Two security guards in soft yellow uniforms flanked the narrow entrance to the hotel casino, both meeting my glance with purse-lipped sternness. As I entered, I could smell the smoke even before I saw the lit cigarettes hanging from the mouths of men crowded around the curved edge of the baccarat tables, quietly placing bets without lifting their gaze. Behind them stood several women. One seemed to be pantomiming the lyrics to a song only she could hear, while another hunched over and picked at her nails.
When I found out I was going to Macau, I had to do some quick research just to learn that the former Portuguese colony is made up of a peninsula and two islands located across a river delta from Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong, it is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Everyone I talked to about it seemed to know that Macau’s main tourist attraction is gambling—that it’s the Las Vegas of the East (and that a scene from the James Bond film Skyfall takes place there). Having already played and lost a few times in the Las Vegas of America, I knew that my idea of fun was not going to be spending the better part of a week gambling. But I wouldn’t have felt right ignoring Macau’s defining activity altogether, which is why, on my first evening, I had wandered down to the casino in my hotel’s lobby to play a few rounds of anything, just to get the flavor of what it was like to roll the dice here.
As I reached into my pocket for the only 100 patacas I was willing to gamble away, I realized there were no women actually playing baccarat. A disconcerting realization suddenly struck me—maybe I would not be allowed to gamble here. I looked around for someone to tell me whether or not I’d be breaking a law or gendered social code by placing a bet. There were signs in English all over the hotel—PARKING, SPA, ELEVATOR TO STORES—but when I said a soft “excuse me” to a uniformed employee walking by, he shook his head and kept walking.
Beyond the tables, at the edge of the casino floor, I spotted a few women at slot machines. Rather than risk breaching some unspoken taboo, I walked across the thick paisley carpet to the loud, flashing machines and took a seat on a round, padded stool. I slipped coins into the machine and mindlessly pressed buttons while numbers spun on the colorful screen in front of me. I had no idea what I was doing, and it took me less than three minutes to lose most of my $12.50 stake. I slid off my stool and walked numbly through the casino toward the elevators that would take me back to my room.
I didn’t know I’d chosen to stay in a luxury mall until I arrived. Macau is neatly divided into three sections, and I had opted for a hotel on Taipa. The smaller of Macau’s two islands, Taipa is close to the southernmost part of the city, which is filled with temples and parks. After I unpacked and discovered that I’d forgotten both a razor and the correct adapter cord for my computer, the concierge unfolded a map of the hotel and pointed out a pharmacy on the first floor and an Apple store on the third floor. I blinked. “You have an Apple store in the hotel?” She laughed. “Of course. We have many stores here.” I took a closer look at the map to find Gucci, DKNY, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, and Omega stores down the hall. If you used the sky bridge connecting my hotel to the hotels across the street, you could look at Rolexes in the Venetian or buy Diane Von Furstenberg dresses in the Four Seasons.
But I'd come to Macau neither to gamble nor to shop.
I had spent much of the 15-hour plane ride from Seattle poring over a guidebook, trying to find out what, besides gambling, the region had to offer. I looked forward to exploring the Buddhist and Taoist temples, the bustling markets, and the tiny parks overlooking the sea. So on my first full day, I set out to familiarize myself with the lay of the land by way of Macau’s public transportation system.
At the bus stop near the hotel, I tried to ask a woman for help with the complicated schedule and was met with a few brusque head shakes before she turned her body away from me, signaling that our conversation was over before it began. When I did get on a bus, I found out the hard way that the routes were continuous loops, and after only one stop, the driver started waving his hands, pointing to the money slot, and signaling for me to pay another five patacas.
Taxis didn’t prove any easier to figure out. The next day, at the end of my first ride, the driver handed me my change in patacas instead of the Hong Kong dollars I’d given her. I asked for dollars. She yelled at me in Cantonese and shooed me out of her cab. When I took another taxi back to my hotel, the driver asked me if I was going to the service entrance.
I make an effort not to stand out when I travel, but I’d never experienced anything like this. I wasn’t prepared for a culture that wouldn’t let me in. Everything felt fragmented and just out of reach, and I was worried that my very existence was somehow disrespectful. In addition to the language barrier, I found myself repeatedly confronting the same sort of lowered eyes and shaking heads I’d experienced that first night in the casino.
I was starting to feel lonely, and a bit shunned, and Macau was making me redefine my comfort zones. By my second night, in what would become a pattern, I was padding through the cold, smoky casino in my pajamas, off on a late-night quest for Bulgogi beef wraps and double cheeseburgers. I hadn’t been to a McDonald’s in years—people in Seattle would sooner burn a fast food restaurant to the ground than eat in one—but some latent 1980s nostalgia for the convenient serenity of malls bubbled up in me, and I soothed myself with a small order of fries at 11 p.m. while I watched Enlightened on my computer. Still, I was feeling like a bad traveler.
Determined to break out of my isolation and connect with this place on a deeper level, on my third morning, I set out for the A-Ma Temple, a complex of shrines overlooking the inner harbor in the southwest corner of Macau. Tourists were everywhere, popping in and out of the rounded stone archways, weaving their way to the top of the temple to experience the slight breeze and take in the sun-kissed view. I still felt lonely, but I was transfixed by the giant spiral incense coils hanging from the ceiling, their thick and lovely scent swirling around piles of ash that collected in small trays suspended beneath them.
Who lit the coils? I wondered. How often were they changed? Did the red tags dangling from them have a special meaning? I was curious, but whom would I ask? I also wanted to buy some incense, but I couldn’t figure out where or how. Was anyone here selling incense? Was there some kind of honor system? I stood by the entrance to the cool, dark temple, staring at people and feeling every inch a creep. Finally, I saw someone buying incense from an inconspicuous woman in a corner. I walked over, grabbed a bundle, pulled my face into a smile, and held out the largest bill I had. The woman gave me my change without saying a word. I walked over to a large pot of incense already lit in the middle of the building, reached in for a gently flaming stick, and used it to light my incense sticks one by one. A man nearby looked to be praying. I felt an urge to join the ritual but didn’t know what to pray for. I stared at the tiny, hot dots of fire for several minutes and then prayed that someone, anyone, would talk to me.
Leaving A-Ma, I risked another cab ride, this time to the Red Market, one of Macau’s biggest and most popular markets. Dropped off without incident in front of the three-story brick building overflowing with fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, and household goods, I was smacked in the face by a blast of hot air that smelled like decaying food or a wet dog. I swung around to see that every plastic-roofed stall for the entire length of the street was selling durian, the spiky-shelled fruit that is an acquired taste, to say the least.
I approached a vendor, held my fingers close together and pointed, and he carved out a tiny cube, figuring me for a tourist who should taste before buying. Once you get past the awful smell, the fruit itself is sweet. The vendor laughed a little. I thanked him and walked quickly to a row of kiosks selling flowers of every variety and color. I bought a branch of jasmine—to immerse myself in its fragrance and pacify my overtaxed senses. I walked along Red Market Pedestrian Street and stopped at a stall to watch a woman stirring a huge pot of bean sprouts. She cupped her hands and mimed at me to do the same. She put a few of the tiny, salty strings into my palm. She refused the money I offered, shaking her head, smiling, and looking back down at her pot.
Buoyed briefly by these small acts of kindness, I headed back toward my hotel by way of the historic center of Macau. I strolled the Rua de Felicidad (“Happiness Street”), a surprisingly tranquil byway of shops and cafés, where the doors and shutters on the old Portuguese buildings are painted bright red, a nod to the neighborhood’s past as Macau’s red-light district.
Near Senado Square, paved with wavy lines of black and white tile, psychedelic in the suffocating heat, I bought some cold water and a handful of loose candy at what looked like a convenience store. Outside St. Dominic’s Church, the oldest on the peninsula, I slipped into the groups of people sitting at the edge of the square, sipping cold drinks and dipping their hands and feet into the fountain.
Refreshed and feeling newly optimistic, I followed a crowd to the ruins of St. Paul’s, the most prominent of all Macau’s landmarks. Built in the 16th century, it is now nothing more than a stone facade and a grand staircase. I walked around the back to see the crypt underneath the ruins; the slick stone walls were cool and inviting, so I pressed my back against a corner and read a book for a half hour before venturing back out into the heat. I was finally finding ways to settle into the little openings that Macau offered.
On the next-to-last day of my trip, I took a boat to Hong Kong, where my brother-in-law, Sean, lives with his family. After they met me at the dock, we walked around Kowloon Bay eating ice cream and later had a Chinese dinner in the Grand Hyatt, overlooking the harbor. Sean pointed out the helicopters full of high rollers taking off for Macau every 15 minutes. No one in those helicopters, I surmised, has ever argued with a cab driver over what currency to use, or spent half a day on the bus going around in circles, or tucked themselves into a crypt corner with a copy of Rainbow Rowell’s Landline. The next morning, we hiked to the top of Victoria Peak and took in the view of sparkling Hong Kong, and after a dim sum brunch, full of pork siu mai and xiao long bao, I got back on the boat to Macau.
Until my excursion to Hong Kong, I hadn’t sat down to eat in a restaurant all week, having subsisted on a diet of mall food and street food, like the buttery, palm-size Portuguese egg tarts I bought at the Koi Kei bakery shops found on every downtown corner. I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner. Sean recommended Fernando’s, on Macau’s southernmost beach. I only had Hong Kong dollars left and asked my hotel’s concierge to write down on a piece of paper the restaurant’s name in Chinese, and on the other side, “I can pay only in Hong Kong dollars.” When I showed it to the taxi driver, he snapped, “Macau, Macau,” meaning “patacas.” Defeated, I started to get out of the cab, but he shook his head and said, “OK, OK.” At Fernando’s, I lingered over a huge portion of a local rice dish, arroz chau chau à moda de Macau with giant shrimp, and a basket of soft rolls—just me and my book, the kind of peaceful, solitary experience I’m used to at home. After my meal, I walked outside just as a French-speaking family was getting out of a cab. I took their place, slid across the seat, and rolled down the window to let the warm, salty air float around me like a shawl.
Back in my hotel room, I thought about my relationship with Macau, a misfit traveler trying to cobble together an authentic experience in a city that keeps a poker face, and how the closed culture had guided me into quiet, reflective moments you rarely get when you travel. That, I thought, as I packed my bags and munched on another order of french fries, is a gift.