In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus embarks on a treacherous journey as he returns home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. His trek is marked by seemingly endless challenges; he encounters the Cyclops, resists the lure of the Sirens, and spends years imprisoned in a cave by Calypso as he works toward his singular goal of reunification with his family.
I had a lot of time to think about Odysseus as I sat, paralyzed by fear and battling dehydration, looking over Ramla Bay toward where the real Calypso’s Cave still stands. What had started as a gentle walk along the beach morphed into an arduous hike up a narrow trail, and now I sat alone and wondering how I was going to get myself down… or to the top… or simply off the rock. 30 minutes earlier, everything had seemed so much easier.
Ramla Bay was one of our intended stops during our daytrip to Gozo. Famous for its red sand and peaceful location, I looked forward to walking barefoot along the beach and Adam was excited for a few pictures from Tal Mixta Cave. As we arrived, Adam assured me it would be a quick, easy climb, and he was right; after scaling a few small dunes we were alone on the beach, surrounded by nothing more than bright blue waves, rich red sand, and lush green vegetation that hugged the landscape. I slipped off my sandals and savored the chill of the beach between my toes, cold from a sea whose tide was out for the time being.
Adam joined me for a few moments before slipping his shoes back on and motioning off to the horizon. “Well, let’s get started,” he said.
“Started?” I asked. “Have we not done what we came to do?” Adam reminded me we hadn’t seen the cave yet, and it occurred to me I couldn’t see it anywhere along the beach. When I asked him where he expected to find it, he pointed up. My eyes followed his finger above the sand, above the trees, and to a tiny opening in the rocks above and beyond us. A loud laugh escaped my lips.“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said. “No chance we’re hiking to that. Is there even a trail?” My smile melted away as Adam, always prepared with research to back his plans, explained that he watched several YouTube videos that chronicled the hike we would need to undertake to earn some spectacular views of the bay. “It takes 20 minutes, the path is clearly marked, and people do it all the time,” he told me. Not wanting to be the one to ruin a good time, I sighed as loudly as I could, secured the Velcro on my sandals, and rose to the challenge. “You better be telling the truth about it being easy,” I said. The trail looked like it gained elevation quickly, but on a well-cleared trail it wouldn’t be a terrible hike.
Minutes into our climb, I sensed my intuition might have been a little more correct than I hoped. The trail was obvious but narrow; I found myself balancing precariously on the ball of one foot as the other swung to connect to secure ground. My backpack, heavy with provisions needed for a daytrip, weighed heavily on my shoulders and threatened to throw me off balance. I wiped sweat from my brow as bugs buzzed around me. Adam, who moved faster and swifter than me, was often a hundred feet beyond me, far enough that I felt motivated to keep going and confident that the grudge I was forming was earned. Sticks snapped below my feet, which occasionally slipped a bit on rocks damp from rain.
Far more than halfway up the side of the hill—which stretched like Mount Everest as I thought about it—the path narrowed to a width I didn’t want to navigate. I spun on one foot, coming to rest on a rock. Adam, slightly ahead of me and above me, called down from the trail to keep going. I shook my head. I would not budge. I could not budge. “I’m done,” I yelled. “I’ve had enough. This is awful.” Adam shrugged and continued on; he would collect the pictures he wanted and return to my perch when he was ready to head back down. I settled in. The cave was just beyond my reach, but not quite beyond Adam’s. I figured he had another few minutes left to climb, a few minutes needed for photos, and then a few minutes back to where I sat. I checked my watch. I could make it.
I checked my watch again. Odysseus was imprisoned by Calypso for seven years. I had been imprisoned on my rock for about seven minutes. In my mind, our sentences seemed to have stretched for about the same amount of time. I could no longer hear the sticks and leaves under Adam’s footsteps, a sure sign he had made it. Then, suddenly, I heard his voice. I shifted a bit, prepared to figure out how I was going to get myself off the rock and safely off the prison.“Did you get what you needed?” I asked, not quite masking my irritation with the situation. I was shocked to see Adam shake his head. “Not possible,” he admitted. He went on to describe his solo journey; after climbing to just below the cave’s entrance, Adam hit the wall. Not the proverbial wall; a real wall that he would have needed to scale to make it to the cave’s mouth. Deciding not to risk his safety, he turned around, just as defeated as I was (but with a much better ending to his attempt). We had come all this way for nothing. We had no photos, no incredible memories, and no food—a factor in my frustration.
But we did have cell service.
Adam checked his phone and discovered another entrance to Tal Mixta Cave. It would require walking back along the path, down the beach, and back to the parking lot where an Uber had deposited us an hour earlier. From there, a 10-minute car ride would take us around and up the mountain, where we could enter the cave without having to scale an unclimbable wall. Although a whole new wave of anger washed over me—we had hiked all that way for nothing!—the promise of an air conditioned car ride and some pretty photos motivated me to slowly maneuver my way back to the beach. Before long, we were in a car that did what we could not: deliver us to our destination.
A short walk down a paved road and a staircase later, we found ourselves in one of the most gorgeous spots in Malta. From within the shadowy cave, Malta’s Ramla Bay sparkled under the sunshine. With just a few other people there, we savored the chance to take photo after perfect photo of the view framed by the cave’s walls, all the while laughing at the complete misadventure it took to get them. Standing on the edge of the cave, Adam pointed out the wall he faced. There was no way he could have scaled it, nor could I have done it if I had made it that far. In the distance, we saw a few other tourists hiking along the same path. If our voices would have carried that far, we would have yelled for them to turn back.
After finishing our photos, we stood together to admire the view when the tourists appeared, much closer than they had been before. After disappearing behind the wall, a few moments later they emerged in the cave with us. Adam and I stood in stunned silence. Two of them wiped their hands along the sides of their pants while the third, a woman, took a moment to straighten her dress.
“Did she scale that wall in a dress?” I whispered to Adam. Frowning, he nodded. “And she did it in dress shoes.” We watched as the three of them giggled and fumbled for their cameras. They weren’t dirty, out of breath, or not speaking to one another after the challenging climb. I wondered if they had somehow levitated over the wall—perhaps over the trail itself. Beside me, Adam shook his head.
“It’s time to go,” he pouted. I pouted in solidarity as we walked back toward the sunlight.
That night, over a glass of wine, I thought about Odysseus again. His epic journey was about perseverance, heroism, and destiny. By the time I finished my second glass of wine, I decided our journey had followed the exact same themes. We spent somewhere between 20 minutes and 10 years hiking along a trail, only to find it walled off and our destination just out of reach. We persevered anyway; we found a different route, hired an Uber to help us, and arrived safe and sound. Like any great epic story, the heroes were rewarded with just what they hoped to attain (in our case, Instagram-worthy shots of the beautiful beach). In the end, destiny intervened for us, proving the journey can be just as memorable as the destination. When the hike is steep, keep going. When you reach a wall, find a different way. I felt a sense of deep satisfaction embrace me; it had been hard, but we did it.
If only we could figure out how to do it as planned in a dress and nice shoes…
We hiked to Tal-Mixta Cave in Nadur, Malta today. Amazing views of Ramla Bay! 🤩 pic.twitter.com/Nihhs5i2jk
— Road Unraveled – Stephanie & Adam (@RoadUnraveled) November 25, 2022
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