The sheep had already been slaughtered when I arrived. Instead I witnessed the animal being hacked apart in the kitchen, husband wielding an axe whilst wife held the carcass and children looked on indifferently. It was probably a scene being similarly repeated in thousands of Muslim households around the World during Eid el-Adha, (Feast of the Sacrifice) an annual celebration to commemorate Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. The freezer had been emptied to make space and it was clear none of this carcass was going to waste. Head, feet, tail, testicles, internal organs – all the parts of the animal that never appear on a supermarket shelf would at some point be consumed over the following year. It’s just as well I’m not a vegetarian. Kebabs were placed in front of me one evening before being given half the skull to dissect the next. I declined the barbequed pancreas and testicles which came later in the week.

This all took place in Demnate, a small town 100km east of Marrakesh. I’d been invited there many months before by a cycling-obsessed teenager I’d never met. Youssef found me on the Internet, as he had done with a number of other twowheeled nomads around the World. For an 18-year old Moroccan who’d seen little of his own country, let alone many of the places he was reading about, the concept of independent travel, particularly by bicycle, was something few of his contemporaries nor family would understand or see any appeal in. He’d recently read and re-watched Into the Wild, and was now posting quotes by Henry Thoreau and Jack London on the Internet. I thought it pretty impressive given that English is his fourth language (after Berber, Arabic and French).

Having spent 10 days off the bike in Marrakesh I arrived with the mind set of stopping for just a few nights in Demnate before continuing into the High Atlas mountains, which rise directly to the south of the town and had already received a dusting of snow. I thought staying longer might inconvenience my hosts, seeming as I was a complete stranger, but it was clear, I think, that they had no desire for me to depart so suddenly. I was quickly made to feel like a member of the family, and when plans for the next day, following day after that and then weekend included me, talk of leaving when I’d originally planned was met with a kind of disappointment.

I’d forgotten the overwhelming sense of hospitality that often accompanies being a guest in a Muslim household. It also occured to me shortly after arriving that all this cycling through foreign places has far less context unless there is real interaction with the people one meets. Other than waving to those we passed at the roadside there had been less time for such human contact when Tim was with me. In places like Marrakesh, Fez and Chefchaouen the interaction is all too often of a commercial nature. The fact that I have little interest in buying a carpet, taking a tour or being guided around a town means many relationships I have with Moroccans are short-lived. I sometimes think that wearing a t-shirt saying “tight-fisted and not interested”, would be suitable for wandering through a tourist souk, although it would only solicit more attempts at catching my attention from those for whom I was wearing it. In Demnate the interaction had none of this superficial quality. I soon abandoned my initial plans and stayed most of the next week.

I envisaged the time here could be useful to improve on my embarrassingly poor French, but it was soon apparent that Youssef, older brother Rachid and father were far more enthusiastic to converse in English. Youssef’s Mother on the other hand found great amusement when I remembered the Berber and Arabic she spoke whilst serving up amazing lamb-filled tagines and couscous. I realised learning a few basics here might be more useful in the High Atlas than looking for a French speaker.

Out of the four-floor apartment I  saw more of Demnate and its surroundings than if I’d pedalled on through or just stopped here for lunch. Several narrow streets or derbs away was the local hammam. My last experience in one of these seven years ago, also in Morocco, involved an overweight man with a large mustache standing on my back and shouting what might have been obscenities for all I know in Arabic at me. I spent the rest of the evening, night and the next day wondering why exactly I’d paid for this experience, other than thinking it was memorable. Opportunities to visit a hammam in many other countries since then (Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt) have never had much appeal. This time round the experience fortunately came without any local showmanship, although the random act of asking a fellow bather to scrub your back, which appears to be common practice, is something I wouldn’t ask in the showers after a game of squash back home. It does however go a long way into explaining how Muslim men are comfortable with acts of friendly physical contact between each other (be they kissing or holding hands) in a way that might wrongly suggest sexual allegiance in many western countries. One thing is certain, after an hour in the hammam I felt cleaner than I’d been in many months. I returned two more times before leaving Demnate.

When Youssef wasn’t at school, which seemed to be at completely random times of the day, we jumped on the bikes to explore some of the roads that climbed up above the town. One led to the local popular spot of Imi-n-Ifri, where a natural bridge over an enormous gorge had created a cavernous grotto. Looking out from underneath the stalactites the opening of the grotto had an almost identical outline to that of the African continent. I considered wheeling the bike in and heroically holding it up to create a silhouette photo-frame, but the boulders and pigeon poo raining down from inside put a sensible stop to this.

One of the reasons for staying until the weekend was to visit the weekly Sunday market. Beyond a colourful array of fruit and vegetables that lay loosely heaped in piles on the ground this however was mainly a collection of second-hand junk. Chipped mobile phone covers, cracked toilet seats, battered French novels, dusty computer keyboards and monitors. There was absolutely no order to any of it and most items on display were clearly useless. Youseff did explain however that his brother had previously picked up their new and fully functioning computer modem for 10 Dirham (1 Euro) on this market. I realised there was probably a similar market in the environs of the mid-Atlas mountains where my camera tripod was being sold for an equally below-value price.

The longer you stay in places the harder it often is to leave, but weighed down with a fluorescent yellow sheep skin from the previous Eid-al-Adha, which was given to me as a gift (far more interesting, if less humorous than my offering of a cake – see photo) I wheeled the bike out of their narrow derb the following day and bid my farewells. I’d been looking forward to climbing high into the mountains for weeks and had scanned the map for the highest passes and challenging looking pistes through the Atlas. At 3000m in altitude I was hoping the snow wasn’t going to block my way, although it would make for an interesting ride if it did.