There are a lot of things America does well: pizza, streetwear, movies, crime writing, dentistry, arrogance, etc. But one thing it consistently fails with is airports. I have yet to be in one that made me think “yeah, this is comfortable enough that I could spend 6 hours shopping, eating and drinking here when the sodding airline doles up a dud plane.” But no. They are more like bus stations, a transit area of 70’s decor and 80’s haircuts, filled with militant security guards either retired from the armed forces, or too stupid to have had their application turned down. Perish the thought.
And the tragedy is that beyond the confines of these soulless boxes of border administration are some of the most colourful and effervescent cities on Earth. Nowhere is this contradiction of collar vs colour more keenly felt than the architectural and cultural, projectile-vomit that is Las Vegas. I’d not been to Vegas before, so it was an experience I was looking forward to. Having lived in the Middle East for a couple of years, I am familiar with newly constructed opulence, but nothing on this scale.
As the plane landed, one thing that has been thought of carefully is the immediate proximity to the action. Landing in some cities feels like you’ve only got halfway to your destination as an hour on a freezing transit train ferries you towards the city you hoped to be in. But, for the first time in my life, I was relieved to be able to see my hotel from the runway – not the extortionate hate-holes of Marriotts and Hilton’s that sneer at you from Heathrow or Schipol, but in my instance the Mandalay Bay Resort, which was next to a massive fucking pyramid. Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas indeed.
Due to being in the city for work reasons at a conference at the resort, and not on a stag do, or there for a boxing match, my time in the daylight and searing, desert heat were to be strictly limited. I was excited to check in, drop my bags and go and see the sights. That was until I walked into a lobby the size of St Pancras station, and saw the queue waiting to do the same thing snaking around a large aquarium. It must have been 200 people long. One Chinese woman had collapsed from something, probably the weight of her sunhat and stupid sunglasses, and had been dragged behind some plants for ‘medical attention’ – in this case being forced to sip room temperature bottled water, while a Mexican porter fanned her with a menu. All of this under the watchful, deadening eyes of baby sharks in a tank. Perhaps they were dreaming of a bowl of revenge-filled, Chinese Sunhat soup?
Nearly an hour later, I was presented with my room key, and the terms of the room.
“Here is your key sir, the rate, the taxes, and the additional $28 per day for wi-fi access and use of the pool facilities…”
“……Er, as I said sir, if you could just sign the form…..”
“Hang on. My room rate I understand, the taxes of course – this is America, after all, where you can’t price normally – but I won’t use the wi-fi or the pool, so I’m not paying for them. But thanks anyway.” Words of advice if going to Vegas? Check the smallest of small print on your room for what is included, as I would not be surprised if they charge a bed, pillow and towel tax. It’s coming. Believe me.
So, after my first difference of opinion, it was time to avoid another with somebody less likely to be so polite. Las Vegas High Street, or ‘The Strip’ as they refer to it here, is not very long. It’s four miles in length, but is walkable from one end to the other – unless it is 92F, you’ve been awake for 22 hours, and your patience is wearing thinner than Rooney’s hairpiece. However, that near-hallucinatory tiredness is the perfect state to gawp at the vulgarity and sheer ambition of the scale – The Luxor’s pyramid has a Sphynx out front that looks like it was built by the same team that made the props for Blake’s 7; The Excalibur is covered in multi-coloured, pointed turrets that has a roller-coaster dancing and screaming amongst it; New York, New York has the obligatory Statue of Liberty and miniature bridge. It is ridiculous. It is possible to laugh to with it and at it at the same time. And that is in the first mile or so heading north. The MGM Grand looms across the street, a couple of blocks away off the strip.
But you have to keep your eyes out of the skies, and look where you are going, as navigating the streets can be a treacherous task. When young, British people go to Amsterdam, it isn’t rare for them to experiment with the locally legal weed, and end up like marmosets in Ralph Lauren, chundering into a canal. Why? Because they can. They’re allowed to do it, so do it to excess. Americans, it would appear to this writer, treat Vegas the same way – you can drink in the street, so I am going to carry a cold bottle of Corona, or a 2-foot-long daiquiri with a slurpy straw, and get drunk in public. Or, if I am more sophisticated and female, I might stagger around in heels, hoping one of my lifeless tits doesn’t fall out of this shapeless dress as I wander the streets, shrieking in giggles with my girlfriends, sloshing a large glass of white wine around. Because I can.
Now, in isolation, this may happen on every high street up and down the country you live in. But in Vegas, what makes it weird is that there are families with young kids, people of every economic demographic, nationality and age here, all intermingling. It is a party town. But it is a tourist town, and I haven’t seen so many children awake past 11pm anywhere. And it is people’s home town, too. Due to this transient influx and tourist reliance, it lacks a natural soul. But is that it’s charm? That you can walk away from it without looking back, knowing you’re not missing anything you can’t come right back to another time?
But what draws a lot of people here? Well, the casinos and the gambling conditions must be the best on Earth, if you like that sort of thing. I am not a gambler. I don’t get a buzz from it, I do see why people could become addicted by it, but since having kids and being as skint as Mrs Pause and I were, I tend to measure the value of certain things in week’s groceries. The idea of walking into one of the many cavernous casinos, ready to blow potentially a month’s family shopping for the sake of a slightly increased heart rate doesn’t compute with me. The casinos win. Always. And as such, this does tweak my voyeuristic gene. If I can’t bear to see myself fail, I can quite happily sit and watch someone else do it. And at Aria – which is a staggering piece of recent architecture and design – I sat at a roulette wheel with a beer and watched a man lose approximately $20,000. He would win one out of three, and once hit big on ’00’, then proceed to cover all the other numbers with his next round of chips, and watch them disappear down a plastic funnel in the corner of the table. I sat there, with my mouth open, and stared at him. He shrugged, drank his drink down, looked at me and just said, succinctly, “fuck it…” – I said the same, without the “it”.
Just a little further down the strip from Aria and City Centre, which is where the ‘new money’ is, are the more famous and traditional landmarks of Caesars Palace and the Bellagio. The Bellagio was this writers favourite hotel – the casino has a low ceiling, smells of cigar smoke and perfume, and has a buzz due to the closeness of the tables that the more recent resorts lack. The lobby has smile-enducing blown glass and flowers everywhere. And then there are the fountains. WIth a Frank Sinatra soundtrack, and a swagger of their own, they are the single monument that I would return to Vegas to see. “Wow” translates into every language, and could be heard amongst the gasps of the viewers and the whooshes of the jets.
My mother has recently been to Ireland, and informed me that there is a phrase regularly used by the locals on the West coast: “it’s worth seeing, but it’s not worth going to” – this summed up Vegas for me. I am glad I have seen it, but as I am not a gambler, looking for hookers, there for a boxing match, a fan of Celine Dion, nor inclined to go to the Pussycat Dolls Burlesque show, then there are many other places I need to see first before I return here…..like Durban and Cape Town next month. Hope you’ll join me.
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