Across Continents

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Reflections on Malta

April 9th, 2010

I felt quite tearful. I’d wandered into Valletta for the very last time, found one of the few street cafes still open. It was getting dark. A final coffee. Suddenly it was time to leave, to swap warm and friendly Malta for the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, onwards to eastern Turkey and the Georgian border. Ready to move on, to push into the ’Stans, I told myself. New experiences beckoned, but that didn’t make the departure any easier.

In five short weeks I found myself becoming very settled on the island. There are as many cultural similarities with the UK as there are differences, giving Malta a very distinct national identity, and at the same time, a real sense of Englishness. A unique language – a blend of Arabic, Italian, even some English phrases – and staunchly Roman Catholic, the older generations at least. But then there’s an English language national newspaper – ’The Times’ – that both ressembles, even feels like, its UK namesake.

You could as easily juxtapose Heritage Malta with English Heritage. So many other subtle similarities, much more indicative of shared cultural values than simply driving on the left, or the usual High Street names in Valletta. And an enviable properness. Receipts for absolutely everything. You could be sure that if you did actually succeed in finding a drugs dealer, which I doubt, he’d insist on issuing you with one. Just wouldn’t be right to do otherwise. And he’d be very polite about it.

[The author very much appreciates being made so welcome at the family run Ramplas Hostel –www.maltahostelaccomodation.com – a big thank you to Yvonne, Simone, Frieda, Elaine, Keith, and fellow English guests Adrian, Colin and Conor]

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With a little help from my friends

April 8th, 2010

I’d met up for lunch in Malta with friends Mark and Jenny, who, quite by coincidence, were spending Easter on the island. I was intrigued to know what Jenny made of my venture. Did she think me quite mad? Probably too early to say, hadn’t done that part of the course yet. She too had made a bold change of direction, electing for medical school. Tough choice. Puts things into perspective when you realise I’d be finished first. With a year or so to spare.

Catching up with Mark and Jenny, time spent with my parents, lots of e-mails with news from home, radio interviews, all this had made me realise just how important the support of family and friends are to this venture. My Mum had even joked she’d qualify for an NVQ in Logistics at the end of all this. A solo expedition only in the sense that there’s one saddle.

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Sailing away

March 30th, 2010

Seemed rather apt. I’d last parted company with my Mum when I’d sailed out of Plymouth on the overnight ferry to Roscoff six months previously. This time it was the ferry from Valletta, Malta’s Capital, to the town of Sliema, five minutes or so across the harbour. And my turn to stand on the quay and wave her off. We thought this a more fitting departure than a hotel lobby or airport check-in.

Jumping on and off the local buses, in just a few days we’d got a good sense of the island, or at least that’s how it seemed to us. We’d largely avoided the tourists, save for an English couple who’d pushed in front of us to board a bus to Valletta. Lost in their own little world, inconsiderate rather than deliberately rude. And very gullible. We’d jokingly mentioned to each other that the stop for Valletta is the one after everyone gets off. Which is pretty self-evidently not true. Left them still sat on the bus as we wandered into the city. Pays not to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.

Of course, we’d had to reassure my Dad that the weather on the island wasn’t up to much – mostly described locally as partly cloudy and windy – tough, almost blew the Flake right out of my 99…

[For those unfamiliar with Malta, take a look at the latest additions to the Gallery…]

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Mum’s the word

March 26th, 2010

Barely eleven in the morning and I was slurring my words. Bottle of rum on the desk. But my difficulties speaking were the result of a couple of hours in the dentist’s chair, the spirits a gift for Charles. I’d popped back to his basement office to thank him for his considerable help with documentation issues. Promised him we’d be in touch again.

It’d been a long stint in the chair but I was very pleased. Dr Tim and Anna, his assistant, had given my teeth a through overhaul, ready now for the ’Stans and China. Mostly preventative stuff. I’d been looking forward to the early morning visit since my check-up a few weeks earlier. Anna was the first Serbian I’d encountered since leaving Serbia, and I’d enjoyed chatting at length about her home country, attempting to explain it’s strange hold over me, my desire to return.

Mum sign

Leaving Charles’ office, a much more important task now beckoned. Off to the airport. My mother was arriving shortly, spending a few days on the island. We’d agreed to meet that evening at her hotel, but in the end I’d decided that was a bit weak. Very least I could do was to greet her as she emerged from Arrivals. Had even made a sign especially. Simply said ’Mum’.

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Waiting in line…

March 23rd, 2010

You could easily have mistaken the place for a doctor’s surgery. The furniture, the decor, the same uncomfortable silence, an array of pamphlets dotted about, the odd children’s toy to keep the young amused, even a small collection of videos and DVDs. I’d come to collect one of my visas for the road ahead, quite an important one at that, given it represents a sizeable geographic chunk of my route across Asia. Waiting my turn, I couldn’t help but listen in to one unfortunate make his pleading to the consular official at the reception. She seemed unmoved, but, to be fair, I wasn’t buying his rather implausible story either. I was going to be here a while.

Skipping over the pamphlets proclaiming the supposed truth about a "suicide cult" and the odd exiled religious leader, I went for what I thought would be less contentious ground. Politics. Thought I had a pretty decent grasp how that worked in this particular nation. But no. I was mistaken. A multi-party system. And there was me thinking it was a one party state. Actually, a simple but understandable oversight. Delve a bit deeper and you find one party has a hundred times more members than all the others put together – I had plenty of time to tot up the numbers – which explains how the rest normally get overlooked. Or ignored. And then it was my turn to step forward to the counter. Fingers crossed.

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The Great Game

March 23rd, 2010

I’d met Charles in his basement office, hidden behind a small door beneath an apartment block in the suburbs of Malta’s Capital, Valletta. He’d listened intently as I’d explained my project, elaborating on the few brief details I’d given on the phone a few hours earlier. My predicament, I added, was that I needed some help obtaining all the requisite documentation to secure the various visas for Asia. Could he help, I asked? Yes, he said, smiling.

Much of Asia can be fraught with difficulty when it comes to obtaining visas, especially so as an independent traveller crossing from country to country. Success depends as much on the whim of Consular staff, the odd extra fee paid in crisp notes, and knowing the correct answer to the questions. It’s a bit of a game. Get it wrong and you could have months of detouring. There are rules of course. Never, ever lie. Ever. Countries have borders, I have boundaries. But, remember, plans do change, so what’s true today may not necessarily be so the next. Disingenuous? Maybe. Dishonest? No.

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Eyes and ears

March 13th, 2010

For someone used to stumbling along with the merest rudiments of the local language, reliant as much on the patience of others as his own enthusiasm over ability, Malta is quite intriguing. It’s an eyes and ears thing. Shop fronts, signs, pretty much most things in English, yet, rightly enough, the spoken first language is firmly Maltese. A strong Arabic influence, perhaps some Italian, elements of Turkic, and quite a few English words and expressions. I’d found this disconnect between sight and sound a little unnerving at first, more striking than during my childhood in a strong Welsh speaking community. There, at least, you saw, as well as heard, a lot of Welsh.

There’s a strong British influence, hardly surprising for a country given independence less than forty years ago. This is reflected not just in the grand imperial architecture, but in everyday life. Traffic wardens, they even drive on the left, social norms. First names – George, Charles, Simone – are English, but surnames most certainly not. Being able to use English has helped hugely with getting various tasks ticked off, but, just as importantly, has been the way things are done here. Wonderfully intuitive.

I’ve always said there are countries where I’d be happy to live for a few years, but I’ve never found one where I’d even contemplate leaving the UK for good. It’s a bit premature to say Malta may be the one – I’m rather fond of my old English cottage in a charming, friendly Somerset village – but as a home-from-home, a winter escape, perhaps somewhere for a writing project, perfect.

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No Champagne?

March 13th, 2010

"What, no champagne? I can only assume you’re suffering from cycle lassitude" exclaimed Ghee, son of author W E Bowman. I’d been lent a copy of ’The Ascent of Rum Doodle’, his father’s witty, fictional account of the ascent of a 40,000 and 1/2 foot high Himalyan peak by a well-intentioned, if bumbling, English expedition. First published in 1956, some have suggested it’s a parody of the conquering of Everest three years earlier, but, as far as I’m aware, this has never been confirmed. Pure coincidence, no doubt.

The story itself is told from the leader’s perspective, recounted with an innocence, a naivety, that comes only of seeing good in everyone and everything, quite oblivious to what’s really going on around him. Reassuring I thought. What was certain is I’d no Champagne, frequently prescribed to members of the expedition for its medicinal properties. But, in Malta, I’d at least managed to indulge in a decent cup of English tea, which was fortifying enough. Life’s little luxuries can sometimes make the unbearable tolerable.

I’d felt a certain resonance with some of the expedition’s members. Jungle, the navigator, who, despite forever getting lost, never gives up. We probably shared similar, and quite useless, mapping. Constant, the diplomat and linguist, whose terrible abilities at either often place the whole adventure in jeopardy, largely through confusion. Prone, the expedition doctor, who seemed to succombe to all manner of illness, although, cheerfully I thought, more than I had. Or at least he’d not had endure shards of dental pain.

I’d not the luxury of a cook to prepare my meals, nor, it seemed, had the expedition. Pong, the locally employed chap given this task, had an uncanny ability to take the finest ingredients and reduce them to a nauseating brew. This was something I’d had to learn to do myself.

But the real similarities lay in the seemingly unsurmountable linguistic difficulties encountered in some of the more remote regions of the World. They too were battling with the ’Stans, admittedly just one rather than my four, having to cross the fictional Yogistan to reach Rum Doodle. The local lingo required mastery of gurgling noises from the pit of one’s stomach to convey the exact meaning of words. The scope for mispronunciation was understandably immense. I was glad I just had the tonal challenges of Chinese to come. Assuming they give me a visa.

[With thanks to Ghee Bowman, and Peter and Carol for loan of the book. For more information about W E Bowman, including details of real ’Rum Doodles’, visit www.rumdoodle.org.uk. For a definitive account of the first ascent of Mount Everest, read ’Coronation Everest’ by Jan Morris’, a Times journalist embedded with the expedition. And if you are so bold as to think you can list all the ’Stans, drop me a line, we’ll compare notes. First correct answer gets a mention in the blog! Closing date for entries Summer 2013.]

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