The Best of Macau
Crickets are a symbol of good luck in China. They are kept as pets and valued for their singing. And for their fighting qualities. Cricket fighting has been a tradition in China for over 1,000 years. In the 13th century, Jia Shi-Dao was known as the Cricket Minister. Not because he headed a Ministry of Crickets but because he neglected his actual ministerial duties in pursuit of his obsession with cricket fighting. Countless stories, poems and legends attest to the bravery of these plucky insects and when they died, either in the ring or of old age, they were mourned and buried in little silver coffins.
Or more recently, as in Macau, preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in glass jars.
And there’s a lesson in that, I thought, as I studied the labelled jars containing the preserved bodies of some of Macau’s champion crickets. You can enjoy all the fame and fortune of this world while you are alive. But at best it leads to a glass jar in the Museum of Macau, to be gawked at by tourists, and at worst an unmarked moment in the cycle of regeneration.
A lesson in mortality is always good for the soul. It makes you appreciate your blessings, even if you don't welcome it at the time.
They say that people who suffer from seasickness start out thinking they are going to die and end up wishing that they will. I didn’t think it was possible to be seasick on dry land, but now I know better. Seasickness is the result of vertigo; that confusion of the balance mechanism in the inner ear brought on, in that case, by the pitching and rolling of a ship. Some people are similarly affected by the motion of cars or aircraft. And most of us have had the experience, more often in youth, until we learn better, of the room spinning around after one too many lagers at the pub. I know I have!! Well that’s a form of vertigo too.
But it isn’t one too many lagers that causes my world to spin. It’s all in my head. Which would be funny if it was not so unpleasant.
I like Macau, both the old and the new. The old with its charming fusion of Chinese and Portuguese culture. Mosaic tiled pavements, baroque churches, neo-classical public buildings and a thick walled Portuguese built fortress sharing the old centre of the city with Chinese temples and street markets. And the new with its Las Vegas inspired (and funded) glittering temples to luck and consumerism. In some ways the Venice in Macau is better than the real thing. The canals don’t smell, the streets are cleaner, the shopping is better (and the prices the same), the weather is predictably air conditioned and it’s not likely to sink into the lagoon. Oh and you can walk a couple of blocks to the Eiffel tower and the best of Paris contained in a Louis XIV style palace. You can’t do that in Europe!
The food is also one of the real pleasures of Macau. It’s all there, from the best of Cantonese dumplings, noddles and seafood to Michelin Star gastronomical elegance. And in between is the Macanese fusion of Portuguese and Chinese cuisine which combines all the tastes and textures from South Asia as well as those the Portuguese imported from their colonies in Africa, India and Brazil. Which Mrs R. and I were very much looking forward to trying.
It was a pleasant walk from our hotel on the Cotai Strip to Taipa village, a cluster of narrow streets and lanes terraced with gaily coloured, one or two story, colonial shop-houses. We promenaded along the busy Rua da Cunha looking at the menus and fending of the vendors keen to spoil our appetites with samples of their delicious Portuguese pastries. Then settled on an aperitif of Portuguese lager in the Old Taipa Tavern before dining at Toca a few steps away along Rua dos Negociantes. It was a warm evening but the sky was clear and we decided to sit outside. A glass of crisp Portuguese verdelho from the Douro valley made a very pleasant accompaniment to Mrs R’s African chicken (marinated, grilled and served with a sauce of coconut, chilli, spices and tomato) and my roasted black pork with clams, both traditionally Macanese.
It was a lovely meal and we had almost finished when the restaurant table, the Rua des Negociantes and everything in it started to spin. I knew straight away it wasn’t the wine. A small bottle of beer and a glass of white do not normally set my head spinning. But it was vertigo alright, caused by some mysterious malfunction within those minute canals of my inner ear.
“We have to go,” I rasped at Mrs R. through gritted teeth. But when I tried to stand my legs gave way and I flopped back onto my seat. Normally, when I suffer such an attack an hour or two’s lying down with my eyes closed is enough to stop the spinning, although sometimes with the added discomfort of several bouts of violent vomiting. Just like extreme seasickness, but from motion created entirely within my head. But where was I going to lie down? The thought of lying in the gutter of the Rua des Negociantes, looking like a pitiful, grey haired, drunken, tourist, filled me with shame. So I clung to the table top, fixed my eyes on a glass of water and prayed for the whirling to stop.
But it didn’t. It got worse and soon I knew that falling off the chair was a distinct possibility. Actually I wasn’t thinking much by then. It was Mrs R. who could see from my shaking hands and pale, cold-sweating face that things were not looking good. And so, bless her, she took charge. She ordered me to lie down on the ground and with her strong arms around me we managed it. And there I lay, sweating and groaning as the pavement heaved beneath me. The restaurant staff were, at first, bemused by the sight of one of their customers collapsed outside the front door. Food poisoning? Should we get him out of the way before anyone notices? But when Mrs R. explained my condition they could not have been more helpful. And they called the ambulance when she asked them to.
I heard the sirens though the swirling haze of my misery and then two strong paramedics lifted me off the heaving pavement and laid me onto a gurney. The movement overloaded my senses and I managed to projectile vomit most of the short distance from the restaurant to the ambulance, no doubt to the amused disgust of the patrons sitting outside the Old Taipa Tavern as I was wheeled past.
The journey to the Hospital Conde S. Januário, known locally as the Hill Top hospital because it’s on the slopes Guia Hill, was a nightmare. The whirling of the ambulance was compounded by its rocking and swaying as the driver rushed through the narrow winding streets of the old city, siren blaring. A white haired old man, pale, clammy, sweating, groaning, vomiting and dizzy. I had all the signs of a heart attack, or possibly a stroke.
On arrival I was rushed straight past the triage desk and into A&E where the doctors took charge. With Mrs R. translating - in my distressed condition I couldn’t understand their English (it was perfect by the way as I realised later) - they grasped that my life was probably not in danger; but they decided not to take any chances and hooked me up to an ECG machine, inserted a cannula, took a blood test and started a re-hydration drip. The way I felt I would not have cared if they’d suggested shooting me.
But all bad things come to an end. The tests confirmed that all I needed was a couple of hours rest to let the vertigo subside and I was allocated a bed at the quiet end of a corridor and instructed to rest, while Mrs R sat on a chair like a watchful guard dog. From time to time a nurse or a doctor came to check on my progress.
As the night wore on the admissions continued. My end of A&E was where the elderly patients were segregated and the adjacent beds soon filled with wrinkled, grizzled men suffering the usual ailments of advancing age. We lay patiently side by side, stoical, ageing comrades in life’s battle. We received the same compassionate care, with one major exception, mine was delivered in English, which most of the medical staff spoke fluently.
By three in the morning I was judged fit to leave. As we waited for the car that the hotel had sent to collect us, Mrs R. was presented with a bill. I was sufficiently alert to remind her to obtain a copy for the inevitable claim on the travel insurance. When she came back from the cashier I asked her how much it was for.
“Four hundred and forty two.”
“That’s not bad,” I replied, relieved. “Four hundred and forty two dollars, it would have cost much more back home.”
“Patacas,” she replied. “It was four hundred and forty two Patacas.”
Even in my still dizzy state I was able to estimate that the total bill for the ambulance, the tests, the medication, the care and six hours in recovery, had cost seventy five Australian Dollars. Less than the average visit to our local GP.
On the way back to the hotel I glanced up towards the peak of Guia Hill. Earlier that day we had walked to the top and visited the Portuguese built fortress with its charming little church dating back to 1622. We had walked past the hospital on the way, little thinking that I would need the benefit of its services before the day was out.
Ahead of us the lights of the Cotai Strip still burned brightly. I felt light headed, slightly nauseous and my head ached. But the world was rock stable again and I could count my blessings. I wasn’t yet ready for a glass jar like those champion crickets. I reached for Mrs R.’s hand. Together, we had seen the best of Macau.
I like Macau.