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In Macau at the moment and just pondering whether to go a little early to Hong Kong or not. The scale here in Macau is just a little bit more manageable here, ~550,000 inhabitants and also cheaper. I am paying 120 patacas (MOP) a night which is about NZ$24 and is the most I’ve paid for a night so far. I paid extra for a window and now everyone tells me HK is more expensive…

Macau. From the airport I took the wrong bus (I didn’t have the right change and they don’t give change on these buses so a nice lady gave me MOP$2) and spent a wonderful time touring the islands of Taipa and Coloane (bit of a misnomer because they have filled in the space between the two islands to make one effectively) before locating the right one which leads across a bridge to the peninsula of Macau (it’s joined to the mainland). These islands hold between them some enormous casinos such as the Venetian and the Sands. The economy of Macau is basically gambling and tourism. Macau is the gambling capital of Asia and earns more revenue than Las Vegas.Incredible eh!

It’s a former Portuguese colony and has many churches and Portuguese architecture. In addition it also has Portuguese/African/Asian food! My taste buds are already watering… Not really being a backpacker destination, there is no real backpacker area but I managed to find (with the help of my ‘friends’) a place called San Va Hospedaria established for over 70 years ago which probably explains the decor. It is supposed to be the cheapest in the area, which also has some nicer places which also operate on a per hour basis. It’s that kind of area.

The Con. So of course you know I am a hardened traveller immune to the blanishments of random friendly strangers and stone-faced taxi drivers. Little did I know that my ‘scar tissue’ only went so deep. So I was minding my own business, wandering along the main square on my way to find a place  to stay when I am accosted by ‘Sonny’ and ‘Tina’ who ask me where I am from and then mention that their sister is moving to Auckland next month to start nursing. They are Filipino but in Macau in order to look after their sick mother who is in hospital to get a heart transplant. They would be grateful to me if I would come with them to give her some idea of what it will be like there. They take me to find a place, I walk with them to their uncle Roger’s house, Sonny and Tina sweating profusely all the way, where we will wait for ‘Kathy’ to finish work. It twists and turns amongst these alleys and soon I am all turned around and not quite sure where I am. We walk up to the third floor of some apartment building and I meet Roger.

Roger is a dealer at the Grand Lisboa – a big casino in the centre of town. We get to talking and he starts telling me about a way he has about cheating. Apparently there are private games where people play in hotel rooms so they can bet big, they need a dealer in order to play fair. There are no cameras in these rooms. He starts teaching me Poker-Blackjack-21, I notice with a start that he has no fingers on his right hand, just a thumb. His thumb nail is extra long, as is the custom in Asia. We proceed and I am having fun, he tells me about the lousy US$200 tip he made with Mr Watanabe last night after he won US$30,000. The a/c unit hums, the curtains drawn, Roger chain smoking and the white-washed walls garishly lit with fluorescent bulbs, a lack of decoration or personal items suggesting a dentists waiting room or a transient inhabitant. I watch his thumb manipulating the cards.

After we play for a bit, he asks me whether I am keen to collude with him, in this business, that I should not tell anyone and that I’d need to put up some money, that there are two in the game and that he’s be happy to set me up in a game. All very obvious really. As I start making noises to go he notes that he has a client that is coming soon and that maybe I want to play against him using his system? He will fund me and he pulls out his wallet and drops two crisp $100 notes on the table. No problem if I lose it. I’m thinking, if you don’t mind, why are you living in such a dump? I demure. He insists. I decline. He parries. I riposte. Finally I say no. That done he rapidly shoos us out and we leave.

On the way home Sonny asks me to give him MOP$100 for medicine for his sick mother in the hospitalal. I have an idea – I only have MOP$500s from the ATM. He says, then we will buy cake. We buy cake – I owe him MOP$10 for the room. I give him MOP$100. The question you are all asking, is why? I am still unsure of why I gave it to him. Some unwillingness to accept what I already knew. The betrayal of trust yet again and so soon. His knowledge of where I am staying and my room number. Some kind of masochistic urge to watchhis reaction as I gave it to him, asking him when he would repay me, watching his body language as he left with Tina.

I returned to the hostel and put my memory to the test. I backtracked and found Rogers apartment, a miracle really. I had the urge to ring on his buzzer to see his face as I said hello, him knowing that I know where he lives and that it’s a scam. But really, how do I know how he lost his fingers? Macau is chockablock with Triads, drawn by the money of the casinos. The filth below the shiny streets of the tourist areas. The seamy side of life is just as present, even if you pretend it isn’t. As a traveller you can’t ignore it.