Early in my pilgrimage, just 50 km north of Seville, I did a very stupid thing.
It was mid-afternoon, and I'd arrived in the large village of Castilblanco de los Arroyos - a typical Andalusian 'white village' of low, shuttered, whitewashed houses and a sandy, central plaza bordered with bitter orange trees. The day had generally been a good one. Although the last few km had been road walking, before that I'd followed an old medieval drove road, or cañada, for 12 km. In places it had been very wet and muddy underfoot, but the tricky conditions kept me on my toes (so to speak) and I enjoyed the challenge.
At first the route led through orange plantations and olive groves. Some farmers were spraying the trees - you could smell the chemicals. There were lots of shooters about - I think after partridges, rabbits and hares - and I felt very exposed as I ran the gamut of this noisy fusillade. But eventually I left the gunfire behind, and entered a lovely, undulating, rocky area of holm oaks and cistus.
Perching on a rock, I had a bite of lunch, and looked over the reddish rocks onto wild acres of rough pastureland scattered with oak trees and grazed by ponies. A few early flowers were pushing through. In a few months these fields would be a riot of spring colour. I thought how exhausting this route would be in the baking summer heat - there was little shade - and was glad it was wintertime (little did I know then how cold and wet it would become). I meditated on the small details of nature close by me: the stones, the rocks, the cactuses, the cistus bushes, the odd insect which had emerged too soon. For some brief moments all was completely well with the world, and everything was as it should be in the order of things.
At the entrance to Castilblanco was a petrol station, and from there I retrieved the key to the refugio. There was no heating, but it was perfectly clean and comfortable. I unrolled my sleeping bag on one of the bunk beds and sorted out my pack. And then I did the very stupid thing I mentioned above. I placed my glasses on a chair, took a shower, came out the shower, dried myself - then sat down heavily on the chair. The spectacles were in pieces. The lenses were OK, but the frame was shattered. What to do? I panicked. I couldn't see properly without them. I had no other pair. I was in a village miles from anywhere. I tried to explain my predicament to the guy in the petrol station. 'Was there an opticians, un óptico, in the village?' I asked him, without much hope. 'Yes', he assured me. 'There's one in the pharmacy, which opens at 6 pm.'
I was lucky. The pharmacist-optician was incredibly helpful and kind. Within an hour she'd helped me choose a new frame, ground the lenses to size, and fitted the lenses - all the while serving a constant stream of customers waiting for prescriptions. (I think she must have made up the prescriptions herself, too, for I saw no other staff.) Each one she treated with the same unhurried courtesy, efficiency and respect. And she spoke excellent English (she'd lived in the US for several years) - the only person I met along the whole Vía de la Plata who spoke English with any degree of fluency.
I thanked her, and called her a 'trail angel'. 'Without you, I'd have had to return home!' I exclaimed. I wonder what the chances were of finding, in a village in Andalusia, an optician with the facility to grind lenses on the spot (most opticians are not able do this and send them away - a process which might take a week or more) - and, furthermore, could speak perfect English? Not high, I think. She laughed and wished me a warm 'Buen Camino!' 'There are usually ways and means of solving any problem!' she pronounced, smiling, as I left. 'Ways and means...'
(The photo shows the church in Castilblanco de los Arroyos.)