May 2011

How to make a Maltese cross

By David Feela

The bus driver was in a foul mood, shouting out the window in broken English, “Whadda ya want?” when I politely inquired if his bus went to Rabat. Then he turned away from me, perhaps nodding his head, perhaps not, and examined his fingernails. I’d watched him curse a pigeon for landing near his bus prior to asking for information.

We were, after all, just tourists on his island, and it was our first attempt at using Malta’s notorious fleet of yellow buses. According to our guide book, the buses will get you anywhere on the island. According to our driver, questions will get you nowhere.

Pam travels with me because she doesn’t get flustered easily. She turned to a passenger standing on the loading platform and asked, “Does this bus go to Rabat?” and when he nodded she asked how much fare is required.

In my version of an Un-Lonely Planet travel guide, I would advise readers to always travel with a companion, preferably one that comes up smelling like roses every time you step in the dog pile.

We took our seats only a few rows from the door, afraid to miss our stop. Without warning, without so much as the door closing, the bus lurched to life. We hung on tightly to the seat in front of us, nearly spilled into the aisle by the cornering as we headed out of the roundabout terminal and into traffic.

We’d accomplished our travel goal for the day: Try something unusual. If we survived, we’d try for a more pedestrian goal tomorrow, like walking.

Some of the old buses still in operation were manufactured in the 1950s, and all are painted a bright yellow, often with pin-striping and hand-lettered messages across the fenders like, Thank God, or, Life in Heaven. Nearly every bus has an inspirational picture of either Jesus or the Virgin Mary prominently displayed inside, often on the panel just above the driver’s head. The Maltese are mostly Catholic and their devotion to the church is perhaps justified by scaring the hell out of so many tourists.

After our breakneck start, the driver picked up more passengers on the way out of town. I was impressed by every passenger’s consideration for older folks, always moving toward the back of the bus to allow, say, a little old lady a convenient front seat. Pam tapped me on the shoulder to point out an older man who’d just boarded, paid his fare, and then made the sign of the cross immediately as he seated himself — no doubt, a kind of spiritual self-defense. We cleared the crowded streets of Valletta, Malta’s capital city, without crushing any tiny vehicles weaving in and out of the traffic lanes.

Deep down every Maltese motorist desires to be a bus driver. The roads are so narrow I still have trouble believing two buses moving in opposite directions pass without scraping paint. Out of the city, we settled back to watch the countryside open up like the pages of a picture book, miles of the island’s rock walls and terraced fields, cactus hedges and 16th century limestone buildings, inducing a trance that made me forget the oncoming traffic.

It must have been a deep trance, because suddenly the bus braked so hard we were lifted from our seats into a standing position. The driver hit the horn as if the little town of Zebbug formed the new walls of Jericho, a virtual canyon of tenements on both sides of the bus he wanted to reduce to rubble. The horn blared, nonstop, echoing off the stone. I could see through the windshield that nobody occupied any of the cars parked along the street, but he may have planned to move them by the sheer force of decibels.

We waited five minutes, our ears ringing, when from behind a tiny doorway a young woman emerged, hurrying toward the offending cars. She jumped into one of them, started it up, and pulled away. The bus took off, and we were seriously making up for lost time. At the next town we stood to exit with a clutch of passengers. I suspected it might be Rabat, but I wasn’t going to ask. I did, however, thank the driver before exiting. “Whadda for?” he shouted at me, one hand poised in the air like a priest at the end of mass. What could I say? We’d been blessed.

David Feela writes from Montezuma County, Colo.