We woke up a little earlier than normal, had our cup of coffee to go, and made our way down to Hong Kong’s Macau Ferry Terminal. There we bought two tickets for the Turbojet Ferry to Macau for $163HK each. The ferry ride was smooth and fast, and more like flying than a boat. I was pretty impressed. I could travel like this more often, honestly. Why a day in Macau you may ask? Well, I’ve wanted to go to Macau for a while. Even since before this happened.
Macau is the world’s biggest gambling destination, but it wasn’t really the high rollers we wanted to see. We wanted to see the old Portuguese colonial architecture, the churches, and the menus of the restaurants.
The cityscape of Macau
Macau is honestly everything I expected out of Kowloon. Apartments feel like they’ve been dropped right on top of each other. The old European looking wrought iron work on the balconies clashes with the Chinese characters on the signs. The streets are incredibly narrow. Traffic is mostly delivery vans and motorbikes. In the historical district, the streets were so crowded one could barely move because the newly rich Chinese mainlanders have money to spend, and Macau has plenty of places for diamonds and gold. A few blocks away you could hear a bird crap from 100 meters away because it was so quiet. It seemed to me that Macau is really a city of contrasts. Additionally, the way the buildings are laid out, walking the narrow streets wasn’t that different from being in a tunnel. You could hear people walking a block away, or the engines of approaching vehicles, and have no idea which direction the sound was coming from. It was amazing.
Macanese grub is kind of an edible history of the Portuguese explorers. There’s straight up Portuguese cuisine, there is Chinese, there are foods influenced by Malaysia and India, really anywhere the Portuguese went before they arrived on this tiny rock off the coast of China. We tried a couple of Macanese standards. The egg tart was buttery and fatty and wonderful. Every bakery in the historical district has these, and I’m pretty sure you needn’t look too hard to find them fresh out of the oven. Another food we saw everywhere was the pork chop bun, a deep fried pork chop served on a bun, bao style. It was good, but not the pork goddess I imagined it would be.
The big surprise for me was Portuguese cuisine. We decided to go tapas style when we arrived at the restaurant because we both wanted to try a few items and the appetizers were really inexpensive. The Portuguese fresh cheese was salty, crumbly, and delicious. The meat and potato cakes were fluffy clouds of meat and potato. The cuisine is simple, and I think simple is often the best way to eat. The highlight of the show, and I mean show, was the chorizo. When we ordered it I expected a sausage. It arrived at the table on a grill placed into the back of a ceramic pig. The server lit the whole thing on fire and we watched it burn, char, and crackle until she plucked it off at just the right moment and sliced it up onto a plate in front of us. Delicious isn’t the right word…but I don’t know how to modify it strongly enough without profanity. That was one good chorizo.
Churches and Cathedrals of Macau
So about a million and a half years ago, the Pope created an arbitrary line of demarcation that decided what the Spanish and Portuguese could claim as theirs, because hey, they were the best explorers in the world at that time. The only bit in the Americas on the east side of that line was Brazil, which is why they speak Portuguese and the rest of South America speaks Spanish. My hometown is literally the host to like ten Spanish missions. Maybe not ten, but a lot of them. I looked it up. Five. Whatever. I’ve never been to a Portuguese one. Well, Macau was Portuguese until 1999, and the island is dotted with Portuguese churches and cathedrals. Carolyn and I, though not Catholics by any means, and definitely not church people, somehow always end up sitting in churches admiring the construction and ornate woodwork, carvings, statues, and all of that stuff. I think it’s almost as foreign to her as the Hindu temples in Bali and Buddhist temples in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Korea are to me. I grew up visiting the old missions in San Antonio and find the Spanish church style a bit familiar, and the Portuguese style is all at once very similar and very different. Ha. Same same, but different. There is a subtle difference, a lesser contrast in the artwork, a flatter appearance on the paintings, a more subdued expression on the faces of the statues. I don’t know. I’m not really an art expert or anything. All I know is it was cool to be in these churches.
You know what makes it cooler? I’ll tell you. Standing on the steps of the ruins of a church, seeing the Ionic columns on the facade that survived from Ancient Greece, the beginning of Western Civilization, on a church built by explorers and Jesuit priests five hundred years ago right here on the doorstep of China. It’s one of those places where you can feel the history. It was once the freaking bleeding edge of our whole civilization. That edge might be rusty and dull now, but it’s still there. That. Is. Amazing. That’s why Macau is totally worth a visit, even if you don’t set foot inside a casino.