Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mucking About In Macao--Like Las Vegas on Ginseng! Plus Victoria Peak

Its All About Macao
Wednesday, January 13, 2016

     Today I felt so much more at home in Hong Kong. Feeling well rested after a good night's sleep and when you have learned the lay of the land, know how to use public transport and have your bearings--all these factor in when you are in a foreign country alone and hope to have a good time.  As it turns out, I was not alone today and for most of the day, I was not in Hong Kong. I was with Nora, my roomie, who was fab company and I spent most of the day in Macao.

     Macao was a Portuguese colony until 1999 when its 100 year lease from China ran out. The colony then became a part of Chinese territory. Most visitors today go there for one reason--gambling! It is the only part of China in which gambling is legal. Hence, loads of people come in from Mainland China precisely to roll the dice. Other visitors (such as myself) go there to imbibe the Portuguese colonial ambience, to get a whiff of the trade that made the Portuguese so wealthy as they used the island as a trading post between China and their colony in India called Goa.

     When I awoke at almost 9.00 am (I am jetlagged and still keeping Indian time), I asked my room-mate, Nora if she wanted to join me on a trip to Macao. She had not intended to get there but readily agreed when she found she had me for company. She rushed through a shower, I got dressed and within half an hour, we were downstairs in the Youth Hostel where Breakfast is included in our tariff. I chose the American brekkie today (scrambled eggs with ham, toast and butter and get this, salad--they must mistake Americans for Japanese--and corn!!! With Coffee, of course). Well and truly fortified for a day of exploration, we left.

     Only we did not realize how far away Macao is from Hong Kong--it is about 65 miles away and we needed to take the Metro to Cheung Wan for the Turbojet Ferry that transports you there in one hour for HKD 341 return trip. We were only able to get tickets for the 11. 45 ferry and off we went. We needed to book return tickets at the same time and we needed to select a time for the return crossing. We decided to get back by the 3. 30 pm ferry which would give us about two and a half hours to see the main sights of Macao. We were cutting it very fine but we had a glorious day and I wanted to make sure we would have time left over so that I could climb up to Victoria Peak.  The views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Island are good but we did not have window seats--so did not get really great pictures. The crossing was very peaceful as the seas was very calm indeed.

Getting To Know Macao:
      Nora and I decided that the first thing we needed was a map and as we moved towards the Information Desk, a man approached us and thrust one into my hand. It turns out that he was a taxi driver and in the most hilarious English, he explained that he was offering his services. We bargained him down to HKD 700 for two hours of sightseeing--he would take us around and show us the highlights and bring us back to the Ferry Terminal for our 3. 30 pm crossing. Fair enough! We don't know if we got taken for a figurative ride (including a literal one!) but we thought the price was fair and set out.

     On the ride to the sights, we passed by the Equivalent of The Strip in Las Vegas--hotel after gaudy five-star hotel that is stacked with floors of casinos for your gambling pleasure--like Las Vegas on ginseng! I thought I was back in Nevada again. The place was crowded (just like Vegas) with thousands of merry-makers crossing the streets. The hotels are the same as in Las Vegas--The Wynne, MGM Grand, etc. Since this was not our interest, our taxi driver moved on.

Largo de Senado:
     The first stop on our agenda was Largo de Senado which is the main administrative square and the center of all Portuguese administration in the colony. Since the city still appears caught up in Christmas celebrations, there were wild decorations all over the place--a stage was set up and every sort of gaudy Chinese-type decoration was in evidence. The buildings, however, are deeply reminiscent of the ones in Lisbon or indeed even in Goa. And the streets sported the names of all my relatives--Da Costa, Rodriguez, Ferreira...there even was an Avenida de Almeida! We passed the Post Office and strolled the length of the quarter, taking in the building of Misericordia and making our way along a black and white cobbled street (similar to the ones I had seen all over Rio de Janeiro in Brazil) to the Church of St. Dominic where we paid a visit. We ended our exploration of the area with a pop into the Senate Building which, in Portuguese colonial times, was the center of all official goings-on. Today, of course, it is an official Chinese building. Charming, antiquated and very beautifully maintained, this area is a show piece for visitors and I must say that the Chinese government is doing a brilliant job keeping it impeccable. Which is far from what I can say about British colonial relics in Bombay!   

The Catholic Cemetery:
     We made a stop at the Catholic Cemetery by mistake as our taxi driver did not understand where to take us when I requested him to take us to the Protestant Cemetery.  Anyway, no harm done. We spent about 15 minutes before I realized we were in the wrong place. The Portuguese last names made it very clear to me that we were in a Catholic cemetery and when we realized our mistake, we returned to the taxi and drove on.

The Ruins of the Church of St. Paul:
     Five minutes later, we were at Macao's primary attraction--the one you see in all the pictures that advertise this tourist venue: it is the Church of St. Paul that was built by the Jesuits when they arrived on their proselytizing mission in China. Built in the mid-1600s, it has a typical Portuguese style church façade (of which there are many in Goa). But in 1835, a fire which was the result of a typhoon, swept through the church and left only its façade--which sits high on a hill and is reached by a tower of stone steps.
     Our driver parked our car and gave us ample time to get to the steps and pose for pictures in front of the facade. It is a five-tiered structure, each of which has a distinct motif which, in many cases, combines Christian and Chinese iconography. For example, at the very top is a dove representing the Holy Spirit, on the next tier is the Infant Jesus surrounded by icons of the Crucifixion, then there is the Virgin Mary assumed into heaven and below that the four evangelists. On the third tier, is a Chinese dragon with Our Lady placed on top of it! There are lucky Chinese lions that form gargoyles at the two opposite ends. It was all totally fascinating and we took a bunch of pictures.
     Next, we walked into the body of the church (or what remains of it) and we saw where the columns that once supported the church stood as well as the tombs of those who were buried in it. There are stairs that lead to the first level, but no visitors are allowed to climb it. Next door, is the Museum of Macao but we had no time to get inside. Its lovely stone-walled structure was very evocative of Western colonization.

A Colonial Artist in The Protestant Cemetery:
     Finally, we managed to convey to our driver where we wanted to go: the Protestant Cemetery has mainly British and some Dutch people buried there as the Portuguese considered them heathens and would not permit them to be buried in hallowed Catholic ground! Hence, they had to create their own cemetery and they did.
     My interest in exploring this cemetery was to get to the burial site of George Chinnery, the British artist who spent most of his life in the colonies--in India and China--painting British officials in the 18th and 19th centuries. In India, the best known portrait he painted was of the Anglo-Indian (then known as Eurasian) children of the British Resident of Hyderabad, James Achilles Kirkpatrick and his Muslim Moghul wife, Khair-u-Nissa. As a scholar of Anglo-Indian Studies, I felt privileged to have seen the painting in the collection of HSBC Bank in London (where it was on exhibition a few years ago). Hence, I am familiar with Chinnery's work and was delighted to be able to see his grave. He died in Macao having also painted portraits of several Portuguese officials.
Back on the Ferry:
     So that was it--our visit to Macao was brief but very satisfying indeed. Had I more time in Hong Kong, I would definitely have given it a full day but I was not unhappy with the time we spent there and the tour we got. Nor was I unhappy with the taxi driver who did the best he could for us in the limited time at our disposal. True to his word, he dropped us off at the ferry terminal for the 3.30 pm sailing. We did have to clear Immigration at both ends but we turned out to be early and the conductors allowed us to board the 3. 15 ferry which dropped us off at Hong Kong Island at 4. 15.

Off to Victoria Peak:
     My next port of call was one of Hong Kong's highlights--Victoria Peak (named for the erstwhile monarch), but now that the British no longer own Hong Kong, it is simply called The Peak. Nora had covered it yesterday and so she left in search of the Museum of History (which is free on Wednesdays). We parted company with plans to re-unite at 7.00 pm in the Lobby of the Peninsula Hotel so that we could explore the Temple Street Night Market later in the day.
      Accordingly, we took the Metro to Central where I went in search of the Bus Terminus while she went to the museum. The No. 15 bus goes straight to The Peak and after a stunning 45 minute bus ride that took me ever higher past some of the most beautiful residential skyscrapers, we were at the Peak.
     My brother Roger had advised me to get there later in the day so that I would get some glimpses of Hong Kong by daylight and then a completely different look once the lights came on. No one could have given me better advice. It was brilliant. I got great views of all of Hong Kong's major islands--Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories. After a while, I nipped into the Peak Galleria to use the rest rooms and to use the Free Observation Deck there on Level Three. Frankly, I thought the drive up was far more spectacular than the views from the top--which were a bit too far off for me. Still, it is a venue worth seeing.
     About an hour later, I joined a long but very fast-moving line to take the famous Peak Tram that goes up and down on a one-way journey of 8 minutes. Since I had taken the bus up,  I bought a one-way ticket for the tram for HKD 28 and in about 10 minutes, I was on a tram. Darkness had fallen over the city and the buildings were all visually breathtaking as the lighting on them is anything but ordinary. Most people stay up on the Peak until a little past 8.00 pm, when there is a nightly Light Show. About 45 of Hong Kong's skyscrapers participate in a show that involves dancing, synchronized lights. I did not know about this until a day later or else I would have arranged to meet Nora later. At any rate, it was great to arrive at Central where the tram drops you and walk in the midst of these superbly-illuminated skyscrapers. What a lovely experience!

Off to the Peninsula Hotel:
     Five minutes later, I was in the Metro Station at Central (which, by the way, used to be called Victoria earlier. Similarly, Victoria Harbor is now simply known as Hong Kong Harbor--the Chinese have done a good job wiping off the names of colonial head honchos just as post-colonial India has done). I headed off to Tsim Tsa Tsui Station to walk another ten minutes to get to the Peninsula where Nora was waiting for me in the lobby as we had planned.
     The meeting place was a very fortuitous one as the hotel is one of the great old Asian relics, on par with the Raffles in Singapore or the Peace Hotel in Shanghai. The lobby was beautifully but subtly lit and the lions' heads and the wooden beam work on the ceiling was grandly emphasized. Taking Afternoon Tea in the Lobby there is a tradition but at nearly HKD 400, I am not sure I want to spend so much on a meal I would take alone.

Off to the Temple Street Night Market:
       The Temple Street Nigh Market is also considered one of the highlights of the city. Nora and I realized that we would need to take the Metro again for one stop to Jordan as it was too much to walk to at the end of our long day. We did just that and after hopping off the train, we were at Temple Street in about five minutes.
      Temple Street is nothing to rave about but it is a great place in which to buy el cheapo souvenirs or gifts to take home. It has all the usual kitsch you can expect. I found my postcards of Hong Kong and Macao and I bought a designer bag. For the price I paid, it can only be a knock off, but who knows--neither I nor those who see me holding the bag ever will!
       After strolling about for another half an hour, Nora and I felt it was time to get home to the hostel--it was about 8.30 pm by then. Half an hour later, we were in our room again ready to kick our shoes off and get some much needed rest. I have to say that I made do again with cookies and honey yoghurt for dinner ( as Nora had grabbed a sandwich somewhere earlier) and a very delicious dinner it was too!
      Until tomorrow, when I get to Manila in the Philippines, bye for now....


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