MACAO: To be frank, I was a bit disappointed upon reaching Macao on Thursday night.
My memory of this special administrative region, which I first visited in 2004, was still fresh in my mind. Back then, the Sands had just started taking shape, there was no Wynn, MGM, Grand Lisboa or Casino Oceanu, and there were few cars spewing toxic fumes.
The days were as serene as the nights, with wide, open roads and pavements, making a stroll around the 29-sq-km downtown a pleasurable experience.
This visit was different, and while I was able to enjoy the dazzle of the neon lights on the way to the hotel as my taxi zigzagged through streets flanked by high-rise buildings, I experienced something almost unheard of five years ago: a traffic jam.
As I sat in the cab, the toxic fumes from vehicles, the jams and the not-so-empty streets all made me wonder whether being in Macao still meant being far from the maddening crowds.
The city now has all the trappings of a metropolis and would pass for a smaller version of Beijing or Hong Kong were it not for all the casinos.
But when I strolled through neighborhoods and chatted with local people going about their daily chores, I realized the Macao of old is still alive.
It is still possible to find old "edificios" (as buildings are called here), now surrounded by modern, eye-popping high-rise buildings, and knock on wooden doors to ask where to buy good egg tarts, a famous local delicacy.
Conversations with the locals, however, often lead to what the city is best known for: casinos.
Gambling has always been big in Macao, but it is even bigger today.
Leong Chiu-chieng, 56, said two of his five daughters work for casinos, one as a public relations officer, the other a waitress, for which he is thankful. But he is also afraid and said he has warned his children to stay away from the tables.
"We lead a simple life. I don't want gaming to make life complicated," he said.
When I asked another Macao native, Natalie Lee, 19, whether she had ever been to a casino, she said: "Yes, only once. Just to look around. I felt nothing special. I won't gamble. Only outsiders come to try their luck."
She gave an equally nonchalant shrug when asked about another important issue: Does the influx of expat workers to Macao worry you?
"Not at all. They come to make a living. It is not a problem," she responded. "Why should we enter into hot competition? You do your job, I do mine. If you do better than me you lead a better life. That's the rule."
No worries here, it would seem, or, as the Swahili saying goes, "hakuna matata".