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Viiii-va Macau! The City of Qin...

The People's Republic of China is a communist country. So it makes perfect sense that Valentine's day, the brainchild of American capitalism, is immensly popular here.

We boarded a ferry in Hong Kong and headed for Macau along with a hundred or so Chinese couples eager to gamble all of their money away on this day of love and romance. Having done some brief research on our destination in our trusty Lonley Planet guidebook we found that Macau is frequently referred to as the "Las Vegas of the East." I was however skeptical of how this fomer Portguese colony, which was handed over to the Chinese in 1999, could compare to the city of sin.

Being the savvy travel planner that I am, I neglected to realize that we would be converging on the already expensive Macau on a Valentine's day weekend, without having booked accomodations. The nice girls at the tourism office directed us towards the "budget" side of town and as we drove through seedy looking alley ways filled with the black smoke of cars and motorcycles the moniker "Las Vegas of the East" was already holding very little water. The colonial charm that I had so eagerly expected was relegated to bilingual (Cantonese and Portuguese) mosiac street signs. However, despite its expectedly steep rates, the hotel that we booked turned out to be quite suitable and a stone's throw away from both the "strip" and the colonial sights.

Walking down the Macau strip still jet-lagged and hungry as always, I felt like Hunter S. Thompson sans the illicit substances. The landmark Casino Lisboa was more brilliantly lit than anything I have seen in Vegas and seeing the MGM Grand, Sands and Wynn casinos light up the skyline, I began to understand why Macau has garnered its nickname.

After strolling through the casinos we decided to sample some of the Cantonese fare on offer in Macau. The busy seafood restaurant we put our names down for had a one hour wait so we had the opportunity to sample a Portuguese egg tart at a local bakery while we waited; imagine flan stuffed into filo pastry. We also got to take in some local entertainment; the butchering of a gruesome looking cod fish outside of the restaurant.

Dinner was an adventure. We were sat at a large table with two other couples, one young and one old. This back-alley place was alive with large tables of patrons eating in typical Chinese fashion by sharing a number of Cantonese dishes. Our neighbors at our table had already ordered and started eating by the time the waitress arrived to take a drink order; we were not a top priority. The older couple at our table did nothing but stare and laugh at us but the young couple next to us, two Hong Kongers names Kamen and Wayne spoke some English and helped us order. They also taught us the ritual of rinsing your utensils in tea before you eat, which has made us look very good in restaurants since.

After dinner we enjoyed some conversation about Hong Kong with our neighbors and they also offered some advice about travelling through China. Although they had not done much of it they seemed quite convinced that travel was very precarious in other provinces in China.

We said goodbye to Kamen and Wayne and left to strike it rich in a casino adjacent to our hotel. I won and lost 100 hong kong dollars at the black jack table in a matter of 10 seconds and the rest of our time in the casino was spent pushing buttons on a two-cent slot machine whose rules we could not decipher. Overall we walked out of the casino 18 dollars poorer, but took solace in the fact that Vegas would have been harder on our wallets.

The next day we took in some of the sights. the ruins of the church of St. Paul looked like a Hollywood sound stage and the cooble stone alleys and streets of the old colonial neighborhoods were quite charming. 5 percent of Macau's population is supposed to still speak Portuguese, but I did not find one person with whom I could excersie my growingly limited Portuguese skills. The most I got out of the Macanese was a "si" from a cab driver, and even that was Spanish.

I left Macau with the impression that far from being the Las Vegas of the East, it is more like someone dipped a corner of Hong Kong in Reno and then sprinkled some Portuguese culture throughout the city.

Breaking News From China: U.S Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will be visiting Beijing as part of her tradition breaking tour of Asia. Clinton will come to the Chinese capital to debunk the rumor that the U.S views China as an imminent threat, and perhaps plead for a government post when Hu Jintao usurps Obama in four years time.

Next Up: Guangzhou, Guandong.

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