FROM HONG KONG, CHINA
HONG KONG, Dec 22, 2007 - Before I left for Asia, some of my friends urged me to be sure to visit Macau. From what little I knew, Macau was Asia's Las Vegas. And since Las Vegas is probably my least favorite city back home (I hate gambling and all the crass riff-raff that blows into town with this vice), I really had to push myself to do it. But I had nothing better to do today, so I jumped into a cab at my hotel, and went to the Hong Kong Ferry Terminal for a one-hour boat ride to Macau.
I have not mentioned it before, but I had noticed that all taxis in Hong Kong are red (left). I don't know that the significance of that its; guess no more than the New York cabs being yellow. But it was interesting to see that all Hong Kong car license plates still look the same as that in Britain. And that they still drive on the left.
Because I almost loathed idea of going to Macau, I had not done anything to prepare for it. So I was more than a little surprised to find immigration and customs inspection checkpoints before leaving Hong Kong two middle shots). It was as if one were leaving the country at an airport. I knew that Macau had been reclaimed by China some years ago, but did not realize that it was still being treated as a foreign country, as far as travel documents are concerned. Guess the traces of Macau being a Portuguese colony for five centuries don't disappear overnight, anymore than do the signs of the British rule in Hong Kong.
The TurboJet on which I sailed was fast and comfortable. It covered the 40km (about 25 miles) distance from Hong Kong to Macau in exactly an hour (see above map).
The morning was gloomy and misty. It appears that yesterday, the winter solstice, was the day on which the sun decided to make its singular appearance around here.
Still, one could enjoy some views of the city from the opposite direction (water) from that I was able to get on my private city tour.
I've always thought that the South China Sea was an exotic place. So let my imagination go during the sea voyage about all the prior expeditions and adventures that have taken place in these waters. I also snapped a few pictures of the passing boats... one slow (left) and one fast, like ours (right). And even though I said to Ida this morning before heading out to the ferry that I did not expect to see any flying fish or jumping dolphins, low and behold, just past the half hour since leaving Hong Kong, I did see a school of dolphins! They weren't jumping out of the water, but you could certainly see them gracefully bobbing up and down near the surface.
And the first images that came into sight were the casinos, starting with Sands. Yukh! Notice the quaint old buildings now being overshadowed by the modern monstrosities? The bridge to nowhere also looks kind of forlorn.
We entered Macau through a tunnel. And then I was shocked to find the lines at immigration checkpoints that were longer than the ones at Heathrow and Kennedy airports. It took more than half an hour to get through. As the immigration official was inspecting my passport, I asked him for what government he works, the Chinese or the Portuguese. He said the Portuguese. I've found that kind of odd, but figured he should know who signs his paycheck.
The next surprise to see the rikshas at the exit of the marine terminal. Even in India they've done away with them in most places. I did not expect to see such crowded bus lanes, either. Anyway, I hopped into one that I was hoping would take me to the center of the city. Along the way, I kept snapping pictures...
... one casino after another.
Eventually, the bus deposited me in front of this hotel - the Grand Emperor - which was indeed somewhere around the city center. I was stunned to see these two red-coated guards with M1 military version machine guns. I walked up to the one on the right and asked him if they were real. He smiled and said they were not.
"So what's the point of having them?"
"Guess the Chinese are scared."
"Where are you from originally?", I asked, detecting a non-Chinese accent.
"Well, you've come a long way. What brings you here?"
"I have a lot of friends here," he said.
"In casinos, I bet" I thought, but did not say anything.
When I walked in, the hotel lobby was elegant and decorated to fit an imperial style. Then I walked into the casino to take a picture. As soon as I did that, all sorts of staff got bent out of shape. Fortunately, they could not speak any English, at least no English that I could understand. So I just waved them off and walked out. I was glad to leave, too. They still allow smoking in casinos here. Yukh!
As I walked out of the Grand Emperor, I realized that not everything is necessarily peachy keen in the casinoland. Looks like somebody ran out of money before being able to finish that casino in the left frame. After that, I just followed my nose, not having any idea what to look for or where I would end up. I just wanted to get away from the casinos. Eventually, I got to a street with pretty cobblestones that reminded me of the Mediterranean. So I just followed that street to see where it would take me. And it took me straight to Europe! (right two pictures).
The lovely square that opened up before my eyes could have been Anytown Italy, Spain or Adriatic. As it turns out, it was Portugal. Their colonial presence was still strongly evident. not just by the architecture but also by the fact that all signs were bilingual - in Chinese and in Portuguese.
I just couldn't believe my luck. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Here was the town that I was dreading which turned out to be absolutely enchanting in its old part. My instinct eventually led me to that beautiful yellow church in the right photo. At first, I could not figure out its name. But I felt drawn to it.
And so, while others were lounging around the church steps, I went inside. It was just as pretty inside as was its exterior. I spent a long time in the church. When I emerged, I asked a young man if he would take a picture of me. While he was doing it, his girlfriend was so interested that she looked over his shoulder through the camera lens the way a movie director may hover over his cameraman. Once satisfied with the result of her boyfriends work, she smiled at me and said, "merry Christmas." I replied in kind. And then I thought, here was God again leading me to a Christian shrine in a strange land without any forethought or planning on my part. It was extraordinary.
I then walked back to the back of the church and talked to a woman who was selling some church memorabilia there. She told me the church was called Santo Domingo (a.k.a. St. Dominic's), also known as Rosary Church, as I learned from the DVD I bought from her about all the churches in Macau. I then extracted from it when I came back to my hotel a slideshow of still shots about the church that mesmerized me this afternoon.
If you click on the following images, you can see the slideshow. The third part is a procession that takes place here once a year.
I took a couple of more shots of the old town Macau, and then headed back toward the ferry terminal on foot.
Along the way, I took some more pictures of the casinos... just for posterity.
But I must say that this Casino Lisboa (Lisbon) is an architectural marvel. To have built what looks like an 80-storey building that looks like a flower, is nothing short of amazing. And it's pretty, too.
Interestingly, that's where I also saw another riksha stand (left), a very original glass building in the middle of a square that reminded me of the Sydney Opera House (middle let); a quaint spray fountain (middle right), and an office building with big WTC letters at the top (World Trade Center?).
Close to the ferry terminal, I saw this giant flower, or a torch, that apparently symbolized China's reclaiming Macau a few years ago. Indeed, when I asked the outbound immigration officer for which government he worked, he said the Chinese. I had to laugh about that first guy who did not know who his bosses were. :-) I double checked on that long bridge, too. It still let to nowhere.
And then it was time to go back to Hong Kong. What I feared would be a wasted trip to Macau, turned out to be a delightful surprise.
TO BE CONTINUED... probably in Taipei.