“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Before we get started, you’re invited to enjoy (or froth at the mouth at, or snooze in response to) my recent conversation with PurposeWorks’s Thomas Bertels. You can watch it here: Work Matters S2E8: Bob Lewis – Digital Transformation – YouTube .
It was a travel week, so I’m re-running one I enjoyed re-reading from ten years ago. In addition to the ten-years-ago tag, I also chose this because I’ve been thinking a lot about corporate culture recently. One way or another, what follows has a culture tie-in. Hope you enjoy the re-read.
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Let me tell you about Morocco.
Truth be told, I don’t know how to tell you about Morocco. Heck, I’ve lived in the United States for nearly 60 years, and were a Moroccan to have asked me to tell them about it, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. Something more specific? Sure. We talked about lots of specifics. But something that would help them get a handle on the place? That’s harder. A lot harder.
This trip … two weeks in an incredibly diverse country with a colorful, often bizarre history, forever overlaid in American perceptions by Casablanca, got me to thinking: In the 21st century, why do any of us choose to be tourists? What is it we want to get out of a visit to another place?
In Madrid, on a one-day stop before heading home, we spent hours at the Prado. Even had our day consisted of nothing beyond the time we spent standing in front of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, it would have been an excellent day.
Great art in person … the actual reality … far exceeds the best virtual reality has to offer. The first, obvious reason is dimension. The Garden is a big tryptych … maybe six feet wide and five high (we weren’t carrying a tape measure) and the impact is just something a computer screen can’t come close to.
Even more than size, though, is pigment. The best white a printout can achieve is whatever the paper it’s printed on is like; on-screen the darkest black is just a dull gray, and the hues and shades between are merely approximate.
But museums, no matter how marvelous, aren’t tourism. In principle, what’s in one museum can be loaned to another museum. It’s portable, which means it isn’t intrinsic to the destination.
If Tom Friedman is to be believed, nothing is intrinsic to the destination anymore. We live in a homogenized world, where all the same everything is available everywhere and everything is done pretty much the same way. Visit Casablanca, for example, and except for mosques being far more prevalent than churches, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you hadn’t accidentally landed in Chicago. Flat indeed.
(Stray thought about project management: Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque, started in 1986 and completed in 1993, is more remarkable in every respect than Madrid’s Catedral de la Almudena, completed the same year following more than a century of construction. Somewhere in there are lessons to be drawn. I promise you, I won’t be the one to draw them.)
Is the world so flat that tourism serves no interesting purpose anymore? No. The world of business perhaps. Business trips gravitate to large cities like Casablanca, and Madrid, and Sydney, and Chicago. But even there the flatness is transactional. Large urban environments are good at disguising cultural differences.
But the cultural differences are there, augmented and supported by different dominant religions, historical resentments, and civic expectations.
Leave Casablanca behind for Marrakech or Fes—cities with very different flavors, a long history of rivalry with each other, and Medinas (their old, walled hearts) that are mazes guaranteed to bring your average lab rat to loud tears and a complete nervous breakdown—and the world starts to look pretty bumpy, even if wifi and satellite dishes are nearly ubiquitous. Berbers and Arabs in traditional garb (with Minnesota-traditional down vests added on cold mornings) rub shoulders with more Berbers and Arabs in western clothing, and with Christians and a few remaining Jews (most of Morocco’s Jews have left the old Jewish quarters of Fes and Marrakech for the more modern economies of Rabat and Casablanca; Moroccans speak of the old Jewish communities with pride; and many Berbers claim ancient Jewish ancestry, presumably from the diaspora).
And, remarkably, nobody worries about it very much. We were lucky enough to have a Moroccan driver—a wonderful guy named Abdul who spoke excellent English, and who arranged a number of private tours for us … for example, with a degreed historian at the ancient Roman ruins at Volubilis, a Berber who was separated at birth from Joe Pesci and knew it (quite unsettling). We had wide-ranging conversations with all of them, and never once heard a Moroccan refer to any identifiable group in the country with anything except respect and appreciation. Except, that is, for their Parliament, but then, that isn’t flatness. It’s merely universal.
Even the French colonial period is thought of with some fondness so far as we could tell. I base this in part on our visit to Morocco’s “Swiss village” just outside Fes in the mid-Atlas range. Built by the French, it looks for all the world like any other alpine village, complete with red tile roofs, cranes nesting on the chimneys, and cafes with superior chocolate pastries.
In the end, this, I think, is what tourism is for. No, not the chocolate pastries. To understand and appreciate the bumpiness on a personal level—to connect with people who, in a still-bumpy world, live in different bumps than we do so we can get some sense of what we have in common, and what we don’t.
What is Morocco like? We were lucky enough to make it to Merzouga, where the Saharan sand dunes start. We did the tourist thing and rode camels into the dunes to watch the sunset.
About the saddles Moroccans use on their camels: They start with heavy gauge wire to make a frame. Then they wrap some cloth around it. Between it and the camel goes a thick blanket or some other form of padding. Between it and the rider goes … nothing, so far as I could tell.
This isn’t new, either. Douglas Porch’s wonderful The Conquest of Morocco includes this, from the late 1800s, about Moroccan saddles: “On the ridge are some curious lumps, which come exactly where lumps are least welcome to any person of Christian build.”
In any event, the gentleman who led our camels, and ourselves up into the dunes is from a family of Arab nomads. His parents lived that life.
Once he had us safely off our camels and gazing into the trackless Saharan sand, he pulled out his cell phone to text some friends.