My small guidebook let me know the next town on the Roman Road was Castilblanco de los Arroyos, a stretch of some 18 kilometres north. The sun was rising fast in the late morning. The sky clear and perfect for the sun to make scorch marks on the land and on those that do not seek shelter. I was a novice under the Andalusian sun and the sun played with me.
Strolling out of Saville I had already enjoyed the long straight run of the Roman Road. From Santiponce, the town before I met the Dutchman, the dusty Roman Road started with a canopy of half dozen low hanging trees on a straight footpath. I walked level for two hours of uninterrupted thoughts. I met know one and nothing disturbed me.
The buckle of my left shoe had broken that morning in Seville, and already I had a lopsided lace strap. It mattered not to me other than offering a strange appearance. Perhaps if one popped each day I would soon be limping along like an American prisoner escaping from a chain gang.
Cutting across the industrial estate of broken lorries propped up on discarded wheels, dogs barking from confined compounds guarding nothing of any consequence I quickly found the footpath at the end of a cul-de-sac to Castilblanco. With confidence restored I stretched out my legs across the open countryside.
With the grim industrial estate behind me, I enjoyed the sights of small chunky olive trees, no taller that I am; this allowed me to see the footpath meandering into the distance.
I was soon into a rhythm which projected me along at about five kilometres an hour. Even with the sun raising the thermometer by the hour, the freshness of my feet and legs bobbed me along happy and oblivious to the Andalusian sun. Above, the sky gave a beautiful van Gogh blue with little clouds of vapour and the odd bird drifted about by the updraft of the sun. In the distance hills lightly rolled, nothing of any consequence, no one hill higher than another, useful only to break up the horizon line.
I stopped often to stare at the sights that came about me, turning a full 360 degrees to appreciate the solidarity I had sort and seemed to have found. This was my adventure – and I had decided to walk alone so I could contemplate my own thoughts and not get tied up in other people’s opinions I find hard to agree with. That be the case I could have stayed in London and chosen many pubs to argue in until the early hours.
Except standing alone and looking across the far-reaching countryside seemed to agitate the sun watching me from above. I soon learnt the towering sun enjoyed hunting those who stopped short of shade as if they showed no respect.
As the thermometer rose silence fell on the landscape. The crunch-crunch from my feet moving with uniformity my only sound. Crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch. One foot in front of the other. My path lay along a picturesque vale of vivid, red earth, backed by the sun and dotted randomly with olive trees. The uniformity of the olive farms of the morning countryside had finished. I am sure these olives trees were commercial, but in the vale they grew as the seeds were blown around by the wind or distributed by the birds. The path became rutted the further I walked away from Guillena, less visited by farmers or walkers. The path never seemed to stay straight or still, always moving this way and that as it ventured deep into the Andalusian countryside; undulating up the side of small hills before scrambling down into another vale. The path never stayed still.
I had, on leaving Guillena, purchased cherries, peaches and apples along with two half litres of water. With the sun hot, and getting hotter, the odd olive tree the only solitary shade retained, I still was not fully aware of how sapping the Andalusian sun could become.
My feet fresh and happy with the cheery sound of crunch-crunch from the stony path under my feet. I was still the naïve novice, strolling out shoulder’s confidently pinned back as if I was a young ignorant soldier expectant of adventure rather than war.
As my thirst increased consequently so did the desire for the fruit I was carrying. Presently I had the bag of cherries in my hand and one by one popped them into my dry month. How sweet and juicy they were! How, as I crunched on them, their soft juice rolled about my month. As I walked I drew in hot breath so the juice vaporised about my month. I took my time with each cherry and realised then I had never tasted fruit so flawless. Not because the fruit was perfect – No! – the time and place, the sun and a dry mouth, increased the flavours and the taste became excellent! Oh, how to enjoy what we take for granted. Shortly the cherries were gone and so was the first bottle of water.
Up ahead a slow walker came into view. I lost him each time the red stony earth of the broken footpath undulated into a vale or got lost among the olive trees, or when lost on the other side of a hill.
When he stopped to rest I caught him up and said my hello. He waved his hand to acknowledge me, but he clearly did not have the breath to say much more. He sat on a rock, his back bent, his arms resting on his knees, his head dangling. In the silence I could only hear his pant for breath.
What should I do? He clearly was not well and there were many kilometres to cover to Castilblanco. His head slowly rose. His face was old and red blotched, his eyes sapped of energy, blurring with running sweat. I did not want to make the obvious remark.
‘Monsieur – Peux j’ai du mal à vous pour l’eau?’
‘Yes, of course.’ I quickly replied. If not understanding the words, I understood his pleading eyes. I swiftly removed my rucksack to find water.
‘Two sips if I may,’ he asked knowing I was an Englishman.
His red shirt was running with sweat. The fool had no hat. The imbecile had no water. If his predicament was not so serious then I would have called him, there and then, ‘you Sir are a comedian!’. But I took pity on the fool, for even I was starting to appreciate how deep the sun can penetrate into this stony earth.
He was respectful of his word and once he had two simple sips he handed back the water bottle.
‘No, keep drinking,’ I told him.
‘Merci à vous,’ and this time he drank long and deep. Then he handed back the water bottle.
‘Keep it. You look as if your need is greater than mine.’ And before he could reply I added, ‘I have another bottle.’
‘Thank you monsieur. You are a gentleman.’
I wanted to add – ‘you Sir are a fool’, instead, I offered him an apple.
I have never seen refreshment by the offer rather than the enjoyment. I am sure his eyes no longer hung dry from his sockets. His cheeks hung less like a bulldog. He thanked me again. I decided the worst was over and I would continue, keeping him in my sights. He was not to be the first such fool I would meet.
I left him resting, perched on a rock in shade, and biting into my apple.
As the terrain become stonier, the sun higher in the blue sky and the thermometer rose a few more degrees towards 40, my perspiration increased and I was soon in need of the water I had flippantly given away. A few times I rested in the shade of an olive tree allowing me to catch sight of the Frenchman back on the rutted path bobbing, or was he crawling, between the olive trees. Then I carried on. My own thirst had dried out my mouth. My fruit was gone. My guide book told me I was still not yet half way – 10 km still to Castilblanco.
The crunch-crunch under my feet slackened. I became stationary more frequently. I wondered how sensible the Dutch were? Had the Dutchman stayed in Guillena to enjoying the benefits of a siesta, as all the natives of Andalusia were, or was he behind me on the stony red footpath gasping for breath? Was he an honest man to his own foolishness and regretted strolling out into the backing sun?
My thoughts returned to the Frenchman. I would arrive hot, thirsty and very tired. I knew I would arrive as would the Dutchman. But the old Frenchman – I was not so sure? Heat stoke cooks the blood as quick as water.
Then, as I rounded a bend in the rutted path, a mirage came into view. A large display with a hand written collection of words. Agua, Eau, Acqua, Wasser, Vatten, Water. For a short moment, the sign played on my mind as if I was indeed seeing a vision of fantasy. Once I was close and the sign still stayed still and did not become a blur I began to believe what I was seeing, and then wondered how this water was available? A house, a café, a woman fanning herself as she served from a summer stall? I followed an arrow though a gate, left the rutted red path of overgrown olive trees in its own habitation of wild undulations and tumbled out into a meadow like Alice in Wonderland. It stretched out with its own light ripples and dissident colours with familiar smells to the far off bare topped rounded hills. Some short distance from the path inside a small enclosure of young trees stood a blue water pump.
I did not immediately drink the water. Instead, I stood and looked at the meadow. Had the desire for the water diminished because I felt as if I stood in the centre of the Garden of Eden? Was this true? Was this where life had been designed? But then in the Garden of Eden life had been ruined before it had ever been given a chance to survive for virtue, and for this reason maybe this meadow in Andalusia was a better place.
I was a solitary walker and without fellow man, there was no battleground. Whoever man’s law had made the legal owner, this meadow, open and exposed to the sun, had life-giving water of its own.
Views of the meandering cows surrounded me, far off hills and the odd magnificent oak trees were all mine to enjoy, behold and delight in, and I believed in what I enjoyed.
The philosophy aside, the rolling countryside was as beautiful as any of man’s interpretations of nature. All those gardeners, painters and park keepers would do well to find this small Eden. But then by insisting on the recreation of the meadow how does an artist give his viewers the heat of fifteen kilometres of thirst? I can appreciate the artist for his skill, but I never appreciate what he himself experienced or is trying to recreate, however gifted.
Finally, my thirst got the better of my other emotions and I started pumping. I pumped and listened patiently to the suction building up in the deep pipe. There was no necessity to rush the water to the surface. When the earth was ready to give up its tonic it would do so in its own time. A trickle of water came forth and I placed my head under the pump’s mouth. Even when the water became a cascade the dust I had accumulated blocked the soaking of my hair, as if the dust had become the oil of an animal’s fur.
I rubbed the water into my scalp. It refreshed me and I was no longer the chain gang prisoner to the sun games. I filled up my small water bottle and sat down under a small oak tree. I was wet from sweat and washing in the well water, legs tried and feat aching, shoulders strained from the backpack, my hands swelling with treacle, my torso fit and my mind active. This way I looked out with joy and compassion from the core of my being, into the remote and unfrequented meadow of wild grass and red and yellow wild country flowers; the sun smiled as the giver, for now no longer a slayer. No – quite the contrary, She had become existence, reshaping my expectations and for all Her intolerable heat given I was learning She was the giver of Life.
I pulled out Tolstoy from my backpack. Open at the page with a dog ear. ‘Well, anyway, that’s how I was caught. I was what’s called “in love”. I read no more for my eyes and ears looked out at the meadow as my hand ran along the soil and my month lingered on the taste from under the earth. I was reflecting on the minor questions of a Thinker. Thinking, I read Tolstoy, I am beholding the sight of a meadow and enjoying water like burgundy. Why is this? As I pondered I watched the Dutchman walk towards me. I was pleased to see him in a social way, however my solitude had been broken.
‘Good lord that was hard going.’ He said standing, looking at the pump, not sure if it was a friend or a foe. ‘Drinkable?’
‘Very. It is wonderful. Taste it.’
‘Could put some water purifiers in I suppose.’
‘You could do. I would drink as the earth gives and enjoy what is given. Enjoy the kindness and intention by whoever set up this water pump.’ He was not so sure. ‘Drink!’ I said. ‘No games are being played. Drink up!’ I said again so he could understand my displeasure at his doubting.
The Dutchman pumped up the well until it was giving again and he placed his hands under its blue mouth. He scooped up as much water as his cupped hands would allow and proceeded to pour water over his short mop of curling, once dark, greying hair. I watched with amusement and disagreement at the pleasure it gave. ‘Drink it. It is the best nectar your ever taste.’
Instead, he sat down, stayed thirsty and lived with his misgiving.
‘Have you seen the Frenchman?’ I asked.
‘Yes with a black girl.’
‘I think this is paradise.’
The Dutchman looked about as if we were in two different landscapes.
‘If I was better organised, and fitter, I would camp here, stay some time as a writer, paint as an artist; serve water to the needy, make friends with the cows, trade a story for milk. Why walk on?’ Maybe the satire and humour were lost on the Dutchman. Next I asked ‘How did the Frenchman look?’
‘I gave him my water because he was one of the needy. I soon regretted it. Then I wilted!’ I laughed to show I was being flippant. ‘His need was greater than mine. I had expected to see him by now, but I guess he is slowing down as he tires. Anyway in this oasis he can bring himself back to life.’
The Dutchman heaved a sigh, told me how amused he had been at seeing the multi-linguistic sign and then added no more to the conversation. Instead, he pulled out a cigarette rolled with tobacco grown from the earth, and was as refreshing to him as the water from the earth was for me.
I tied up my shoes, put Tolstoy back into my backpack, filled my small water bottle up again from the well and wished the Dutchman good day. He nodded and continued drawing on the refreshment of his cigarette.
Back at the sign, I met with the Frenchman and the black woman. They were, like me, disbelieving at seeing the sign.
‘Not as good as chocolate with brandy.’ I remarked and wanted to add, ever better! But I knew this would not be the case. The black woman looked at me and tilted her head and only said ‘Ah?’ as she pulled in her face to make a comic mimic. She did not understand. The Frenchman smiled; he did.
For the next few hours I walked the red earth. My head fell low many times so I could only see the stony red earth and my feet moving in union and with order. When I remembered I pulled my head up to see the countryside I was missing. A hat gets in the way. Finally, I was at a road. Castilblanco 4 km, said a road sign. I drank the last of my well water to try and quench my thirst. At five o’clock the sun was still turning up the heat. It never gives up until it is beaten by the Earth’s rotation very close to the new day. By then there are other games for the sun to play.
For now, well I had the last hour to endure. I slogged along a path at the side of the road. Few cars passed. No people passed. No cattle or donkeys. No monks or fellow pilgrims. I unbuttoned my shirt. I tried to taste the well water in the last drops from my bottle. My skin was now hotter than seemed sensible. My brown panama became limp with sweat. Finally, with only a kilometre to go, I found shade, fell against a rock, opened my shirt fully, ran my hands into my sticky sweat to acknowledge the foolhardiness of the walk, and pulled my hat over my eyes until I dozed with merry sweet dreams. There I was sitting in a comfy Parker Noel chair (I know not why I remember it was a Parker Noel, the appropriate shape?) my feet resting on the lap of the curvy waitress. She was slowly massaging my feet with creams and potions leaning forward so her manipulating hands worked hard into the souls of my feet as she pushed them onto her buxom breasts. She smiled at me. I was happy in this dream or mirage. I had deserved such a rest and thoughts of pleasure are man’s way of endurance. Then she leaned over towards my salty lips.
‘And you are so close.’ said the Dutchman, ditching his backpack onto the floor and taking a seat next to me. ‘But it is too hot. Did you bring this last bit of shade with you?’
‘I didn’t think I could risk leaving this shade unused. And the Frenchman?’
‘I left him at the well with the black woman. His feet are over stretched and his body over tired.’
We dozed as two old men. I tried to return to my daydream, but the short teasing of the mind had rested my body and I was ready for the final stretch. Only 1 km – but it was a long enduring 1 km.
Together we walked into Castilblanco, the sun still strong, our thirsts receding knowing our first day on the Roman Road was near done and a cold beer waited. I followed the Dutchman for he knew the street of the Alberque from his Google map.
And there was our hostel. Steel gates closed shut! Courtyard quiet and empty. Nothing stirred. I flopped down against a wall. The Dutchman joined me.
‘I guess it is closed as it is the off season.’ said the practical Dutchman. I said nothing and released my shoe laces to ease my feet.
‘This alberque is free.’ he added.
‘Only for pilgrims. And then give as your means allow.’
‘Well I can only give when being open allows. Never mind. So little is free in the world, and then I miss out.’ As I was moaning to the Dutchman a well-built man in his early sixties approached the gate from inside the alberque and looked at us disingenuously, as if we were two tramps sitting outside the walls of some medieval town and had woken the lock keeper up from his slumber.
As he observed us I saw in his face a question. Why we were outside, when, as he opened the steel gate we could be inside? He was as confused as we were.
‘Oh, senor! We thought you were lock up and closed.’
‘No never, we are open year round! The gates lock at ten. Come in.’
A second similar man came hurriedly down the staircase to greet us. Both similar late middle age in appearance and even more so in manners, they could have been brothers of many bickering years. One wore a black t-shirt, the other a white t-shirt. Both were friendly and pleased to see us. One brought out a ledger to write our names in and the other a camino stamp to imprint our pilgrim’s credentials. They were busy chatting, pouring out proud homemade lemonade, they squabbled to each other in Spanish, chatted politely to the Dutchman in German and to me in a sort of pigeon English which got us by.
Then to our great surprise, the Frenchman appeared fresh faced with a jolly smile! Oh, how good it was to see him. Oh, how good the well water had refreshed his spirit and his legs to bring him home on his first day of walking.
He shook our hands with such kind ferocity. I knew he had not expected to be sharing a dorm with us tonight. He drank back the homemade lemonade (more than was polite) until the alberque proprietor in a black t-shirt placed his lemonade onto the floor; a statement to say no more!
The black woman arrived sometime after the Frenchman. If the black woman ever reads this story of companionship and solidarity I apologise for I found out that evening she was Brazilian (with a thick seasoning of Italian) and I should have been referred to her as the Brazilian woman. But I write as I know at the time.
Although we had all walked at our own pace and with our own thoughts we had shared a day of camaraderie, with pain and thirst and the unknown, but all with some common goal drawing us together. We were all amateur walkers, our desires and adventures driven by romance rather than practicalities. We were very tired, extremely hungry, incredibility thirsty and once showered and changed we felt better and ready to walk out into the town knowing we deserved a cold cerveza.