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Morocco: portraits from before the pandemic

Aurelio Icasiano III

Mantle’s last great adventure before the start of the pandemic.

Right before the pandemic spread across the world, Mantle went on a journey through Morocco upon the invitation of Insight Vacations and Rajah Travel.  Insight is a company that specializes in luxury guided journeys across the world, promising experiences that are unique to each country. And in Morocco—a place so vast and varied and beautiful—this means going through sand and snow in the winter. Sometimes, as in our case, both in the same day.

It was a journey that took us to Casablanca, along the Atlas mountain range, and down to the Sahara: an itinerary that Insight prepared so travelers can experience as much of Morocco as possible. And throughout all this, there was always a sense of wonder, of disovery. Because even at a time when digital maps and countless apps have drawn out the world in full, much of it remains when you travel to the country. It’s something that seems to come from the land itself. And it seems to come from the people as well. No video can fully immerse you in the landscape, no photo can display the people’s warmth, and no number of stories—no matter how accurate, how detailed—can truly capture what it means to be there.

A journey with Insight isn’t just meant to take you from one place to another. At least, not in the usual way. It’s meant to show you the land, the people, the cultures at their most natural. To throw yourself into the story of where you go. 

With much of the world still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus, we may not be able to travel freely just yet. Still, this doesn’t mean we can’t dream of where to go when we can.

There is a future for travel, though we may not know what shape or how long it will take to get there. And while we wait for that future, we can look back to what it was.

This isn’t about what we lost. It’s about what we want to get back to. Because when all this is over, there is hope for that. For now, we have our stories. 

So here is the story of Morocco, as told through the portraits of the people who live in it.  

The guide

Having grown up in the countryside as a child, Mohamed would take out his camels during the summer, asking travelers if they would like a ride. This, he says, is how he used to make money to help him with his education. This was also how he fell in love with the industry, dreaming of becoming a travel director one day. That dream has since been fulfilled. Mohamed has been a travel director for Insight vacations for over 15 years, taking travelers across his home. 

Inside the cave houses of Bhalil

In the mountainside town of Bhalil, an entire community has lived in caves for hundreds of years. And while modern conveniences have been built into them now, there is a sense of the past that remains: a vintage radio, a stone mill, and even an ancient, broken firearm in one of the caves. There are over 250 dwellings like these in the town, with the population growing over the years. And the caves continue to grow with them: the rock chipped away with hammer and chisel to make way for a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, a new life. 

The nomad

His name is Yusuf, he tells me, and he’s one of the nomads in the Sahara. Yusuf sells souvenirs to visitors: small trinkets and bottles of sand from the desert. The camp where he’s from lies just about half an hour from the Oasis town of Erfoud. But by the next day, or on any other day, it may longer be there. The nomadic tribes are part of the culture of Morocco, though there have been fewer of them around, some choosing to settle in the cities. Yusuf, though, says he won’t be one of them. The desert might be vast, might be inhospitable, but it isn’t ever empty.

The royal guard

Hassan Tower was built in the 1100s, and has since remained unfinished. Right across it sits The Royal Mausoleum of Mohammed V where the former king, alongside his sons, lies in repose. To this day, the Royal Guard watch over the tomb, stoic and unmoving, despite the many visitors that mill about the area on most days. 

A city by the seaside

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The seaside city of Essaouira was originally built by the Portuguese as a fortress hundreds of years ago. Today, its cannons still face the Atlantic coast, watching for a threat that will never come. On most days, surfers, travelers, and fishermen line the beach, watching the tides. The markets and restaurants display a colorful culture, attracting many visitors from all over the world, including artists who sing, dance, and play instruments along the stone roads. 

Oil made by hand

Argan oil is one of the more famous products from Morocco. Used in their cuisine, in the production of cosmetics, and mixed into a myriad other things, the oil comes from the nuts of the Argan tree, which is endemic to the country. Extracting Argan oil is a tedious process, and the traditional method involves cracking the nuts and pressing them into paste, separating the oil from the pulp. 

Market day

At Oulad Salmane in Safi, the Sunday market is where people go to get their broken pots mended, buy fresh bread, purchase camel meat. But it seems as though it’s more a place  where people come together. It’s said that people go to great distances—sometimes as far as thirty kilometers—just to be here. When it rains, and the snails come out in droves, boy from the area collect them by the handful; selling them at the market and buying a small feast with what they earn.

Life in the oasis

Erfoud is an Oasis town in the Sahara, down by the eastern part of Morocco. Unlike in most other places around the world, the markets open in the afternoon, when the desert sun is far more forgiving. By then, you can see farmers with carts drawn by horses and  motorcycles, trudging along the dusty roads to bring fresh dates and other produce to the market stalls. 

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