Words and Photographs by Amron Gravett
It was my last day in Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China located just southwest of Hong Kong and I still had yet to explore Coloane Island. I was curious to see the coastal archaeology and to learn more about the recent stories of piracy. In a little less than an hour’s ride on the local bus, I’m transported to a time when the city lights and gambling halls of Macau did not yet exist. Hac Sa Beach (“Black Sand” in Cantonese) is a huge stretch of white sand overlooking Lantau Island out on the horizon. I had heard that there was archaeological evidence of a human village from the Neolithic Age some 4,000 years ago. Although the name is Portuguese, Coloane in Cantonese translates to mean “Passing Road Ring,” perhaps in reference to the trading routes and jade workshops that were found on the southern end of Hac Sa Beach. I also had the mythology of Fernão Mendes Pinto fresh in mind after visiting the art exhibit by the Marreiros Brothers at the Macau Museum of Art. Pinto was a sixteenth-century traveler most notably known as a storyteller whose accuracy is suspect but whose stories have sent scholars on wild chases across five hundred years of sparsely documented evidence.
For the seven centuries of Chinese occupation, Coloane Island was bordered with sea salt farms and largely unpopulated. When the Portuguese took over Macau in the 1860s they developed the entire region into an important trading port, and Coloane became a pirate hideout. In 1910 the local pirates lost in a battle to the Portuguese soldiers and the island was abandoned once again. Over the past one hundred years, charming little towns have been developed around the outlying islands.
Aside from acquiring a bit of local history, I had also hoped to take a nap in the glorious tropical sun before returning to the bustle of Hong Kong. I lounged on a boulder in an isolated area of the beach while my friends went to grab lunch at the famous Fernando’s beach restaurant. I leaned back on my bag and drifted into my book. Feeling stiff after reading for an hour, I sat up. Within seconds, a man jumped out from behind the boulder and snatched my small black bag. I managed to grab the tip of the bag as he ran away but I fell off the boulder when I reached out. In the second it took me to get up, he had gotten far enough ahead of me that it was clearly hopeless. I chased after him for thirty yards down the soft sand and then scrambled up the hillside hoping to find him. In bare feet and bathing suit, I pleaded after him to keep my money but leave my passport. Please. For the next 10 minutes, several locals helped me look for my bag, combing through the scrub brush. Halfway up the hillside, I met two men who claimed to have seen the thief carrying my bag running by with another man. They called the police for me while I just stood on the side of the quiet, country road, stunned.
Like a good traveler, I had mentally and logistically prepared to have all of my possessions stolen. It seems a rite of passage for a traveler to lose everything testing their adaptability, resilience, and skills at navigating in a foreign setting with no money or identification. Unfortunately, the part about spreading out your money between several places, always wearing your valuables on you, and being aware of your surroundings were bits of street smarts that I had loosened up on after having been so safe in rural China for the past six weeks. The moment I let my guard down, someone capitalized on my situation. I lost everything: passport, driver’s license, phone card, credit cards, all of my cash (in three different currencies), plane tickets from Hong Kong to Bangkok and Bangkok to Sydney, my journal with information about new friends and local contacts, my camera, watch, hotel room key…everything. I spent the next hour by the side of the road trying to convey the crime to the police—using more body language than Common Language.
At that moment, true heroes came to my rescue—an American man and his family. The Purcells were expats from Tennessee who had been living and working as Southern Baptist missionaries in Macau for the past ten years. They spoke English and Cantonese and instantly adopted me and my problems as their own. They drove me to the police station (just minutes before it closed for the weekend) where I sat in a glass-enclosed room filling out paperwork that was written in a foreign language, getting fingerprinted, and pleading to be deported to Hong Kong where I could be issued a new passport and access my bank account so that I could buy a meal and a shirt.
Standing there with no identification and no money, surrounded by people who spoke languages that I did not understand, I was as vulnerable as I’d ever been. Having no possessions and having nothing give us two very different feelings. I didn’t care that I’d lost my stuff. It was the loss of identification, a place to sleep, or way to get food or boat ticket back to Hong Kong that left me feeling so vulnerable. We can be so humbled when we least expect it. Learning how to receive help graciously has been a lesson in itself.
What to Read
One bad experience need not spoil your interest in this intriguing locale. Read up on Fernão Mendes Pinto with his 1614 memoir Peregrinação (still available today) or Rebecca Catz’ edited and translated The Travels of Mendes Pinto. One cannot separate Macau from its relationship to southern Chinese trade and commerce and a wonderful read on this history is the mid-nineteeth century book by Harriet Low titled Lights and Shadows of a Macao Life. For those seeking information on avoiding a ‘Hac Sa Incident’ of their own, I recommend National Geographic’s 2014, How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.