Mapping Malta: Mending Misconceptions

Where? What? Where?
Did I walk aboard the wrong plane?
Did they check my boarding card correctly?
Was I really supposed to be at Gate 21A?

Pilots have made errors before. Surely, this was just another example.
A few hours before, I’d left Riga’s airport bound from Europe’s Northeast to its Southwest. Maybe we’d overshot the lush island of Malta and landed instead in the nearby deserts of Tunisia.

I checked my phone.
Current Location.
The circle slowly darkened as I waited for it to find my exact coordinates on the map. 1… 2… 3… Triq Hal Qormi.

Really? Am I really in Malta? a voice inside my head shouted so loud I was sure the driver could hear it.
Where is the green? Where are the olive trees? The whitewashed facades? Blue roofs? Where is my Kostas? My Chrisos?
Where are restaurants selling salads of feta and tomatoes?


Click here to flip through photos of Malta Up-Close:

Panic immediately set in.
You can stay on the bus. I told myself. Take it back to the airport and leave on the next flight out.

Beige buildings surrounded me. Each with paint peeling off in broad strips, replaced by years of soot and dirt. The occasional tree or desert bush had settled into an arid terrain but it wasn’t enough.
This wasn’t fair. It’s not what I’d signed up for. I had come for the greenery, salads and gyros, the Mediterranean life.
Instead, I felt as though I’d been transported back to the Middle East.
I was on edge when I hopped off the bus. “Refugees Welcome” said a few posters plastered onto the side of a skate ramp. Through an underground tunnel covered with graffiti and past a vendor selling fresh fruits from local farms, I found my hostel. Pleasantly surprised with its outdoor pool, loft-style bunks and cleanliness, I felt the slightest weight lift off my shoulders. Silencing that voice inside my head, I decided to go for a walk through the neighborhood and surrounding areas.

I forced my mind open. I took in the surroundings. There were in fact olive trees and a few shrubs offering green leaves. Locals smiled despite their questioning of my presence. Churches could be found within each neighborhood, often with doors wide open, and relics were common on door frames of family homes.


Click here to flip through photos of Malta Up-Close:

I found myself at the top of a hill with views of the city, as well as into the capital Valletta and its crowded harbor. From there I had two options: return the way I came or cut through a barren area with gravel roads and a neighboring horse pasture. I chose the latter, feeling confident it would be a short and sweet movement toward the boat-filled bay.

Just as I stepped onto the beaten path, my confidence ran away and I had no option but to follow.

I ran and ran.
Kicking up dust, I ran until I came to a paved road.
An elderly woman sat on a plastic beach chair five meters ahead.
She glanced in my direction.
When our eyes met, I nearly leapt into her arms.
Tell me it’s okay! I wanted to say. Tell me I’m in a safe place. Tell me I’m in the right place!
Her eyes spoke back.
You’re okay. You’re safe. This is Malta. You don’t need to run. Open your mind and enjoy this place for all it has been and all it has to offer you.


Click here to flip through photos of Malta Up-Close:

I was ashamed. I hadn’t done much research and had come to Malta unprepared. Had I known what to expect, my mind and heart would’ve adapted more easily. Instead, I spent the first couple days fighting the urge to run again and forcing myself to believe the truth of the woman’s eyes.
Once I finally absorbed its beauty and accepted its unexpected desert-like characteristics and its lack of feta salads, I found it full of history and beauty.
In many ways, the damage I’d initiated with that unprepared mind stood still.
During my final days in the tiny island state, I was able to start over and found surprises around every corner.

The island is easily traversable by public transportation, though finding the correct bus stop can be tricky with those underground tunnels leading to places unknown until, voila! you’ve suddenly arrived. Along the northern coast is the ancient city and capital Valletta. Outdoor concerts are frequent in the outdoor amphitheater, and I happened to have been there during a band’s rehearsal, bringing the town alive and inviting outsiders to a complimentary sneak peak at their 45 euro per ticket concert the following eve.

The main attraction in Valletta other than the bustling harbour and amphitheater is Theatre Manoel. Before visiting, I had been in contact with the theater’s main man and was gifted a tour through historical displays of costumes and playbills, past red satin seats to center stage, and up marbles stairs to box suites offering the most elegant of views. Summer months are quiet on stage, so I was not able to take in a show but can easily attest to the theater’s grace. Now I can only dream of dressing in a backpacker’s best and attending one of the shows on a cool autumn night.
After a visit to Valletta, my distorted view became more clear. I saw the cities and the country for what it was. I read the woman’s eyes and believed them.
While buying fruits from a street vendor I was told Mdina, the vendor’s hometown, was a must-see. A few hours later, another local whom I’d stopped to ask directions from reenforced this idea. Seeing it as a sign, my final day in Malta was spent traveling to and from Mdina.  Formerly the country’s capital, this walled city is located as close to center as possible, attracting mainly tourists. Each quiet street is met by another, more busy boulevard. Churches are tucked into rows of stone buildings, and souvenir shops are endless.


Click here to flip through photos of Malta:


A few hours was more than enough to spend in and around Mdina, and soon after saying hello I said goodbye to the city. Thankful for having had a glimpse at Malta’s past, I returned to the Yacht Marina just as the sun was casting a golden glow on every sail and its boat.
There, I was able to tell my story aloud. A surprising end to a holiday which I’d planned to leave unplanned, from which I’d tried to run and had instead been kept in place, from which I’d been stupefied and in turn learned an abundance.
Results are coming soon in the form of a video promoting tourism in Malta. With many thanks to the locals, a stranger’s undeniably kind eyes, and a mind which continued to open after several days of darkness, the trip took a sweet turn and ended so smoothly that my words are filled with passion for a country which brought a rocky start and left me on edge for days.


Click here to flip through photos of Malta’s Manoel Theater:


While you’re anxiously awaiting the video’s grand release, head my advice:
There’s a reason to research. Beyond finding the best places to stay, eat and see. There’s a reason to research a place. To realize its past and present. Its culture. Its goods and bads, happies and sads. There’s also a reason not to run from shock, but rather to absorb it and grow with it.
Take this trip as a lesson – and soon you will see what a beautiful place this country is. So beautiful that you will choose not to run from it, but rather to run toward it.



5 thoughts on “Mapping Malta: Mending Misconceptions

  1. Great travelogue of Malta! Can’t wait to see more of Myanmar. BTW, many photo captions mention Vilnius (Latvia) but you probably meant to write Valleta (Malta). Did you have the Baltics still on your mind? Love, Dad


    1. Thanks Dad -And you are right! Oh no! Right before I published, I realized I kept writing Vilnius in the post… and must have transferred that to photos also. You’re right too..I was stuck in the Baltics still 😉 I’ll change them soon – thank you! Soon the blog will move over to Myanmar also 🙂


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