I am very tired, but thought I would post this tonight anyway, so excuse mistakes, and I hope it makes sense, and taps a root of connection between Macau, Hong Kong, and home.
Thursday Evening: We are returned from Macau to Hong Kong.
The jet hydrofoil ferries travel back and forth between Hong Kong and Macau every fifteen minutes for an hour ferry ride. I will present our Macau experience in the order in which it occurred.
When we arrived at the Macau Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong, our eyes opened wide and searched, confused. Helpful people stepped in as guides. Sometimes I feel like a country hick here. I can’t believe we are the only ones who can’t find our way, but it often seems that way. We weren’t expecting a terminal the size of an airport terminal, and perhaps that initial misconception describes the trip.
Because Steve didn’t think of Macau as a foreign country, since it is now ceded somewhat back to China, he had not brought his passport, so back to the hotel we went. “No problem,” are the words of Asia.
We took a later ferry and up-graded ourselves a class, which raised the price from $15.00 each to $30.00 each and gave us a place to sit while we waited, and lifted us a level up on the boat, and provided breakfast and ensured a window seat. It was another zoo, an organized one. We found our cage, and filled out the forms for entry to a foreign country. I will admit to feeling a bit foreign in the experience.
I loved the ferry ride over, though was disappointed we were enclosed inside, and yet, it made sense. We sped along, past container ships, sampans, islands, and still the sky and water were gray.
We arrived, again, shocked, at the size and immensity of the terminal and the speed and activity of people. Whoosh, off the boat we go, and up, and down more escalators. I cannot imagine how many escalators I am on each day.
I had read that Macau was rural compared to Hong Kong, and so I had an expectation that was not met. Where was the European feel? Where were the narrow, tiny streets, the cobblestone paths, the churches, and Buddhist temples, the little Portuguese pastry shops? (Don’t worry. We found them.)
We managed among the hustle and bustle to find the bus to our hotel and were handed some gambling tickets. Everyone on the bus, but us, was there for the casino at the Wynn Hotel where we were staying. People travel around Macau on the casino buses. They are free and most people come to Macau for one reason, gambling. A gambler, I am not.
My perception of Macau would have been correct if we had arrived in 2004, or perhaps, even 2005, but it has transformed in the last two years. According to Thomas Friedman’s column today in the International Herald and other papers, the cities of Doha, the capital of Qatar, and Dalian, one of the Silicon Valley’s of China, located in northeast China, have also been changed beyond recognition in the last few years. His conclusion is that the environment is in huge trouble from these newly risen skylines. I must admit I was so shocked I thought I might have a heart attack. I was not prepared for what I met.
Stanley Ho is a wealthy man. He had the monopoly on gambling in Macau. Somehow, though, the monopoly slipped into a few more hands and the Sands Hotel opened in 2004. The costs were paid back in seven months, and that alerted some eyes, ears, and pocketbooks to open the flood-gates that have changed and are changing Macau beyond any recognition. It was a sleepy place, with a sleepy pace and the pace is still slower than Hong Kong, and the sky is disappearing a little bit more each and every day as more and more casinos and hotels claim space.
You may know that the Venetian Macau just opened August 28th, and is the largest single structure hotel in Asia, and the second largest building in the world. It is a million square feet of retail, and most of the people who will come to visit it are the newly affluent Chinese. I believe it is three times the size of the Venetian in Las Vegas. It is only the beginning of the buildings being built and planned. They take land from the sea and build.
There are three beautiful bridges and land has been reclaimed at such a rate that islands are not. Macau was first settled by the Portuguese, when the Chinese allowed them to land when their ships were falling apart. They were the first from the West to the East. Remember your history, and that fact will return. The Macau peninsula is attached to China, and in Macau you are, also, often looking at China, as it also consists of two islands, which have become one, and it was ceded back in some way to China, just as Hong Kong was in 1999, and yet, Macau still has its own money system, and you go through customs and can buy things duty-free. Steve informed me that the Hong Kong dollar is tied to the U.S. dollar because they are so invested in us they need it to be strong. Therefore, their dollar struggles with ours, but Macau is more independent, so is not so impressed with our fall, and is a little sticky about the daily changing exchange rate and what they will accept.
Anyway, we checked into our hotel room which was magnificent. This is a gambling town after all. The room is essentially subsidized. A push of a button opened the curtains to a magnificent fountain that shoots up to different songs during the day and also spouts flames and makes firecracker sounds. It is magnificent and, as this, happens every fifteen minutes, I tried to catch as many “shows” as I could. Steve was thrilled that there was a port next to the bed for his ipod. I also liked the lighting system which had lights tucked under everything. We didn’t use the TV in the wall by the bathroom sinks. I prefer to brush my teeth in silence and alone. I must admit that at this point, I was feeling a little discouraged about finding serenity on this trip. My understanding was that Macau was slower-paced, and actually it is, but slower compared to what? I see more and more how words are defined by our own perceptions.
This trip to Macau was provided to us and included a driver from 2 in the afternoon until 8 at night. A wonderful man, Terry, took time off work to translate for us. Macau is not as English-friendly as Hong Kong. Terry gave us a wonderful tour. We hopped in and out of an air-conditioned car and walked and talked and listened and learned.
It is fascinating, because since this is Portugal, a Romance language close to Spanish, we could actually recognize a great deal of the written language. We knew the names of the streets and could read the menu to a reasonable degree. We were on familiar ground. I had not realized how alienating it can be to not have a clue, and to be waving your arms and looking for ways to explain and understand.
We were entranced with and walked through gardens, churches, temples, fortresses, and a lighthouse. We learned where the pirates may have buried treasure. We understood some of the history of the Portuguese and Chinese in Macau. We then took one of the three modern, beautiful bridges to another island and toured a colonial museum, homes from around 1921, and learned more about lives of the wealthy Portuguese who lived here. Wednesday was a good day for weddings, it seems, as we came across wedding parties everywhere. We crossed a bridge to Taipa and another to Coloane. We were driven through beautiful green hills and passed flowers and trees and down to the famous Fernando’s restaurant, which is close to Hac-Sa beach. There, we ordered different foods which were delicious and drank vinho verde, Portuguese green wine, which is wonderfully crisp and perfect for the weather here. We are still looking for blue skies, but continue with gray and heat, and Fernando’s with its many overhead fans, worked well for us.
As we stood looking at Hac-Sa beach, we realized how spoiled we are. I have lived in Florida, San Diego, San Clemente, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and I am very familiar with the beaches of Northern California. When I hear the word beach as destination, I picture a certain expanse of sand. I did not see that here, and I must admit I was feeling tired. It felt like a hectic day and I had imaged a calm, perhaps, sleepy little fishing village, and instead we landed in skyscraper land and had been whisked around through the historical to the modern and explored the Macau peninsula and two islands. I appreciate it and I was feeling overwhelmed, and, so, of course, we continued, to the new Venetian Macau where we strolled along the Grand Canal and saw St. Mark’s Square. Our friend, Terry, suggested we use Starbucks as our meeting place, and though I, at first, balked at meeting at such a boring spot, I saw that it did indeed have the best view of the casino floor. They don’t view Starbucks negatively here as we do. They see it as a popular and easy place to meet.
It reminded me of when we went to Bangkok and learned that a good meal out for the people there would be McDonalds. For them, it was expensive and a special treat. For us, it is easy and cheap.
As we walked around Macau, we saw a big sign for clothes advertised as sold in San Francisco, California since 1998. Imagine that! We had never heard of the brand, but what do we know. Clearly, it means something here.
I still buy nothing. There is too much. It does not appeal. I am overwhelmed. I will return as I came, with carry-on.
We left the Venetian and continued on with a night tour of Macau. We were dropped “downtown” which is actually, despite the circular route, only a few moments from the hotel. The new is built right up close to the old, and so again, one hops easily between worlds, and drops and picks up centuries like nothing at all. They use the same black patterns amidst white cobblestones, to unite the old with the new, so if you kept looking at your feet, you might not notice the dramatic change. Oh, yes, you would. Macau is Disneyland for adults. You can bungie-jump off a tower and gamble 24 hours a day with drinks for free. They are very strict on checking ID, though somehow Steve and I easily passed.
Even with all the new building, the pace is different here than Hong Kong. There are benches and people gather to talk and listen to music played outside. It is European in texture and intent. The Portuguese pastries are popular, especially the egg tarts from Lord Stow’s Bakery, which you can also now get in Hong Kong, though they are so rich that I have only had them once and that was enough for a lifetime. Sadly to me, many gathered outside were looking into or talking on their cell phones rather than communing enthusiastically with those around. Still, it is a very different environment than Hong Kong. I love a bench, and these flip back and forth like the benches on the Star Ferry, so you can face the water or the city and still have support for your back.
What is most shocking here is how quickly things get done. They have three brand-new bridges. Hey Bay Area. What’s going on with the Oakland-Bay bridge and why did it take so long to retrofit the Richmond Bridge? It makes no sense. Perhaps it is because though Macao is spitting distance of China, there is not now and seems never to have been a problem between trade back and forth between the two. The immigrants go where they are needed and are happy to work and are happily received where there is work to do.
We woke early this morning, Thursday, and enjoyed an extravagant breakfast and headed out to explore the historical part of Macau. There are tiny streets and all is very sweet. Of course, we saw the former red-light district which now is tiny shops. Things are more discrete and up-scale now. This was pirate land for a long time, and Macau was known for gambling and prostitution. There is strong security at the casinos and expensive shops. The guards don’t smile and stand, in their uniforms, looking very tough. At first, I thought they were a joke, uniforms for fun to add to the atmosphere, but, clearly, for them, their jobs are not a joke. I understand there is big money here. I see the expensive cars. Macau also has pedicabs, though I don’t see any of them in motion. There are a great many motor scooters, which are practical here.
We went to the Macau Museum and explored the fortress at our own pace. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary, and next to it some round stone balls that looked like cannon balls. The cannons look out over the hill and are from 1860. The history is very interesting as to the Franciscans and such, but I won’t go into that here. What I get is what excitement has passed through the teeny-tiny space of Macau. The museum was incredible and very well-done as to re-creating the past. We learned the history of Macau and saw the archaeological digs that prove people have lived on the land and used the sea for a long, long time. The mix of Catholic and Buddhist is fascinating. In addition, there was an exhibit from the Louvre, titled, “From Versailles to the Forbidden City.”
I love walking the streets and having places to sit and not feeling odd for sitting. People sit in Macau. Some people lie down, and sleep. They are well-dressed, so are not homeless, but perhaps, gambled more than they should. We passed a woman asleep on one of the benches, and under a cotton sheet. We could see she wore nylons and her expensive high heels were on the ground beside her. I think she had a night that did not go as well as she expected. I did not gamble. It does not interest me, but I am fascinated by the world of those who do. The casinos are open and guarded 24 hours per day. I have seen more than my share of crystal chandeliers.
In the casinos, there is no sound of dropping coins. You get a piece of paper if you win, though that seems to be seldom. The tables are the big thing and people gather there.
Before we left Macau, we returned to the hotel room, and looking through the drawers, I discovered a book called Lotus Fragrance. It was placed in the drawer by the Buddhist Society and rested next to the New Testament. It was a wonderful collection of Buddhist writings. I sat reading, while I watched the fountains spray. What a world! Macau is a land of building and giant cranes, of Buddhist temples, burning incense, offerings, and tributes to gods and goddesses, and to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. All bases are covered.
I found a book store, upstairs, along a tiny street, with a section of books in English, so I now have Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to read on the plane on the flight home.
The biggest picture-taking spot on Macau seemed to be the fragment of the Ruins of Saint Paul. It is spectacular. We forgot to bring our camera on this trip, but enjoy watching cameras, not cannons, shooting away.
We were tired, so took the ferry back early without seeing all the sites, but by leaving early, the trip was easier, with fewer people and shorter lines for customs. We were happy to be back in Hong Kong and walk to a lovely dinner place nearby. I do see how small Macau is in comparison to Hong Kong. It is tiny and a little gem, that is being built up and out, and will never be the same from one day to the next. It is not to judge and yet it is to wonder. Where I live, there is very little change. That is not true here, and the people adjust and adapt, and I admire that, and I can’t wait to touch the ground of home and kiss and hold Tiger and Bella. Tomorrow is Friday and then, there is a 35 hour Saturday, and then, there is Tiger, Bella and home.
From the Preface of the book Lotus Fragrance.
Do as much good as possible.
Purify your mind.
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.
I feel full of history, religious history on this trip. Religion is alive, and candles and incense are well-lit. No matter what, people reach to give and share, and that is where we all meet, in the gift of love and light.
I look out on Hong Kong harbor again tonight. Some boats have left. New ones come. Life is change, and day and night.