I'm only here for the pastéis de nata

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April 2nd 2013
Published: June 30th 2013
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Fear and Loathing in Macau?
At China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui, I buy my ferry ticket to Macau. As the name already suggests, there are quite a few ferries to mainland Chinese cities like Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Dongguan and Gaoming. Thus, the ferry terminal is heaving with mainlanders, all of whom seem to have come to Hong Kong to go on a shopping spree. Their presence doesn't really faze me, though, as I don't have to compete with them for seats. I pass through immigration, where I get stamped out of Hong Kong, then walk to the gate to wait for departure. The ferry itself takes only about an hour to get to Macau. The ride reminds me of the one I took from Ko Tao back to mainland Thailand. The South China Sea is rather choppy that day, making the ferry's bow rise upwards in conjunction with the waves, only to come crashing down after. Some people on board lose all colour in their faces, a few throw up in plastic bags. I sleep most of the time.

After disembarking, I pass through Macanese immigration, making a point to say 'muito obrigado' when the lady stamps my passport. I'm determined to put to good use what little Portuguese I remember. On the bus, I pay with Hong Kong dollars, which is accepted anywhere in Macau. There is the Macanese pataca, but what's the use of withdrawing or exchanging money when you're only here for a day and there's no economic disadvantage when paying in HK$? I'm no collector or currency aficionado, so fuck it.

I try and follow the bus route on my map, looking probably a bit too anxious in the process, as the friendly lady next to me asks where I want to go. I tell her "just to the centre", and she's kind enough to alert me once we're there. On the Largo do Senado, I take in the panorama, with the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate), and the Santa Casa da Misericordia (Holy House of Mercy, formerly a refuge for orphans and prostitutes, now a museum) the most impressive historic buildings. Past the strikingly yellow St. Dominic's Church, I make my way uphill towards the ruins of the Church of St. Paul, Macau's most treasured icon. All that remains of the 17th-century Jesuit church are the stairway and the façade with its intricate stone carvings.

Maybe it's worth
Pasteis de nataPasteis de nataPasteis de nata

My raison d'être in Macau
mentioning at this point that Macau was a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years, from 1557 until 20th December 1999. On that day Portuguese rule officially ended, Macau was handed back to China and became a Special Administrative Region of China with a guaranteed 'high degree of autonomy' for 50 years, much like Hong Kong. China's key slogan relating thereto is 'one country, two systems'. How well this motto holds up in reality is another question.

Past the hollowness of St. Paul's, I discover small Na Tcha Temple, and the even smaller Museum of Sacred Art, with a crypt and ossuary being its most striking fetaures. The crypt contains a great painting of a long row of what appear to be crucified monks. It's full of angels and Christian symbolism. Turns out the 'monks' are Japanese Christians who were persecuted for their faith at home, explaining the title 'Japanese martyrs'.


What I've heard from most people who visited Macau was something along the lines of: "Don't go. There's nothing there, only casinos. It's dull." Well, that appears to be not entirely true, as there are plenty of historic, colonial buildings with interesting stories behind them. Then there's a few nice parks and gardens, such as the Luís de Camões Garden and Grotto, where, much like in Taiwan and Hong Kong, white-haired folks are busy working out, talking politics, playing Chinese board games or simply reading. But the combination of 'casinos' and 'dull' strikes a chord. Places where gambling is legalised usually attract the worst kind of people: greedy, shallow nincompoops who are impressed by flashy, glitzy shit, who overestimate their own capabilities, have a severely distorted sense of self and are prone to various addictions. I would reckon Las Vegas attracts the worst of the worst, but I can't vouch for that, as I've never been there and can't think of a rational reason to go. But when seriously generic, vanilla half-wits repeat mantras like "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas", implying "OMG, all that crazy stuff my buddies and I did there, it's unmentionable!", I just feel shame for them, as they have clearly lost the ability to do so or never had it in the first place.

When I enter a small eatery, I try my best to order a vegetarian dish in Mandarin, flashing my trusty 素-sign to be doubly sure. The waitress brings me fried rice with pork and shrimps and a meaty soup. I try and tell her no, without meat, I don't eat meat, I'm vegetarian, but she just looks at me, so I say it in Portuguese, which makes her give me an even stranger look. Even worse, the guy who sits at my table also doesn't understand what I'm trying to tell them. If they don't understand Mandarin, surely they read Chinese characters, right? But the language gap seems to be too big and after a futile, mutually unintelligible conversation, I up and leave. This has been the first time I didn't manage to secure a meat-free meal in a Chinese-speaking place. Why would everybody else get it but not them? I'm aware that most people in Macau apparently speak a bastardised version of Cantonese, but wouldn't they still know more Mandarin than me? Well, maybe not.

Outside, it starts pouring down like no tomorrow, but I battle on regardless. I visit a couple more temples, hop on a bus towards Macau Tower, where I'm discouraged from doing the highest bungee jump in the world (233m), as it's also the most ridiculously overpriced I've come across. I wouldn't have minded paying 100€, I would have still considered it at 150€, but 250€? Come on...but looks like people don't have a problem paying that kind of money, otherwise it wouldn't work out for them to maintain it. Disappointed, I trudge on through the persistent rainfall. The sky is so obscured by clouds that one could think nightfall is imminent.

I hike up Penha Hill (Colina da Penha), where the nice Chapel of our Lady of Penha (Capela de Nossa Senhora da Penha) looms on top. A woeful freshly married couple gets their pictures taken in front of the chapel and in the rain, looking more miserable than happy. As the showers intensify, I decide it'd be a fabulous idea to continue my sightseeing running. Past Igreja e Seminário de São José and a bunch of colourful, colonial administrative buildings, I dash ahead towards Margaret's Café e Nata, a place famous for its pastéis de nata, those delightful Portuguese egg tart pastries. These may have been the underlying driving force for my trip to Macau, at least that's what I'd pictured in my mental encyclopedia under that entry. I order a half-coffee-half-tea (sounds weird, but it's drinkable) and two pastéis, find a free seat on one of the beer benches outside (sheltered from the bad weather) and enjoy the pastries. They're pretty damn good, not as good as the ones in Belém, though. Still, I find that two don't satisfy my cravings. When the group of Hong Kongers that sat on my table get up and leave, they also leave behind four uneaten pastéis de nata. It's not like they spat on it (and I hate to see food going to waste), so I assemble the tarts on one plate and start offering them to people on other tables. They politely refuse, so I eat another two before calling it quits. Funnily they all looked at me as though I was eating trash. Must have been people on their way to the casinos.

To round up my Macanese experience, I take the bus to Taipa, an island south of Macau Peninsula, connected to it by a long, insane-looking bridge. Walking around through the small alleys, past colourful houses and pubs, some adorned with Portuguese-style blue tiles, I feel much more reminded of Portugal than in central Macau. There are several smaller, incense-laden temples that round up the mixture of cultures perfectly. Unfortunately, I fail miserably finding an advertised vegetarian restaurant, so I decide to eat when I'm back in HK. Kind of ironic, as I was told people from Hong Kong go to Macau only for the food. That was one thing that didn't impress me at all in Macau. They don't seem to cater to vegetarians all that much, but at least the pastéis de nata managed to keep me going for another while.

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Not-quite-virgin Mary above a multi-headed dragon?

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