Inhuman Swill : May 2008

Red, red sea

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No time for a long post, but Laura and I are having an utterly relaxing day in Dahab, which is on the Sinai Peninsula, on the shore of the Red Sea. Our hotel is amazingly beautiful, and the water of the Red Sea is the most amazing blue I have ever seen in my life. ([info]asphalteden, the diving here is supposed to be amazing, although according to the book in our hotel room, almost everything in the water is poisonous.)

You can see mountains directly across the water, ten to twelve miles away. That, I am told, is Saudi Arabia. Tomorrow we drive north, then cross the water in a catamaran, landing in Aqaba, Jordan.

A full account of yesterday in Luxor will come, as will an account of our adventures crossing the Sinai today. In the meantime, before Laura drags me out of this internet cafe, I will try to upload a couple of our videos to YouTube, especially the one of the baby camel wandering through our petrol station in the desert.

Relaxed in Luxor

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Not to say that we're relaxing. We've been to a hell of a lot of different sites today. But Luxor has been a most pleasant surprise, and we've had a terrific time here.

First, my apologies for that flurry of posts. I've been typing them up on the laptop and saving them for when I found an internet connection. The wi-fi seems to be on the blink not just in our hotel but in the hotel next door too. But that hotel has an internet cafe, so I'm at one of the workstations frantically trying to get a lot of work done online in under an hour (66 Egyptian pounds).

We hope everyone at Wiscon had a great weekend, we wish everyone in the U.S. a happy Memorial Day, and I hope I'll be back in a few days to post some more. Next stop, Petra in Jordan!

Death race 2008

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[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

We awoke at 2:45 am today. Well, I awoke earlier to deal with the unsavory consequences of our delicious meal at Makka. Sorry, Ali! I promise my heart will never stray again!

The reason for the early hour was to meet our guide Ahmet at 3:30 am, and thence to meet the Abu Simbel convoy at 4:00 am. Access to Abu Simbel is restricted to certain hours of the day, so buses and cars collect at the entry point to the route in Aswan, then are released to proceed at either 4:00 or 4:30, depending on how many vehicles have gathered.

When we heard the word "convoy," we thought of a rather stately, sedate procession. What actually transpired was a road race. For three white-knuckled hours, Ahmet piloted our van through the desert like the utter fucking lunatic he is, using whichever lane was most convenient, overtaking other drivers, tailgating another van for miles at a distance of a couple of feet at I-shit-you-not what had to be eighty miles and hour or more. I'm sure there were times we hit a hundred. Laura and I were each locked in our own private hells. All we could do was try to keep our eyes closed and pretend to be asleep.

As Ahmet explained once we arrived, he had to drive fast to beat all the other guides, because he has to give us his history spiel outside the temple site because guides aren't allowed to accompany tourists into the temples because of the cacophony that produces and he needs to give us the spiel while it's still quiet on the cafeteria plaza.

Right, whatever. He's still an utter fucking lunatic.

Abu Simbel consists of another pair of temples rescued from rising Lake Nasser. The site, now on the shores of the lake, is 280 kilometers south of Aswan (a distance we covered in two and a half hours) and only 50 miles north of the Sudan border. The temples themselves are amazing, one dedicated by Ramses II to himself, with colossal Ramses II statues outside and inside, and another dedicated by Ramses II to his favorite wife Nefertari, with colossal Ramses II statues outside. Oh, and a couple of Nefertari statues, too.

It was quite startling to think that we saw the actual mummified body on Friday of the man depicted on those statues. Very weird and wonderful.

Another harrowing race through the desert followed this blissful interlude, only this time Ahmet gave a lift to an Egyptian soldier who was fairly careless with his automatic rifle. It was only pointing toward me from the front seat for a few moments before Ahmet sort of resettled it more to his liking, but now added to the thrill of the chase was the expectation that any moment a stray bump would send a volley of lead spraying through the van. Lovely.

We made it back to the hotel, though, shaken and stirred, and now are resting until our evening train to Luxor at 5:45 pm.

[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

Saturday morning we slept in. Conveniently, our train had had some engine trouble during the night, so we wouldn't be reaching Aswan in the south of Egypt until after 11:00 am, which put us over two hours behind schedule. But this was good news for the exhausted lazyheads from Friday, who didn't have to be up at the asscrack of dawn.

In Aswan, at last, after more than fifteen hours on the train, our local tour representatives installed us in the Sara Hotel, a lovely hotel in a dusty, hilly neighborhood that's either half built or half decayed. Our guide that afternoon was a woman whose English was so thickly accented she was hard to understand for a while. (We were spoiled by Shiko's perfect English in Cairo.) She took us to the Aswan High Dam, rattling off facts and figures at a pace that was hard to follow.

After that, we drove a ways and then sailed by fellukah down the waters of Lake Nasser to the island site of Philae Temple. Philae is a temple from the Ptolemaic period, unmistakably Egyptian but with unmistakable Greek influences. It is one of the many temples and monuments that were relocated by UNESCO during the building of the Aswan Dam in the '60s. Otherwise they would have been flooded and lost.

Philae is a temple to Isis, and our guide took pains to point out the strong role of women in ancient Egypt. "Things are not so equal now," she said, the only political comment we would hear her make. (This is contrasted with hale, male Shiko, who took pains to point out to us on Friday how Egyptians still rever women.)

That evening, Laura and I took a shuttle from the hotel into town, where we had dinner at a small restaurant the desk clerk had recommended. Gorged ourselves, to be more accurate. Lamb roasted in vegetables, shish kabab, kofta, white beans, tahini, tabouli, rice, pita, mint tea ... we ate until we could eat no more, and then we ate some more. Sorry, Ali, but until later that night we were considering anointing a new Egyptian restaurant our favorite in the world.

After dinner we wandered through Aswan's souk, the market that extends blocks and blocks in every direction. We had become better at fending off pushy merchants, which is almost all of them, and then out on the main drag we got some more practice fending off beggars and hustlers. Our shuttle arrived at the prearranged location at almost the prearranged time, and whisked us back to the hotel for a few scant hours of rest.

[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

What's most distinctive about driving the expressways of Cairo by night, at least compared to the cities I've visited, is the number of minarets you see, all lit up from within in eerie greens and oranges, or from without by gaudy neon. What impresses you once you enter heavier traffic is how Egyptians can turn a three-lane road into a five-lane road just by willing it so.

We were punchy when we came off the plane from Rome. A travel facilitator from our tour company helped us acquire visas quickly and pass through customs, then our first day's tour guide, Shiko, took over and bustled us into a van. At 4:00 am, we were settling into our room at the Zayed Hotel, and we had only three hours of sleep to look forward to before the day would begin.

At 9:15 am, we hopped back into the van with our luggage and joined three Australian travelers. Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum. I would like to describe and lovingly linger over everything we saw and learned there, but that would take days. With this, as with the monuments and temples and other sights I will mention over the next few days, you can generally assume an inverse relationship between how cool and awe-inspiring something is and how many words I spend on it. You know what most of this stuff looks like already, and otherwise I'll never catch up.

Among the big things we saw at the museum were Tutankhamen's gold masks and sarcophagi, the actual mummies of Ramses II and many other kings and queens of ancient Egypt, a collection of various royal jewelry, and a replica of the Rosetta Stone (the original being at the British Museum). What's staggering about the Egyptian Museum is not just the major pieces but the sheer size of the collection. There are rooms filled with arcane classes of objects only an archaeologist could love, but when taken together the number of artifacts boggles the mind.

We crossed the Nile to Giza, and suddenly there were the Pyramids, right on the edge of the city. Somehow I always pictured there far off in a remote corner of the desert, but no, there they are just west of town. The first view is breathtaking, but even moreso is to stand at the base, or a few levels up, and look up toward the apex. The angle is dizzying.

William Shunn and the Curse of the Second Pyramid We didn't enter the first pyramid—not enough bang for the buck, according to our guide—but three members of our little group, me included, ponied up the 25 Egyptian pounds to enter the second pyramid. Laura, who can get claustrophobic, stayed behind. I didn't think that I got very claustrophobic myself—I've been fine in caves like Timpanogos— but something about the exertion of duckwalking down an angled shaft for fifty meters or more with no room to straighten up and barely enough room for you to pass people going the other way, then arriving at a chamber in the bottom only to realize there's still a similar incline up ahead of you, and then to emerge sweating and gasping into the hot air of the bare chamber at the heart of the pyramid—well, despite the high ceiling and comparatively generous dimensions of that room, I could barely control the panic that had arisen toward the end of the ascent, and I couldn't stay in that room for very long. The shafts down and up were bad, but somehow not nearly as bad as that room.

Fortunately, the trek back out didn't seem to take as long as the trek in. I've never been so happy to see sunlight. Laura managed to snap a picture of me at just my moment of emergence, and you can tell.

We took a camel ride out behind the third pyramid. Camels don't look quite as huge when they're lying on the ground as they do when they stand up. I don't think I ever realized just how big the things are until I watched one rise to its full standing height. The process of standing is a fascinating one, too, at least from a position perched atop one's back. First the camel stands up, then it stands up again, and just when you think you're as high as you're going to go, it stands up one more time. At the end of all this elaborate unfolding of legs, your seat is eight or nine feet in the air.

There was some excitement on the ride when Laura's camel bit Holly's, but no bloodshed or injuries resulted.

After the Pyramids, we hit the Sphinx, which is smaller than I had imagined, but no less impressive.

One thing that makes all this sightseeing less than perfectly pleasant is the continuous hassle from merchants and entrepreneurs of all sorts. Like the one that comes up and takes your hat and starts wrapping his scarf around your brow so you can be an Arab in a photo. Or the one that wants you to change his British coins to dollars. Or the one with all the dancing camel dolls, and on and on and on. The constant harassment is wearying, and you learn some sticky lessons before becoming expert and ignoring their advances.

No less wearying is the constant need to tip this person and that. We don't really begrudge the money—well, not much—but the constant confusion about who deserves tips and who doesn't, and how much, gets to be a burden very fast. Oh, the difficulty of keeping sufficient single-pound notes on hand!

A less than thrilling aspect of our Friday tour was our stops at a parchment "museum," a jewelry store, and a perfume factory. Ostensibly these were all educational stops, but of course they ended with a hard sell to purchase their products (in the case of the parchment museum, very hard). Not that the demonstration of how papyrus was made, for example, was not interesting. Does the tour company get kickbacks from the merchants? I don't know, but by the time we reached the third edumerchant, we had a bad taste in our mouths. This is too bad, because the highlights of the tour are very high indeed.

That evening, our guide deposited us at the train station where we boarded our 8:10 pm overnight train to Aswan. We ate dinner in our compartment, enjoyed a whisky in the smoky, shabby club car (I'm not sure why I assumed we'd have no alcohol in Egypt), then summoned our attendant Mohamet to convert our seats to bunks. With the door secured, we joined that club I was talking about earlier, entry to which requires no small amount of gymnastic ability in the cramped space. There will be photos and videos to come later of some of the things we did and saw on Friday, but not of that.

The amazing race

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[Still in the Sara Hotel coffee shop.]

Laura and I slept in Thursday and set off for the airport without benefit of breakfast. We were second in line at the Alitalia counter when it opened, and we got booked in prime seats all the way through to Cairo. For both flights, we were in the first row of the economy cabin, left of the aisle. Instead of three across, that row on that side had two seats with a baby-sized seat in between. We had plenty of elbow room between us.

Colosseum, Rome This, for Laura, was the real beginning of the vacation. We landed in Rome at about 3:45 in the afternoon. Our flight for Cairo would leave at 10:15 pm. That gave us six and a half hours to play with. At Laura's suggestion, we spent it on a Roman excursion. It was probably ill-advised, but we managed to pull it off.

Once we found the airport train station, we learned that the Leonardo Express would take us from Fiumicino Airport to Termini Station in Rome in thirty minutes. We bought tickets for both directions. We made it into Rome at about 5:10 pm. We explained to a young man at a tourist information kiosk that we wanted to know what we could see nearby at still be back to catch the 6:52 train to the airport. He pulled out a map and quickly sketched out a route for us.

Inside the dome of the Pantheon So, with only a little initial fumbling inside the station, we took the Metro's Linea B from Termini to Colossi Station, where we got out and gaped at the Colosseum. (This is what Laura, who has been to Rome before, most wanted me to see.) With stinging eyes, we continued past the Roman Forum to the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. From there were zigzagged along back alleys to the Pantheon, to Trevi Fountain, and to the Spanish Steps. After climbing the steps, we descended into Spagna Station and took the Metro's Linea A back to Termini Station. We made our train back to the airport with ten minutes to spare. It was our Amazing Race, and we won.

I wanted to thank the man from the kiosk, but we didn't see him again.

After making it through passport control, we had a dinner of wine, meat, cheese, and salad at a lovely little wine shop in the terminal, then boarded our flight for Cairo. We landed there at almost 3:00 am local time, completely bushed.

[Still on the train to Aswan.]

Wednesday morning Laura and I again tried the room-service breakfast. Her bagels seemed fine, but I knew ordering my "American pancakes with syrup" would be something of a gamble. What I found when I lifted the lid from my tray were French crepes with a tub of honey. This was fine. At least the crepes were browned all the way through.

As an added bonus, every room-service cart (as opposed to the trays) comes decorated with a Gerbera daisy in a white stem vase. We now had three sitting around the room, including the one that came with our dessert of tirimisu and creme brulee on Sunday night: one red, one pink, and one orange. It made the cheerful room even more so.

Laura needed to be at the conference all day, so after doing some work in the morning, I set off on the nearly two-hour bus journey to the south shore of Malta and the ancient temple sites of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Malta is not that large, but to get most places you must transfer in Valletta and then wend your way slowly through every hamlet and burg along the way. This made for much rapturous gazing out the bus window at narrow streets, yellow-washed walls, startling churches in hidden plazas, and hills divided by low walls of rough fieldstone—when my nose wasn't stuck in my copy of Culture Shock! Egypt, that is, as I crammed for the upcoming phase of our trip.

The temple ruins at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra are far more modest that I think I was expecting, for structures that are, in part, as much as five thousand years old. The scale is very human, though many of the standing stones that form the walls are monoliths a good deal taller than a man. The roofs have long since fallen in, leaving open the central corridors with semi-circular apses to either side—something like two capital B's back to back. The apses were used for burial, with older bones pushed aside and sorted by type as a new body was moved in. Both sites overlook dramatic vistas of the rocky southern Maltese shore and the Mediterranean.

The scale of these ruins was too small to generate much awe in me, but as I hiked away I was trailed by a disturbing sense of how close in nature and time we are to those ancient stonemasons, how closely together lie our parchment sheets in the book of the earth's history, and how nearly into illegibility such a recent paragraph has been pressed.

Laura and I that evening, together with Cyndee, investigated and discarded several suggestions from the guidebook before defaulting to a fancy Italian place on another terrace over another bay. The wine and food were lovely, though every few minutes, it seemed, another drape was drawn across another of the dwindling number of open spaces around the terrace. By the time we left, we were enclosed in a plastic cave.

After dinner we set off into the night on Gelato Quest 2. [I have now caught up with transcription of the handwritten journal, though the nearby intermittent wi-fi signal is not sufficient to let me post these entries. I am sitting in the coffee shop of the Sara Hotel in Aswan, with Saturday evening approaching. I just had some coffee and a bit of chicken shawarma to keep me going. It's very hot outside, but nothing like what it would be like in full summer. Strangely, the European Champions League game is being replayed on the television here in the coffee , with Arabic commentary. John Terry just slipped again on his penalty kick.] Laura wanted gelato again, and I wanted fig gelato. We made our way through the crowds spilling out of bars that were showing the European football championship between Manchester United and Chelsea, live from Moscow. Almost half the tourists to Malta, I've read, are British, and most of the rest come from countries that care about such things. We even found a public plaza showing the game on a giant screen, and stopped to watch for a while. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement.

We had to visit two separate gelaterias to find the fig stuff. Actually, we found a shop that had it first, but we wanted to visit a second, larger shop we knew of to see if they had it too. The second shop did not, but that didn't mean we didn't stop there and gorge ourselves. I showed restraint in having only one scoop at the second shop—pannacotta—then a second scoop of fig at the first shop on the way back to the hotel. It was as good as I had hoped, by which I mean it tasted like figs and felt like gelato. Yum.

Back in our room, Laura and I watched the rest of the football match, biting our nails though we had no stake in the outcome. What a game! It was well after midnight when we got to sleep.

[It's Thursday afternoon, and we just boarded our Alitalia flight back to Rome. I'm writing this in a black vinyl-bound journal with a skull-and-crossbones on the cover that I got for my 40th birthday. When I next have the chance, I'll copy this back into my blog.]

Tuesday morning at the Intercontinental, Laura and I opted to have only coffee delivered to the room. My Monday morning order of French toast with cinnamon had been disappointing in the extreme. The four slices were all still soggy with egg batter in the middle. I had eaten around the edges and tried not to gag. The Intercontinental may be a 5-star hotel, but it gets no more than four, maybe three, in my book. The internet connection, via ethernet cable, is not very reliable, and neither is some of the concierges' advice.

I spent the morning working in the room while Laura attended her morning conference sessions. At noon-thirty, I ran into Laura and her colleague Cyndee in the lobby, just as I was heading to the hotel bar in hopes that I could sneak in a pint of Cisk (the local lager, pronounced chisk) before they arrived. They had to run to the rooms and change, so I gulped down a half-pint that looked larger than that. By the time I was done, they were back, and we all took the bus to Valletta.

Valletta on a weekday is far different from Valletta on a Sunday. Very crowded, every shop open, from the tiniest silversmith to McDonald's and Burger King. Our first stop was at a gelateria because our quest for gelato for Laura had ended in disappointment the night before. [Beginning to taxi.] Laura was very happy with her Valletta gelato, but I had already been served my two scoops when I spied the tub of fig gelato. I enjoyed my pistachio and "banofee"—banana toffee—but became fixated thereafter on finding and trying fig gelato elsewhere.

We next visited the Palace of the Grand Masters, where, faced with a choice between paying to tour the state rooms, the armoury, or both, we chose the state rooms. (I knew my vote for the armoury would count for naught against two state-room votes, so I abstained.) [Takeoff. Flying now over blue-green lagoons, and now out over the Mediterranean. The surface looks wrinkled somehow, with still blue veins running through it like cracks in a pudding skin. Currents?] The state rooms were certainly impressive, rich and baroque, together with the long galleries lined with portraits of all the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta. Most interesting to me, though, was that past a velvet rope, through an archway, and up a short flight of stairs that curved around a wide column, you could read the plate beside the door that led to the office of the president of Malta.

We wandered around Valletta window-shopping for a while longer, then hopped the bus back toward St. Julian's. Laura and Cyndee debarked somewhere between Valletta and Sliema, hoping to find the Zara they had spotted on the way out. (Too soon, it turned out, and that was my fault.) I stayed on board, intending to find food in St. Julian's. Not just any food, either, but fish and chips, which I somehow had a hankering for. (The women weren't hungry. Having stuffed ourselves the night before, I think Laura's exact phrase, gelato aside, was "I never want to eat again.")

In St. Julian's, I walked confidently into a bar I had noted a few times earlier, the Scotsman Pub. Two different signs outside [pen starting to leak! ink disaster!] promised British fish and chips within. I strolled on up to the bar past the only two patrons, took a seat in a spot under a light [pens nearly impossible to use on plane—now Saturday morning on train to Aswan] where I could read in the dimness, and waited for the bartender to arrive to take my order.

"Guinness," I said.

"Aye," he said, having emerged from the back room.

"And a menu, please."

He looked at my oddly, already sliding the glass under the tap. "We've got nae food, mate," he said. He was Scottish and shaved bald.

Confused, I shrugged and said, "Then I guess it'll just be the Guinness."

Hey, it's a meal in itself.

Outside, I verified that fish and chips were indeed advertised, chalked it up to Malta, and continued in search of food.

Most places I saw didn't look very appealing, whether because they served burgers and pizza, or because of the young, rowdy, hip clientele and the improbably of reading in peace. I found what looked to be a fine little Turkish doner stand, but peering around inside I could locate no actual worker.

This is how I ended up, at last, at the Hard Rock Cafe, eating a damn burger and fries and drinking the worst caipirinha in the history of Brazilian commerce. I bought a T-shirt for my son in the gift shop, in part to justify my appalling lapse of taste.

Later that evening, I met Laura and Cyndee and we set out for beverages and light food. We sat in the far corner of the terrace at a place called Paparazzi, overlooking one of St. Julian's several small bays. I had a gin smash. When I ordered a silver cloud after that, the waitress commented that I must be out to try everything on the cocktail list. My mixed salad plate was loaded with capers, Maltese sausage, ġbejniet, oven-dried tomatoes, paté, olives, and more. I shared my bounty in exchange for pizza slices—good individual pizzas—from Laura and Cyndee.

We went to the tenth-floor hotel bar at the Intercontinental for one last nightcap (I was trying to tank up, I think, for nine days in the dry desert), where on the spectacular open-air plaza that even higher balconies look down on from three sides, the Welsh bartender and I had a laugh at our mutual inability to comprehend the other's pronunciation of "Laphraoig." He told us that the Maltese and Italians often ask him to speak English. Laura had a Johnny Walker Black, Cyndee a half-pint of Cisk, and we all jumped when the fireworks went off, out of sight, just the other side of the hotel tower, with a sound like artillery. It sounded like a war.

That scared us. What scared the cockroach making its way toward us across the plaza was two waiter dropping a table they were putting away for the night. That spurred the cockroach to flight. The scurrying kind of flight, that is, not the flying kind.

The bar closed at midnight. And that was Tuesday.

Not a huge sightseeing day yesterday. I spent some of the morning writing in the hotel room, working on a new story titled "Our Dependence on Foreign Keys." In the afternoon I wandered around St. Julian's, collecting such supplies as bottled water (a must, they say) and a universal-to-UK adapter that would accept my laptop plug and thence plug into my converter (found it at a photography shop after being directed there by a gruff but helpful ironmonger). I also collected the indelible memory, after turning into a dead-end car park down by the shore behind the Westin, of a couple having sex in a rocky declivity by the water. There were other people on the beach, less than a stone's throw from them, and I watched only long enough to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Okay, maybe two seconds longer than that.

Together with her colleague from work, Laura and I hopped a bus that evening to Sliema, where the concierge had promised us we would find a wonderful little inexpensive traditional restaurant on a side street. "No sea views, but good food." Laura specifically asked if it was open on Mondays, because many restaurants are not. "Yes, yes, open all the time." You can guess where this is going, but what you might not guess is that when we tracked down the tiny shuttered restaurant and perused the posted menu of what might have been consumed on a Tuesday through Saturday, we discovered we had been spared a cavalcade of pizza, pasta, and burgers.

Guidebook to the rescue! One of the top restaurants in the area, The Kitchen, was a mediumish walk away on the Triq il-Torri, and on a Monday evening it was possible to secure a table without a reservation. The service was painfully young, surly, and slow, but the food was outstanding. Beef ragout in rolled pancakes with sour cream, pumpkin tortelloni, open pie of seabass fillets, stuffed pork fillets over baked beans.... We shared everything, stuffed ourselves, and topped it off with a nice local blended wine.

At the bus stop after dinner, around 10:30 pm, we saw our bus approaching, the 62. It quickly became apparent that the bus was not going to stop. We shouted and waved, and the bus stopped for us half a block later. The driver did not seem pleased to let us on. Was it an express bus that wasn't supposed to stop there? Was the driver just hoping to end his last run of the night a bit sooner? I don't know. But the gelateria where we'd hoped to score some dessert was closed when we arrived, and St. Julian's was crowded with pretty young people doing their best to get even more drunk, so we cut short our quest for gelato-not-Ben-and-Jerry's and called it a night.

Cities of sand

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A nine-hour flight east, a four-hour layover in Rome, and a one-hour flight due south brought us early yesterday afternoon to the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta. The weather here is a vast improvement over Chicago's. It's sunny, with a bit of haze in the evenings, and just the cool side of warm. North across the water lies Sicily. To the south is Libya. To the west is Tunisia. This island, in fact, lies farther south than Tunis.

Malta belongs to the EU, so passport control was ridiculously easy. In fact, since our visas were stamped in Rome, we didn't have to fuss with customs at all. A harrowing ten-minute cab ride, wilder than any Manhattan trip, brought us to our hotel, but we were distracted from imminent death by the gorgeous vistas of sand-colored buildings crowding every hillside in sight, occasionally topped by spectacular towers and domes. It's probably fortunate that we didn't learn until we reached our hotel room that Malta's rate of traffic accidents is the highest in the EU.

Our hotel is in St. Julian's, a metropolitan resort sort of city on the north shore. We're next door to a multiplex movie theater and across from a bowling alley. Our hotel has a private beach. But slumming on the sand was not our goal yesterday. Once we were settled and changed, we hopped a bus back east a few miles to Malta's capital, the medieval city of Valletta.

Valletta was built in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John, the Catholic military order that ruled the island from 1530 to 1798, and was named for Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. It was, I have read, one of the first European cities built from scratch on a grid plan. It occupies a long narrow promontory pointing northeast between Marsamxett Harbour on the northwest and Grand Harbour on the southeast, with a street plan very reminiscent of Manhattan's (on a rather smaller scale).

The streets are narrow and straight, with only residents permitted to drive them, and lined mostly with uniformly erected buildings three or so stories high, in varying shades of sand-colored stone. Some of the streets are quite steep, with steps built in. Many corners have a large statue of a saint, a knight, or the Virgin set into an alcove a story above street level. The views from either side of the island are spectacular, especially across Grand Harbour to the Three Cities, built on three promontories jutting northwest into the harbor. Fort St. Angelo, pivotal for the Knights during the brutal siege by the Ottomans in 1565 and then by the British Navy during World War II, makes for a particularly impressive sight on the middle promontory.

Most places in Valletta were closed, it being Sunday, but we did peek into St. John's Co-Cathedral, which is as ornate on the inside as it is plain on the outside. The floor is paved with the intricate marble tombstones of over 400 knights. We also peered into the lush central courtyards of the Palace of the Grand Masters. I'm going to try to get back there today, though since Laura is here for a conference yesterday was really her only day for sightseeing.

We drank cappuccinos at an outdoor cafe across from the cathedral, then set off to locate a couple of restaurants where, though closed Sundays, we may have dinner this week. Resigned to having our Sunday dinner in St. Julian's, we tried to find our way back to the bus stop, but were stymied by the fact that we had ended up on a higher level street and couldn't find our way down to the passage across the deep dry southern moat that is the main entrance to the city. This was fortunate, because in our wanderings we ran across the Hotel Castille, with a rooftop restaurant serving traditional Maltese fare that would be open at seven. With half an hour to kill, we did more wandering, ending up at the Anglo-Maltese League Bar & Restaurant for a drink with the locals.

For dinner we sat at a corner of the Castille Hotel roof terrace overlooking Grand Harbour. For an appetizer we had baked gbejniet, which are cheeselets made either from sheep or goat milk. Laura ate spaghetti frutti di mare topped with a giant prawn, while I had lapin à la maltaise—rabbit stewed with tomatoes, capers, and other little yummy stuff.

It's fascinating to look at signs in Malta. The two official languages are Maltese and English, and Maltese is the only Semitic language written with the Latin alphabet. This makes for very exotic-looking words, all cluttered with x's and q's, and h's with extra bars, and dotted c's and g's and z's, and initial m's followed by other consonants. You get placenames like Zurrieq and Xlendi and Mqabba and Ġgantija and Dwejra and Tarxien and Siġġiewi and Għar Lapsi and Ta' Ċenċ and Żebbuġ and Naxxar and Marsaxlokk and Xagħra and Mdina. We went hunting for one Valletta restaurant in a street called Triq Nofs In-Nħar! I don't know about you, but I get excited about exotic words like this, and learning the phonetic rules for pronouncing them. (The q's, for instance, are silent!)

I have a nifty international current adapter for my laptop, but it's useless to me right now because I forgot to pack a grounding adapter for my three-pronged power supply. D'oh! I'll have to set off in search of one after I get my ass out of this hotel room. It's already nearly one in the afternoon, and there's exploring to do! Not to mention I must conserve batteries!

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William Shunn

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