No Greater Claim to
On the Isle of the Nymph Calypso
Now all the others who had managed to escape destruction were safe at home, untroubled by war or the sea. Odysseus alone, full of longing for wife and friends, was kept from returning by that beautiful nymph Calypso, the powerful goddess who hoped to make him her husband. . . . that luckless but clever man Odysseus, who far from his friends, on a lonely island at the great sea's very navel, has long been miserable.
--The Odyssey, Book I
I COULD START the tale of my trip at the beginning--telling you how I stuffed my backpack and was dropped at the airport by my wife, still early enough in her pregnancy that she radiated like fresh-baked bread. On a string around my neck I wore not just a charm bearing the image of an owl--Athena's symbol, for luck--but a ring of June's, one that during our courtship she used to "forget" at my house to remind me she wasn't far off. When I told her I planned to wear the Athena charm she suggested adding the ring. I had the support, she smiled, of not just mythological women. She wished me godspeed.
I could tell how I flew to Istanbul and stayed overnight with friends, how the evening before I took my first bus toward Troy, my host explained my upcoming trip to a friend over a late glass of tea on a plaza overlooking the Bosporus. How the friend, before leaving us, wished my host good night, then put his hand on my shoulder, fixing me with a gaze: "And you," he said, shaking his head. "You have a long way to go."
I could. But that would be the wrong place to begin. In travel my model was Odysseus, and my goal was simple: to get from Troy to Ithaca, if decidedly by the scenic route. But I came on adventure looking for lessons, and this powerful lesson comes not from Odysseus but from Homer: The tale doesn't always start at the beginning. Homer starts nowhere near the beginning. So as teller of tales I follow Homer, and I start where he started.
The Odyssey begins with a ten-line proem, a prefatory passage invoking the muse and reminding us that the wily Odysseus will have many adventures, eventually arriving home safe but alone. The proem asks the muse to tell the story, "beginning wherever you wish."
The muse takes Homer at his word, beginning the story of Odysseus's return from Troy not by rushing to Troy, where such a journey presumably starts. Instead we go to Ithaca, exactly where Odysseus isn't, and we spend time with Telemachus, Odysseus's son, by now a young man of twenty. We learn about the many troubles Odysseus's long absence has caused Telemachus and his beleaguered mother, Penelope, and we even follow Telemachus as he takes a short trip looking for his missing father. Only after four entire books of such scene setting do we meet Odysseus. Even then, at the outset of Book V, we still don't go to Troy.
We finally join our hero on a tiny island: Ogygia, where he's spent the last seven years as sexual captive to the nymph Calypso. Nice work if you can get it, but Odysseus doesn't want it. That is itself a long story, and Homer makes good use of it--in medias res, the Roman poet Horace famously advised, "start in the middle of things," and a heroic adventurer weary of sex with goddesses and desperate for home sure sounds like the middle of something. So Homer starts with Odysseus on Ogygia with Calypso. And to get you to that island, Homer adds another to his list of literary firsts: He directs the world's first helicopter shot.
Book V begins with the gods on Olympus, among whom we learn that the hour of Odysseus's return has finally arrived. Zeus sends Hermes, messenger of the gods, to tell Calypso the news, and the scene reads like the alpine opening of The Sound of Music. Hermes dons his famous sandals on the mountaintop, "and from there he swooped to the sea, skimming over the waves. . . ." Then he arrives at the island, and the camera zooms in on Calypso's cave. It's a stunning beginning: breathtaking and cinematic, taking you from the mountaintop realm of the gods to, suddenly, an actual place on the actual planet.
I could ask for no better muse than Homer, so we start as he did. Carried by a smallish aluminum airplane instead of golden sandals, we go zinging above the ocean waves. And if no earthly island currently bears the name Ogygia, still we find somewhere to land.
MALTA IS A YELLOW PLACE. Yellow grit swirls on the roadways and drifts among outcroppings of dusty ancient limestone; the harsh Mediterranean sun glints off weathered yellow blocks of that same limestone in the walls of the buildings that line the steep, stairstep streets of the sixteenth-century capital city, Valletta. And yellow sand radiates beneath cloudless skies along the shore of Ramla Bay, one of Malta's only sandy beaches, though it wasn't the sand that drew me there. Ramla Bay lies directly below the cave identified as the home of Calypso, "the nymph with the beautiful braids," who's keeping Odysseus with her against his will.
Atop a rocky outcropping on the northeastern shore of Gozo, the westernmost of Malta's three inhabited islands, at the end of a dusty asphalt road, I found a concrete pad, the twisted remains of some pipe railing, and what seems to have once been an information kiosk. A sign points toward the cave. A gritty path, steps carved directly into the stone, leads downward to a natural ledge--to the right a lovely view down to the Ramla beach and the sapphire Mediterranean beyond; to the left the mouth of the cave, a triangular cleft about six feet tall in the limestone escarpment.
Homer calls this "the spacious cave where the nymph made her home," describing a forest of cypress and poplar, birds nesting, grapevines twining around the cave mouth--and inside, the beautiful Calypso sings as she paces before her loom. Four fountains sparkle nearby, water tumbling in four different directions; fields of violets and parsley complete the scene. "Even a god might gaze in wonder and delight," Homer says, at which point Hermes, now on the scene, does just that.
At the Gozo cave today, "wonder" may overstate the case. Less spacious (elsewhere Homer calls it "looming") than cozy, this cave is in reality barely wide enough to squeeze into at the mouth. It then widens, but if you wish to wiggle more than a few yards in, you'd better have a flashlight. And don't go looking for grapes, cypress, or violets, either--on this dry, rocky edge of the sea you'll find some low, dark-green shrubs, but little else grows among the pale rocks.
Still--I think "delight" is apt. For one thing, just getting to the cave from Valletta is delightful. A fleet of shiny yellow buses from the 1950s and 1960s constitutes Malta's public transportation system, their grilles like cartoon faces, with brightly painted trim in blue, red, and green; each has an elaborately scripted nameplate: "Paradise," "Meadow," "Life in Heaven," "Firefly." With their gleaming colors the buses seem like onshore versions of luzzus, the little gaudily painted fishing boats that crowd every Maltese harbor. The Maltese claim that luzzus, with apotropaic eyes on their prows (they ward off evil), are direct descendants of the trading boats used by the Phoenicians who colonized the islands around 800 BC. Maltese buses, then, continue a Mediterranean travel tradition little changed since Homeric times. Buses easily take you to Victoria, the tiny central town of Gozo, where you can rent a wonky bicycle and pedal the final few kilometers to the cave.
More prosaic than that, but possibly the best thing of all about Calypso's cave, is that it shows up on Malta's tourist maps. It's labeled, it's easy to find, and people have heard of it. After months of travel seeking the footsteps of Odysseus--and months of narrowed eyes, wrinkled brows, and shaken heads--an actual place on an actual map provided a genuine thrill. It's one thing to have someplace to go; it's another to know that when you get there, it will be there, too.
It was. I found that actual cave, just where it was supposed to be according to the map, which gave my visit to Ogygia--Homer's name for Calypso's isle--a sense of completion that some of my other Mediterranean stops lacked. I had a list, scrawled inside the cover of my copy of The Odyssey: I checked off "Calypso" with a flourish. Not only that, at the cave mouth I found more seekers after Calypso: three members of an international flight crew from Emirates Airline, out of Dubai. Beatrice was a flight attendant from Spain; Martina, also a flight attendant, came from Germany; and Thomas was a Norwegian pilot. They used English as their shared language, so we easily fell into conversation as they bemoaned the fact that without any light, they couldn't go into the cave. Well supplied from the months of travel that had led me to Malta, I provided two flashlights, which led us deep inside, stooping, then crouching, and finally duckwalking our way down the smooth, sandy floor until the cave petered out after ten or fifteen meters. No goddess, no fountains, no loom; just a smallish, dusty, empty limestone cave.
When we returned to the rocks in the sun at the cave mouth, Thomas explained that the crew was idling away a couple days on layover. What, he wanted to know, had brought me to Malta, and to Calypso's cave?
I said, "Funny you should ask."
And I produced from my backpack my little blue copy of The Odyssey. And there in front of Calypso's cave the four of us read aloud the episode in which Odysseus is released from his captivity by the nymph with the braided hair.
AS I'VE MENTIONED, Calypso's cave is the first time we meet Odysseus in the poem that bears his name. On Olympus, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, pleads the case for poor Odysseus, captive these seven years on Ogygia: "He stagnates still on an island, suffering much," she says, "the home of the nymph Calypso, who keeps him there by force." Zeus basically shrugs and tells her to go ahead and arrange things. Athena rushes off to western Greece to help Telemachus, Odysseus's son, whose story has occupied the first four books of the poem, while Hermes heads to Calypso's out-of-the-way realm with the new orders, finding her at her loom, amid the "sweet-smelling cypress" and grapevines "heavy with opulent clusters." Only then do we finally get a look at the main character: Odysseus, this hero, this "sacker of cities," as he's called, the greatest man of his age, the man who won the Trojan War. And he's not eating grapes with the goddess, either; he's not building a boat; he's not praying to the gods for help; he's not even cursing his fate. No, Odysseus, when at last we meet him, is doing nothing more energetic than staring sadly out to sea in the direction of home.
And he's crying.
When Calypso tells him he can finally go, Odysseus, suspicious, makes her swear that she means him no harm. She takes the oath, acknowledging that he shows good sense by demanding it, and the two have dinner. Afterward, she tries to talk him out of leaving: "I cannot be less lovely than she, in face or figure," Calypso says of Odysseus's wife, Penelope, to say nothing of the fact that with Calypso Odysseus could live forever in luxury. Odysseus doesn't argue, using perhaps for the first time on record the "It's not you, it's me" excuse that men have been offering since then. He knows Calypso is prettier and has more to offer, he knows Penelope has surely aged--but "even so, all the time I yearn for my home and the day I'll return there." The goddess gives in, helping Odysseus build a boat, which she furnishes with water, food, and wine As a final gift she even gives thorough directions (he's to keep the Big Dipper on his left, thus sailing eastward) and a gentle homeward wind. And off he goes. Naturally Odysseus soon encounters trouble again--a terrible shipwreck this time--but by the middle of Book V Calypso is receding into the rearview mirror. Her entire role is to impede Odysseus and then, reluctantly, let him go home.
So leaving the cave should have been enough to stake my Calypso experience onto the Maltese shore. At each of Odysseus's stops I tried to find some place to stand or thing to do to symbolically complete my pilgrim's visit. Months before, on the island of the Cyclops, for example, I had found a cave to enter; at the strait between Scylla and Charybdis I paddled a rented kayak out between the two monsters and lived to tell the tale. On Malta, then, I planned to visit the nymph's cave and then make my way down to the beach, perhaps to stare longingly toward Ithaca. Staring toward Ithaca was easy--the Ramla beach and the cave both, in fact, face generally northeast, the direction Ithaca lies from Malta. More, after my long season of travel, my wife's pregnancy had reached its eighth month, so I had plenty of reason to genuinely long for home.
But the trail down to the beach was steep, and I had that bicycle, and if I went down I'd have to come back up again--a long hike just to sit symbolically on a rock. I was hot and the trail was dusty, and I thought maybe spending the remainder of the afternoon in the cool cathedral at Victoria might be more pleasant--it was supposed to have a remarkable trompe l'oeil dome painted on its flat ceiling, well worth a visit, according to Lonely Planet: Mediterranean Europe. My chance companions planned to head down for a swim, so I said good-bye and began walking up the road toward the rented bike. Then a hand on my arm--Beatrice--and a smile: "Come on, Ulysses," she said. "You don't use a bicycle." And then we were all walking down the steep yellow trail to the yellow beach, and my trip had suddenly changed direction, as it constantly did, almost always for the better.
MALTA WAS MY TWELFTH STOP in Odysseus's wake, and by the time I was there, I was definitely growing weary of travel on the cheap--of train station food and Lonely Planet, of not getting enough sleep and not knowing the language, of living out of a backpack and renting hotel rooms barely big enough to put a backpack in. My yearning for return had become something far more than a self-conscious part of my pilgrimage. I missed my wife.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from No-Man's Lands by Scott Huler. Copyright © 2008 by Scott Huler. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.