February 2008

Canadians Abroad

Only for half an hour

By D. Zlotnikov

Temple overlooking the town of Yangshuo and the Li River near Green Lotus Peak in Guangxi Province | Filipe Fortes

When travelling a lot, for many years and to many places, you inevitably expose yourself to countless troubles. Maurice Bichsel is no exception and had his fair share of them — from being locked up in a cell to being expelled from a country, mobbed and seriously threatened to be hanged, to mention only a few.

The trials and tribulations ended well and today Bichsel is serving as the director of international market development for CAMESE, but the journey to his current post was long and spanned the globe many times over.

A native of Switzerland, Bichsel graduated with a degree in electromechanical engineering. As he put it, “You study, study, study, get the piece of paper — the proudly earned diploma — and don’t know what do with yourself next.” So, following his military service (compulsory at the time), Bichsel answered an ad from a company looking for engineers, went to the interview and got hired. The job was as a field service engineer for Applied Research Laboratories, an instrumentation division of Bausch & Lomb.

“We manufactured spectrometers,” explained Bichsel. “There aren’t many manufacturers around the world, and the complex devices are primarily used for the chemical analysis of metals.” After two months of training, young Bichsel was shipped off to the company’s office in Germany. He was then transferred to Sweden for a year, followed by Iran, back to Switzerland and, shortly after, South Africa. It was in South Africa that he had taken the opportunity to go down into an underground gold mine, some 1,400 metres below the surface. After South Africa, he spent over two years in Spain, and that, as they say, was only the beginning.

In the first few years of travelling, one of his biggest handicaps, according to Bichsel, was language.

“My job wasn’t just setting up the spectrometer in the lab,” he explained. “I also had to train people to use it. My English at that time was very basic. The first few years, going to Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia…communication was a challenge.”

But when business took him more frequently to Eastern Europe, Bichsel added, “Even if you could speak the native tongue perfectly, you’d still have at least two people following you around.” One was the translator, but Bichsel never was quite sure what the other one’s title was. “Never knew who was watching whom.”

Bichsel faced a similar situation on his first visit to China in 1987, this time as a sales engineer for a company making data acquisition systems for railways.

 “There was some culture shock,” he admitted. “The thing that struck me first was just the mass of people, and the stereotypical picture of these wide avenues, with a constant stream of people on bicycles. And of course, all the bicycles were the same colour and model.”

But here too, Bichsel was issued two translators to accompany him at all times. What differed, he explained, was the reason. “It wasn’t to make sure no one was criticizing the regime, but to ensure that no information was lost or misinterpreted in translation.”

Overall, he added, his Chinese hosts treated him very much like an honoured guest. “At the time, they were opening the gates slightly, and letting people into China, but getting a visa was not simple,” he recalled. He also experienced the downside of VIP treatment.

“They didn’t want me to have to go to a restaurant, so every day they brought me food from the cafeteria — which was only for managers’ use — in these dented army aluminum dishes. I never found out what the food was called, but they also brought this very strong rice liquor, for which I was very grateful, because it helped keep the food down. It wasn’t very good.”

Bichsel’s first trip to Canada was in 1977. “No doubtful interpreters, no strong liquor needed. It was the discovery of the land of cowboys and indians that I had seen so many times in western movies.” The first discovery was the modern city of Calgary and the modern cowboys driving trucks.

By the time Bichsel came to CAMESE, he had been to quite a few countries. That’s exactly what he told his interviewer and future boss, CAMESE’s managing director Jon Baird. But, Bichsel said, Baird wanted something more specific.

“Jon asked, ‘how many is a few? Three? 20?’ So I said, ‘I think it’s 88, 89 countries.’ And Jon said, ‘Maurice, I’m sorry, I cannot hire you. I’ve only been to 70-odd; it wouldn’t be fair.’”

Nevertheless, Bichsel was hired and has been working with CAMESE for over three years now. If anything, his schedule has become busier than before.

“Internationally, we do an average of 10 to 12 tradeshows a year,” he explained. “CAMESE always has a booth and always organizes the Canadian pavilion, and is very visible and well-known.” But, as soon as one show is done, Bichsel has to hurry back to prepare the next one. There is little time for holidays with his busy schedule, but when there isn’t enough time between two shows to even go back to Canada, he sometimes indulges himself with a long weekend. So last year, with only a few days between two trade shows in China, he went to Guilin and the Li River.

“Guilin is an absolutely beautiful area. Think of the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro,” he explained. “Guilin has the same type of rock formations, but 600 square kilometres of them.” The area has inspired many artists, poets and even films, he added. Guilin is not the only spectacular place Bichsel has had a chance to see. Over the years, his trips tended to average three months in a country, and it was not uncommon for him to find three or four days to explore. Though, he admitted to having never made it to Antarctica — something he is still hopeful about.

Besides the risky situations, there are the humorous ones. Beware: Brazilian taxis lose their passengers! On one occasion, after a long workday in Brazil, Bichsel called a cab on the street.

“I rush into the car, give the driver directions to my hotel. The driver is in a hurry and loses his way. At one point he makes a sharp and fast U-turn, the door opens, and I am ejected from the car, roll over and find myself crumpled on the road, watching the taxi speeding away. After a good 80 metres, the driver realizes he lost his passenger. He then makes another U-turn and drives back to pick me up.”

The outcome of this rather rough journey was that he didn’t have to pay the cab fare.

Bichsel is quite willing to share his hard-earned tips for staying out of trouble. “Keep a low profile, be aware and don’t pretend you know better than the locals.”

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