Morning came as it always does and much too soon for my liking. Bladder urgency won, so I got up, pulled a long sleeved top over my head, wrapped a silk scarf around my waist and slipped on my shoes. I was close to bursting and grabbed few sheets of toilet roll before leaving the room.
I’m sure squat toilets give rise to all manner of peculiar behaviour and mine was to whip off the ‘skirt’ and tie it around my neck for safekeeping. There is good reason, because the floor in a squat is always wet and no matter how many times I’ve used them, I always manage to spray the floor a little. I’ve even tried facing the wrong way, though staring into the hole is not the most pleasant pastime.
Afterwards, I rewrapped the scarf around my waist and went to the hand basin outside. I began to wash my hands and face vigorously when I felt the silk slide to my feet. There I was, naked from the waist down with a scarf at my ankles and a dripping wet face. It might have been funny if it had happened anywhere but in a public space in a Muslim country. Luck had it that nobody saw me or if they did, they never let on.
My little episode was a good excuse to extend breakfast time for longer than necessary and stock up on snacks. We gathered our bikes from the garage and left soon after.
We rode as far as the barrage where we’d turned right the previous year, this time, we stayed on the left.
We passed wells and beehives and there were hills to climb, many many hills and long stretches of descent too.
I loved the feeling of speed while it lasted, the thrill of taking a corner a bit too fast, the fun of free wheeling and pedalling backwards because I could and the sudden urge to pedal frantically to get as much momentum as possible up the next rise.
Then it got tougher, through pine forests and I wasn’t keeping up. Dan disappeared around a bend and I decided to push. Keep moving, I said to myself. I promised I’d ride again once I’d turned the next bend, but the road seemed doable again and I got back in the saddle for another stretch. I didn’t catch Dan. I told myself to turn the pedals one stroke at a time.
I could barely keep my balance I was going so slowly. I had no more gears to drop. I heard a truck coming and pulled off the road until it passed. It was crawling along, weighed down with building bricks. I decided I could ride behind it and slipstream up the hill. In all honesty, I wished I’d had the foolhardiness to hold on to it and get dragged up, but ride is what I did, and rode so close my lungs filled with dust and exhaust fumes. It was my first experience of cycling in the slipstream.
The driver knew I was there and drove carefully; same gear, same speed until I saw Dan and broke away. He gave a few toots and a big thumbs up. I waved back like I’d won the hill climb stage of a race.
We stopped in a village for lunch, but it wasn’t the sort of village with cafes, so we sat in the shadow of a wall to eat sandwiches made from triangle cheese. A slender young woman, half hidden by a door seemed fascinated by our presence.
‘Maybe she’ll offer us tea,’ I said, hopefully.
Earlier, we’d passed a shelter filled with terracotta water containers but had no reason to replenish our stock.
I held out water bottles and asked her for water. She filled three, gave them to me then returned to her watch post across the threshold.
Each time we rounded a peak, we saw minarets and heard every call to prayer. The snow capped peaks seemed nearer, we were climbing higher and getting closer.
We hoped to find camp that evening but each time we found a clearing we also found a village. I needed a decent rest.
‘When we reach…that…pink…mosque…’ I could hardly breathe let alone speak. ‘…We’re stopping.’ The mosque was at the crest of a hill overlooking fertile terraces in the valley below. The village seemed likely to have something to offer a pair of weary travellers. As we snaked our way up, I looked everywhere for signs of food; a plastic chair, a man drinking tea or a shop, anything that would lead to food and rest. My spirits sank when I saw a boarded up Teleboutique. I knew there would be another village or at least somewhere to camp soon enough.
A couple of kilometres along, we found a roadside café. We couldn’t get served as the owner was praying, so we sat outside and waited for what seemed like ages. Eventually, tea and long life mille feuille cakes arrived. A truck thundered past leaving the air pungent with mint. Our tea was flavoured with a herb the locals call absinthe, but I am unfamiliar with the herb despite searching for it in the UK.
Getting on the bike after such a rest was awful. My legs seemed heavier than the bike. I was physically and psychologically drained, not helped by having to cycle in a huge loop to end up opposite the café at the other side of a ravine. Spurred on at the sight of men on mules, I pushed on and rode past them. They seemed amused.
By 4.30, we reached another village where we came to a stall selling irresistible donuts. Dan stopped and I didn’t need much encouragement. They had a hot drink they called coffee that all the men were drinking. We ordered two glasses of what tasted like spiced hot milk similar to chai. Four donuts later the sun was almost gone and I felt cold. The temperature at 1300m was significantly less than it had been the day before. I must have looked exhausted, because a man at the donut stall, who’d spoken a little French asked us if we needed a room.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘I will take you to my friend’s hotel.’
We followed him through the village, not really knowing what we would find, but sure enough, there was a fairly new building with a sign that said it was known as Hotel Baba Jamea. Hotel is a word we take to mean bed and that’s as much as we expect, anything more is a welcome bonus. Here we found a double bed with blankets and a shared bathroom with a flush toilet and a shower. The mattress was like new and appeared to have been made with concrete. Sheets were not provided. It was like being outside only inside, and just as cold. The name of the village is a bit of a mystery, the owner said it was called Igruid and a map stated Aguerd ‘n Ougadir.
Anyway, while our host made a vegetable tagine for us to share, we went up on the roof to explore. That’s when I noticed the building with a domed roof and smoke belching from a chimney.
‘Hammam!’ I squealed. ‘There’s a hammam.’
We went outside to find it. As we neared the door, a man wagged his finger, shaking his head simultaneously. He said that it was closed and I must use the douche (shower) at the hotel. Word had reached the hotelier’s ears of our attempts to enter the hammam. He explained that it was men only that day. The look of disappointment on my face and his fondness for me made him pick up his phone and call the keeper of the furnace. Everything was arranged. Our host told us that we could use the hammam together once it had officially closed, at 8pm.
After dinner, we ordered coffee and mindlessly watched a football game showing on the big screen. The owner turned up the volume when a few customers arrived and attached disco lights to a boom box for added atmosphere.
A young man, named Brahim, dressed in western clothes emblazoned with sports logos asked if he could join us. He told us that he was on the annual visit to see his family. He worked in Casablanca but his heart was here.
‘Life is good here,’ he said. ‘The air is clean and no one does much work.’
I asked him what people did all day.
‘Get up, eat breakfast, smoke wacky backy, eat, then sleep with woman,’ he replied, wistfully.
All three of us laughed.
Eight O’ clock came. We were taken to the hammam and given the key to lock ourselves in.
We stored our clothes in pigeon holes and carried buckets through to the hottest room. For me, attending a public hammam is one of life’s simplest pleasures and to share this intimate space with each other is truly special. As we sat on warm tiles and scooped hot water over tired bodies, our whispers were amplified and thrown back as roars from the vault. Conversation turned to thoughts as we soaped and soaked in silence.
Note: Thanks to Billy Chamberlain for the comment and link. I can now say that the herb frequently used in tea is Wormwood.