Just thirty-eight miles south of Hong Kong is China’s only other Special Administrative Region and the gambling mecca of Asia, Macau (pronounced mah-cow). For the equivalent of about $20 USD Hong Kongers can get there in an hour via fast-moving hydrofoil ferry. Brooke, my old roommate from New York, flew back to Hong Kong with us so we decided to do an overnight trip and fit one more country into her Asian holiday. Having not yet made it there myself I was also eager to discover a new city and do my best to make Brooke’s time on this side of the world enjoyable, or at least entertaining.
It’s compelling to notice the impressions you get of the people around you when waiting for public transport. If you haven’t before been to the place you are headed it’s your first glimpse of the culture. For example, when I was waiting to catch a stand-by flight to India I noticed the sari-clad woman next to me cutting apple slices for her baby with her gold bangle bracelet and I was charmed by her resourcefulness. If you are returning to a familiar place it is (hopefully) a somewhat welcoming community or at the very least predictably comfortable. If I am at Penn Station waiting for an Amtrak train upstate there is little uncertainty on which gate brings you to the train bound for Saratoga and Canada for there is a more “wholesome” look to the people and often an extraordinary amount of flannel and denim. So as Brooke and I wait for our ferry boat from Shun Tak Centre in Hong Kong I watched the people around me. From the looks of it we are the only two Westerners in the crowd. Very little English spoken and there is a tired raggedness to those that surround us. When the announcement to begin boarding is made a massive crowd of people assemble at the gateway with no hint of order or organization. It’s every man or woman for themselves. We pull up our sassy pants and move into the thick of the economy-class chaos in order to get assigned two seats together and we manage to get onto the boat without throwing any pushy locals into the harbour. I wasn’t so sure what to expect from Macau. The photographs I had seen were quite varied. Some made it appear to be plucked right out of a Portuguese port town yet others featured the glitzy casinos and skyscrapers making it seem like an odd combination of Las Vegas and Hong Kong. We pull into the ferry pier and it alternatively looks more like what I’ve seen of China. After a little misdirection we find the hotel shuttle bus and it sweeps us along the highway to the Cotai Strip where I finally get a glimpse of the glimmering high-rises I anticipated. We check in, drop our bags, freshen up, and head back out.
Feeling lighter and ready for adventure we grab a taxi to Senado Square, the historic area of town teeming with brightly colored Portuguese architecture. From the middle of the 16th century until 1999 Portugal rented the port city and trading center of Macau from China making it the very last European colony in Asia. It now operates under a similar “one country, two system” structure as Hong Kong. That long relationship with Portugal has left a strong imprint on the culture of Macau in terms of food, architecture, and day-to-day living which seems to be far more embraced than the former British presence in Hong Kong.
We loosely follow a historic walking path laid out in the guidebook which we brought along and weave our way through cobblestone streets and alleyways passing points of interest: St Dominic’s Cathedral, St Augustine’s Church, and St Joseph’s Church. Hungry for lunch, we sit down at Restaurante Platao located right off the main drag and here we share a small meal of sliced chorizo, salted bacalhau, fresh bruschetta, some olives, and red sangria. After our light meal and large pitcher of sangria, any and all travel stress seems to mysteriously dissipate. We carry on with our old town explorations with the goal of eventually ending up at the facade of St Paul’s Catherdral, the very image of Macau tourism. Along the way we split a Macanese bubble waffle on the street, find the famous Margaret’s egg tart shop (heaven in three bites!), taste fresh-from-the-oven almond cookies, and sample cuttings of preserved meat.
Many of the old streets of Macau are reserved for pedestrian traffic only and this makes our wanderings all that more carefree. We walk up the steps of The Ruins of St Paul’s, take a few snapshots, and sit in the sun enjoying it’s warmth. I reflect of the sweet approachability of Macau. There is something quite charming about a city that is walkable. Step by step you feel that you understand a place and it’s people as your feet make contact with the earth. As the British author Geoff Nicholson once wrote, “Words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space. Writing is one way of making the world our own, and… walking is another.”
We leave the historic district and move toward A Lorcha where, following the recommendation of a friend, we had made a reservation for dinner. Almost every table is occupied when we walk in forty-five minutes early for our booking but they seat us with no objection at one of the two available tables. We order tumeric chicken and potatoes, curried prawns, and Macanese fried rice with shrimp which tasted like the perfect fusion of Spanish paella and Chinese fried rice. We get full tragically early in the meal and cannot finish everything so we box up the fried rice for take away with the hope of doing it justice as soon as our appetites allows. With a busy day of exploring, stuffed bellies, and the residue of jet-lag still in our systems from the flight from New York to Hong Kong we pick ourselves up and hail a cab back to the hotel.
A quick half-hour power nap somehow multiples into a snooze-fest of over an hour and I wake up confused as to where the time went. We scramble to get ready to go out with Laura, a Yoga Teacher and dancer at the iconic Grand Lisboa Casino who I connected with in Hong Kong. We bypass the baccarat tables and meet her at Bellini Lounge in the Venetian Hotel and Casino- the largest casino in the world. Beautiful eastern European women in very high heels serve us our drinks. Phunk Shui, the house band, does an stand up job playing convincing covers of top-40 hits as Japanese break dancers from another show take the floor every once in a while to spin on their heads. It’s as if Macau is one giant cruise ship, forever docked and ready to entertain. Sipping cocktails while sandwiched between Brooke and Laura I feel something I haven’t really felt in Hong Kong, a feeling of belonging within the culture or perhaps more accurately, a counter-culture. These are my people. No, not the Chinese gamblers ogling at the Russian waitresses as they chain smoke cigarettes but the performers, the yogis, the artists, and the young women who choose the slightly unconventional route in life in order for their creativity to be properly expressed. I learn a little about myself and where I belong in the world. There must be the spark of right-brained creativity ingrained in the culture for me to feel fully in sync with a cities rhythm and I fear that Hong Kong’s focus on making money has pulled them way too far from this. This is obviously the reason I loved living in New York so passionately. Would I want to live in Macau? No – at least not for too long – but it’s a piece to understanding why I’ve been a bit discontent in Hong Kong.
The next morning we relax by the pools at the Sheraton, walk around the casino shopping area, grab a small bite to eat, and mail off postcards to family before hopping on the shuttle back to the ferry. Both of us are exhausted and we sleep the whole way back to Hong Kong. Brooke has just one day before flying off to Bali, the next leg of her journey, which brought with it excitements and frustrations as well as a nasty bite from a fierce monkey in Ubud. While she is away my other old roommate, Jaime, stops by Hong Kong on her way to Perth, Australia for a Swing Dance Festival. Spending time with the both of them soothes my soul and makes me grateful for the women who have been by my side during the formative years of my adult life. As I see myself bumble through the transformation of this past year abroad it’s comforting to have these two dear friends mirror my journey in their own.