Don't Do What I Did-- The Day Trip to Macau
I love the insanity of Las Vegas, so why wouldn't I love its Eastern sister city? Macau promotes itself as the "Vegas of the East"--and I imagined a glamorous, over-the-top place filled with luxurious casinos, great restaurants, bright lights and top notch entertainment. Combine that with the interesting history of Macau as a major Portugese settlement and trading hub, and you have a very compelling hook. I planned to hop over from Hong Kong on a recent business trip.
Macau is a small "Special Administrative Region" (SAR) of China, just like Hong Kong. You will need to pass thru customs coming from Hong Kong, but you don't need a special Visa, like you do to enter China. Another excellent opportunity to get some more stamps in your passport, and coins for your collection (their currency is the Pataca).
Only about an hour away by ferry, (much less if you take the higher priced jetfoil) Macau seemed like an easy day trip to experience an unusual hybrid of cultures.
The Trip Over
I set off in the ferry from the Tsim Tsa Tsui pier in Kowloon. My ticket was only HK $150--about $20USD-- for a one-way economy seat, since I had no idea how long I would want to stay. (Little did I know, that was a big mistake on this eventful outing.) The trip would take an hour and 15 minutes, so I sat back and enjoyed the fantastic view, sailing out of Victoria Harbor and into the South China Sea. I was pleasantly surprised when an attendant came around offering sandwiches, snacks and beer! The beer turned out to be a can of Pabst. Not Tsingtao, not even Carlsberg (which is now made in China), but straight-from-the-trailer-park Pabst in a can. Now that's class. Hilarious. Note: I later found out that Pabst re-packaged itself as a luxury brand in China called "PBR 1844" and the special brew costs $44 a bottle. No wonder they thought this canned version -- not the same recipe as 1844-- was "high class".
The ferry arrived at the Macau port around 1 pm. I wandered out of the terminal and saw a row of bicycle rickshaws, engaged a driver and asked him to take me to the Sands. I liked the familiarity of the name, and I thought back with sadness to being at the Sands on its closing day in 1996. Maybe some of that lost magic might live on, way over here in this tiny corner of the world?
It soon became evident that the vibe of Macau was a far cry from Las Vegas. I walked into the casino of the Sands, and while gorgeous decor, soaring ceilings and incredible light fixtures caught my eye, the whole ambience was strikingly different from the Vegas I love. Asian gamblers do not smile or laugh or talk. They are bent over the tables or slot machines, hardened faces set with a look of grim determination. The slots do not emit that wonderful ticking, game show, money spilling, mesmerizing stream of bells and whistles that permeates an American casino. The machines are silent, and the sound you do hear is the ear-splitting noise of a caterwauling female fronting a cheesy cover band on stage. As I wandered through, I noticed that on this day, there were absolutely NO Westerners here. I'm sure that's not always the case, but today I was towering over a sea of small dark-haired people that stretched as far as the eye could see. I love it when that happens. I secretly feel so proud to have found my way to someplace so local or so low on the non-Asian tourist radar that I am either alone or one of only a few whiteys that has found it or bothered to travel there.
Okay, so the casino didn't thrill me. I would try lunch and see what interesting Macanese dishes could be found here. I stopped into "Perola" up on the mezzanine overlooking the grimacing gamblers. Hmmm, sauteed sliced pigeon with asparagus? Why not! I gave it a try. Quite delicious. Tastes like.... that's right, chicken.
After lunch I wandered out again into the city, which was quite dismally grey that day. So far I had found none of the free-for-all wild hijinx atmosphere that I was expecting. I headed to the historic sacred ruins of the 16th century Portugese St. Paul Church. As I drew closer to the site, I entered small cobblestone streets completely packed with crowds that jostled and shoved me as I tried to move through. I don't like people in my personal space, and was beginning to feel the slight panic of claustrophobia closing in, so I rushed to get to the open square of the church. I passed a multitude of street vendors selling the famous sheet meat-- slabs of protein looking a little like beef jerky and a fruit rollup. The signs called out an amazing variety of meats-- beef, pork, goat, lamb, salmon, alligator, tuna and good lord-- horse.
Unlike my usual trips, I hadn't done any research before coming to Macau, so I was wandering aimlessly,not finding the special clothing shops, book stores and flea markets that I would have identified beforehand. I was feeling underwhelmed-- the place seemed dull, grey and lifeless. All of a sudden I entered a wide open public square and came upon this crazy easter bunny with gaping mouth frozen in a silent scream--like something from a nightmare. There were a couple kids around him but mostly it appeared that people were avoiding the scary rabbit man. It also dawned on me then--oh, of course, no wonder the insane crowds, it was Easter weekend and thousands of people had flocked there from Hong Kong to get away.
I climbed the steps of the St. Paul ruins and it was indeed beautiful and haunting. Sitting on the side wall, I watched the crowds until a light rain started. Heading back, I walked toward the ferry terminal. I didn't realize how far I had come until doubling back, it was taking forever, and getting dark. I looked for a taxi on every street, to no avail.
Just as I was about to scream in frustration, a van pulls up. "Hello Miss! Miss! I am Billy Kong! You need a ride to ferry?" Now come on, a generic white windowless van pulls up to a lone woman-- who doesn't see "serial killer" written all over this? I replied reflexively "Noooo thanks," and continued on, craning my neck searching for a taxi. He followed closely in the street. "Miss! Miss! You will not find a taxi at this time! I give you a ride! No problem, Billy Kong will take you!" I was soaked, chilled to the bone, and really wanted a ride in that warm dry van. I looked at him closely. Just a nice average Asian man, small, a fresh friendly face, with a crisp white shirt and tie. Very polite. I thought hey, there are no serial killers in Asia, in fact hardly any violent crime. I feel safer here than in my own city of Los Angeles. I asked guardedly, "Straight to the ferry?" "Yes Miss! I am heading there now!" Against all lifelong ingrained caution alerts, I got in. Of course, after talking a bit as he drove, I see that Billy Kong is very sweet and just helping out a traveler in a bit of a bind. He chattered away as we drove toward the pier. He operated a tour company and was about to pick up a group arriving at the ferry terminal. He dropped me off right at the door. "Goodbye Miss Marni!! Very nice to meet you!" I called back, "Thank you, Billy Kong!"
Upon entering the station, I was stunned to find line after line of travelers at every ticket window, stretching out 40-50 people each. The easter crowd heading back to HK. I kicked myself for not buying a round trip ticket!! An hour later, it was 7pm and I finally got to the window.
The clerk told me curtly, "Sorry, sold out til midnight."
God, another five hours in this forlorn place? I couldn't take it. I was trapped.
I hesitated for a moment, considering my options.
Just then a Western man called over to me from the first-class line. "Excuse me, I had the same problem but I've just purchased a VIP cabin on the next boat, and if you like you can pay whatever you can afford and share it with me."
Again, danger and caution bells rang out in my head. Joining a strange man in a sealed private cabin with a door that shuts? Not smart! But I looked the guy up and down, he seemed affluent, about my age, normal looking, and apparently very helpful and generous.
I replied hesitantly, "Well.... okay.....thank you. That's very kind."
I walked with him toward the boarding gate.
He went on, "I hope you don't mind, there will be two more guys in the cabin with me, and they are pretty smelly."
Huh? Smelly!? What in the world was this all about? Two Indian men approached us, and Richard spoke to them in Hindi, introducing me.
I held out my hand to shake, and addressed the elder, "Namaste! Mira nom Marni-hey. Ahp geysi hahn, shrriman?" I busted out my limited conversational Hindi.
This was met with startled outbursts, laughter and delight by all three men.
Richard exclaimed, "Whoa! That's so crazy!! What is a Hindi-speaking American doing in Macau!?" (a great title for a book someday, I thought).
As I started to explain about myself and how I came to speak Hindi, travel in India, etc., a loud voice rang out across the crowds from high up on the escalator, "HELLLOOOOO!!!! MISS MARNI!!! ITS BILLY KONG!! DID YOU GET A TICKET, ARE YOU OKAY!?" waving madly as he was whisked up.
I yelled back "YES BILLY!! THANK YOU! I'M OKAY!"
Richard and the Indians looked at me with surprise and raised eyebrows, and Richard laughingly asked "Well! You're very popular aren't you! What is that all about!?" and I explained my recent van ride in the rain from the ruins.
We settled into the VIP cabin, with our own waitress and lovely peace and quiet when the door was shut. I paid for Pabst for all of us. Mr. Patel and Mr. Mehta chatted together in Hindi, while I spoke with Richard. We were both astounded as he told his story, it turns out we had all kinds of crazy random things in common. He loved Hong Kong and India, and has lived in both places. He met his wife, a montessori teacher (my mother and sister were Montessori teachers), in Varanasi-- one of the cities I'm very familiar with and where I learned my smattering of Hindi. He met Patel and Mehta there, dirt poor men who earned a pittance as day laborers. He was taking them back to Hong Kong to help him build his house in the New Territories.
I scolded, "that wasn't nice, why would you call them smelly?!"
He said "Sorry, that was rude of me, but you looked like an 'upper class type of girl', and I thought you would look down on these rough Indian guys. I never imagined you were a devotee of Indian culture!"
So it turned out Richard went to college in Madison, Wisconsin-- the state I grew up in. He showed me on his ipod that he was listening to the Violent Femmes. He gave me his business card-- he wrote for a well known paper in Hong Kong-- and I of course was an aspiring writer. (I looked him up when I got back to HK, indeed, there he was.)
It was a great trip back, talking and laughing with these guys, safely tucked away in First Class. What should have been a lesson learned in planning ahead became a fun, unexpected adventure that luckily turned out well. I would definitely not recommend doing all the things I just did. This lack of advance planning almost put me in the middle of a travel nightmare, but I was at the right place at the right time, and fortunate enough to receive assistance from some wonderful fellow travelers. As anyone who knows me will confirm, I don't like people, and they seem to be at their very worst when traveling--particularly in the U.S. This trip restored in me a tiny glimmer of hope about the world, and showed me that human kindness and innate "good" continues to exist out there.