I’m discovering good things can happen when you’re willing to get a little lost. – the wisdom of me, from This Post.
The other day I decided I would get on my borrowed yellow bicycle and aim myself towards the Blue Grotto. This “grotto” is in fact a series of caverns in the sea along the cliffs south of Żurrieq, while the “Blue” part is water flowing in and around them. The water is, as you might have guessed, varying shades of dazzling blue.
It had the added appeal of only being about 8.5 kilometers from where I’m staying in Birżebbuġa. A good distance, I thought, to introduce me to cycling here. I googled it, made a note that I’d be travelling west while following signs for Żurrieq and departed (with a helmet, kids, of course. I would have worn 17 helmets AND body armour if it had been possible. Drivers here are nuts and I’m not ashamed to admit I put off cycling for a while after I first arrived. I was relatively certain it would be the last thing I ever did. Now please go knock on wood for me).
Almost immediately I made a wrong turn. I noticed this when I came upon the Playmobile Funpark in Ħal Far that I knew to be in the opposite direction of the grotto.
Whatever, I thought. I’d stick to my general trajectory and when I inevitably came across water I’d turn right – west. Flawless. Plan.
I did find the sea. I did turn right. But it would prove impossible to follow the water’s edge all the way to the grotto.
I didn’t know this yet when up ahead I saw a man in a blue polo shirt and jeans watching me trundle towards him. I had dismounted my bike due to the proximity of the shear cliffs to my left and was picking my way through the mixture of scrub and cacti that seemed to have knit themselves together into a prickly blanket over everything. Dragging the bicycle along next to me. And then there he was.
“Where are you trying to get to?” he asked me. My presence puzzled him. He was almost wary.
I told him my plan. Now my presence amused him.
“You cannot pass from here,” he said, eyes chuckling. There was a quarry up in the distance, he informed me, and buildings in the way besides.
What was he doing here anyway? I thought as I told him no, I wasn’t from England. He had something in his hand. “I am Canadian. Is that… is that a bird?”
Yes. Yes it was. Huh.
At that point I really looked at my surroundings. Four or five small (smaller than a breadbox) cages dotted the grass, each containing a skittish, sparrow-like bird. A fine brown mesh carpeted the ground. He told me this has been his hobby since he was a little boy. I judged him to be grandfather-y age so he’s been doing this a while. He catches the birds here, he said, and brings them home where he has more of them. But he was a bit cagey (whah-whah) about the details.
“Do you mind if I take some pictures?” I asked with my viewfinder already halfway to my eye.
Only of the birds, he replied.
Turns out he had scrutinized my slow amble towards him to determine if I was the pulizija or what. If I had been, he would have taken his little yellow birdie and booked it in the direction of the quarry so as to avoid a 700 euro fine, he said.
Aw so this all was illegal activity. I was Pip and this was my Great Expectations playing out on a less Dickensian and tragic scale. And really, only the part when he meets the Convict. And even that is a very tenuous stretch. But the point is Malta has a pretty serious bird hunting problem, especially when it comes to folks shooting migratory birds for sport. Since the country joined the European Union in 2004, this practice of trapping has been illegal but very much still a thing people do.
I bid the man adieu. He asked if I had Facebook. It’s a weird world.
And birds were the theme of the day.
I was walking down a street of cafes and tiny gift shops all packed to the rafters with the same knick-knacks in the hamlet near the Blue Grotto when a man in a baseball cap caught my eye and I stared at him for fully 30 seconds until he noticed and beckoned me over. O and he had an owl perched on his forearm. A beautiful bird whose feathers nearly matched the limestone buildings around her with lowlights like scattered peppercorn across the wings and head. A cord about two meters long was clipped to the leather glove the man wore and fastened around both of the owl’s… um… ankles? Do owl’s have ankles? Well whatever it is called, it’s the bit of the leg right before the claws start.
The man told me her name is Lina and he’d raised the Indian Eagle Owl from a baby.
I took a zillion photos and then dilly-dallied putting the camera away. I placed it in my backpack. Took it out. Rearranged things. Put it back in. Stared meaningfully at the splendid creature.
“Would you like to hold her?” the man asked.
“O YES PLEASE.” Finally.
I know I look stoic with a touch of suave in this photo but I was actually planning a defence should the owl go for my eyes. My strategy: duck.
I mean, look at those talons.
OWL GALLERY! (click to embiggen)
Anyway the moral of the story is: getting lost = birds. Just don’t get lost at night. Otherwise = bats, creepy people.