Final post from Malta

Stone walled terraces, Malta

Happy Birthday Lauren Priest

We had our final Maltese walk today, along the many small bays of the southeast coast closest to Libya. The major path we followed was atop a long wall of white limestone cliffs. One got the impression that some excellent diving might be done along that coast. Partly because today is a national holiday, there were also a lot of locals swimming or just sitting in the sun in the bays. Along the ridge were hundreds more birds in tiny cages, being used by men in hides to lure in their fellows for entrapment and sale.

In addition to about 350 photos taken with my digital camera, I’ve nearly finished four rolls of film. In all probability, I will be able to have a few of the digital shots online tomorrow night, with more to follow on Sunday. The film has a longer journey to make, but will ultimately be online as well. I’ve been trading URLs with some of the other relatively avid photographers in our group.

Malta, in the end, was quite a pleasant place to visit. The appeal was athletic, aesthetic, and intellectual. This is definitely an appropriate time to make the trip over, given how blisteringly hot I expect it will be here in a few months. For those of the ‘long pants, a hat, and SPF 45 sunscreen’ school of solar appreciation, now is the time to take in the views without being overly exposed to the cancer ball in the sky.

The end of poverty

As Kerrie pointed out in a comment, it is unlikely that Jeffrey Sachs’ objective of ending extreme poverty by 2025 will be achieved. If his figures are correct, that is a fairly substantial indictment of the entire rich world. While I haven’t quite finished his book, his central claim is the much of the world is caught in a ‘poverty trap’ wherein it is too poor to begin the process of development. For about eighty billion dollars a year, sustained for a decade, that vicious cycle could be broken for all those inhabitants of the planet who presently live in extreme poverty. That’s about 10% of the GDP of Canada – a nation that is neither highly populous nor highly powerful. According to Sachs, if the OECD nations actually committed the 0.7% of GDP (seven cents on every ten dollars) that they have repeatedly promised for development assistance, the gap between what the developing nations can pay and the sums required would be filled.

Even if Sachs’ most ambitious proposals are beyond what is politically possible, the idea of a poverty trap is potentially an incredibly important one. If it can be shown that countries can be lifted out of extreme poverty through what amounts to a one time grant, the prospect for eliminating extreme poverty is very real. That conjecture is certainly one that could be evaluated at a smaller scale than the laudable worldwide plan that Sachs proposes.

In any case, it is an inspiring book and one that people interested in world development should take the time to read – even if they happen to be on vacation.

Gozo visit

Wayfinding in Malta

Today’s expedition was to Gozo: the second largest island in Malta, reached by means of a twenty minute ferry ride. Like the island of Malta, Gozo is speckled with churches of a distinctive architectural style, each of which serves as the most visible component of the towns of golden-yellow stone that dot the coastlines and hilltops.

Unlike previous days, our Gozo tour happened primarily by minibus. This allowed us to see what seemed to be a good cross section of the island’s attractions, and left our legs feeling strangely fresh at the end of the day. We saw a number of churches, the citadel, and a remarkable natural feature on the coastline called the Azure Window. I will make sure to post some images of it once I return to Oxford. It consists of a pillar connected to the land by a flat slab. Beneath it, the surprisingly violent waters of the Mediterranean churn.

The tour group format of this whole trip is quite unfamiliar to me. I am learning that it definitely has advantages: primarily insofar as housing and transport are arranged. Never having to mess about learning how to get places and waiting for buses really increases what you can see over a period of time. There is also value in being able to converse with relative strangers who you will nonetheless see again and again over the course of the week. I tend to work my way to the front of the column of walkers, pause to take a photo or two, and end up at the back again. This gives me a regular rotation through the ranks of our fellow travellers.

March may be the ideal time to visit Malta. The attractions of the place – like those of Italy – are split between the aesthetic and the historical. It has certainly been very sunny here, though not nearly so warm as July or August threaten to be. As such, we’ve been reasonably comfortable walking the terraced hills: looking at the cacti and lizards, as well as stopping regularly at the innumerable cafes. Malta certainly has more to it than you expect of a sun-and-sand style destination, and it’s certainly helpful that absolutely everyone seems to speak good English.

I dispatched a second wave of postcards today. Unfortunately, I forgot that the only copy I have of most people’s addresses is the one in my iPod – which I decided at the last minute to leave in Oxford. Thankfully, to send cards to people in Oxford requires only memory of which college they are at. I will also send postcards to as many people as possible who emailed me their addresses when I was in Estonia. With 81 emails in my inbox (as well as more than 200 automatically marked as spam) and the internet expensive and frustrating to use in the hotel, new contributions are not being solicited at this time.

The next two days are the last real touring days. Each is meant to involve a fairly long walk, which I am keen on after a day with relatively little exercise in it. I am onto my third roll of film (the second roll of T-Max 400, with another roll of HD400 untouched) and I’ve filled half of the 512MB memory card in my camera. Obviously, only a fraction of those shots will ultimately be good enough to post, but I am already looking forward to picking out the best (and removing the irksome fungus blotches from the digital shots). Mostly, the photos have been of the landscapes, though anything distant tends to be obscured by haze. I’ve also been chasing around some of the local wildlife. The birds in tiny cages that the hunters use as lures are easy enough to snap a photo of, though the result is as depressing as you would expect.

One thing that I miss about self-directed travel is the freedom to choose where you eat. The simple lunches of cheese, bread, and tomatoes that my mother and I have been eating are probably tastier, and certainly better value, than the hotel meals, which are fairly generic and not very vegetarian friendly. It’s certainly decent fare, but obviously geared towards meat eating Brits who are not very adventurous.

My return to Oxford will probably be late on the night of April 1st, after I see The Producers in London with my mother. Anyone who is burning with anticipation for an email response or a photo posted to the blog had best find something else to occupy their attention until then.

On Valletta and Jeffrey Sachs

Church of Our Lady of Victory, Mellieha

Happy Birthday Robert Wood

My mother and I visited the fortified port of Valletta today. Aside from walking about in the centre of town, the group also took a boat cruise along the edge of the harbour, which divides into narrow sections like the fingers of two hands. Like Tallinn, Valletta has been subjected to a great many attacks and invasions, from different directions and in different periods. The ongoing strategic importance of a useful pair of islands in the middle of the Mediterranean is thereby demonstrated.

The city itself reminds me a great deal of the quieter parts of Rome. The streets are narrow and flanked by multi-story buildings with shuttered windows. Wild cats are numerous and fearless: sunning themselves and adding to the menace posed to Maltese birds by the many shooting clubs you can hear off in the countryside. The main cathedral is quite an unusual building, with a floor plan markedly different from that of any Christian church I can recall seeing, as well as a profusion of patterned wall sections composed of deep grooves cut in stone.

Today involved much less walking than the first day – a shortfall that it seems will be remedied tomorrow as we walk to and around the old capital of Rabat. I hope that the many photos I took over the course of the boat ride and wandering in Valletta will turn out well.

While I have been in Malta, I have been reading Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty. While it’s not the most well written book – his excess of exclamation marks is especially annoying – it is nonetheless one that strikes me as extremely important. The idea that we could eliminate the kind of extreme poverty that cuts people off from any chance of improving their lot and that of their children by 2025 is a profoundly inspiring and exciting one. It’s the kind of idea you really wish could take hold within the corridors of power and the hearts and minds of people in the developed world. It’s the kind of project that is enormously more important than any one life, or even the entire history of any one country. The imperative is to act as a collective in a way that humanity has never managed: to conjure the mechanisms by which bold ideas and conceptions of justice can be converted into reality out in the world. To be shown fairly convincingly that we have the power to end untold misery around the globe creates a real obligation to make good on that potential. It’s an effort that I hope to become a part of.

Malta introduction

Doorways in Mellieha

My mother and I have now passed an enjoyable day in Malta. We arrived yesterday evening and met with the group of mostly retirees with whom we will be walking over the course of the week. The first walk was today and, while it was not strenuous, it was nonetheless more challenging than I had expected. We got a couple of quite stunning hilltop views of this part of the island, as well as St. Paul’s Bay. Malta has the overall look of a Mediterranean country, with rough stone walls separating terraces and rows of somewhat parched hills extending down into bays. I expect that it will be a pleasant place to spend a week.

The group doing the harder hike seems to be largely composed of retired scientists and engineers. As such, I spent a good deal of the nine hours of the expedition talking about either engineering or photography. Everything from point and shoot consumer digital cameras to relatively ancient screw-mount Pentax SLRs were represented on the hike. Between the six or so avid photographers, these walks promise to be well documented. Personally, I used both my A510 for more documentary shots and my Elan 7N for the photos that I hope will prove artistic. Examples of both will doubtless find their way online. The vistas are quite nice and the architecture reminds me of Latin America: primarily because of the pastel colours and rectilinear forms.

The climate here is cooler than I expected, but certainly very sunny. After a few straight hours of walking in the sun, my brain felt positively cooked. I will probably need to regulate the temperature with some Maltese lager before I turn to my qualifying test notes. Surprisingly, the main local brew tastes a great deal like Sleeman’s Cream Ale, from back in Canada.

On one of today’s hilltops, we stopped to watch people arriving at a wedding reception. Between the appearance of the building – which declared itself to be a ducal villa – the stream of shiny black Mercedes automobiles, and the security men in suits around the perimeter, the whole affair had quite a godfather feel to it. Aside from some ludicrously dressed trumpeters, who looked as though they came from a bad imitation medieval restaurant in Tallinn, it certainly seemed a very classy affair. My pity goes out to all the foxes that died to adorn the necks of women standing in the hot sun.

With out buffet dinner starting in a few minutes, I should probably turn to academically related emails. Unfortunately, the computer in the hotel is too crippled in its functionality to be used to post images to the blog. That’s a bit surprising, since the place is far more upscale than the kind of accommodation I am accustomed to while travelling. My mother and I, for instance, have a better kitchen than the one in Library Court right in our room, as well as quite a nice view of the bay and the church on the next hill from our balcony.

Coffee with Emily, Exeter Music

Exeter chapel ceiling

This morning, my mother and I had some superb omelettes at the Vault and Gardens before going for a walk around the botanical gardens beside Magdalen. I particularly like the greenhouses, including the one that includes a whole collection of edible plants. It’s interesting to see how many of their products – peanuts, papayas, coffee – we can be familiar with, without having any sense of what the plant itself resembles. Oxford students who haven’t visited the botanical gardens should definitely do so. It’s free and, in a few weeks time, they will really begin to blossom with spring. As they are now, the gardens are balanced between decay and emerging growth, with different species at different stages.

Introducing my mother to Emily was good fun and personally rewarding. I appreciate having the chance to actually introduce family members to new friends, with whom they have only been acquainted thus far through letters and blog posts. Like Claire, I had the sense that Emily and my mother would get along particularly well; that apprehension seems to have been borne out with experience. Hopefully, my mother will have the chance to meet a few more people – perhaps Alex, Margaret, Bryony, and Dr. Hurrell – when she returns to Oxford on the 2nd and 3rd of April.

The concert in Exeter was quite beautiful. It was a selection of Vivaldi performed by candlelight inside the archaic and majestic looking Exeter chapel. The concert was put on by a group called Charivari Agreable, and included some wonderful countertenor singing by Stephen Taylor. While the harpsichord is not my favourite instrument, I really loved the two violins – especially when they were playfully engaging each other.

Packing has now concluded, hopefully in a manner that does not exclude anything vital. Of course, it’s only for a week and there is every opportunity to buy neglected necessities in Malta. We are off to Gatwick, by coach, extremely early tomorrow morning. I may be able to post something while I am there. If not, I will return on the first of April.

College grumbling

I must say that, when it comes to inconvenience, the Wadham maintenance people are absolute masters. If the showers need to be turned off at some point in the day, it will be in the hour before classes. If there is to be a cut in power, it will happen while your soapy clothes are inside the washing machine – after you figured out you way into the laundry room through the bike shed, because they are doing asbestos removal in the basement. I suppose I will just dry them out as best I can and wash them again in Malta, as there’s no guarantee the washers will work later on in Wadham.

PS. Remember when I thought I saw dead wolves at the Covered Market? Well, someone else saw the same thing, and they painted it. While they may not, in fact, be wolves, they are still a chilling thing to run into when you’re looking for flavoured tofu. That is attested to by the fact that someone took the time to paint them. The painting is on display, and on sale, at the Vault and Gardens.

Cyclically adjusted

Me and my bike in the Wadham back quad

People will be pleased to know that my mother very kindly bought me a bicycle, from Beeline Cycles in Cowley. I tried both the hybrid – which felt quite good – and the mountain bike – which was obviously cheaply assembled and far too small – and we decided on the former.

The bike is a fast feeling hybrid, with thin wheels, mudguards, and a rack on the back. After having coffee with Emily and my mother, I took the bike out for a ten mile ride to test it out. I went up the Banbury Road, through the countryside to Kidlington, through Kidlington itself, and back. The ride was a reminder that I haven’t cycled in a long while, but am luckily not badly out of form. Using the British roadways for the first time, I was glad for all the cycle paths and the relatively clear signage. Next time, I will try going south.

For now, the bike. will need to wait in the Wadham bike shed until I get back from Malta. I suppose it’s nice to have something to look forward to after a vacation.

Touring Oxford

Claire and my mother in the Jericho Cafe

Happy Birthday Marc Gurstein

During what proved to be quite an ambitious day, my mother and I walked at least fifteen kilometres through and around Oxford, over the course of three different expeditions. Firstly, we walked northward, visiting places as far up as St. Antony’s and the Church Walk flat before returning to Wadham through the University Parks. After having a look at the Ashmolean, we covered most of Oxford south of Wadham, including Christ Church and the Isis. Finally, starting around eight, we walked along the canal and across the Port Meadow to The Perch, before walking back through Jericho. The Port Meadow horses were sleeping in a large group in the southwest corner of the meadow, and seemed entirely disinterested in us when we approached them.

Among other things, the day was a nice confirmation that I know my way around Oxford. Having coffee and cake with Claire and my mother at the Jericho Cafe was also a highlight. All of us who have been driven to extreme anxiousness by Claire’s diligence in revising can rest a bit easier, knowing she is going to Cornwall for two weeks quite shortly.

Very early Saturday, my mother and I depart for Malta, so tomorrow will be our last real day in Oxford. With luck, we will meet with Emily at some point. In the evening, we may be going to see a Vilvaldi concert by candlelight in Exeter College. Additionally, I have laundry and packing to complete.

Queen of the North sinking

I don’t know too many of the details of the Queen of the North sinking, in British Columbia, but it’s excellent to hear that all or nearly all of the passengers and crew have been rescued. To have effective emergency response procedures demonstrated is always a welcome thing, though you tend to hear a lot more about those that prove ineffective. While it may be pointless, my appreciation goes out to all those who assisted in the rescue operation. In particular, the residents of Hartley Bay seem deserving of praise.

Hopefully, we will learn relatively soon what went wrong in the first place.

First familial visit

My mother and I at Kashmir, Cowley Road

My mother arrived in Oxford this evening – the first family member I’ve seen since I left Vancouver in September. We will be in Oxford until early Saturday morning, when we are heading to Gatwick for our flight to Malta.

By the time my mother had deposited bags in my room and the one in college where she is staying, it was already getting dark. We took a quick spin around Wadham – looking into the chapel and gardens – before walking past the Radcliffe and across the Magdalen Bridge for dinner at Kashmir, on the Cowley Road. Fortified with curry, we stopped for a pint at The Turf, sitting outside beside one of the coal fires while something like a bachelor’s party raged within.

Tomorrow, I am planning to give a couple of short walking tours for her. The first will sweep northward, past Rhodes House and the Natural History Museum, stopping at St. Antony’s and the Church Walk flat where I will live for the summer. Heading back through the university parks, we will stop by the department before returning to Wadham via New College. The second, longer, track will go into the Codrington and then University and Magdalen Colleges, before heading to the Christ Church Meadows through the botanical gardens. Stopping at Christ Church itself, we will then go have a look at the main quad of Nuffield. That should constitute a good introduction to Oxford that includes most of the places that are personally important to me.

Along with some new clothes, my mother brought other valuable provisions. Pens – including nine of the four colour pens that are my note taking staple – and bike accessories are both very useful, as I suspect the small sling style pack may prove. She also brought a travel alarm clock, wicking toque, and book by Jeffrey Sachs that was a gift from a family friend. Unpacking it all in my room in Library Court felt like a kind of belated Christmas. Once again, I feel very well equipped.

The upcoming Malta trip is increasingly exciting, even though Claire’s studiousness is making me anxious about the upcoming exam. I will be sure to acquire what books remain at the SSL to accompany me to this small Mediterranean country, though I have no doubts about how many of their pages will get flipped while I am there. The pressure of immanent examinations is good for young minds, anyhow.

PS. Congratulations to my friend Matthew Tindall, who got his iron ring today. In Canada, they are given to new engineers, as a symbol of responsibility, in reference to a bridge in Quebec that collapsed due to miscalculations. More information is here.

Happy first day of spring

Lake near Arundel

As I carry on with the early stages of revision, I am getting more nervous about the upcoming qualifying test. While it’s only three hours long, the total amount of material covered is highly extensive. While nobody will have read all the hundreds of books on the various reading lists, there is still the general requirement that we be knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics and able to write upon them under formal exam conditions.

One piece of solace is that there will apparently be quite a lot of choice on the exam. We are to write three essays: with either two on history from 1900 to 1950 or two on international relations theory. Within each of the two subject areas, there are apparently going to be five or so options. That implies that it may be better to know about a moderate number of areas in detail, then about all possible topics in a more superficial way. Having never written an Oxford exam, it’s difficult to strategize. I suppose the practice exam that I will be writing for Dr. Hurrell and then discussing with him on the 12th of April will give me some useful guidance for my last seven days of revision.

By the end of my time at UBC, I was feeling pretty confident about final exams. I knew the different sorts that were out there, the kinds of expectations professors had, and the general amount of effort I would need to put in in order to do well. Here, all of those things are much less certain. Also complicating things is the marking system. The passing grade is 60% and a distinction is 70%. On past form, it is probable that nobody in the program will fail and that two among the twenty-eight will get distinctions. It seems reasonable to think that those will be people already familiar with OxBridge examinations, though it may not be. For the 93% of people writing who will simply pass, there is ultimately very little difference between doing decently well and doing very well, just shy of a distinction. As such, it’s hard to determine how much effort to put into the entire matter. My supervisor certainly seems to think that – while important – studying for the QT should not be the focus of this break, which it does seem wiser to spend thinking about and working on the thesis.

Even so, I’ve resolved to bring my history notes and perhaps a text or two along to Malta.