Malta travel guides say that Comino island, the smallest in the archipelago, is inhabited. But, Maltese people know that’s a lie. However, they also don’t know the whole truth.
Salvu Vella arrives to the tower of Saint Mary, in Comino Island, riding on his quad bike. It’s the same tower where Kevin Reynolds’ Count of Monte Cristo movie was shot in 2002. Salvu arrives right on time. He is wearing an overall with camouflage pattern and a grey hat, which makes it’s easier to distinguish him from the tourists.
Despite that, the first thing you notice about him aren’t his clothes. Salvu Vella it’s all about the eyes. Those round eyes are as translucent as the famous waters of the blue lagoon at Comino. Somehow the island must have pierced onto the DNA of Vella’s family, as they are living in Comino for at least 150 years.
“Sorry if i’m late, but I’m always on a hurry. This island can’t work without me”, says Salvu, smiling after one hard handshake. It’s been a long time since Comino island started to depend on Salvu and his ancestors.
150 years of solitude
In the United States, Malta would be a city, but in the middle of the mediterranean sea Malta is a country, a miniature one made out of three islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – and a population around 420,000 people.
This small country is also one of most densely populated places in the world. One hundred and 50 years ago, when Malta still was a British colony, some farmers hoping to get more land moved to the desert island of Comino – the tower of Saint Mary, built around 1618 by the famous Knights of Malta, was already there, but nothing more.
In that group of farmers were Salvu’s grandparents. Not many families embraced this adventure, but those who did got a good piece of land. They could live in that 3.5 square kilometers island almost without any contact with the British government. Farming, hunting, fishing and praying: the Maltese dream in the 19th century. They built houses, a school and a discreet church, that is still there. We only notice that the building is devoted to God because of the three bells on the top.
It was enough for the first villagers of Comino. For the last 50 years, father Carmelo Xerri ships to Comino to celebrate mass for the for the mini-community, also known as Salvu’s family.
Salvu’s grandparents lived like this all their lives. Isolated in the middle of the Mediterranean, working every day to have something to eat. They were poor and they were happy. Salvu’s parents took the same path. This was “the best life that someone could dream in Malta” on the 20th century.
By living in Comino, Salvu’s parents almost escaped the consequences of the two World Wars. Not even Mussolini, that was bombing Malta everyday, knew that five or six families were living in Comino. And if he knew, he probably wouldn’t bother with some “insignificant” farmers.
This is just a part of Salvu Vella’s family history, one that doesn’t appear in guidebooks. Salvu Vella’s family doesn’t come in any book at all. But, in Malta everyone knows that there are four people living in Comino: Salvu, his brother Angelo, one cousin and one aunt.
“I would love to live here. It’s like that movie from Leonardo Dicaprio, The Beach”, said an italian tourist on the boat to Comino - a natural reserve for birds, famous for its lagoon blue waters. Later in this afternoon, Salvu would say that the italian man wouldn't like to live here. “If it was in a time when there were less things maybe, but today people want a lot of things. Take a walk in the afternoon, at night go to a bar with friends...”, he explained.
Every boat captain who takes tourists to Comino knows Salvu. It would be impossible to do their jobs without him. He is 61 years old and the youngest in the island - the other family members don’t work anymore. If you need to find Salvu is with them that you need to talk. “He is crazy to live in that island. I would get that disease... How it’s called? Oh yes, i remember, claustrophobia”, says Lorrie Camilleri, while driving his boat. “I have his mobile phone number and I will call him to arrange a meeting with you.”
After a while, Lorrie came back to me: “He told me to ask you to be at the tower of Saint Mary at 2 pm. He will probably appear in a jeep or in quad-bike. He will be there, don't worry.” Sometimes, when tourist guides are speaking about Salvu’s work and way of living it sounds like he is Malta ‘s Robinson Crusoe - isolated from everything and everyone. But I would prefer to say that “Salvu Vella is the Robinson Crusoe of the 21st century”.
How isolated can you be in the 21st century?
“I was there leaning against the wall, when the main character appeared in my back and cut my throat”, says Salvu doing the gesture of the knife with his hands.
Don’t worry, he is describing a scene from Among Wolves, a movie on which he took part. Living in Comino has its advantages. He participated or helped in almost all the movies filmed here: Count of Monte Cristo, Among Wolves, Popeye, Henrik the Viking...
Salvu arrived half an hour ago and we are talking about Comino and how is it to live here alone with his family. We just took a place in the shadow because the temperature in april is around 30 celsius degrees. “I was the last student of the island. At the time there were 20 or 25 children. After me, they closed it and everyone went away. But not my family. At least, not all of us.”
Salvu was 16 at the time and had five brothers, one of them living in Melbourne in Australia, one of the most known spots of maltese migration. “When I was young I thought about going to Melbourne. My brother was always calling and telling: ‘come, come, come’.” But that choice didn’t make sense to Salvu: “It would be changing one island for another one. The difference would only be the size.”
After leaving school, Salvu started working for the only hotel at Comino – built in the 1960s, and until today he only works in the summer. First he worked for the water services. Then to the electric company. And eventually, after some years, Salvu got responsible to be the “one man tool” of the entire island.
“I don’t have any day like the other. Everyday is different. That’s why I love my job. If I worked in a factory I would be dead”, explains Salvu. Nothing runs in Comino without his work. If a rock gets out of place , Salvu will notice it. This is his island. “I enjoy every day, day after day, doing different things. Somehow I found freedom here.”
Salvu never got married. “I didn’t wanted trouble”, he says, laughing. “If I had my own family, they probably would want to get out of Comino.” And that wasn’t an option for Salvu.
However, not like his parents, Salvu never lived solely from farming, hunting and fishing in Comino. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about Salvu. Yes, he lives in an isolated island with his family. Sometimes he goes fishing, other he goes hunting as a hobby. But Salvu doesn’t live like his parents or grandparents. Salvu hasn’t stopped in time like many tourist think. He wishes he could, but is not living in the past.
“I would prefer to go back in time, like when I was born”, says Salvu. He speaks with an enormous nostalgia for the life that his parents had. “You are happier when you have nothing... It was more beautiful when I was young. Not because I was young, but because of life. More natural. Today, you have a lot of things: mobile, television, Internet”, explains Salvu.
How alone can you be in the 21st century? Well, you can move to an uninhabited island if’s that what you really want, but not even there you can assure your loneliness. Around the same time that Salvu’s grandparents were coming to Comino, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in France. He became a jesuit priest and philosopher and wrote about the “noosphere of the human spirit” - one place where we, human species, can talk and communicate. It was the same concept that inspired the first entrepreneurs of Santa Clara Valley, most know now as Silicon Valley - Tom Wolfe wrote about this in Hooking Up book - to create the spirit of internet.
“For example, I love to do shopping from Ebay. The British site is quicker, but the American has more stuff.” Salvu is living in one almost deserted island and he is doing online shopping everyday. He is not really alone. “With a Paypal account I can get anything”, he explains. “Two months ago I just ordered an air compressor that weighs more than 190 kilos on Ebay. I put my Paypal account, some clicks and that’s it.” After doing the shopping, one of his brothers living in Gozo delivers him the mail packages. Simple and easy.
Internet connected everyone and everything. Even Comino island inhabitants use it. Salvu lived the last years of the 20st century and is living the first years of the 21st century - a century with more technological revolutions that anyone can remember.
The tourists won’t like to hear this, nor will Maltese people. They want to fantasise about a single family living alone in an almost deserted island. Salvu’s parents needed to go fishing if they wanted to eat. Salvu can order online supplies for months. Salvu Vella is a product of the 21st century.
Right now, in an island of the Mediterranean sea desired to be deserted, Salvu Vella can be a click away on his Paypal account to buy the next issue of Jurnid. After all, like the British poet John Donne once said “no man is an island”. Even less in the 21st century.