Monday, 16 September 2013

Gem of Portugasia - Macau

If Hong Kong is the London of Asia, than Macau is the oriental Lisbon and Las Vegas moulded into one handsome frankenstein of a city. Laying right across the Pearl river delta, Macau is just as contrasted as Hong Kong with its lazy, colonial style streets and sleepless, neon-lit mammoth casinos right on top of each other.

When I came to China I knew that I wanted to see both Hong Kong and Macau, but I only had one extra entry on my visa. This meant that I had to do the two in one go. Luckily the trip to Macau form Hong Kong couldn't be easier - there are ferries and turbojets leaving every hour or so, and they take about 2 hours to arrive to Macau. Even though Hong Kong and Macau are not strictly speaking part of China, the general rule holds just as strong - in China nothing is simple. The trip with the turbojet was no exception, which was a problem since the hostel I was going to stay in told me, that if I don't get there by 2pm, they'll give my room to anyone who happens to show up...  So obeying to the ever so powerful rule, somewhere in the middle of the delta the engines suddenly went dead and the boat wouldn't budge. Fat chance of getting to the hostel in time... Just when I thought, things couldn't get any worse (they can always get worse), the monk sitting next  to me chose that moment to start screaming and projectile vomit into a paper bag for like a solid 15 minutes. It wasn't really zen I tell you. After some time the crew unexpectedly managed to fix the engines and we finally got to the port of Macau.

One thing that's really important to note about Macau is, since until quite recently it used to be a Portuguese colony, everything - and I mean everything - is written in both Cantonese and Portuguese. Some might call it a minor flaw in the concept, that quite literally no one speaks, nor indeed understands Portuguese. Somewhere I read that around 5% of the population dominates the language - that's 1 in 20, right? Well, as a quick and unrepresentative survey, I tried to spark up a Portuguese conversation with at least 30 different people, with zero success. During the two days I spent there I haven't once heard anybody utter a single Portuguese word, none, nenhuma...

So there went my hopes to be able to communicate with the locals. Upon arrival, of course, I did not know that, and so when I was looking for the street of my hostel - rua felicidade - I went in a Portuguese restaurant to ask for directions. I suspected that the street had to be really close to the restaurant, but the waiter - who while of course not speaking a word in Portuguese, had a fairly good English - hadn't the faintest idea where the street was. He was looking at my map for like 10 minutes with the sort of expression that theoretical physicist have when presented with an exceptionally complicated yet greatly intriguing problem regarding the quantum properties of the 11th dimension and a cat. Then he went out, thoroughly examined the street sign on the corner, and came back with a satisfied smile radiating on his face, showing proudly that he had cracked the nut - the restaurant was actually in rua felicidade the whole time! Well I supposed during the last five years of him working there, it never seemed important enough to know in which goddamn street his restaurant was...

So I arrived to the hostel, which would frankly deserve a whole post just for itself. It's called San Va Hospedaria, and it has earned a bit of a reputation over the years. A lot of years. 140 to be exact. The building was built around 1870 and it's been conserved in its original form ever since. That literally means, that no renovation whatsoever have ever happened to it, and by the looks of the condition it was in, they take the 'conservation' so seriously that the rooms haven't even been cleaned sine the early 70's. When I got into my room, I found two ancient flip-flops casually laying on the floor left by someone who probably died fighting in the opium-wars and could never come back for them; and judging by the sheets the previous tenant was Chewbacca on a stag party that ended with him passing out on the bed covered in all sorts of body fluids after a steamy threesome with a pair of particularly slimy alien prostitutes. At least after reading the horrifying reviews on the internet, I was prepared and brought my own sheets, so they didn't have to chop both of my legs off from the knee down. The paper thin walls that separated the rooms - when I say rooms, I mean miserable cells - didn't reach the ceiling, so I could hear everything that happened not just in the neighbouring rooms, but the entire hostel. And trust me on this one, you don't want to hear the stuff that's going on in the cheapest hostel of any South-East Asian city...

On the up-side, the hostel really had a unique atmosphere, and not just in the bad sense. To start with, its gritty ways really took me back to an era of the city which is hopelessly disappearing due to the never ending constructions of the soulless casino giants. And I had to admit, under the grimy, cracked paint it did have a certain charm and beauty. You really had to want to see it, but it was there, faded by a century that has seen empires rising and falling. Luckily I'm not the only one who thinks so, in fact one of the most beautifully photographed films I have ever seen was shot in this hostel - Won Kar Wai's 2046!

The thing is, that every former Portuguese colony around the world looks almost the same. If you take away the Chinese signs and the buddhist temples, Macau looks pretty similar to any colonial Brazilian town - the same black and white mosaic pavements, the unmistakable azulejo (blue and white tiles) street signs and narrow alleys. That's of course just at the first glance - the Macanese culture is a surprisingly harmonic blend of their Portuguese, Cantonese and even African heritage. But then again most Portuguese colonies are known for their cultural and ethnic diversity, including Portugal itself.
If you walk around the more historic parts of Macau, you can easily imagine how it must have looked like back in the day when the wealthy merchants were carried around in rickshaws by the less fortunate, passing in front of shady opium dens and noisy brothels while rattling away on the bustling streets. The colonial style buildings are densely decorated by hundreds of traditional Chinese lanterns, below them a legion of street vendors shouting on the side walk into the waving crowd.

Macau, however, in the last decade or so has developed a formidable split personality disorder by gradually turning itself into the Las Vegas of the East to such extent that by now its yearly turn over has exceeded its western brother's. Hundreds of thousands of adrenalin hungry gamblers are pouring into the city from mainland China where casinos are not allowed, most of them going home without a dime. They even had to set up a bus service that takes the completely broke back to China. The casinos, by the way, are exactly the same as the ones in Las Vegas - the same big names just came over and set up shop in Macau. It's not just the casinos who are after your money - there are young women looking for an opportunity to lay their hands on some extra cash. You wouldn't expect it, but actually they are not prostitutes or hustlers, they are plain old pickpockets working in pairs - hoping that while one distracts the (usually drunk) prey by means of heavy-duty flirting, the other can liberate him from his wallet. I know this because one such pair tried their luck with me as well, but were soon chased away by a Nepalese guard who's job was exactly to deal with these vultures.

While trying to get as far as possible from the casinos, I took a bus and ended up in a little fishing village, where thanks to the scorching heat, everyone was laying on benches snoozing. Photography-wise this wasn't such a bad thing, as a sleeping person is a lot less likely to protest when I take a picture of him, and usually even their friends who happened to be awake were just laughing. It seems like, it really doesn't matter where you're from, you can't trust your friends to protect you from getting yourself humiliated... The only person who didn't seem to be dozing off was a buddhist monk form Thailand. I wasn't in a hurry and he sure as hell wasn't (monks seldom are), so we started to chat. Truth to be told, I don't small talk with buddhist monks every second day, so that was a first. Luckily he had fluent English, as he turned out to have a masters degree in psychology from Mumbai, and have traveled around the world multiple times. He even visited Budapest, my home town, and is now going to spend 6 months in Amsterdam teaching meditation. I asked him what a normal day looks like in the monastery, and he told me that they mostly study and meditate, but a large part of their time goes away to bringing water from the well in buckets, which is somehow never close to the monastery...

I said goodbye to the monk and headed to a national park where I planned to see one of the Chinese things that I really wanted to check out, but so far - because of the mean tricks of fate - failed to do so: Pandas! In Macau there's a whole park dedicated to those overrated pests - and as much as I don't agree with the whole cult that seems to be surrounding them, now that I'm in China I want to see them, just so that I know they exist. So I got to the park, and the first thing I encountered was a sign that said: sorry, the panda's can't be visited on Mondays (it was a Monday). Well, what the hell? Are they on holiday? Or is Monday the sabbath for pandas? If the pandas are in there, why can't I see them? I just want a couple of photons that have touched their stoner looking face to crash into my retina, so I can finally have closure about this whole panda business that's starting to get really suspicious! I even pleaded to the grounds keeper, but he said 'Come back tomorrow!' I told him, there is no tomorrow. I will be gone by then and my dearest childhood dream is to see a panda! That seemed to work - he put his hand on my shoulder, smiled at me understandingly and  in an almost angelic voice he told me 'Come back tomorrow'.

[Actually since then I have seen the bloody pandas somewhere else, and frankly, they don't worth the effort.]

It was time to go back to Guangzhou. To do this, first I had to get to Zhuhai, the Chinese city that's bordering with Macau. I hate that place. First of all it seems like that the entire population of China is trying to get through that border the same time, and each and every one of them wants to be the first to do so (that's, by the way, a pretty typical Chinese trait). At the passport control there are around 30 gates, out of which 29 is just for Chinese citizens and only one pathetic booth for foreigners (or aliens as they prefer to say), and even that queue is filled with sweaty Chinese who just keep grinding, pushing, shoving and shouting. After two hours of standing in the constantly shifting, aggressive queue in the 37 celsius heat and no air, one starts to fantasise about how to burn the whole goddamn place down to the ground. By the time I got to the booth, I had a half-crazed smile on my face and a certain glint in my eyes, that should have told any security personnel around that I was on the verge of erupting and should be dealt with accordingly before it was too late.

I thought that once beyond the gate, it would be over, the nightmare would disperse, but no. The crowd is even bigger if anything, people forcing themselves in front of you, hitting you repeatedly in the knee with suitcases, toddlers screaming...  the pure pressure of human mass on your brain that's just unbearable for anyone who's from a country that's population is less than a billion. I get out the building, where am I? Have to find the train station, but everything is in Chinese. The crowd is turning into a blurred vertigo, people rushing in every dimension. I choose a direction in random, and keep at it for about ten minutes, when I spot the train station. I'm melting of sweat under the straps of my bags, I've never sweated so much in my entire life - all I can think of is having a cold shower and then just collapse and not move for a long time. But right now I have to get a train or else I can sleep under a bridge, which outcome starts to look more attractive by the minute. The queue in front of the ticket office moves with tectonic slowness, but at least I can see the end now, when a horrible realisation stabs into my mind - I don't have any yuans, just Hong Kong dollars! I rush to the front, desperately trying to get myself understood, but they won't accept anything but Chinese money. I curse and burst out to the street again. After an hour of hazy scenes of cash machines not accepting my card, and me not finding a bloody currency exchange (why would be any at a border?), just when I start to accept the fact, that I'll spend the rest of my life in Zhuhai - I manage to get a couple of yuans for my HK$ at a sketchy tobacco shop just in time to catch the last train that goes to Guangzhou and out of this nightmare...

So either way, after a long, exhausting but absolutely thrilling four days in Hong Kong and Macau, I got back to Guangzhou and my comfy bed. It was really interesting to see how two cities with basically identical attributes - because of their separate course of history - ended up being so different; one can see the powerful influence of colonisation at its purest here in the Pearl River delta - a triangle of the British, the Portuguese and the Chinese heritage.


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