Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Seeing The Light

After Mars and I had vacationed in Malta in 1997 I was asked by a coworker - someone who obviously had asked others how their sojourns were and had gotten their detailed itinerary in response - "What was the ONE thing that was the most memorable?"

I wasn't prepared for this question but without hesitation I answered "The light."

Satisfied with my answer, or maybe even happier with the success of his question, he quickly made his getaway.

Years later I think I would still have given largely the same answer. There is something about being in bright natural light that immediately makes me feel like I belong there.

But not just ordinary sunny-day brightness. I mean really intense and all pervading sunlight - the kind of light which poets call effulgent, the kind that makes everything around you seem white, the kind I've only actually experienced a few times in my life.

We went to Malta because Mars saw a magazine article about "Vacations Off The Beaten Path" one day at our hairstylist - and Malta was one of the places. They showed a photo of the walled city of Valletta and Mars said "We have to go there."

So we did.

Dick, our Travel Agent at the time, had never booked a trip to Malta - in fact like us he was unfamiliar even with where it was (in the Mediterranean 90 km south of Sicily), who flew there (Air Malta), what languages they spoke (English and Maltese) and what you could do there (it has megalithic temples older than Stonehenge and it's called the German Riviera).

In fact Malta is a group of three islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino (each one essentially a limestone plateau) with the Island of Malta where we stayed being the largest at 136 km circumference.

It was our first trip out of the country (Canada and the Bahamas didn't really count) and while we had a great deal of faith in Dick's ability to get us there and back safely, we were traveling independently to an unfamiliar place about which we basically knew nothing. I at least was a little apprehensive.

Being relatively flat and visibly surrounded only by ocean, Malta has as low a horizon as anyone can have. In September we were at the beginning of the Mediterranean rainy season so the days were not always bright and sunny. But when they were the sunlight was white-hot bright and seemingly everywhere.

Instead of gradually spreading over the area, the daylight just suddenly showed up and immediately took over everything. It reflected off of the deep blue ocean, off of the white limestone ground, off of the white limestone field boulders, and off of the white limestone buildings - making these objects almost painfully bright. The shade was just about entirely caused by manmade constructs and, rather than providing relief, accentuated the brightness by its passive darkness. There was literally no escaping it - and for me no reason to want to.

We wandered on our own through the narrow apartment-filled streets of Sliema and Valletta, strolled along the paved strand adjacent to the Mediterranean, swam in the sea from the sun-baked limestone "beaches", and laid our bodies out for sun-drying on the same rock-hard surfaces until the late afternoon cumulus shut off the sun and sent our chilled bodies back to prepare for the evening.

I also felt this intense unyielding light in New Mexico on our first hike up to Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch - a three mile trip where the only signs of humanity were the boot prints that were pressed into the bone-dry earth. And when we trekked by ourselves across the poorly marked footpaths of the Big Bend to the hot springs at the long ago abandoned Rio Grande Village. Or to Burro Springs in the same West Texas area.

Mars says that she doesn't believe in new-agey spiritual connections with places but all of these trips were things that she felt "We have to go there" - each with pretty much the same lack of advance knowledge. And although I certainly felt comfortable being there I definitely would not have done these things without her. On the Texas and New Mexico hikes we were pretty much the only two people in our part of the world. In Malta, probably because we were very much on our own, I felt like we were.

One of the UConn women basketballers is quoted in today's paper as saying she likes playing in games away from home because "all you have is your team".

Effulgence may be important, but it takes being with the right person to really see the light. Sometimes you just need to put yourself in foreign situations to realize that.

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