I returned yesterday from an amazing trip to Macau. It’s a city/country like Hong Kong and has an incredible 500-year history combining Portuguese and Chinese culture. As I learned on this trip, the Portuguese were originally allowed to settle in Macau in order to promote trade between China and Europe. Macau is now in a 50-year phase in which the land has been returned to China but is administered separately. This means that I couldn’t understand either of the two national languages, Portuguese or Cantonese (which was freeing in a way because I didn’t have to feel guilty about my inadequacies with Mandarin).
I have to admit that I have spent my life not knowing a lot of basic things about Asia in general and China in particular, despite a trip to Beijing and Qingdao with the Stanford Band in 1998. I’m quite embarrassed to say that I didn’t even understand the differences between China, Taiwan and Hong Kong until meeting Dan. I also didn’t know Macau existed until I met Dan’s (now our) friend Stephanie in San Francisco, who is Macanese. The adventure now taking place in my life now is giving me an excellent opportunity to continue learning and expanding my horizons. It’s also making me painfully aware of how much more I need to learn about the world.
I traveled to Macau because I needed to renew my visa for the second time since our arrival. I’m here on a tourist visa, which means that I must leave the country every 60 days. For the first visa run, Dan and I went to Hong Kong for a week during the National Holiday vacation. This time, to save money, I made a one-night trip to Macau, by myself. Also to save money, I flew into Zhuhai, the Chinese special economic zone neighboring Macau, took a bus to the border, and crossed on foot.
I only went to Macau for one night and wanted as much time as possible there, so I woke up at 5am on Monday to take the subway to the airport (the first train, at 5:38am, had tons of people on it!) and arrived home after midnight on Tuesday. I took a backpack and my messenger bag and was completely overpacked. I stuck to my rule of only letting myself bring one pair of shoes per day I would be gone, which means allowed myself two pairs. I did not regret this decision. I ended up needing to sprint (OK, let’s be honest, it was more like a jog than a sprint) through the airport to catch my flight, and I was really glad I was wearing my sneakers. Once I made it to the gate, it turns out my flight was delayed anyway, so my terror at missing my flight and my unexpected morning exercise was totally unnecessary. This was the second time in my life I have was so late for a flight that I needed to run through an airport—and the second time I arrived panting at the gate only to discover the flight was delayed. (This time, the delay was because of fog. Where are we, San Francisco?!) The difference was that this time I had to deal with the problem in Chinese. Luckily I knew how to say “I am very late” because Matt always showed up late to Chinese class. Thanks Matt! I was glad I brought the other shoes, a pair of sandals, because it was almost 80 degrees in Macau.
Upon landing, the trip from the airport, through Chinese emigration, then through Macanese immigration took about two hours. Around the time I happily walked into the Macau sunshine was when I remembered that I am shockingly terrible at being prepared when I travel. I didn’t have a map. I didn’t know where my hotel was. I didn’t have any money. I hasn’t even started reading the Macau travel book until I was on the flight to Macau. Basically, I had chosen Macau because it was the cheapest way to renew my visa, and I hadn’t thought about anything else. I fixed the first problem by finding an ATM. Then I needed to buy a doughnut so that I could break a 100 MOP bill to take the bus (a likely story!). Fun fact: the currency in Macau is called patacas and is often designated as MOP. After inhaling the doughnut, I still only had a vague idea of where my hotel was, although I knew the address. The buses are fairly well-labeled in Macau, so I just picked one and hoped I would figure where it was going once I was on board.
It turns out I had NO IDEA where it was going. I typed my hotel’s address into the Google Maps app on my phone and it alternated between putting my hotel on a nearby island, putting my hotel in different neighborhood in Macau (not that I knew it at the time), and not being able to locate it at all. Eventually I got off the bus because I thought it was probably going in the opposite direction from my hotel and I figured I could just try and walk based on where my Google Maps app said I was. I wandered around completely disoriented for a little while and realized that Google Maps said I was on different streets than the street signs said I was, so I ditched Google Maps. I decided to just enjoy walking around lost, since that’s the point of traveling anyway, right? As soon as I embraced being lost, a miraculous thing happened: I turned onto a random alley, looked at the street sign, and recognized the name from my hotel address. A couple of blocks later I found my hotel. The journey from my house to my hotel took about 10 hours, with the subway trip from my house to the Shanghai airport being the most time-consuming portion.
See more Macau photos here.
Happily, the hotel had a free map of Macau. I had a few hours left before tourist sites started to close, so I dropped off my bag, changed into the sandals, and took off again. According to the Macau guidebook that Dan stole off the internet and put on my Kindle, two of the places I really wanted to see were not open the next day, so I set off to find them while I still could. It turns out the place where I had originally gotten off the bus was about a three-minute walk from the hotel, if only you would walk there in a straight line. Armed with a map, I chose a bus to take to the Wine Museum. I tried to follow along on my map with the bus announcements in Portuguese and Cantonese. I got off at what I thought was an appropriate place and soon reverted to my wandering-around-aimlessly strategy. I found some really cool stuff, like this huge plaza with a theater and a bunch of workers cleaning up after the Macau Fringe Festival. Inexplicably, there were about 100 electric fans lined up on the plaza (I hoped from some wacky performance art piece). I found a few more plazas and gardens and began to appreciate the unique mishmash of architecture in Macau. I was enjoying myself immensely, but I had no idea where I was and I was anxious to visit the Wine Museum. After some more wandering I realized I had literally walked in a circle, unintentionally arriving back at the plaza with the theater. That’s when I determined it was time to take a cab.
The wine museum was great. Admittedly this is assessment is mostly because the ticket price included wine tasting. In one of the displays I learned why the Chinese wine industry is so underdeveloped, despite devoting the ninth-largest area to vineyards of any country. First, Chinese winemakers don’t have much access to other wines for comparison. In fact, many people who run vineyards haven’t even tasted wine. Second, there’s not much of a wine culture in China, although that’s rapidly changing. Apparently whiskey used to be the most popular imported liquor, but now wine accounts for 80% of alcoholic imports into China. Finally, lack of standards and rampant misrepresentation has held back Chinese wine. People can slap a label on anything here and call it wine. I can’t exactly attest to the accuracy of these claims (after all, I was at a wine museum touting Portuguese wine), but I can verify that Chinese wine is basically undrinkable, imported wine is ridiculously expensive, and restaurants rarely serve wine. (In fact, I just asked my mom to send me mulling spices so that I could buy Chinese wine and boil it with spices and tons of sugar to turn it into something palatable.) Anyway, now that I tasted three wines I was in an even better mood, and I decided to make my way to the other spot from the guidebook that I had wanted to check out, an artists’ space called the Ox Warehouse.
The bus I needed to take to the Ox Warehouse stopped directly in front of the Wine Museum. Yay! Despite being so discombobulated earlier, I (again miraculously) found my way to the corner where the Ox Warehouse was supposed to be. I unsuccessfully searched around for a while and finally gave in opened their website on my phone, trying not to think about the out-of-country data charges. The website hadn’t been updated in two years and didn’t include an address—it just said it was at the corner of the two streets I was currently standing at. I chalked it up to another out-of-date travel book (see: Dad’s Home Cooking Restaurant in Xi’an) but made a last-ditch effort to find it by walking down a sidewalk labeled “no entry” before I would let myself give up completely. That’s when I found it. The artists had just finished an exhibition, but I could wander around and look at the studios and exhibit spaces. The woman at the desk told me they had opened a public art exhibition the day before at Hong Kung Temple—which, it turns out, is a block away from my hotel—but when I went to check it out the next day, I couldn’t find it.
After leaving the Ox Warehouse, I wandered around the neighborhood a little more. I had been awake since 5am, but I knew I didn’t have long in Macau, I was excited to see the sights, and I wanted to keep looking around. I followed a lane that wound up a hill, and at the top I found a Tourism College (Macau’s income is primarily generated by tourism and gambling, so this makes a lot of sense). Also at the top was a park with great views of the city. I found a path that seemed to lead down the other side and decided to go down that way instead of retracing my steps (see: Dan’s and my hike down from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong). You could never do this in the US—it was steep, it was dark, there were lots of stairs. Even if you didn’t get mugged you were likely to trip and break a bone. It was great!
Once at the bottom, I wandered some more, and that’s when I figured out how small Macau really is. I noticed that I was pretty close to the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden that I had planned to find the next day. I still had tons of energy and wasn’t yet hungry for dinner, so I went to find the garden. On the way there, I crossed THE SAME PLAZA with the theater from earlier that day! The garden was even more beautiful than I had hoped. It was quite large, with a pond and a bunch of paths to meander down. Around every turn I found little nooks to rest in, and there were lots of people around sitting quietly, or chatting with friends, or doing tai chi. It was quite peaceful and is the first place I’d revisit upon returning to Macau.
In the park, I checked the travel book and the only Macanese restaurant listed with just one dollar sign next to its name turned out to be just a couple blocks away. It was a cafeteria-style place sketchily located up the stairs and in the back of a building, with no sign. The food was excellent and the 50 MOP dinner included soup, the main dish, rice, tea, and flan. I can’t even remember the last time I had flan! There was an older white gentleman there hosting a dinner for a large group. I couldn’t quite make out what was going on since everyone was speaking Cantonese, but I enjoyed people-watching anyway, and eventually the guy approached me to chat. It turns out his name is Fred and he was born in Macau. His advice: visit the casinos, but don’t gamble (he then told me he doesn’t take his own advice). I shared that I live in Shanghai but I’m from San Francisco and he said, “Oh–where you can experience all four seasons in one day!” So true.
Heeding Fred’s advice, I boarded a bus to check out the casinos. It’s an important part of Macau’s identity, so I felt like I should go, but my heart wasn’t in it. I wandered around for a while, admiring the over-the-top ostentation of the Grand Lisboa and the fountain show at the Wynn, but then I remembered that I’d gotten four hours of sleep the night before and had been awake for 17 hours, and I took a bus back to my hotel.
The next morning I planned to get up early and go to the Guia Hill Park for a jog. Ha! Instead I got up at 9am after sleeping for 10 hours. First on the (revised) agenda was the A-Ma Temple, which the guidebook described thusly: “If you only visit one temple in Macau, make it this one.” It really was the coolest temple I have ever visited. Then I took the bus to Taipa, an island that is part of Macau’s territory. It was even more adorable there, with tiny winding streets and flowers everywhere. I did the suggested walking tour from the guidebook and then ate lunch. I found the restaurant with the most Asian people inside and tried not to be intimidated by the lack of an English menu. Basically what I could discern was that they had a lunch special for 30 MOP (32 if you added on a Coke). There were five choices of main dish and the waitress pointed around the room at other customers who were eating those five dishes. I chose one of the dishes and added a Coke, which came in a heavy glass bottle, the kind that they use over and over again—very cool. Since the restaurant was busy, they seated another singleton at my table, something that is incredibly common in China.
I took the bus back to the Macau peninsula and got off near the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral/Macau Museum. This was a highlight of the trip and I spent a long time in the museum exhibit that offered a comparison of the development of Chinese and Western culture over time. It listed timelines for written language, religion, technology, and other developments side-by-side. Then I still had time before I needed to cross the border again, so I was able to visit the Guia Hill Park after all (the one that I hadn’t gone for a jog in earlier). I took an trolley to the top–basically a Disneyland People Mover that traveled straight uphill. Once at the top, there was still an intense hike to reach the old fort and lighthouse. Macau has an important maritime history and there were some exhibits about that, and the lighthouse is still a working lighthouse. I hiked down the other side of the hill and discovered that I was again standing in THAT SAME PLAZA with the theater. I continued the trek back to the hotel, bumping into a couple more temples, churches, and plazas on the way back—including several where workmen were in the process of putting up Christmas decorations.
Macau is a great place and a change of pace from some things about China that can wear on you: People don’t hawk and spit their loogies on the ground in Macau. People don’t litter. All of the toilets are seated rather than squatting. The drivers are completely sane (although they drive on the right rather than the left, which nearly got me killed a few times). There are gads of scooters, but they obey traffic laws and everyone wears helmets. Also, Asian people jog in Macau!
After a whirlwind day and a half, I was excited to be flying home. When I arrived in Shanghai, I felt like I was home, and at the same time I still felt like I was traveling. Every day living in Shanghai is still a wonderful (sometimes exhausting!) adventure. I’ll post more soon about the other trips I’ve been so lucky to take over the past two months: Hong Kong and Xi’an. Those posts will be shorter than this one. I’m so thankful to have the chance to travel, learn and discover new things every day!