David Rich 1000 Words
H o w N o w R e d M a c a u
Macau, jewel of the South China Sea, pastel slice of Portugal, oasis from the hectic honking of China a millimeter away, a city to like a lot. The simple act of stepping across the border from Zhuhai, China to Macau bred comparative peace and absolute charm, bestowing a feeling of immediate tranquility. We'd dearly missed the idea of calm after three months in the real China. Macau was like finding a private sanctuary or getting out of jail free.
Though Macau had officially been part of China for over two years when we arrived in December 2001, it was indubitably un-Chinese. Crossing the street on entry to Macau brought sheer pleasure, traffic screeching to a halt as we ambled casually across the boulevard. In China, five minutes earlier, we'd have been playing matador or we would have been smithereens because pedestrians in real China bear the sole responsibility for avoiding damage, dents, and destruction.
Macau was comely compared to much of China. Where China provided abundant conspicuous choices between slums and skyscraper shopping centers, it was a pleasure to meander in Macau, surrounded by sea green and canary yellow pastels in inimitable Portuguese style, white lace accents on buildings from banks to Internet cafés.
And joy of joys, Macau Telecom offered the weary traveler a breath of fresh air from home for the cost of exactly zilch. Public Internet was free at Macau Telecom stores on every other block, broadband connections convenient for soliciting money from home, super fast, handy for all tourists, and notably for those who would have been better off shunning Macau's fancy casinos.
We'd tried Hong Kong three months before because I'd dreamt of going since I was a child to the mysterious pearl of the orient, but Hong Kong was hectic and impersonal. This time I figured we couldn't lose by trying Macau, and we hit the jackpot. It's possible to get to Macau from Hong Kong through the real China if you have twenty baksheesh for a visa and can wait three days for its processing, but don't bother. Take the fast boat from Hong Kong to Macau where everything is cheaper, seventy minutes to the east, far across the wide bay formed by the mighty Pearl River. While Hong Kong was New York on uppers with hectic high rises, Macau was a laid-back, duty-free paradise, like buying on the Internet with no sales tax, shipping fees, or duty. All the merchandise was at your fingertips, no waiting for UPS to show up, leave a "so sorry we missed you" slip, miss you the next day, and ship your order back to bigbusiness.com.
Macau's traffic was mostly Vespas and Vespa look-alikes, making me think I was in Rome, Portugal. Compared to China, Macau traffic was light but on day two we escaped the frolicsome scooters to Macau's islands, Taipa and Coloane. Sixty-seven-cent buses swooped over two mile-long bridges, radiantly whitewashed spans, to the Portuguese villages on the islands, littered with cobblestone streets, pastel buildings, and fresh fish restaurants. Hiking trails snaked from the villages over towering green hills to exquisite beaches bordered by more seafood restaurants. Still, my favorite seafood was the array of squid balls from food stalls in Macau proper, a half dozen for a buck, eight patacas or eight Hong Kong dollars, whichever currency you might prefer. The squid balls were grilled in front of my drooling tongue, five dozen to each cast iron griddle, rolled to golden perfection. I held the mayo and slathered them with dried onions and green wasabe mustard—yummy!
Another relief from China was the newspapers and TV, media being a subject I never thought would fit in the context of consolation. Getting hard news, partly true news, was assuredly exciting after three months in China where the media consisted of serendipitous bologna sprinkled with crapulous creativity. I could finally find out what was really up with Britney Spears.
We spent a lazy week in Macau doing not much beyond gobbling English-language newspapers, TV news and for me, squid balls by the dozen. We fitted in a little duty free shopping and sightseeing, little being the operative word when dealing with a city the diminutive size of Macau, half a million people including the high-rise apartment dwellers ringing the quaint villages on the islands. This little is extremely jam-packed.
The chief sight, the symbol of Macau, was a clunky old church that'd burned down eons ago, leaving a starship-sized façade like a prodigious Portuguese Picasso from outer space. It was apparently obligatory for everyone to snap the picture of relatives, friends, and remote acquaintances in front of the thing. The crowds were as awesome as the facade. Classy black graffiti-covered cannons poking every which way guarded Macau's several hilltop fortresses. Pictures of tourists astride the cannons were equally popular and I have several of myself to prove it. Serpentine cobblestone alleys led anywhere and everywhere disclosing unanticipated pleasures. We stumbled onto the striking Cemitario Catolica, crammed with fancy sarcophagi surrounding a teal church bedecked in white frosting, but the nitty-grittiest attraction of them all was the extremely old Protestant cemetery. The cemetery was serendipitous to hit upon and eerily deserted, a baffling oversight by other tourists because hoards of rococo coffins and relatively austere headstones told their own stories with primitive engravings such as this:
Seaman Jeffery Hanks
This stone is erected in fond memory by his shipmates
He fell from aloft
Age 17 or thereabouts
May 5, 1767
The cemetery interred dozens of Americans and others of the sailing ilk, abundant babies and young wives, chronicling deaths by fever and diverse causes. Few were older than age thirty except two rich merchants, almost none younger than we. Damn the squid balls, we seized the moment and booked out of Macau while the getting was good.