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Saturday, September 20, 2003

I Can See the Sea!!
St. Julian's, Malta

The rain has stopped, and we've been able to see Malta in the sun for the first time today, which was magnificent. Heh, the island really is quite different when the sun is out! Unfortunately, that spat of rainfall also brought on a whole series of mosquito attacks, and I am now covered in welts and bites which are all very, very itchy. Jen has been bitten too, but not as badly. My arms look somewhat diseased right now, it's not very pleasant.

However, turn your thoughts from that unsightly image and think instead of an incredibly deep blue sea, actually more azure almost flourescent, and then put yourself about 80 feet beneath the surface of the water, drifting along a vertical cliff wall with peacock fish, grouper, and huge scallops all around you. That's where I found myself diving last Thursday at the Blue Hole, and this was supposed to be the worst conditions you get there. The divemaster even apologized after the dive, which was rather funny to me; I would loved to have seen that site at its best!

The visibility was decent at about 40 feet or so, but I was told that they usually get three times that amount. Unfortunately, all the recent rain had washed all the silt into the water, which "clouded" things up somewhat. Nevertheless, it was a very good dive, the staff at Calypso Dive Center were very professional and knowledgeable, and I can at least say I have a taste of why diving at Gozo is so popular.

As an aside, this was also the first time I ever wore contact lenses, thanks to my sister who fitted me with temporary corrective contacts just before we left Seattle. It may be amusing for all those of you who already wear contacts to know that it took me over an hour to get them in the night before. However, I think Vivian would be proud, because I woke up at 6:30am before the dive in anticipation of another grueling hour of battling my blinking eyes, but took only 10 minutes to get them in the next time. Although I've always resisted switching to contacts for years, I must admit, coming out of the water and being able to see was pretty darn cool! :)

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Another Change in Plans
Victoria, Gozo, Malta

Well, because the Indian Embassy decided to foil us again (it just decided to disappear off the island of Malta, apparently), we have made the difficult decision to remove Greece from our itinerary, in lieu of going straight to Istanbul. We have had so many issues with trying to get this Indian visa, that we want to give the authorities in Istanbul as much time as possible to successfully process it.

By doing this, we will have three weeks in Turkey, which is about right for the pace of travel that we think we will enjoy, as opposed to trying to see both Greece and Turkey in three weeks. If the Indian Embassy approves us early, there still may be a chance that we will be able to get away for a visit to Cypress, but if not, obviously we won't be able to leave Turkey without our passports.

Our visit to Malta so far has been very interesting, but very wet as well. There was another storm yesterday, which apparently caused even more flooding on the island of Malta (we're on another smalled island right now, called Gozo). Cars have been stranded in window-high water; one person was injured when his truck apparently got overturned by the flooding waters.

We're still game for sightseeing though, and have visited a few attractions today with our rain gear and umbrella. It was pretty funny, wading through torrential rainfall to get to an attraction site that is completely deserted. Even the attendant at the temple of Ggantija just let us enter for free, then took off to go home himself!

Driving around (which has been a lot of fun... shifting and driving on the left, sliding between narrow alleyways, inching through flooded roads hoping the car won't stall) the last few days has let us see most of Gozo island, as well as the main attractions, as Jen mentioned. I can't believe how many churches, cathedrals, and chapels there are here, and we're just on Gozo right now, we haven't explored the island of Malta much yet. This place is definitely rich in history and seems to have a pretty well defined cultural identity.

We actually checked into two scuba diving shops earlier today, and I've tentatively signed up with Calypso Diving Center (www.calypsodivers.com) for a two tank dive tomorrow to the famous Blue Hole in front of the Azure Window at the bottom of Dwejra Point. The Blue Hole is a natural rock formation carved out over the centuries by wind and waves which goes down to a depth of 26 metres (about 85 feet). Unfortunately, due to all the recent storms washing silt and dirt into the ocean, the visibility won't be as good as the usual 130ft that Gozo is famous for. But hopefully it will be decent, so we'll see. Ted, I'll look into renting an underwater camera, if the price is right!

Well, with us going directly to Istanbul now instead of Athens as originally planned, we will have to pass on the potential Companion Flag presentation that we were trying to coordinate there with Ev Winningham, which is very disappointing. However, we will definitely be visiting Greece at some point, so not all is lost.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Lots of Rain in Malta
Gozo, Malta

Leaving N. Africa has been a sticker shock for us, with the one Maltese Lira = 2.55 US $. Yikes. Nevertheless, it has been refreshing to be in a country where everyone speaks English and the atmosphere is quite European (very Italian, in fact). We arrived on Sunday evening, and picked up a Peugeot 206 (yes, another one) from Avis at the airport. The driving here is on the left (not a problem) but the roads are terribly signed (in most cases, none at all), the drivers are quite aggresive and the roads not well maintained.

The first two days we were on the Malta island, it stormed quite heavily and resulted in floods all over the island. It was quite interesting driving through them, though we also saw many cars abandoned on the roads during the storms' worst times. The buildings here are all built with limestone, found on the island, so everything is the same shade of beige. The construction are very European, and in most cases, quite beautiful, with balconies and ceramic number/name plates.

We are waiting to explore the capitol city of Valletta when Scott and Rochelle arrive. We stayed in the town of Sliema the first two nights, at the Galaxy Hotel in a one bedroom apartment. It felt so luxurious to have so much space to ourselves. We were able to cook, the first time since we left in early July. It is a bit tough when you have nothing to start with; simple things that we take for granted like salt and pepper, and oil, etc. Still, we managed to pick a few things up and have really enjoyed non-restaurant food.

We were unable to resist the first Chinese restaurant though, so we ate at Penang, a store on the waterfront of St. Julians while taking a walk on Sunday evening. We have spotted many other Chinese restaurants since, and even a couple of Malaysian restaurants, so we may be trying out one of those sometime in the next few days.

Remember our ongoing efforts of getting a visa to India? Well, as our luck would have it, the Indian High Commission here seemed to have close down sometime in 2002. Of course, we spent a couple of hours driving around looking for the address (which was weirdly, a major street with no buildings) before realizing what had happened. Looking at the yellow pages confirmed our suspicions (it was listed in the 2001/2002 directory, but not in the 2002/2003 one). Darn. This will teach us to not believe everything we find listed on the internet, eh?

We also tried to get sushi; however, these restaurants were closed on Mondays so we will have to try again in a few days. We went to see Tracy at J&K Properties, whom I have been working with in getting our apartment here in Malta. She booked us at the Villagg Ta' Sbejha in Gharb, on the island of Gozo. We rode across on the ferry (30mins) and found our large one bedroom maisonette. The complex is centered around a pool, with no TV or phone in the rooms, so you are truly forced to relax. Ahh..

This morning, we drove out to Dwejra Point. Here there is their famous Azure Window, which is a big stone structure, with a hole in it (like a window) that has been created by sea breakers over thousands of years. It is quite pretty, but what is even more impressive, is colour of the water. Called the blue grotto, all the water around this area is a beautiful blue, not like the regular blue of the ocean. You'll have to see the pictures to see what I'm talking about. We went out on a short boat ride to see the shores and sides of the island. With the beautiful blue water so clear, we can see the corals growing on the sides, and in some cases, see down to the ocean floor. There are many caves in the area, and the boats travel through one back to the Inland Sea where they pickup the next group of tourists.

In the salt pans, we can see remnants of seashells embedded probably from thousands of years ago. it was quite interesting to see such jagged edges protruding from all angles and in some cases, the complete surface of the shells. We walked along the edge of the water, on the sharp limestone which have been poured over by the waves, to a little lagoon where divers descent for their dives. This brought us up close to the Azure window, and we stood there admiring the clarity of the water.

We drove into the town of Victoria (the only town on this island; the others are all villages) and walked around the citadel. We wandered into the Gozo Cathedral, which isn't as grand (in size) as the many other cathedrals, but the ceilings were ornately painted, similar to those found in Italy. One special fact here is that funding ran out before the completion of the cathedral (it has no dome) but a painter painted the space above the naive to give the impression that there is a dome up above. It is quite nicely done.

We just had a nice meal here at the Internet cafe. The owner served us a nice salad bowl, and a Hawaiian pancake (crepe with pineapple, ham and cheese filling). I also had a nice banana milkshake. Oh, did we ever mention that we did not find one banana while we were in Tunisia? I looked everywhere, and NONE. It was very weird since I had always considered bananas one of those staple fruits. So of course, once we got to Malta, we had to buy the first set of bananas we saw.

We are spending another night in Gozo, and have not decided what to do yet tomorrow. Hehe.. we are pretty flexible right now until we meet up with Scott and Rochelle on Sunday. It's been great having the rental car because we can get around the islands, though we have gotten lost many times (many of the streets are uni-direction only, but of course, those are never indicated on the maps).

As for our Indian visa, well, we have to decide whether we are going to get it in Athens or Istanbul. It looks like Istanbul might be a better choice, and there is a 'slight' chance that we may have to pass up on Greece this time, depending on how long it takes to get our passport back. We are in the midst of looking up for flights to Istanbul, and will probably know which country will be our next destination in the next couple of days. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Final Tunisian Anecdotes
Valetta, Malta

Well, we're in Malta now, after having completed the African segment of our trip. We had a great time in East Africa on safari, and emersed ourselves in the North African cultures of Morocco and Tunisia for the last five weeks. We'll have to come back and visit the West and South of Africa next time.

There are a few final odds and ends about Tunisia that I'd like to comment on.

Internet Censorship
Interestingly, this is the first time that we've been in a place where certain websites are restricted by the government, and in Tunisia's case, this would be www.hotmail.com. It's kind of interesting, because you can sign on to Passport, MSN, MSN Chat, and a variety of other Microsoft related sites, but for some reason, the Tunisian government has blocked access to Hotmail. I find this odd, considering you can access Yahoo mail and other online e-mail tools. The operator at the internet place in Tunis said that it had been like this for many months; he didn't really understand it either.

Tunisian Driving
This was another great driving experience; indeed, several times I found myself wishing again that we had out Pathfinder, and in some other cases, a fast sports car for the scenic winding roads through the low valleys and plains of central Tunisia. One of the oddities about driving there though, is that you have to deal with the ancient clunkers that are on the roads as wells as the fast European cars that the better-off folks seem to have. Passing on the main highways seems to be done on an incredibly frequent basis, and we had a couple of close calls with oncoming traffic trying to get by a slow poke.

The police monitor entrances to towns, and they've always got people pulled over, checking their ID's, often for seemingly random reasons. We were pulled over a few times ourselves, but being a tourist always seems to be a bit of "Get out of jail free" card... the police seemed to be more curious about us than anything else, and several of them asked inquisitively, "Chinese? Japanese?" after greeting us in French.

It seems that one of the more common ways of getting around for local people is to hitchhike; there definitely isn't the same taboo about it that exists in North America. All over the country, we saw people just standing by the street waving their arms at cars, and invariably, they didn't have to wait long as people stopped to pick up strangers all the time. We thought about it a few times, but ended up deciding not to pick up anybody, thinking that we'd rather forego a local interactive experience for a little more security.

Practicing French
It has been 15 years since I last used French, and pretty much everything was forgotten, including vocabulary and grammar, not to mention I have an atrocious accent. But there was enough remaining to get by, and I enjoyed limping through several interesting conversations with local people in both Morocco and Tunisia. I'm somewhat regretful that we're leaving French-speaking countries now, because I think I was just starting to get into the swing of things, and some words were starting to come back. Indeed, I've been inadvertantly greeting people here in Malta in French, forgetting that everyone speaks English here! (Speaking of interesting languages, Maltese is pretty fascinating... hopefully more on this in a later blog.)

North African Television
It's no wonder that some people on the other side of the world have a bit of a warped image of the U.S., given what they get to see on television. Now we know what happens to all those lousy midnight movies that we never watch at home; they are all played here in prime time! There are a few of the more popular sitcoms that have been dubbed and play in French from the satellite stations from France, and obviously there is the news from BBC and such. But just like we are accustomed to believing whatever the media displays for us on television, it is easy to see where people from countries like Tunisia and Morocco get a slightly warped sense of America and Americans, judging from the trashy shows they get to watch. That also might partly explain our typical greeting as Asians, as the only Asian people they might have exposure to are Jackie Chan and other martial arts actors on TV.

Casablanca and Tunis Airports
Ok, so I know I'm a spoiled travelling consultant used to the Premier lineup and fairly high standards of service, but I think everybody was frustrated by the lack of organization that seems to be prevalent in Casablanca and Tunis' airports. There were no lineups really; pretty much whoever is the most aggressive and can push their way to the front will get the first service. Getting through customs and security was excuciating as well, especially in Casablanca. Since I don't have much positive to say about all this, I think I'll leave it at that.

Guidebooks and History
We are so grateful to Lilia at the British Council in Tunis for lending us her Rough Guide guidebook, without which we would have been quite lost in our visit through Tunisia. Thanks Lilia! One thing about these guidebooks I've discovered, is that reading about a country's history and background in FAR more interesting when you're actually in that country itself, and can see or have seen some of the things the book describes. There's nothing from stopping any of us from sitting in a bookstore at home and reading the history sections of all the Lonely Planet guidebooks. But somehow, reading about the history of the country that you're sitting in seems to drive the point home much more than it does when you're 3000 miles away.

Until next time North Africa, thanks for the memories and see you next time! Now it's on to the rest of the Meditteranean, including Malta, Greece, and Turkey.


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