"Aaaaah, Macau, Macau!! Twenty-eight-square-km Macau!! How have you grown? I remember you at 23 km. Macanese recall you being just 8 to begin with. I hardly recognize you Macau. So much has changed."
Shanna unconsciously reminisced aloud. She had studied in Macau in 2000 and now, seven years later, she was about to set foot again on a place she loved. Vibert peered thru the water-stained glass of the luxury ferry watching a mammoth bridge span a huge expanse of water. The ferry docked. It was almost dark outside the terminal.
Ludi had come to get us. A native of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, Ludi had studied with Shanna. Now a Master's student and trainee lawyer, she was a bundle of energy, drama and joy. Like gay (in the original sense of the word, of course
) sumos, the two girls charged each other and locked up in a laughing, giggling embrace which lasted for ages. Vibert stuck out a hand to greet Ludi, whom he had never met before. But she brushed it aside and gave him a bear hug. Surely, we were the centre of attention as we left the packed airport-sized ferry terminal and piled into a
Rather coincidentally, and supremely fortunate for us, the night we arrived was the showdown for Taiwan and Portugal in the annual Macau International Fireworks competition. If you could stretch the limits of your imagination and wrap your mind around the awesome spectacle of pyrotechnics blasting skyward lighting up the dark with a dazzling array of designs like smiley faces, flowers, stars and massive golden weeping willows and then further conceptualize it all cleverly and craftily choreographed to music and then factor in the synchronized 'ooooohs' and 'aaaaaaahs' from hordes of bug-eyed 'pyromaniacs' then believe us when we say that you wouldn't even be close to experiencing the sheer thrill, energy and insanity of fireworks nite. The location was perfect. A barge anchored offshore launched the missiles hundreds of feet into the air and the wind carried them close to the closed-off, spectacularly lit piece of engineering marvel which spanned the waters between Macau and Taipa. Hundreds of thousands of spectators absorbed every square-inch of space close to and around the landmark Macau Tower. And as the music started the inevitable build up to the end, so too did the energy level and anticipation. And then came the flurry
of rockets exploding simultaneously with the climax of the music in a tumultuous crescendo before it crashed into silence leaving only the screams of approval from the uninsatiable multitude. There was no doubt about it: we were pyromaniacs
. So much so that the previously scheduled 3-day stay in Macau was arbitrarily extended by a week just so that we could watch 6 other nations artistically duke it out.
Ludi had a pre-planned trip to Japan and so we had the run of the house. Quite a few times we hung out with 'Vava' another Bissau native and trainee lawyer. But, believe it or not, almost a week after flying from London we still
had jetlag. So when we took to the streets, it was well in the afternoon. Truth be told though, Macau looked better at nite. Reclamation of land from the sea was not something Macau delayed in doing. The ever-expanding territory is simply a few islands linked by massive bridges. Dubbed 'The Las Vegas of Asia' Macau is the only Chinese territory where gambling is allowed. Monster, glittering, gaudy, ostentatious, over-the-top casinos blaze with millions of lights and gamblers the world over. Chinese citizens need a special
permit before they could enter and participate (read as "lose money"
). On the 23 square km sit more than 40 Vegas-styled casinos with the ensuing pomp, drama, traffic gridlock, spin-off enterprises and vices. Wynn and Sands trumped the veteran, across-the-road Lisboa but the brand new Grand Lisboa with its revolutionary, space-age lighting on a gargantuan ball is a strong contender. The Grand Emperor placed real gold nuggets in the foyer and Fisherman's Paradise built a smaller version of China's Forbidden City. But even bigger and grander is the undisputed leader: the all-new Venetian. Sitting pretty on the rapidly developing 'Cotai Strip' - formerly the sea - The Venetian is best described by one word: INSANE
. The owners have created Europe in a casino complete with its own series of canals with gondolas and serenading gondoliers. We're not gamblers and we never will be but we couldn't resist a look. We almost felt sorry for the huge packed halls of red-eyed gamblers who would inevitably repay such an outrageous outlay of cash. The house never loses!! Surely, the national debts of the entire Caribbean and the Dutch West Indies (minus say Curacao) could have been easily been wiped off with enough
left over to humble the GDPs of 20 of its nations. The Cotai Strip is set to be developed into an entertainment district the likes of which the world has never seen. And if all of this sounds a tad bit overblown for such a tiny territory, then it might fit better if we mention that Macau grosses more casino revenue than Las Vegas.
For the rest of the territory, it has one unimpressive swath of 'beach' called Hac Sa, Old Taipa with its 'low rise' structures and narrow, desolate streets and a New Taipa complete with multitudinous skyscraping condos whose windows look out on each other. Coloane was surprisingly rural although just 8 minutes away from the Strip. Fishermen's nets lay about in an untidy heap, fish dried in the sun and clothes fluttered on lines by the roadside. From Coloane, as with many other places in Macau, we looked out on to mainland China so close like we could reach out and touch.
Macau Island itself is a bustling metropolis with major world players in finance, IT and commerce. All the islands enjoy a rich heritage and great diversity in peoples, food, culture and history. Cantonese,
English, Tagalo, Portuguese and Mandarin could be heard amidst the crush of standees on the public buses and in the backstreets eateries where mounds of some of the best food vanished. Still very present is the Portuguese influence in the streets and architecture. But this influence, to us at least, is no greater than in a tiny morsel of goodness called 'The Portuguese Egg Tart'
. The delicious fusion of crème brulee and croissant became a daily ritual (well, sometimes twice or thrice daily) washed down with honey melon milk tea or 'healing juice'. Oh, we simply couldn't get enough of those delectable little hybrids of decadence. We almost wrote ballads and sonnets and 'Odes to the Egg Tart'
. Only when we were satiated would we explore.
Off the casino circuit and away from the main drag were busy roadside markets. With everything from snakes to frogs, live chickens to hideous, scum-sucking, bottom-feeding fish-like 'thingies'. These markets were where the locals shopped. The incoherent babble of Cantonese and the sheer number of sellers and buyers reminded us that we were in China. Steps away could be found serene, zen parks like Lou Lim Ioc with lazy carps swimming under traditional
Chinese bridges leading to traditional Chinese benabs and bamboo alcoves. Further away was Ama Temple - an expansive complex where worshippers came to light coils of incense and pray to Ama, a poor young girl who became a goddess. The ruins of the 1582 St. Paul's Cathedral only comprised its grand stone facade and magnificent stone staircase but it too was busy and impressive.
Around this time it was also the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (the Moon Festival) and we witnessed something akin to the Hindu Diwali but then Chinese and free open-air performances. Brightly coloured lanterns lined the streets. People milled about. There was music, poetry, drama, kung fu and stage shows - always something interesting and it seemed like we had chosen the best time. Macau was even more alive than it usually was. We lived it inhaling the vibe and soaking it all in. Macau was intoxicating and although we had done our level best to filter out and absorb the good, we were intoxicated.
Small wonder, therefore, that when we walked into the foreboding halls of the immigration building that we had bitter-sweet feelings.
An immigration officer led Vibert into a small, barricaded area
guarded by tough-looking gentleman. Shanna watched in silent disbelief. The immigration officer was eyeing Vibert's passport thru a magnifying glass as a jeweller would examine a rare diamond. Ultra-violet light went on. Vibert's passport went under the light. We were now officially in mainland China!!
Ludi for your outstanding hospitality
The fireworks competition organizers
The Portuguese Egg Tarts, of course.
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