The Canadian government has enraged the ‘go back to your cunt-ry’ brigade by updating its travel advisory to include lawless road conditions, “accidents involving stray bullets”, sexual assaults, rape and petty crime.
I don’t think we need to dwell on the driving, thanks to that roundabout outside the airport. Road chaos is the first thing visitors notice about the island.
I regularly saw ancient trucks overloaded with limestone blocks careening down roads more potholed than a field after the Third Battle of Ypres, only to roll straight into that airport roundabout with no regard for oncoming traffic.
Cars come at you in the wrong lane, usually around blind corners, and head-on collisions are common; I had never seen so many.
Most perplexing of all are the single car accidents. The newspapers report several each week. A car will suddenly fly off a perfectly straight road and plough into a stone wall or tree, or do a barrel roll down the centre line: ’Single car accident, eight people injured in a Fiat Uno’.
While I found the absence of traffic laws liberating, I can understand why potential car renting visitors would appreciate being warned.
But ‘stray bullets’? Dwellers of the Great White North associate that sort of thing with US inner cities and parts of Toronto, not the peaceful European Union.
If you haven’t lived through hunting season yet, you’re in for a treat. I like to think of it as ‘petards-lite’.
Where roosters greet the dawn in many rural places, in Malta dawn breaks with a barrage of shotgun fire.
I lived on the edge of Mosta for a couple of years in a flat with a terrace overlooking cultivated fields that sloped gradually to a seasonal stream, where a vineyard clung to the fringes. During certain parts of the year, the fields resonated with the drone of small tractors as farmers tilled and planted their patches.
But our neighbourhood was also home to hunting enthusiasts, including the family across the road. When they weren’t performing car repairs on the oil-stained street in front of their house, they would walk across the road dressed in military clothing, with shotguns slung over their shoulders and a Maltese hunting dog running at their heels.
They spread out across the fields or sat in stone shanties they’d built on the margins, where they would blast away before dawn, at dusk and throughout most of the afternoon.
Days were filled with the ping of metal shot bouncing off the railing of our terrace or falling on our roof, and nights with the repetitive electronic chatter of illegal bird callers set out to attract their prey.
It always struck me as mad that an island as overpopulated as Malta would let some 12,000 people take their 36,000 registered guns into the diminishing countryside, right on the edge of urban areas. It works out to approximately 34 hunters per square kilometre.
There were a couple of memorable incidents with ‘stray bullets’ during my island years.
In 2012, a man in Gozo was walking in a field near Għajnsielem cemetery when he heard a loud noise and noticed blood on his face. He had been hit by stray shotgun pellets. According to the police, the incident “may or may not have been related to hunting”.
In 2016, a Dutch teenager on a school trip to Malta was hit in the leg by lead pellets fired by a hunter. The boy, Mark van Leeuwen, saw the hunter and shouted, “Man, why did you shoot me?”.
Rather than rush to the scene to administer first aid, van Leeuwen reported that 33-year-old David Galea ran up to him and his friends, yelled, “Ey, do you want to fight me?” and hit him in the face.
They were then treated to a barrage of Maltese curses — including, “Next time I’ll kill you!” — as the hunter stomped away. Despite an abundance of witnesses to the assault, Galea pleaded not guilty to all charges and was later acquitted.
Of course, some ‘stray bullets’ are more accidental than others.
Foresta 2000 ranger Ray Vella was shot twice in two years — once in the face and once on the side of the head — and his farmhouse was burned, with olive trees uprooted, and oil poured down his well.
His crime? Conservation.
The strongest argument in favour of this ubiquitous enthusiasm for hunting and trapping is “tradition”. The word is uttered like a talisman that magically absolves everyone of responsibility: “It’s our tradition, you can’t touch it.”
Unfortunately for the hunters, this simply isn’t true. According to Natalino Fenech, author of ‘Fatal Flight’, hunting was the privileged pastime of the upper classes throughout most Maltese history. Statistics on hunting licences demonstrate that shooting only gained popularity after World War II.
But none of that matters to the casual visitor, Canadian or otherwise.
Fair warning that the air rings with gunshots and ‘stray bullets’ every hunting season, when birds migrate over the Maltese Islands. The countryside is a place to be avoided in spring and autumn, lest you be sworn at, have your car vandalised, or be called a ‘rubber jolly’ because you happen to set foot in their area.
Still, lawless roads and the occasional bit of stray lead are a small risk to run for a couple weeks away from Justin Trudeau.