A viagem para Macau (dia primeiro)

MACAU — For some reason, Macau has intrigued me for a long time. It’s not just the glitzy casinos, which rival the ones in Vegas, it’s the blend of European and Asian influences in one teeny tiny living space.

The original plan was to take a bus from Jiangmen to Zhuhai to meet up with a student host, but her parents had other plans. Spring Festival and the winter holiday surrounding it is a time for families to get together. They were driving out to the countryside to see older relatives before my student had to head back to school. So, I decided to head to Macau on my own.

A quick geography lesson: Guangdong 广东 (also known as Canton) is the province just south of Hunan, where I live. The provincial capital is Guangzhou 广州, and south of it are the cities of Jiangmen 江门, Dongguan 东莞, Shenzhen 深圳 and Zhuhai 珠海, as well as many others, all situated in the Pearl River Delta. If you are using something made in China, there’s a good chance it was either made in or shipped out of one of those port cities.

Shenzhen lies across the border from Hong Kong (XiangGang 香港), and Zhuhai across from Macau (Aomen 澳门). HK was a British territory until 1999, when the UK handed it back to China. Macau was a Portuguese territory until 1997. Both are now Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of mainland China, which has enabled them to preserve some autonomy from Beijing’s often restrictive social and political control.

Gongbei border crossing, Zhuhai, China

The border crossing at Gongbei in Zhuhai

Macau’s big claim to fame are its casinos, which attract players from all over Asia and beyond. Not being a gambler, I just visited a couple of the casino hotels as a rubbernecker, and was suitably awed by the scope of these places. The Venetian is probably large enough to house a medium-sized American town (at about $350 a night per room).

I was more interested in the Portuguese influence (being a speaker of the language), so I planned to visit the colonial parts of the cites during my two-day stay.

Portuguese is one of the official languages of Macau, Chinese being the other, but there are actually very few Portuguese speakers here. Most people speak Cantonese, Mandarin and to a lesser extent, English. Still, my hotel had RTP, the national television of Portugal (which also televises Brazilian programming), and I found Portuguese language newspapers at the news stands. Many place names and streets carry Chinese and Portuguese names, but I suspect the locals would only understand the Chinese names.

Guangzhou and the other cities are within two to three hours of each other by bus. I really wanted to take the hydrofoil ferry from Jiangmen to Macau, also a two-hour trip down the Pearl River, but getting clear information about the sailings was frustrating.

Two of the Australians took me to the big hotel near WuYi University, where they were sure there was a shuttle to the ferry dock. The desk clerk, however, swore there was no such shuttle and that there was no ferry to Macau. Sue, who has been in Jiangmen several times before, insisted there were such things, but to no avail. The desk clerk, who seemed rather harried at the time, stuck to his story.

Cultural explanation: In China, if someone in charge should know about something, but doesn’t, they will not admit ignorance. To save face, they will just deny any such thing exists. The American concept of admitting you don’t know and volunteering to help you verify your information was not in this fellow’s customer service repertoire.

Of course, he might have been more helpful if we were paying guests of the hotel.

Two of the teachers in the Jiangmen program arrived from Hong Kong by ferry, and they told us the ferry stopped in Macau on the way. After asking around, and getting little help from travel experts in Jiangmen, I finally found the ferry company’s website, which listed only a 9:00 departure from Jiangmen. The price was 240 RMB, compared to 47 RMB for the bus. Weighing my options, the bus seemed the better choice, though certainly less scenic or, as I discovered, as comfortable a ride.

Because of Macau’s status as an SAR, there is still a border crossing. The bus stops at Gongbei, the immigration and customs complex in Zhuhai. You have to leave the bus with your luggage and walk into the complex. There is a two-floor shopping mall, with duty-free shops, below the actual customs and immigration hall. There you stand in one of a dozen or so lines to exit China to get your passport stamped and your bags X-rayed. Then you walk across a “no-man’s land” and enter another customs and immigration hall belonging to Macau, get in another of a dozen or so lines to get your instant entry visa (good for 90 days) and your bags once again X-rayed. You exit into downtown Macau’s Praça das Portas do Cerco (border gate plaza).

[There is a similar set-up in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. It’s all a little weird, because in both cases you’re still technically in China, but bureaucracy is the same all over the world. Why make things simple?]

Victoria Hotel Macau

The Victoria Hotel

Using TripAdvisor.com and elong.com, I found the Victoria Hotel, which is just a fine-minute walk from Portas do Cerco. Or it would have been, if I had not walked right past it and gotten lost. I had seen a photo of the hotel, but from the direction I was coming from, I didn’t recognize it. I had to ask directions three times before I found, shame-faced, that it was there plain as day just a few blocks from Portas do Cerco. Duh.

Normally, Google Maps on my phone would have come to my rescue, but China Mobile has no cell service in Macau. My phone was off the grid for the time I was there. For a two-day stay, it wasn’t worth buying a SIM card from the local provider, CTM, to regain service.

But in my hotel room, I could use Google Maps on my Android tablet, which helped me find which local bus would take me where I wanted to go. Macau is really quite small, and densely packed, with streets that meander, European style, all over the place. There are very few straight lines between point A and point B, so the bus is far quicker than walking (and getting lost).

Which I did again the next morning, but somewhat on purpose. The city website listed a weekly flea market in Taipa that seemed like a nice activity for a warm Sunday morning. The bus from Macau peninsula to Taipa island would drop me near the sports stadium, and I would have to walk the rest of the way. And walk I did, wandering semi-aimlessly past the Jockey Club, the Galaxy casino-hotel, and a shopping area, where I found a shrine to a local god, a McDonald’s (serving pumpkin soup!), a coffeehouse (serving French toast!) and a bookstore (serving English language books!), before I wandered into the old Taipa trading market, Feira do Carmo.

Taipa House Museum

Taipa House Museum, Macau

From there, I just wandered about, discovering an old Catholic church, and the Taipa Houses Museum, a group of five light green two-story homes dating from around 1900. One house preserves the furnishings of a middle class family of the 1920s, another is a museum shop, and a third displays folk costumes of Portugal. The other two are only open for special occasions.

This part of Macau preserves the colonial architecture very well, complete with period street signs and cobblestone streets (and ancient ficus trees). But across a small lake are the more modern casino-hotels of Co-Tai: the colossal Venetian Resort, the City of Dreams, comprising the monolithic Grand Hyatt Macau, the cylindrical Hard Rock Hotel and the elliptical Crown Towers Hotel) and others that are still under construction.

Of those, a friend recommended I visit the Venetian, which replicates Venice, complete with its own canal and gondolas and a partly cloudy (painted) blue sky over the shopping mall. The buildings imitate those in the real Venice, but it’s hard to imagine you are in Venice with the glass-and-steel towers of the Hard Rock, the Crown and Hyatt right behind you.

The main lobby of the Venetian is as overwhelming as the outside, complete with a giant armillary spehere and frescoes on the arched ceilings. The casino area seemed not as large as I had expected. Instead of losing money gambling, I decided to check out the shopping mall with the painted sky and canals. The shops all sold designer-label merchandise, way outside my budget, but the food court seemed almost affordable. Almost. Two dishes at an Indian take-away shop cost 135 patacas (about 120 RMB or $20). But the food was tasty, and the setting was (if you squinted really hard) almost like being in a Venetian plaza … full of people speaking Chinese.

Inside The Venetian food court

The Venetian Food Court, Macau

In fact, while there were westerners like me there, by far most of the Venetian’s clientele were Chinese, undoubtedly from HK and the mainland, spending their HKD and RMB on a casino holiday.

Having explored all of Taipa and Cotai I could handle in one day, I retraced my steps, found my bus stop and returned to the Victoria. To give you an idea of the kind of harebrained travelogue this is, I never actually found the flea market, and really didn’t care.

[Next: the second day in Macau, the train to Guangzhou and what I found there.]

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