Lost in Las Vegas

Vegas is one of those places – seen a hundred movies, read the books, but was never really able to comprehend it properly until I […]

Vegas is one of those places – seen a hundred movies, read the books, but was never really able to comprehend it properly until I got there and saw it in all its glory and context. It looked much as I’d expected only more, but the energy was different altogether, something I probably hadn’t really thought through. Around the Vegan fringes lurks and hides all sorts of sadness and depression, just conveniently out of focus, while the epicenter is all bling and the spectacular. Its a weird, soul-less place at the heart of a fraudulent Western capitalism and greed ideal, trying seductively to assert a distracting hedonistic pleasure into the hungry gaping souls of its eager participants. As you can probably gather I wasn’t all that impressed!

We arrived quite late, driving in from the desert around deep afternoon and proceeded to lap the main strip – Sunset Boulevard; all the casino’ s arrayed before us. Seen at first glance like this Vegas overwhelms, the streets teem with people, cars and it buzzes. From the huge black Pyramid on, each casino in the procession castes its large beckoning shadow across the strip – the New York skyline with Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the castles of treasure island, Big Tops, Fashion shows and the more traditional exotically sculptured skyscrapers.

The slightly sinister Circus Circus

Attracted more by morbid curiosity, but keen not to spend a fortune here (and being quite ignorant of how the place works), we headed to the North end, thinking we would just find a cheap motor inn to stay and then head down the strip to explore. This part of town is seriously dodgy though; sex shops and ‘drive through chapels’ abound (I couldn’t tempt Megumi!). The first place we tried the owner couldn’t be found and they didn’t seem interested in tenants which was a bit strange. But after seeing 2 haggard old prostitutes emerge from one of the rooms, I gathered it was geared towards either the extremely short term or much longer term rentals. We tried another one – this had all the atmosphere of a gangster film, complete with lurking homies –  no way our car would be safe here for a night as cheap as it was. Chastened, but quickly educated on the fringe realities, we lapped back to the main drag and decided to try one of the casino’s instead.

The nearest and most accessible of these was the ‘Circus Circus’, good enough for me it summed up Vegas nicely I thought. The other logic being that the least tempting place to stay was also going to save us the most money, plus I always loved that scene from “Fear & Loathing” the movie – stuck late at night at the revolving Circus bar. The “Circus Circus” Casino offered rooms for about $40 a night, only about $5 more expensive than the dodgy Motor Inns, plus gave us a whole ticket book of freebies and incentives (gosh thanks). This would do though, tired from the journey we couldn’t really be bothered shopping for a better (or indeed any type of alternative deal).

and through the turnstiles we go!

The Circus Circus is aimed at families and its entrance was like a fun-park free for all – kids and groups scrambling everywhere. Complete with a circus and adventure theme park to complement all the slots and betting tables, it is designed to trap and preoccupy in as many ways as possible. As one of my friends put it, the place gives of the air of a Western Sydney RSL club, although I would take the RSL every-time I think. There is an overarching atmosphere of despondency here though, a morbid gloom and décor reminiscent of a heyday somewhere back in the 70’s. No amount of scrubbing can remove this many scars to the soul, let alone mask the lingering musk of stale beer and cigarettes. The clown staring down overseeing everything feels kind of sinister after a while.

Checked in, we wandering out the front door and started to work our way down the footpath toward the other casino’s. The footpaths were strewn with American’s of just about all walks of life. What immediately struck me though, was the complete lack of fashion or style here. Its almost as though Vegas intrinsically attracts bad taste. Young people walk around with yard long Margarita glasses and straws hanging from their neck straight out of spring break, lots of middle aged, belly-fat barely concealed beneath dodgy Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. (The whole Hawaiian thing really mystifies me actually).  In Europe or Japan when people go to a party or a resort they tend to try and look the part, why American’s go the other way when they are out spending all their money I don’t really know? Wandering into a few places we soon realized we didn’t have the energy to match the lights and pace of the place. We were drowning in the torrent of distractions; rather than push it too hard we decided to take stock, relax and settle in. Best to stay an extra night, relax to do ‘Vegas’ properly with the help of the following day. Hardly an unusual reaction to the place I would wager, it suggestively hints at this approach in its every design. ‘One more day’, you can almost hear the street itself whisper.

The New York Casino Skyline

In Vegas, every casino has a show or a feature event going on. Something special to attract and entertain the crowds – to bring the people in, to brand themselves versus their competitors. Accordingly there is a fixed schedule to all this, you don’t need to spend all your time in the casino itself around the tables or whatever. There is enough entertainment to be had for free just wandering from casino to casino, checking out each of the showcases which all works rather perfectly for 2 backpackers with little inclination to do otherwise. Dressed up and loaded in true Johnny Depp fashion, armed with a rough map and schedule we loosed ourselves upon the place. Catching a bus to the far end of the strip, we commenced working our way through them one by one. I won’t go into everything here, but we did have a lot of fun. Some of the following gives you a flavour of the bigger free highlights on show.

Belaggio fountain show - Paris Casino as backdrop

–          MGM Grand – as well as a studio, they have a multi-million dollar, lion habitat. Megumi got stuck here for a good hour, leaning against the glass playing with 2 lion cubs.

–          Sirens of Treasure Island – probably the pick of the lot. Siren show girls dance and pantomime repelling an attack from a pirate ship floating on water, while a bunch of pirates on another pirate ship attempt to board. Ships sinking, explosions and fireballs going off and water sprays everywhere – its great entertainment.

–          Fountains at the Bellagio – these go off every 15 minutes in the huge lake outside the Bellagio casino, each movement is different and set to a different soundtack. Very easy on the eye.  The conservatory at the Bellagio is also pretty good there was a  Halloween special of sculpted plants, orchids and monstrous plants which was fun.

–          Volvano at the Mirage – erupts on the hour. A huge pyrotechnic show, earthquake grumbles, music and finally lava flowing across the ponds and the mini mountain.

The Sirens of Treasure Island show

In total it took us more than 14 hours to wander through everything. No one really cares about you for the most part. You can happily turn up in the middle of a high end casino floor and wander around tables checking things out or sit outside and take in the many other sidewalk acts and people watch along the way. Most of the casino are pretty casual affairs, light, noisy and soulless. Occasionally though, we found ourselves in a high stakes area where the energies were noticeably a lot more  intense – big money, egos and serious demeanors. We quickly moved on, mostly for the cigar smoke. Everywhere there are special shows and ticket scalpers for concerts from show girl strippers to fights, magic acts, Cirque du Soleil even Cher. Surprisingly the biggest act in town seems to be an Australian boy band.

I guess a big part of the experience here  is to impress the girlfriend, companion, friends or kids etc by procuring those hard to get tickets to the hottest show in town. There are a million services queuing at every whim or beck n call to help assist you in the pursuit of the perfect night out or at least separate you from your cash. Limousines, special offers, even lines of Mexicans on street corners handing out flyers and wearing t-shirts emblazoned with ‘girls 2 your door in under 10 minutes’. Most disorientating perhaps is the role for kids in all this – M&M’s world, the circuses and fun parks, its really positioned as a family affair, 24 x7.

Making our own fun!

Breathing in all this, I felt alien, separated almost racially from the people around me. Who are they? Seemingly millions are here, but in 2 days we had barely the merest hint of a kindred spirit – our fun largely generated purely from immersing ourselves in the absurd, oddity of it all. But we  felt like we were operating on a different tangent (Well, we were!), in a bubble completely out of our relational zone. I realized I don’t understand this pursuit or even its motivation anymore, the greed, desire to get rich or simply the skin deep hedonistic lust for an outrageous time, an extreme self-indulgence for a weekend. Perhaps I did once, but all this travel and those seedy Tokyo nights have broken me of it somewhere, perhaps too I have just gotten old somewhere along the way. Using money and trinkets to feed a soulful hunger is no longer an option for me, a shame to think it ever was I guess, but regardless it is a satisfying realization.

And did I gamble – not really. I love a game of poker and thrive on any competitive challenge usually, but surprised myself by having no real inclination for the casino form. I did throw a few dollars into the odd slot machine, largely out of boredom (ie waiting for Megumi to finish playing with lions). It is nice to face off to that whole luck, chance, get rich desire thing and know that it really doesn’t float your boat. Perhaps it would be interesting to do Vegas the other way around, cashed up, dressed up and VIP – intrinsically I doubt the experience would be any different though. As we drove out of town, petrol stations with casino’s offered a last chance to gamble tax-free all the way to the Californian border – I have no inclination to stop or even look back!