October 17, 2017

A sample chapter

It’s Chapter 6. About tiny but world-famous Macau.

NOTE: At the end of the chapter, as usual I tucked in another of my many Travel Tips. I did that wherever I had room. It is Tip 17. Enjoy it when you get down to the bottom.

Now the excerpt:

“The old colony is now a huge playground.
We came to enjoy something a lot different.

Call it a whim. Or inspiration. I said to my sister Lucie, “Let’s go take a look at Macau for a day.” We did. It turned into one of our best days so far.
Macau was easy to spot on the map. It is just a hop and a skip away from Hong Kong. The island colony that Portugal founded more than 400 years was a mere one-hour boat ride away along the coast. All we had to do was board one of the frequent ferries. They are turbo-jet catamarans. They whiz over the water. Amazing.
I was still thinking of Macau as a quaint old provincial town, still wrapped up in the culture and traditions of mother Portugal. When those Portuguese adventurers first landed there way back then, they were staking out the white man’s first beachhead in Asia. They lost little time in taking over from the natives.
They saw a golden opportunity and they made the most of it. Before long they had made tiny Macau a great center of trade and commerce in eastern Asia. It achieved top importance.
It became the key meeting ground where East and West exchanged goods and ideas. It developed into a rich commerce which changed both sides of the world forever. Their brilliant success electrified others, notably the English and the Dutch and the French. They set their sails and promptly adventured across the vast sea to establish their own stakes in Asia. We Americans caught the fever and headed there, too.
But like the other great sea-faring nations of Europe in Asia, in time Portugal saw its role here play out. Just as Great Britain saw the hand- writing on the wall in Hong Kong and packed up in 1997 and went home, Portugal was forced to do the same thing. Now this tiny settlement, like Hong Kong, is a special administrative department of the People’s Re- public of China. History takes many strange turns.
Just as in Hong Kong, China doesn’t yet have the iron hand it had hoped to have in running Macau. The two colonies’ contracts with China emphasize that none of their local laws can be changed for 50 years from the date of take-over. But watch out what will happen then.
The weather was less than promising on our morning to go. Dark gray. Strong hints of rain. “Let’s take a chance,” said Lucie. “It’s our only opportunity.”
We got to the dock in 30 minutes. First a 10-minute ride on a bouncing double-deck tram, then a fast walk. It’s surprising how much walking we’ve been doing. And all the stairs we’ve had to climb and es- calators to take.
“We’re walking more in one day than we do back home all year,” I said to Lucie.
At the ferry station, two surprises. First, we found we were entitled to a big bargain as senior citizens. Our fare was $20 apiece each way, which was about 50 percent off.
The other was an annoying one. We were made to go through all the tedious formalities of departure from one country into another, just as if we were flying across the ocean to Egypt or Brazil. Fill out forms, show passport, wait in long lines, have documents examined and stamped. Finally we got on board. It was a sleek, spacious craft. “It’s like a Boeing 747 without wings,” Lucie said.
Inside were row after row of seats, with 20 to a row. We had hoped to sit close to the windows. We wanted to sightsee. We got stuck in the middle of a row. Every seat got occupied. Imagine having to get up to go to a rest room.
They were airline seats; quite comfortable. But I got worried. I noticed the seatbelts and a sign that said “Buckle Up!” Each seat had a vomit bag. Lucie noticed also. “This may be a rough crossing,” I said to her. Both of us tend to seasickness. If we had known about this, we might have stayed home.
Then we heard a clanking and saw the big gangplank being pulled up. The turbo engines roared into life. We crossed our fingers for good luck. Now I was glad we were sitting in the middle, not way over on a side. The center of a boat is always the most stable spot. It’s where the rocking and pitching are minimal. And the lower the deck you’re on, the better. But this was this boat’s only deck.
We left the harbor and zoomed along the coast. I’ve never had such a fast boat ride. We skirted a mountainous shore, green, with many outcroppings of white rock. Easy so far. Then we headed out. Now I got tense. This is where it might get rough. But not bad.
At one point I stood up. There were wide windows at the front. I wanted to go and look out and take a picture or two. Yes, I’d have to in- convenience the people in our row. A steward glared at me and shook his finger. “Not permitted, sir,” he said. “Please sit down.”
We docked in exactly 60 minutes. Easy ride. Lucie and I found our- selves waiting in line to get off right by a steward. I asked him, “Why do so many people come to Macau?” Every single seat had been taken, and I knew a ferry came to Macau nearly every 15 minutes during most of the day.
“Gambling,” he shot back. “Gambling, gambling. Macau has be- come a gambler’s paradise. The Chinese love to gamble. These are nearly all Chinese people.”
Looking out, Lucie and I were stunned. The shore was lined with high-rise buildings. Great big modern buildings, shoulder to shoulder. Nothing old, nothing colonial about this. It reminded me of flashy Miami Beach in its prime.
The passengers had all jumped up to get ready to go ashore. What’s the rush, I wondered.
I found out. As I said, we were entering a different country, how- ever tiny. We would have to suffer through all the irritation of that. The standing in line, filling out forms, showing IDs, being subjected to possible searches, all that fun. Everybody wanted to be first in line, then first through. We followed the others into the Arrival and Departure Building. It was enormous. This was like a major international airport. And I had thought Macau was a minor, sleepy place.
The final step was a surprise. As we walked up the exit corridor, we were told to remove our hats if we had one. We walked toward a man sitting behind a camera. Wearing a white lab jacket and mask, and he was staring at a computer monitor. That’s what it looked like, a big camera. “Temperature Check,” a big sign said.
Somehow an unseen sensor was checking our body temperature as we strode by. This was an avian flu precaution. The avian flu is a big worry here.
After I passed by, I looked back. I got a look at the monitor. It showed people approaching. One by one, their temperature was being measured. How, I don’t know. But all without having a thermometer
stuck under their tongue. I didn’t see anybody get stopped, which was re- assuring.
Finally we got to the street. I checked my watch. This whole business had taken us longer than our boat ride. And we’d have to go through it again at the end of the day.
Macau is a tiny place. Just 10 square miles. Smaller even than Hong Kong.
Now we got a better look at all these big buildings. Some were great, glitzy hotels. Some glitzy casinos. Yes, gambling was number one. They offered any game you cared to lose at. Entertainment was number two. Floor shows. Girlie reviews. Musicals.
All the buildings appeared to bump up against a glass ceiling 35 stories up. No building went higher. Is it a matter of zoning, I wondered. Or because building higher is too expensive? Maybe both.
Our ferry had docked at one of about 20 identical piers. Similar ferries were docked at some of the other piers. And some ferries were at sea, in between. So how many thousands of people go back and forth per day? The total must be astounding.
“A ride, sir?” a man said in English, accosting me. “I show you around for two hours. I show you everything! I have very good car. Only 400 Hong Kong dollars. That’s only $50 U.S. Very, very cheap.”
“Sorry,” I said, and moved on.
He kept trying. “Very cheap. Very good. You will like.” Then, get- ting no response, he said, “How much you want to pay? 350? How much you want to pay? 300?”
I made an excuse and kept moving, Lucie in tow. Only to run into another. And another. And another. Finally into a guy who had a pedal cab rather than a car. A modern rickshaw, so to speak, with him pedaling instead of pulling. “One hour to downtown,” he said. “Only 15 American dollars. If you want, I take you to restaurant first. I wait while you eat. No extra charge.”
No, no. We had a different idea. That steward on the ferry had told me about a city bus. “It will take you downtown. All the way across Macau if you like. Only about $3 American. It is Bus No. 5.”
We found Bus No. 5 and went to get on. A problem: the bus accepted only Macau money. We had Hong Kong dollars, American dollars, some left-over yuan from China, some yen from Japan. None of it was acceptable.
Hastily we managed to change a few dollars, boarded, and each plunked a 250 Macau coin into the box. We got two good seats. In 25 minutes we were downtown. That steward had been so right.
Enormous congestion. People, vehicles, bicycles. So many scooters and motorbikes. Advertising signs everywhere, in Chinese, Portuguese, and English. Garish screaming, competing for our attention. Some signs had all three languages on them! All the buildings looked less than 25 years old, many of gray concrete, rendered in uninspired modular architecture.
We recognized many of the big names. The Sands. The Phoenix. The Rio. So many others. All smacked of Las Vegas. In fact, later I heard that the millions plowed into these gambling and entertainment emporiums were Las Vegas money. And some of these were in fact Las Vegas operations.
Now Bus Number 5 ran through an older neighborhood, and it all began to look more Portuguese. The buildings had a genuine colonial look. More charm. And we entered what was obviously the center.
“Look!” Lucie said, and pointed to the right. A big red building, with graceful white columns, elegant in a style of a hundred years ago. A government building surely. Now more such old and charming buildings. Unfortunately, no way of telling what they were, or are. Then a picturesque Catholic church. Ancient archways. Narrow streets teeming with life. A big and ostentatiously ornate water fountain. All colorful vestiges of a proud and vanished past.
Many stores, very large, some very small. A splendid boulevard with a row of finely pruned trees running down its middle. Surely this was the heart of Macau. We were tempted to get off, but we knew our fare was good for a ride right to the other side of the island. We opted to stay on till the end, then saunter on the way back.
But is Macau truly an island? It didn’t seem so. I studied my map. Water on three sides, yes. The fourth side seemed to be separated by only a narrow river, with China on the other side. Or maybe it was a canal. So, yes, technically it’s an island. I’d be inclined to call it a peninsula, but this has less pizzazz.
The map showed that Macau also has two close-by islands. Now they are connected to this main area by bridges. I had spotted one bridge, very handsome. Nowadays the islands are suburbs of the central city. Parks have been built there, along with a golf course, swimming beaches, a race track.
In a few minutes we entered an area even more colonial-looking. Handsome plazas. Attractive buildings of more ornate architecture, which I find appealing.
“It does look like Lisbon,” Lucie said. I agreed. We’ve both been there, though not together. Lisbon – or Lisboa, as the Portuguese call their capital – is a marvelous city with fine buildings, many with red tile roofs, overlooking the great Tagus River. Yes, I saw the influence here.
On we went. Now everything degenerated. We rode through old neighborhoods of poorer houses. Finally Bus 5 pulled into a huge bus terminal. Surprising to see such a large terminal in such a small city. End of the line. Everybody got out, and of course we followed. It took us five minutes to find our way through the terminal onto the street. It was so hot out, Close to 90. No shade. Sweltering. A nice breeze was much appreciated. It made me feel we were very close to the sea, although we couldn’t see it.
We were staring at a huge building, very grand, with streams of people rushing in and out. We had no idea of what it was and what they were up to.
I puzzled over our map, trying to find where we were. Couldn’t get a fix. Lucie approached a well-dressed lady for help. Language barrier, of course. The lady strode by, ignoring Lucie. We approached several more. No luck. Frustrating. Then Lucie walked over to a young couple. They spoke English. Excellent English! Both Chinese. They were visitors from Hong Kong, like us. But familiar with Macau.
They told us the big, grand building was an immigration gateway. It was the only way in or out of Macau by land. That was China on the other side. The people coming out toward us were arriving from China, the ones entering were returning to China.
“Why so many?” Lucie asked. “They come to gamble,” the nice young woman said. “Like you.” Exactly what the ferry steward had told me. But we let her remark pass. Gambling was certainly not part of our plan here.
Now I understood. With just that narrow strip of water that I had seen on my map as the fragile frontier, I could see why China considered this peninsula its own, to be wrested back after the departure of the empire-hungry Portuguese.
A friendly couple. They were my idea of perfect tourists – meaning tourists interested in helping fellow tourists. They eagerly pointed to things on the map for us to try to see. He suggested that we take Bus 25 back rather than Bus 5. “You will see a lot of interesting things.”
“A McDonald’s near here?” Lucie asked. You know by now how she regards McDonald’s as her essential oasis in strange cities.
“Yes, yes.” they both said approvingly, pointing to the right. “Just a short walk.”
I took their picture. Such a nice couple. They had been so helpful. Didn’t want to forget them. We were all smiling broadly as we parted.
We found the McDonald’s. In a strange land, a McDonald’s – or a KFC, or a Burger King – assumes surprising importance. It’s a home away from home nor only for Americans, but tourists in general. Easy to understand why. It will be attractive and well run. It will offer a menu of familiar items.The prices will be clearly posted. There will be no cheating or over- pricing. There will be time to sit and rest, with no pressure to hurry. The toilets will be clean. You’ll be able to wash your hands and find provision for drying them. And briefly the pressure will be off. No wonder they attract so many of us.
Refreshed, we took Bus 25 and made our way to that charming colonial neighborhood we had spotted downtown. Getting off, Lucie pointed down to the sidewalk. She was smiling. I smiled, too.
“Look!” she said. We were standing on a stylized anchor designed into the sidewalk, which was paved with thousands of small pieces of black and white stone. The anchor was made up of hundreds of such black and white pieces. You see sidewalks like this and designs like this all over Portugal.
On other corners we spotted a Portuguese sailing ship. A seagull. Another anchor. These were the popular motifs.
“I want to take some pictures,” I said, taking out my camera. It wasn’t easy. So many pedestrians that it was hard to get a clear shot. Somehow I managed.
There could be no clearer evidence that for a long time Macau had been part of Portugal’s great colonial empire. An empire now decimated. How difficult it must have been for the Portuguese to pull out.
We spent two hours walking around, entering shops, exploring side streets, taking pictures of celebrated landmarks that I could now recognize on the map. Now and then we stopped to ask directions. At times we were lucky and struck someone with good English.
One was a charming Chinese lady from London. She was very familiar here. Lucie took advantage of the woman’s easy English to have a real conversation.
“My husband is from here,” she told us. “He has family here. We come regularly. We never go to the casinos. What we enjoy is the shopping. It is very good, better even than in Hong Kong. This is the best shopping in Asia. Prices very good. We fly back to England with so many things!” She laughed and pretended to be carrying heavy suitcases.
“You must go see the history museum,” she said, and pointed up a hill. “Not far. Do not miss it.”
What good advice. In 15 minutes we were up there. It was an ancient army barracks, with a superb view all around. Outside, cannons cast centuries ago aimed out toward a new cityscape that those ancient soldiers could never imagine – high-rise buildings and towers beyond number. We could make out flags flying here and there. I was sure not one of them was now Portuguese.
The barracks had been converted into the History Museum of Macau. It turned out to be spectacular, with wonderful dioramas and exhibits.
We got off to a lucky start. This was Wednesday, the one free- admission day every week. We were burdened with stuff. I spotted loc ers and handed our things to a clerk for storage. He placed them in a locker and handed Lucie the key. No charge. Amazing. Then handed each of us a map of the museum. Free also. Unusual in this day and age.
We spent two hours, each going our own way to pursue our own interests. I saw so many remarkable things. Later Lucie reported the same thing.
One was an exhibit of a cricket fight. Yes, between tiny crickets. Cricket fights were popular here in the old days, just as cock fights are in China today. A diorama showed every detail. Next to it we pushed a button and a video of a real cock fight came on. What a fight.
Many men – always men – raised crickets for fights. They chose the little creatures with great care. Fed them precise rations. Every neighbor- hood staged regular fights. Two crickets, owned by different men, would be placed in a wooden bucket. Bets – sometimes huge, life-changing bets – were placed on them.
I was fascinated by the video. The crickets squared off. One at- tacked. The other fought back. Onlookers cheered. Groaned. When one cricket seemed to lag, the owner reached down with a special “tickler” and tickled it back into fighting mode. Some fights lasted for many minutes, the narrator said.
I expected one of the crickets to collapse and die. Not so, it seemed. At one point, when the outcome was clear, both were removed from the bucket, the owners using special small baskets to scoop them up without injuring them. The winner was declared. Again, cheers by some, moans by others. Bets were paid off.
When a champion cricket died, a wake was held, the narrator said. Yes, a wake. The cricket was placed in a casket. Prayers were offered. All true. Yes, truth can be stranger than fiction.
I went from one exhibit to another, savoring them all. So much fun. At one point a security guard approached me.
“Your sister is waiting for you downstairs,” he said. “Could not find you. She has been very worried.”
“I’ll be right down,” I said. He spoke such good English – American English, in fact – that I couldn’t resist a question or two.
He told me a strange story. He looked Chinese but had an English name, Whitby.
“My father was an American soldier in the Philippines. My mother was a Filipina. My dad abandoned us when I was three. I have never understood why. I know his name. I have tried to contact him. He lives in Oklahoma now. I called last Christmas. He refuses to talk to me.” I could see the pain on his face.
He opened his wallet and showed me a picture of a young GI, slim, curly-haired. “My dad,” he said. “I know his Social Security number. I know so much about him. All I have of him is his name. And this picture.”
His mother, he said, had died four years ago. He put the wallet back in his pocket. “Life can be hard. But life is imperfect for all of us, don’t you think?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Better go join your sister!”
Lucie was relieved to see me. I told her his story. “How sad,” she said. “I hope his dad will have a change of heart.”
We retrieved our things and left the museum just as it was closing. We strode the lovely grounds, centuries old, and watched the sun set be- hind the gleaming towers.
We strolled down the big hill. But we were going down in a different direction. When we got to the busy neighborhood below, it was a dif- ferent neighborhood, and we had a devil of a time finding a bus to get us back to the ferry. After many tries, we found a young man who steered us straight. I kept checking my watch. I was worried. Would we miss the boat?
We made the 7 p.m. departure with just two minutes to spare. It had taken us an anxious 20 minutes to get through all the final passport and security business. What would those old explorers make of these newfangled ways?
I couldn’t help wondering whether today’s Portuguese back home come and visit their old colony for a vacation. Maybe there’s too much heartbreak involved.
The ferry pulled out and I managed a last look back. I saw so many big, ostentatious buildings, all apparently very new, crowding the island that I felt it might sink. Macau has become as big a draw as Las Vegas, and may exceed it. I have read that a lot of this investment is Las Vegas money.
Half a million people live in Macau now. Only 2 percent of them are of Portuguese blood. Far, far more than half a million tourists come every year. And I had an odd thought. There must be 100,000 motorbikes on the island and I felt I had seen all of them.
The turbojet engines roared. Again a fast and smooth ride. A lot of passengers looked glum. A bad day at the casinos, I assumed. How could anyone reasonably expect to win? That kind of thinking is delusional.
Back in Hong Kong, we had to suffer through the same ordeal of clearing through. We were exhausted. Leaving the vast building, we spotted a – I hesitate to say this – yes, another McDonald’s. Lucie looked at me imploringly. “I could go for a fish sandwich,” she said. We headed right over.
It was after 9:30 when we got back to the Island Pacific Hotel. I went to close the drapes across the big window and looked down on Victoria Harbor. The water glistened in the moonlight. A few boats going this way and that. It’s been an everyday scene for centuries.“It’s been a nice day,” I said as I flicked off the lights.
“Very nice. And perfect weather. I’ll never forget it.”
I felt the same. I adjusted my pillow. I had to smile. We had not entered a single casino. I’m sure many people would consider this strange. You fuddy-duddies, they might think.
Some who had traveled to Macau with us surely had fun gambling. Recreational gambling, they call it. They can afford their small losses. And they enjoyed the shows and clubs.
Others, however, must be moaning their losses. One or two, maybe more, might be considering bankruptcy, or suicide.There were few winners, I’m positive. The casinos were the big winners, for sure. The daily losses of the great majority have become Macau’s modern lifeblood.

! Travel Tip 17.

Digital photography is such a convenience and a joy. It’s tempting to shoot and shoot. All it costs is battery power. Some things I have found. At the end of the day it’s important to delete the bad shots or the unimportant ones right away. Back up your good shots regularly.

Bad things can happen. Your camera may be stolen, and gone with it will be all the shots stored in it. This happened to me. Awful.

It may be important to use smaller capacity flash cards or other storage devices rather than large ones. One may go bad. If it has dozens, maybe even hundreds of images on it, it will be a huge loss.

A good back-up is to regularly e-mail your photos home to someone you trust. How comforting to know they are all in a safe place until you get home.

Protect your camera. Do not carry it in a camera case Too obvious! It is a highly stealable item. I carry mine in an ordinary plastic supermarket bag, as if it were a small purchase I had just bought. Yet on this trip I had my camera stolen. My negligence! I explain it in the chapter on Honolulu.