Transit in Dubai

I’m in Dubai and although I’ve only seen the Transit area that is huge enough – although not as opulent as I imagined – that might be for the arrivals and departures. I slept 7 hours of the 14 hour flight here and have another 7 hour flight with a re-fueling stop in Larnaca (Cyprus) to go.

I am trying to avoid the ‘smoking rooms’ (really just designated areas) here in the transit lounge as the smell is everywhere and permeates everything – and you know how much I love the smell of cigarettes… I can also hear someone praying/wailing right now – tis an interesting environment for an airport!

Fingers crossed for another good flight with nice fellow passengers. I sat next to a couple from NZ on the way here, which was appreciated considering I could have copped one of the four babies on board or the couple who were both over six foot tall!

Boarding has commenced so bring on the sunshine I say 🙂

Arrival in Malta

I arrived in Malta on Sunday afternoon (10pm Melb time) and got a lift to my hostel courtesy of the lady I sat next to on the plane from Dubai to Malta. She lives in Sydney but was coming to Malta for two months to stay with her family here and they were a huge welcoming party for her at the airport. One of her nephews was instructed to give me a lift, to which he kindly obliged.

The hostel I’m staying at is very nice, clean and friendly, and they have lots of international students staying here who come to Malta to learn English. I had no idea that so many students would choose Malta to learn English. Apparently it is known in (by those who know) that Maltese teachers teach better English than the English themselves! I love the accent and pronunciation that all Maltese have, when they speak it is a very pleasant, well rounded sounding English.

My room-mate is a girl from Kazakhstan, who speaks very little English – she arrived a few days before me and is a student at the NSTS English school. I asked her to write down ‘Hello’ (Privet), ‘Good morning’ (Dobroe utro), ‘Good evening’ (Dobroi nochi), ‘Goodbye’ (Do svidaniya) and ‘Thank you’ (Spasibo) in Russian so we can at least communicate that much. Over the three days I’ve been here she is a little more eager to try some English and followed me down to breakfast this morning – so I think she may be extremely shy as well. The brekky at the hostel is good – I had a choice of cereal, breads, cheese, meat and jam and little mini freshly baked croissants.

I spent the afternoon and evening walking around Sliema and was amazed at the crazy drivers – I’ve since heard that if you can drive in Malta you can drive anywhere in the world, including Italy! I am bound to think that is true too. The streets are tiny narrow spaces, and drivers fly through intersections at amazing speed and dart into the smallest space between traffic. Blind corners are also approached with the same reckless abandon and a few times I’ve flinched thinking they might hit something yet more often than not they squeeze through unscathed. I’ve become used to the constant screech of tyres and have only heard one actual collision thus far, which I find quite surprising. All being said, I take extra care when crossing the street now.

The parking situation is quite interesting also. Cars are parked any which way, in the direction of the traffic or opposite, it doesn’t seem to matter. And the space between parked cars is, on average, only about two inches I’ve noticed. It is impressive once you get over the initial shock. Streets here usually have a line of cars down one side and moving traffic on the other half of the street. If the street is one way all is good, yet if it is a two way street there is mostly a game of ‘chicken’ going on to see who gets through first! Luckily the cars here are all small ones, for large ones would simply not fit down most of the streets.

I’ve been tooted and had comments shouted at me from passing cars, thankfully I don’t understand Maltese, yet I get the gist of their comments from the leering faces out the windows. Not everyone is like that of course, most people I’ve stopped to ask directions or information from have been most friendly and helpful. There was an older Maltese lady who sat on a bench next to me in a public square who started complaining about some young boys who were kicking a ball around and she obviously thought they shouldn’t be. I nodded along with her tirade, for even though she was speaking in Maltese I got the gist of what she meant. She obviously took my nodding to mean I agreed with her complaints for she really got worked up and out came a torrent of words I could not keep up with. I had to wait for her to take a breath before I managed to say ‘English’ and she changed tack immediately. The change was remarkable, not only the language changed but so did her demeanour and I then was subject to a much calmer grumble or two about her dislike for the ball game. Although I agreed the boys should be careful, I thought it was nice that young kids were actually outside running around getting some exercise. Thankfully she changed the conversation to a more pleasant topic, and we chatted generally about where I was from ‘Ohh, Australia’, and why I was here. She did recommend something to eat from the kiosk at the square, and I took her advice and found myself an ‘assartart’ (although I’m not sure of the spelling). It is like a quiche, except you have a choice of ricotta, spinach or peas for the filling, wrapped in a pastry case that was pinched together at the top. And along with being so delicious, it cost me only Є1.10.

Sights of Malta

I spent two and a half days visiting relatives of my Grandparents. Everyone was really nice and welcoming, and excited to have me visit. I was fed everywhere I went although my Pop is still the best Maltese cook I know. Coming from a country without a true ‘national dish’ yet with plenty of variety in food, I was surprised at the ordinariness of food in Malta. I saw only a few places offering rabbit dishes, and I did love the Qassatat (correct spelling this time), however most of the rest of the food was exactly what you’d get at home. It was suggested I try the Ftira, which I did, however it was just toasted Turkish bread with sandwich fillings.

My body was still on Melbourne time for the first two days, so I was exhausted at 8pm (4am AU) and was in bed at 9pm both nights. The weather was beautiful, about 25 degrees and sunny each day, until Thursday when it rained. The receptionist at the hostel said she’d never seen rain in June in ‘all her life’, and I was just glad I had packed jeans, closed toe shoes and a light rain jacket. Until The Rainy Day, my tan was reappearing quite nicely, with what will become permanently tanned sandal strap marks on my feet I’m sure.

I managed to see only a few sights in Malta once I’d visited all the relatives, and there are many more places I’d like to have been. I did get to the capital Valletta, and spent a few hours walking around. Initially it reminded me of a show/fair – the city is enclosed by walls, with one entry/exit. They are renovating the entrance so it was not as impressive as I imagine it has the potential to be, and there was a sea of people descending on the place at once, which added to the carnival atmosphere. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that people actually worked there, and in the areas closer to the sea, people lived. I can’t imagine having so many tourists traipse around my house all day, every day. In Valletta I went to the lookout at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, where you could see the Grand Harbour, and Grand it is. I managed to get someone to take a photo of me to prove I was there, although these photos are rare when you travel by yourself. Next I visited St John’s Co-Cathedral. Impressive from the outside, and magnificent from the inside. Jaw dropping in fact. I spent a few hours wandering around and they gave you personal handsets in a language of your choice to listen to recorded messages and information about the various aspects of the Cathedral. There was no flash photography allowed, however I managed to get a few really good shots by changing the ISO on my camera. Gold leaf and ceiling paintings dominated the building and it instantly became my favourite place in Malta.

Next I walked to the very tip of Valletta to see the Police Academy at Fort St. Elmo. There is a monument there I wanted to see of my Pop’s Uncle who was killed on the spot when the first bomb was dropped on Malta in WW2. Unfortunately, the Academy was being renovated and turned into a tourist attraction and I was told I would be able to see the monument in one year’s time. The police officer I spoke to did know of it, and said that my Great Uncle was one of six killed from that bomb. He did offer to sneak me in to see it on Sunday, however I wouldn’t be in Malta then.

The following day I went to Mdina which was the old capital of Malta. It was a very quiet place, as I had visited Dingli Cliffs first and by the time I got to Mdina most of the crowds had disappeared. It had also started raining so I had the place almost to myself. Again, people actually live here, which is something I’m still amazed by. I saw family names near the doorbells on many doors, and yet we were free to wander and take photos. Dingli Cliffs were disappointing, however I had to remind myself that it was the highest point on the island so it was of some significance. For comparison purposes, the height of the cliffs are equal to the height of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the Harbour.

Following Mdina I met up with my Pop’s cousin again, and she took me to Mosta. We went to the Mosta Dome and I experienced my second jaw dropping moment as soon as we walked inside. Exquisite comes to mind, with all the paintings, gold leaf, decorated ceilings and an imposing pulpit that had a flight of stairs to reach the top. We saw the replica bomb of one that had fallen through the dome ceiling on April 9, 1942. Luckily for the 300 people inside the bomb didn’t explode and no one was hurt.

I managed to submit my final essay for Uni on Thursday when it rained for most of the day, and although I didn’t want to ‘waste’ a day inside, I had to get it done. Now I can properly relax and slip into holiday mode. I didn’t get to Gozo, Malta’s second largest island, nor did I get to explore many other places, however there is always next time!

Buses in Malta

The buses in Malta deserve a special post all of their own. These ancient relics will no longer be in service from July 3rd 2011, so I feel privileged to have experienced them. Depending on which information sheet you look at, there are between 90 and 102 bus routes across Malta, which is effectively the same size as the city of Sydney (and some may argue has similar traffic problems as Sydney!). The island is divided into zone A (most central), B and C (to the furtherest edges of the island), with most lines covering zone A and most only operating in and out of Valletta. The cost of a ticket in zone A is 47c (euro cents, so about 60c AU) for one ride to almost any route over the island, although I’ve noticed that when you give the driver 50c you don’t get any change – which I didn’t mind too much as the 1c and 2c pieces were tiny and fiddly.

Now these buses are so old they are almost comical, and I loved them! They are bright orange and only have one door to get on and off. The driver still issues tickets and handles the money, and sometimes the door is located two seats behind the driver, so there is a human traffic jam with people getting off and others trying to get on and pay. I was amused by how many people would fit in the isle, which was not much wider than an average size person. If you didn’t know where your stop was, I found it was easier to sit up the front or you had to push and shove and squeeze your way past everyone in the isle to get out, and in the process you risked the driver taking off before you reached the door.

The door – if there was one in fact – was never closed, so you could leap on or off at any stage and I laughed at the idea of buses like this back home. The driver simply slowed down a little and people often hopped off as the bus was still moving. It did make it easier, and marginally faster, for the bus didn’t have to gear up again to get going. Mind you, it seemed the buses only operated in second gear. They took off in second, drove at second, and slowed down in second to allow people to alight! The noise was amazingly loud, since all the available windows were open and the space for the door let in even the engine noise.

It was the small things I found amusing and took photos of, which I’m sure some people thought I was crazy for being interested in. The system to notify the driver you wanted to get off was similar to our trams, you either had a button to push, or a cord to tug on, or some people simply stood at the entrance and told the driver they wanted him to stop/slow down. What I found most interesting was the location of the buttons to push, as they were on the ceiling of the bus at infrequent locations. The cord style was usually hooked up to a large replica bicycle bell and made the same noise as a bicycle bell! Some of the buses had a seat that was perpendicular to the rest of the seats, and aligned with the front left side of the bus with those passengers facing the side of the driver and had to negotiate their toes being trodden and mind their eyes for careless elbows of people pushing to pay for a ticket and squeeze themselves into the isle.

The seats were not made for overweight people, and although there were some larger people on the bus, everyone still squeezed two to a seat and often some additional luggage or groceries. Some bus drivers charged people extra for luggage, some didn’t. Some were cheerful enough, some were downright miserable and not forthcoming when asked for directions. I had one grunt at me when I asked for a ticket to a destination I was unsure of the location or pronunciation, and when he continued to hold out his hand I guessed I hadn’t paid him enough so added 10c to the pile. He threw the money in the tray and gave me a ticket worth only 47c anyway!

One bus had a suspicious looking floor that I was uncertain would hold up with the weight of everyone on board, and another had a full bucket of water underneath a seat. I noticed that one when it splashed onto my foot when the driver braked suddenly – which was a regular occurrence. The funniest experience I had on these buses was on the way to Mdina. A middle aged local woman got on the bus and when she sat down she made the sign of the cross on her head and chest. This caught my attention, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out why she was praying… It had started to rain (yes, apparently it does now rain in June in Malta) and the roads were obviously slippery. Not something that usually concerns bus passengers I’m sure. This bus however must have had tyres that were as bald as a baby’s bum because the bus began to slide all over the road. The driver wasn’t going all that fast either, but corners became rally corners, with the rear end of the bus sliding out as soon as the brakes were applied. Even stopping at the next stop became a sliding halt rather than a graceful stop. I couldn’t stop myself grinning at the shock and uncertainty on the faces of the other tourists on the bus and enjoyed myself immensely.

Leaving Malta

I ran out of time to do everything I would have liked in Malta, for such a small country it has many more places to visit and things to see than I imagined. A great tourism site for the country is the official ‘Tourism Malta’ site, which has heaps of information on where to go and what to see.

I left the hostel three hours before my flight, thinking that would be heaps of time to get to the airport. What I hadn’t counted on however, was that there would be many other people heading for the same flight and therefore the buses to the airport would be full. Thankfully I only have my main backpack and a small carry on bag, however, with the Maltese buses as they are you don’t have much room for luggage. Luckily a backpack is easier to sit on your lap than a suitcase.

The buses were passing my stop one by one without stopping – they were so full the drivers didn’t even stop. I ended up walking two stops backwards from my destination in an effort to reach a stop without many other people and hope the driver would stop for just a few of us. I eventually got on a bus to Valletta and then got the airport bus (#8) just as the engine began to rev for departure. I arrived at the airport ten minutes before check in closed, phew! The ride to the airport was another entertaining journey, with traffic jams and road works galore. The bus was packed and thankfully I was committed until the last stop, for watching others getting off earlier it seemed to be a feat of courage and strength to make their way down the aisle and onto solid ground.

There was a near altercation between our bus and a truck, with both large vehicles vying for space in the merging traffic. The truck driver turned his side mirror in at the last minute to avoid it getting smashed and all the passengers on the bus added insult to injury by contributing their own expletives to the tense atmosphere. Further on we came upon a street that was closed to traffic for road works. The bus driver had obviously decided enough was enough and was determined to enter the road regardless of the barriers. A heated argument with the workman ensued, with contributions from the passengers shouted through the open windows. It was chaos, and everyone was quickly losing their temper in the hot and crowded conditions. Eventually the workman gave in and opened the barriers so we could pass through and a roaring cheer erupted from the bus. Victory had been achieved and everyone laughed and clapped with glee at the workman’s expense. The rest of the ride was fast and bumpy with smiles all around – and many thanks that we arrived just in time.

Photos of Malta

Click here to view my photos of Malta. The page will open in another window, and enter ‘europe’ if asked for a password.

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