Best Laid Pans of Maltese Men

Day: 261

Towns / Cities Visited: 175

Countries Visited: 30

Steps Taken Today: 17,536

Steps Taken Around the World: 4,239,158

Unbeknownst to us at the time of planning, but entirely advantageous to us at its fruition, the little apartment my friend’s family string pulling had begotten us just so happened to be literally across the road from what we had planned for our day long before said arrangements were made. As such, we took the opportunity to revel in a lie in, rising just after ten and rustling together some breakfast from the supplies so graciously provided to us. Fed and watered, we stepped out far more rested than usual and began our assigned adventure.

First stop lay just outside our front door, Xwejni Rock. This bright white knob of limestone sits proudly on a crest of coastal cliff to the east of Xwejni bay. It’s almost impossible to miss, not only because it juts up far above its surrounding like a gopher popping its head out of its burrow, but because its pale colour contrasts starkly with the warm hues of the sandstone surrounding it. It seems almost out of place, like a pimple on Mother Nature’s otherwise pristine Maltese skin, but perhaps that is why it is so alluring to visit. A short walk saw us reaching its foot, and we took advantage of the high vantage point to admire the miniscule bay it flanks.

Across the water sat our next destination, glinting in the late morning sun, the salt pans. A quick skip around the rim of the bay and we were there. Now, for those of you who don’t know, salt pans are niches cut out of oceanside rock shelves, appearing almost like a series of personal paddling pools, where sea water is evaporated by the sun and the remaining salt harvested. The colour in each pool sitting as either a clear window or a slight algae-tinged azure depending on its salinity level. This may seem fairly archaic, but that is probably because the tradition of salt farming stretches as far back as the 5th century BC. I mean if the system ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it. Outside of manmade examples, natural salt pans also exist, and it is fairly likely this is what spawned our replication of it. Salt panning has been on the cards in Malta since Roman times, and a thriving industry since the time of the Order of Saint John, transitioning into a large scale operation in the 19th century, with some families passing the skill down through the generation since the 1800’s. Unfortunately, the decline of salt preserved foods due to the invention of refrigeration, has meant the industry has also declined, but the salt pans before us are still in seasonal use, made evident by the sale of bags of local salt on the side of the road.

There is something satisfying about the man hewn pans; their neat tessellation, despite the huge variance in size between the rectangles, calming my inner perfectionist. As we moved along the road though, out beyond the last house and down from our clifftop perch to the rock shelf below, the salt pans changed from uniform manmade patterns to more non-geometric natural pans with a smattering of purposefully carved additions and irrigation channels. Their gentle curves eroded by mother nature’s hand nestling together perfectly, despite their irregular shapes. A short wander further and we were back to the sharp right angles of human intervention, along with a series of hobbit like doors dug into the cliff, behind which I imagine the local salt farmers house their tools.

The rock which makes up the pans and cliffs here is so smoothed by the coastal winds that they appear almost akin to sand dunes, and when you lose sight of the road and the houses above, it does all feel somewhat removed from reality. If it wasn’t all fantastical enough, reaching the short stone stacks radiating out in a series of circles, like the ripples of a pebble thrown into still waters, sure screamed ‘magic is made here’. The whole thing begs so many questions, all of which go unanswered. Who made it? Was it aliens, are they part of some shamanic ritual, did someone just get really fucking bored? The question will plague me every time I look back on it.

Still, we couldn’t ponder the mysteries of the cropless crop circles forever, our next adventure was just up ahead. If you continue on, past the salt pans and onto the coarse matting of hardy coastal grasses and succulents, you soon find yourself at one of Gozo’s most striking geological features, Wied il-Għasri or the Għasri Valley. Now, don’t think nice sweeping green valley between mountains, think plunging cliffs and a chasm in between down to the ocean; a veritable crack in the island. Picking our way carefully along the uneven terrain we neared the edge, and by neared I mean we stayed a fair distance back from the edge but still snagged a view of the waves crashing into the base of the cliffs. The sound of violent waters roared out of the chasm, mother nature’s battle cry in a fight between two of her most favoured elements, but as we meandered amongst the wildflowers inland, following the curving cliffs, the waters lost their rage. By the time we descended the stairs at the far end of the valley to the narrow pebble beach, the waves lap almost gingerly when compared to those at the mouth of the valley.

We lingered for a long while amongst the rounded, multi-coloured stones which crunched underfoot, following them back up the valley until they gave way to larger boulders, a clear line of where the tide ceases to break down the rock with its constant ebb and flow. There was a peace down in the valley, a quiet provided by the stoic cliffs towering on either side, which breathed life into my soul. It was one of those slices of paradise you feel a little short-changed by when you hear other tourists chattering away as they trek down to disturb the peace.

Bidding the valley adieu, we made the journey back whence we’d come, keeping out of the way of a group of Redbull BMX riders filming some stunts by the salt pans where they had seemingly looked at the sandstone slopes and thought, ‘Mother Nature has provided us with a quarter pipe, we must conquer it’.

Reaching our apartment once more, we fixed lunch out of the previous day’s leftovers, before hopping in the car and trundling off towards Gozo’s capital, Victoria. Parking in almost the exact same place as the previous day, we alighted our vehicle and began our leisurely wander of the streets, pausing briefly here and there to admire the buildings or pick up a souvenir or two from the small stalls spilling out onto the narrow side street which held them. Dropping into the shops to purchase a gift for my friend’s mum in order to repay even a fraction of her kindness, we were also pleased to see that we had strayed back into realm of places which actually sell cider. Shopping out of the way, our visit drew to a close; after all, the day was growing old, and we still had one more place do visit before we ran out of light.

Dropping our purchases off at the apartment, we made the journey up to the hilltop hometown of my friend, the town of Żebbuġ. Now, I’ll be honest, in the two and a half years I worked with him, I only managed to get three Maltese words or phrases to stick in my head. I know that saying ‘Hi’ seems to sound remarkably like an English speaking person stubbing their toe; I know how to say what basically equates to ‘I’m going to hit you over the head with a shovel’, although it’s probably best not to know how my knowledge of that came about; and I know that ‘Żebbuġ’ translates to ‘Olives’. With that being said, it wasn’t long before we were parked and wandering the streets. I’d heard tell of this place so often that it almost seemed like a fantasy world, something akin to the village in Beauty and the Beast, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, even if you didn’t want them too, like most tiny towns. I guess that would make my friend Belle in this scenario, although his intense desire to escape and travel to far off places kind of makes that a fairly apt comparison. Still, as I walked around I tried to remember the stories he’d tell and play them out on the streets here amongst the sandstone buildings, prickly pears, and unbeatable view over the island.

We were not here without reason though, I had a promise to keep. Like many Maltese people, my friend is devoutly Catholic, and with me being an atheist it certainly has made for some interesting discussions over the years. Despite our differing views we always conversed with respect and I would ask a million questions, or remind him to say hi to Jesus for me on my way out after we finished Saturday night’s shift. In fact ‘Who’s the saint of the day?’ almost became a staple for a good year or so, although I’m terrible at remembering them. Usually I only managed it if I made weird associations and named them as such, hence Saint George of the Shoelace, Saint Joseph the Slightly Less Racist, and Saint Agatha the Titless was born. I know, I know, sacrilege, but to be fair, they’re still the only ones I really know of, so that’s something. Language gaps also accounted for some pretty spectacular mistranslations, like when my friend couldn’t think of the words in English, so we had to play a game of charades which ended up with the fun biblical story we all know and love of when Mary levitated; although after much confusion I think we did eventually get to the fact he was talking about the Ascension of the Virgin Mary.

I digress though, he used to often speak fondly of the church he went to every Sunday growing up, it was central to his youth, and so I had promised I would visit it. As the sun sank lower, we rounded the corner and there it was in all its early 18th century glory, the setting sun lighting the clouds behind it, the Parish Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. A big name for a rather compact house of God, one of its twin clock and bell towers wrapped in scaffolding as restoration works go ahead, yet despite its meagre exterior, visiting this church meant more than any other we had previously, because it mattered to someone who mattered to me.

Stepping into the nave, the priest calmly going about his business lighting the candles, an older lady in quiet contemplation among the pews, we too took a seat. My eyes wandered over the swathes of marbles cladding the walls and floor, the refracted rainbow light from the crystal chandeliers dancing off of them as if vying to highlight all the good I had heard of this place. As I sat listening to the silence, I tried to imagine the constant singing of my friend every night at work as we packed down, mirrored in this place he used to man the choir in. The sporadically dulcet tones he would occasionally hit in the barrage of broken tracks he’d belt out must live in these stones. Hymns crooned with gusto at every Sunday service must surely have carved invisible ripples in the joins between the marble.

The bell tolling five shook me from my thoughts, and we took our leave, snapping a photo and sending it to my friend as proof of a promise kept. Finding our day at an end, not one of us could muster the desire to cook our own meal that evening, and thus, after a short rest at home, we stepped into the chill evening air and made the four-minute walk to a nearby restaurant. The dining room was warm, as were the waiters, and it wasn’t long before we were digging into our meal, my partner and I sharing a prosciutto laced pumpkin soup and three crisp bruschetta topped with sausage, tomato, and capsicum, followed by a meltingly good pork cheek, and a pan seared duck with fig and orange.

Another stunning day had been passed in Gozo, and as I sat on the couch before bed, my phone buzzed, a reply from my friend filling me with a complex mix of pride and sadness; two simple words, ‘You went!’. As I read it, I couldn’t help but despair at the fact that a friend keeping their word was a surprise to him, something foreign and extraordinary. Yet, as I considered it closer, I realised that it is for so many of us. I have always strived to be someone who’s word was as good as done, for if you cannot trust someone their word, then there can be no true trust in the relationships we have. In spite of this though, I have known far too many who’s word has as much integrity as a wet paper bag. When did the fortitude of a person’s word stop being their honour? When did society stop seeing reliability as a pillar and more as an optional extra? Has the worth of our words kept their weight in salt and lost their value over time just the same? Have we always been this way, but the constant connectivity of modern life has made it easier to fact check and spot people’s falsities? Am I in a minority, or are the true minority just making more noise? Women of your words, can you hear me?

On my dream trip to travel the world, taste its foods, see its wonders, and meet all the strange and beautiful people who reside here.

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