malta.

date. 2021

cities. valletta, gozo, mdina

Image by Mike Nahlii

October 22

Arrived on a late flight from Rome and hopped into a cab.

I’m headed to Lisa’s residence where I’ll be staying for this quick two day trip.

The cab driver, Abdifatah, is from Somalia and likes to talk. He said that Somalia is a mess with a barely functioning government, no jobs, and violence, but that Malta is even worse. At least in Somalia he had family and friends, but here he’s an eternal stranger.

Still, he chose Malta. He even divorced his wife when she refused to leave Somalia with him.

We briefly talked about the pirates. He said that Mogadishu (where he’s from) is essentially a fishing city. Until now, there wasn’t even a real government. Everything was handled on an individual (or perhaps tribal) level.

He said that when massive shipping boats started to use Mogadishu as a hub, they’d often sail near the small fishing boats, capsizing them and sometimes killing the fishermen. At some point, the fishermen banded together, got some weapons, and took matters into their own hands. When they realized that this new-found piracy could be rather lucrative, a new industry was born.

He said that things are better now. He is very upset at those pirates and gangsters for bringing fear and violence to Somalia. He hopes for a better future, but isn’t optimistic.

He never plans to return home. Instead, he wants to visit the US in a few years, when he has some money saved.

I like Abdifatah. But, okay, this is supposed to be about Malta.

I finally reached Lisa’s place and had a nice time strolling around her neighborhood, drinking with her friends at a nearby cafe/bar, and just generally reconnecting.

October 23

Woke up around 8 and headed into Valletta for breakfast.

 

Valletta is basically a gigantic peninsula-shaped stone that juts out into the bay. The main street runs across the top, with narrow alleys cutting off on either side, angling steeply down into the blue sea. It almost has the feel of walking the length of a massive ship, albeit one lined with handsome British tea houses, Italian cafes, and roman ruins.

 

Actually, throughout my time in Malta, I had the impression that I never left the sea, but merely interacted with it in different ways. Malta isn’t separate from the sea, it blends into it. It brings the sea onto land.

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After breakfast we walked down to the pier to catch a gondola across the bay to Senglea, but our plans were foiled by a massive boat race that took over the waters surrounding Valletta. So instead, we climbed along the rocky coast and watched the show.

 

It was fun to be so close to the sparkling sea, while passing through the network of archways, stairs, and cliffs that animate the Vallettan coastline.

 

I knew that they filmed GoT in Malta, but I didn’t realize that Malta is GoT.

 

After lunch, we headed to St Peter’s Pool, a favorite spot for cliff diving and sun-bathing.

 

The idea is to jump 20 feet into roiling angry waves, as they vengefully smash themselves against the rocky cliffs.

 

Talk about getting stuck between a rock and a hard place.

 

I wasn’t feeling that brave, but Lisa was watching, so I had to look cool and jumped.

 

There was no ladder to help you get out, so I had to time the waves, position myself near the rocks, and at just the right moment grasp anything I could, as the stones bit into my skin and the waves simultaneously tried to suck me back out to sea and impale me against the jagged rocks.

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Sounds fun, right?

 

By the time the sun set, I was bruised, bleeding, and exhausted. But more importantly, I felt happy.

 

Rather than going straight home, we walked about a mile to a nearby fishing village, Marsaxlokk. Over a longgg dinner, Lisa and I had a chance to talk about life. We spoke about the challenges of living life without a map, and trusting our inner compass. Nevermind that a compass without a map is kinda worthless…

 

We also talked about how attracted humans are to water. I once read that 90% of humans live near a body of water. But this isn’t just out of convenience. We play in the water, listen to the water, gaze out at the water. Lakes, rivers, oceans, baths, pools, fountains. We love the way water looks, feels, sounds, smells.

 

Hotels charge extra for an ocean view.

 

I told Lisa that when I’m in the water I like to imagine myself as a fish. When I’m in the water, I’m suddenly aquatic.

 

Jesus walked on water, baptizes with water, and turns water into wine and wine into blood.

 

According to jewish mysticism, when you’re completely submerged in a body of water, it’s as if you’ve reentered the womb. When you resurface, you’re born again. Fresh. Clean. Purified.

 

After dinner, we still had a bit of energy left, so we went back to Valletta. In the dark, everything feels different. A calm falls over the city, as the waves gently lull everything to sleep.

 

We sat at a bar called Cafe Society, where they place cushions on the stone city stairs, converting the city itself into a bar. Once it started to get cold, we made a quick stop at the Upper Baracca garden, and then headed home.

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October 24

Neither of us had been to Gozo (Malta’s smaller sister island), so we decided to spend my 2nd (and final) day in Malta exploring it.

 

The ferry over took only 20 minutes, but the heavy winds and panoramic views of Comino (Malta’s third island) made it feel like a real excursion.

 

As we approached Gozo, my eyes stayed glued to its dramatic coastline, trying to read it like some kind of geological braille. Its countless caves, lagoons, and coves tell the stories of epic pirate adventures.

 

When we arrived at Gozo’s marina, we grabbed a bus up to Victoria (the capital city) and then walked up the hill to visit its crown jewel, the Cittadella, a stone fortress dating back to 1500 BC. Complete with a moat, bridge, and castle gates. This thing was legit.

 

The Citadel is perched on top of a hill overlooking Victoria, which is itself on a hill overlooking the island. So, as we strolled along the ramparts, we are offered breathtaking views of the surrounding towns, rolling hills, and a million rooftops, terraces, and alleys.

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After lunch, we caught a bus to the coastal town of Ramla. If we’re being completely honest, we ignored the town itself and made a bee-line to the beach.

 

Finally some soft sand! Some waves that aren’t threatening to decapitate me! In leu of a lifeguard, there’s a statue of some kind of maternal saint that stands in the center of the beach. She watches over us as we swim.

 

This particular stretch of beach isn’t luxurious. It radiates a kind of restful elegance, like you might see in the face of a lover who’s just awoken from a long, restful sleep. Or a battle-hardened warrior who’s finally returned home and leaves his weapons at the door.

 

Malta isn’t sexy. It’s romantic.

 

We missed our bus back to the port, so we ended up sitting on a stone bench for an hour. Across from us sat an old Maltese man. He sipped a tea, and shouted at the occasional bypassed.

 

We caught the sunset on our ferry home. Unsurprisingly, it was insanely pretty.

When the ferry docked back in Malta, we grabbed a cab to Mdina, another walled city seemingly carved out of a single sand-colored stone.

 

By now, it was pitch black and the wind was picking up, so we hurried to a restaurant for dinner. It was my last night in Malta (and with Lisa), so we took our time, lingering over our food and soaking in the twinkling lights blanketing the hills below and the sky above.

 

I had to be up around 4 to catch my sadistically early flight to Barcelona, so once we got back home, we went straight to bed and talked about nothing and everything until the darkness submerged us with a warm gentle force not unlike the depths of Malta’s turquoise waters all around us.

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Circumambulate the city on a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.

 

Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they see here?

 

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.

 

Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.

 

Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning.

 

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.