation. I am mostly writing this here in the hopes that it will help some other poor fool traveler like me, who searched and searched in vain and never once saw this CRUCIAL piece of information written ANYWHERE on the internet, and not on the recharge cards themselves.

So, after dutifully waiting 24 hours, and having purchased another recharge card (this time for 50 dirham which would give me 10 days of internet), I tried to enter my new code which I had very carefully and lovingly scraped so as not to damage the fragile card. Unfortunately, I got the same fucking message back about my account being blocked. Once again, I called the (ironically named) service number (this being old hat for me by now) and spoke with an operator who told me to wait 24 hours. When I informed her that I had already waited the 24 hours, she looked at the records and said basically “Oh yeah, that should work by now. Hm.” She then made a note in my file and told me someone would get back to me.

Of course, no one ever did, and I continued to try my code in vain throughout the day, but nothing. Just the same message about my account being locked. So, having completely given up on ever having internet on my phone this trip, I tried my code one last time this morning (48 hours after original lock) and OMG. I now have internet!

Again, this post is mainly a public service by me to help out others who are probably pulling their hair out and eyeing razor blades with longing.

Taking taxis with confidence

5
Apr
2014

One of the things that has always been a bit daunting here is taking a taxi. Many of them refuse to use the meter, and as soon as they see you are foreign try to price gouge, charging exorbitant rates. But as I have become more comfortable getting around Marrakech, and having a better idea of how much things should cost, I have had less trouble with them. Now if they refuse to use the meter, I just get out and pay what I know the rate should be, plus a little extra. Usually no one says a word, but on the occasions where someone wants to argue I just walk away, and it always works. You can never ask the rate in advance, or it will be insane. Today for example I got in a taxi and gave the name of my hotel, and the guy starts driving and then says, “You know what the rate is?”, and I said “Yes.”, because I knew that the rate is always about 15 dirham from the place I work to my hotel. And he says “60”. And I said “goodbye” and got out. Then he tries to follow me with offers of 50, then 40, then 30. Another cab came by and I got in, he took me to my hotel, I gave him 20 and he was all smiles and thank yous because it would normally be 15. But without some local knowledge, this kind of exchange is vey difficult, so I am feeling pretty good that I can finally take cabs in Marrakech with confidence.

اسلا عليكم

4
Apr
2014

The above phrase is salam alaikum, the traditional greeting in Arabic which means “peace be upon you”. I am back in Morocco for work once again, and it struck me yesterday that I should really be learning some Arabic phrases and words to use while here. I realize that I fell into a little bit of a mind trap by assuming that because I was already speaking a language that was not native to me (French), I was already making the appropriate effort. But that is not a good way to really engage with a culture, especially since the fact that French is so widely spoken here is a result of colonialism. That said, I suppose you could consider modern standard Arabic somewhat of an import as well, since in Morocco they speak an Arab dialect known as Darija. I am told that the dialect is not especially intelligible to people from, say, Egypt, although everyone that speaks the dialect can easily understand the standard version spoken in other parts of the Arab world. In any event, I am going to set a goal for myself of a few, well-pronounced phrases before I leave.

I’m off

2
Apr
2014

The title of this post refers to several things actually.

I’m off my diet, at least the strictest part of it. And to celebrate, last night we treated ourselves to an amazing meal at Del Posto. Five-course tasting menu, amazing cocktail and bottle of wine. Everything was so tasty and rich. The bread, the pastas, the mains, the desserts and various amuse-bouches. And that leads me to…

I’m feeling off. Especially after my healthy eating of the past month, I think re-introducing all of the above at one time was too much. I felt bloated and queasy much of the night, and didn’t sleep very well, alas. I was hoping to be better rested today because, finally…

I am off to Morocco for work again. I leave tonight from Newark, fly through Geneva and connect an hour after I land to a flight for Marrakech. I will be there for about 8 days, followed by a few days stopover in Geneva to visit my old friend Jonathan who I haven’t seen in a few years.

I’m off to pack, catch you later.

 

Replaced by a small gadget

1
Apr
2014

While reading an article in this morning’s NY Times,  I was reminded of an old Woody Allen stand up routine that ends with the following joke:

The upshot of the story is, that day I called my parents, my father was fired. He was technologically unemployed. My father had worked for the same firm for twelve years. They fired him. They replaced him with a tiny gadget, this big, that does everything my father does, only it does it much better. The depressing thing is, my mother ran out and bought one.

The article examines the accelerating phenomenon of having all kinds of tasks go away due to automation, including higher “white-collar” ones that previously seemed beyond the reach of computer or machine intelligence. It posits that in the past the speed at which human tasks were replaced was slow enough for people to find ever newer (and higher) tasks, but that today we as a global population are having a harder time adjusting.

I often think about the very occupation I have today (mostly web design and programming) and wonder how long it will be before my own work will be automated. People like to think that areas like this that require a high amount of human creativity are immune from automation, but I have watched as it has become easier and easier for people to buy some very nicely designed (if not entirely custom) web sites, and I expect that the ease and options for creating one will only grow with time, to the point where for the vast majority of people, what I do today will simply not be needed. Web sites themselves will evolve and will probably not resemble much of what we think of today. Information will be free-floating everywhere (it is already happening) and the idea of even looking at a screen will become quaint at some point.

This does not actually concern me overmuch. The job I have today did not exist even 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago my work was very different, and I have benefitted immensely from new technologies and automations that have made my work easier to do, more lucrative, and more possible. I don’t have any real expectation that what I do will even exist (in something resembling its present form) in 10 years. I will have to acquire new skills and evolve, as I have over the past 10. At some point, I may do something completely different, not at all related to what I do today. I think that this notion can be highly destabilizing for some people, but it is increasingly the norm. We can put our heads in the sand or try to adapt and enjoy the ride. I have no idea what the future brings, but (at least in the area of automation) I don’t particularly fear it for myself.

I do have great concerns, however, for the growing income disparities that this changing world represents. We must find a way to change our social/economic model to account for these changes. We need to invest heavily in education at all levels, and assure people a decent minimum level of subsistence (and I don’t mean poverty). We can’t continue on our greedy social path, we need a more equitable society that everyone can feel a part of. Imagine if that vast new area that opens up in the wake of this automation led to new occupations concerned with the well being of those around us. I have no doubt there are plenty of opportunities there, the question is, at what point will society place a high enough value on it to collectively fund it?