We were on this small country road between the little towns of Osuna and Olvera, headed for Ronda, the big tourist sight of this part of Andalucia. My daughter Astrid, and her friend Christiane were my travelling companions. I've always liked taking off on side tracks, and this one climbed gently up the side of a major hill in a landscape of rolling rows of olive trees edged and topped by limestone cliffs, and with higher mountain silhouettes showing hazily through the clouds in the distance. This morning's drizzling rain had stopped and it was slowly clearing up.
There were very few houses along this road, but at the very top of the ridge, called Puerta de Zamorana on our map, a chapel stood close to the edge of a cliff with a beautiful view of the landscape around. We decided to stop and take a quick look. A steep driveway led up to the chapel - there was a car parked right outside. The chapel was closed, so we just peaked in through the cast iron gates. A simply ornamented room with a pretty, blue Madonna painting behind the altar. Perhaps she had some significance for this chapel or this hilltop - we wouldn't know.
Behind the chapel the cliffs were a jagged sharp edge of whitish grey limestone, with some patches of bright yellow lichen. I stepped up on one of the rocks, and oops - it was quite steep! Some twenty
The day before we visited Cordoba, and were now
passing through picturesque farm lands
metres down to the grove of trees below, I would guess, so I stepped back a little to be on the safe side. Astrid took a picture of me, and then she and Christiane took my place, while I got behind the camera to finish the classic tourist photo session. I told them to smile, and just when I had snapped the girls said: Listen! There was a voice calling. I figured it had to be from the farm just down the valley, but Christiane pointed down to the trees just below the cliff saying it came from there, and Astrid said: "Someone is calling for help. Ayudame! That means help."
We listened to the voice for a few seconds - it was repeating the same words over and over again - and then we were on our way down. I had seen a path where we had parked our car, so this was where we headed. We rushed by the chapel and then the path made a big half circle down towards the base of the cliff. The girls stayed a bit behind me now, not quite sure of what we would find. I came around to a big, grassy slope with some dramatic limestone formations and the steep cliff rising behind, and then the path continued into the grove of trees. The voice was still calling, and I could hear it better for every step now: monotonous and exhausted. In pain.
I entered in between the trees and the rocks, and there, a body on the ground! A woman, around forty, perhaps, lying on her back, and she was badly injured. Her hair was in a mess, with quite a bit of blood above her left ear. There was also blood on some of the small rocks just behind her head - not much, but enough to underline the gravity of the situation. Her eyes moved irregularly from side to side, first looking over to the left, then to the right. I couldn't catch her sight although her eyes were open; her vision seemed blurred.
Now she was saying "Que dolor! Que dolor" - it hurts, it hurts! Her arms were scratched, and black and blue from the fall, with a few bloody cuts and bruises. I didn't like the way her legs were turned where she was lying - they looked broken. By some miracle her face was almost unmarked, just some soil and a few stains of dried
blood. Her trousers were slightly torn and ripped - dirty of course; she wore no blouse or jumper, just a brown bra, which was slightly out of position. I adjusted it quickly back into place - a reflex to preserve her dignity, I guess.
The girls weren't far behind me, and we were all quite shocked by the state this woman was in. She had obviously been here for quite a while - hours perhaps. Maybe for many hours. Her hands were very cold and her cloths were wet from a rain shower or two. Astrid took her jacket off right away and put it over the woman's bare, bruised stomach, and I gave her mine as well. Christiane speculated about her age and who she could be. She was a bit on the heavier side, and yes, near forty, but apart from that it was impossible to tell anything about her. She could be anybody, but this was
irrelevant now, of course. She was badly hurt, but alive, and she needed help as fast as possible.
After some quick speculations and some exchanged words about what we should do, we decided that the girls would stay with the woman, while I had to run up to the road to try and get some help. It was a desolate place, so this could take some time, I feared, but only a minute after I reached the road I could hear a car coming up from the Pruna village side. A young woman was driving and she stopped and rolled down her window when she saw my waving. She didn't understand English, so I had to try my best with my diminutive Spanish: "Una mujer; fallen down; veinte metros; muy critico; ambulanzia!" Somehow she understood that the situation was serious, and after some more multi-lingual questions and explanations she was soon in contact with the local police on her cell phone. She was wonderfully responsible in her reaction to the situation, and she also offered to wait by the road, so that I could run back down to the injured woman and the girls.
Astrid and Christiane had tried to calm and soothe the lady as best they could, while she in turn had continued raving about her pain, and continued to shift her eyes from side to side. Astrid was holding her hand, and they had had to keep the jackets in place, because every other minute she had tried to pull them off. Maybe this is what you do when you're in a state of shock, or when you have been freezing cold for a long while? The girls were deeply affected by the situation, so we decided to switch places. Astrid looked at the bloodstains on her hands and her jumper, and I could see that she was considering some unfortunate possibilities. They went up to the road to help explain when the police or ambulance arrived, and I sat down by the injured woman to wait.
For fifteen minutes I sat and held this unknown woman's hand under the trees and in between the rocks of this Andalucian hill. This conscious, but still seemingly unconscious lady. I sang for her. To soothe her, but maybe just as much
to keep myself calm in this strange, sudden and highly emotional situation. A bit of both I guess. I hummed 'Amazing Grace' and then I sang 'Dona Nobis'. Many times. The songs didn't stop hundreds of thoughts running through my head, and all the time I looked around. I looked at her, and I looked up at the cliff showing through the twigs and branches above us. How badly injured was she really? How badly did she hit her head? And what about her back, her spine? Would she die here while I was sitting here holding her hand?
Right by her head, by some small bushes, was a striped jumper, all bundled up, and four feet toward the cliff lay a brown blouse by a patch of ground where the grass and soil was all flattened. A place where someone could have fallen - have hit the ground very hard. But why were these clothes lying there and not on her? The girls had commented on her lack of dress: she couldn't have taken them off by herself in this state, or could she? Could someone else have been involved in this tragic incident in some way? Had someone…? No, I had to let those speculations rest. She must have fallen. And by herself.
She was talking, or rather mumbling the whole time, but suddenly she stopped, and I looked at her worriedly. There was no change in her distant eyes, though, so I shook her gently to make sure she wasn't fading away, and soon her mantras of pain picked up again. Just like the girls I also had to keep her from pulling the jackets off, and I kept rubbing her hand to keep her at least a bit warmer.
In a way the singing made the fifteen minutes go by quickly, but at the same time these minutes seemed like a timeless eternity. The whole situation, the atmosphere and the overwhelming presence of this woman's life, so close to death, it really had nothing to do with time. But after fifteen minutes a policeman came up the path with the girls and the Spanish woman right behind him.
He examined the injured woman and the situation for a short minute and we exchanged some more information - he didn't understand any English either. The policeman knew right away that he had to call for assistance, and since he didn't have coverage on his cell phone, he had to go back up to the road.
This time there were four of us waiting by the woman. All we could do was to keep her calm and to give her some hope. We discussed some between the four of us, Astrid doubling as the interpreter. The Spanish women asked the injured lady some questions, and through her mumbling she detected that the car parked by the chapel was hers, that she said that she had fallen, and that the pain was in her legs and her hips. Suddenly she stopped complaining about her pains, and instead asked repeatedly for: "Mama, mama", while her eyes seemed to turn even more distant than before. We all sensed danger and were on our toes to react, but fortunately she was soon back to her echoing: "Que dolor. Que dolor."
Then a doctor came, together with two more policemen, and soon an ambulance arrived as well, making it all the way down the hill to the grassy patch by the edge of the grove. We moved up to the ambulance and waited there while the doctor examined the woman. This took a while, and getting her up on the stretcher must certainly have been tricky in this uncomfortable place in between the trees and rocks, and considering her head wound and the possibility of spinal injury and internal complications. They were six men by the stretcher when they came out of the woods, and the transfer into the ambulance was carried out with the utmost care.
There was a warm blanket around the woman now, but they hadn't wanted to remove our jackets, so they were now in the ambulance as well. One of the policemen told us to follow them down to Pruna and get them back there. The small convoy of cars started up, and slowly we descended to the little village.
They stopped the ambulance in what seemed like an ordinary back street in between the classical whitewashed village houses, but as we came around the corner we could see that one of the houses was a kind of emergency ward. They had taken her inside and at the same time that the ambulance drove off, a helicopter passing over our heads caught everyone's attention, and we could hear it land in the village outskirts.
A man and a woman in their sixty's came up and talked to one of the policemen, while we could hear the injured lady's voice from inside the ward. She was calling for water now: "Aqua, aqua!" The old man had a likeness to the woman; so yes, these were her parents. The father was very quiet, while the mother talked to the policeman and then to a woman doctor that came out from inside. The mother was calm and composed, and this made us believe that her life might not be in danger anymore. Some people had gathered in both ends of the narrow street, all respectfully keeping a reasonable distance. The ambulance then returned, and another stretcher was carried inside - probably one from the helicopter.
After a while we got our jackets back, and a policeman said that we were allowed to leave. The mother came up to us and thanked us and shook our hands, and then we went back to our car. On the way out of the village we drove right by the helicopter where it was resting on its landing pad. I stopped to take a picture of it.
While we drove off from Pruna, and off from this strange, extraordinary experience, we all had this unfortunate woman's fate on our minds. Would she survive? How had this really happened? And will we ever get to know? It was also such a long string of coincidents that had lead to our passing there and
Pruna - Photo from unknown web page
stopping there, and what if we hadn't? And what if Astrid hadn't understood her calls? "We could hear the pain in her voice", Christiane insisted, "We would surely have gone down to check anyways."
Astrid told me that she had washed the blood off her hands with make-up remover when they had gone back up to the car, since for once we didn't have any water. There was so much to talk about: so many strong impressions, emotions, details and questions.
We drove up and into the little town of Olvera to get some lunch. Olvera was yet another beautiful, white town, clinging to a hill, and crowned by a pretty church and a medieval castle on the very top, overlooking a vast area of hills and olive orchards. An enchanting place, but we weren't tourists in our minds anymore. Our interest for the beautiful and the picturesque had waned after our rescue experience under the cliff. What could be relevant in comparison to a human life? We had been brought back down to basics, and this is the type of experience that one will never forget. And that's good.
How this will affect me in a wider perspective I don't know, and I also wonder how it will affect the girls. We all did the right thing, though, when we came upon this unexpected situation, and even if it seems self-evident what one should do, it leaves you with a good feeling. What I know is, that I will remember this day for the rest of my life: the emotions, the calm and quiet but still so dramatic atmosphere, and all the questions circling in the air during the whole event. Most of all I will remember the fifteen minutes when I sat all alone with the injured woman, holding her hand in mine, watching her restless eyes, hearing her pain, and wondering if she would live or die.
El Castillo in the
outskirts of Pruna
This picture was taken just before we heard the cries for help