Monday, December 27, 2010

Vegas Adventures

To recap from last time, my friend Lester found round trip tickets and 1 week in a hotel near the strip in Las Vegas for $350. It would be silly to say no, and now I’m extra broke, but I like to think that I like to spend my money on experiences more than material goods. Luckily for me, Lester was on a budget too, so we complimented each other. We bought our tickets Sunday morning on the 20th, and left on Monday the 22nd. As I like to say, I’m flexible and this sounded like a chance of a lifetime.

We started our morning nice and early, and sat on the plane while they defrosted the ice covering it. Soon, no more cold eh? We’re off to a desert in the far south after all. Alas, deserts are places of extremes, and I was glad to have brought my jacket and toque. As we flew over the landscape, we passed the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam; mere teasers at that height, yet still very impressive.

When you enter the airport, you can tell you’re in a very different place. The terminal is crowded with slot machines, and Lester and I spun a promotional wheel as we arrived, winning less than impressive lint rollers. Surprisingly, “The Strip” as its called, is a quick ride away from the airport. We checked in to the Hooters hotel, where surprisingly, they were advertising a male striptease show. For those who don’t know, “Hooters” is a chain of restaurants probably most famous for their waiting staff of pneumatic women wearing revealing clothes, so their choice of show seemed somewhat contradictory.

I soon learnt all the hotels have their own stage and shows they play (almost?) nightly. One of our first stops was at a “tix4tonight” stand, where you can buy tickets for shows at a discount. We secured tickets for a Cirque Du Soleil show: “Zoomanity,” and then proceeded to tour around the area. Lots to do, lots to see. Because of the strips’ large scale, you can spend a long time just walking around.

I didn’t know what to expect, other than Vegas to be a legendary tourist city. However most people had hyped it up to the point, not unlike an over-hyped movie, that set up unrealistic expectations. Sure it’s huge and flashy, but not that much different from my home away from home I’ve lived in for 3 years. I could draw lots of parallels to Japan, from the flashy lights everywhere, to the mobile advertisements circling the strip. At first I was making an interesting mental list like that, but it’s not fair to critique a new place in that fashion.

I kept thinking: if everyone I know likes this place so much, how come they never really visited Japan? In the end, I guess the most glaring answer to that is English and gambling. Though, I was pleasantly surprised by the huge usage of Spanish everywhere. Even fast food workers would switch between the two languages effortlessly, and I ponder how things would be different in Canada if knowing French was a requirement to work a till at a burger joint. I’d assume it is down East, but I’ll have to go there to find out. (Someday friends! Someday…)

But back to Vegas, we managed to see a couple hotels like the MGM and New York New York. I borrowed my mom’s camera again, but Lester said I probably shouldn’t take photos on the gambling floors. Unfortunately, gambling is the majority of floor space at most places, so I just got shots of surrounding areas.

What there was to take shots of was absolutely amazing. Exhibits that change with the seasons, like a Botanical Garden that flew in world class pumpkins for their Thanksgiving display. Huge water shows playing every 20 minutes. One place followed up a song and dance with floating boats and displays suspended from the roof, where attractive people danced and threw down beads to anyone cheering.

On our first walk, we secured a large pack of beer, bringing its price down to around $1 a can. There were a couple nights where we’d relax after a long day of walking the strip by sitting in the hot tub and drinking those cheap, frosty beverages. Most of the time we were alone, as all the locals considered it to be super cold outside, but we were happy not to be surrounded by a meter of snow like in Saskatchewan.

Up and down the strip are various cosplayers (like Akihabara in Japan) posing for pictures in various outfits like Elvis naturally, Homer Simpson, Pirates of the Caribbean, and other famous American cultural icons. One act we passed was a girl in a tutu and thong, trying to escape a straight jacket, even though it meant rolling around on the cold, dirty sidewalk to do so. Other performers would be doing balancing or juggling acts and so on.

I definitely like the feel of the city, especially at night. I liked the oversized, almost cartoon-inspired looking hotels and their themes: a giant pyramid called the ‘Luxor’, a medieval castle called ‘Excalibur,’ a Greek inspired ‘Caesar’s Palace’ and an Italian inspired ‘Venetian’ among others. You can tell a lot of money is spent here, from just how beautiful a lot of things are, as I’m sure they’re constantly maintained if not fully renovated like that botanical garden frequently.

Yikes, 2 pages in and I didn’t finish talking about our first night. We watched Zoomanity, which is a “sensual” show, and very amusing. The acrobatics were phenomenal, and the show was fulfilling while leaving you wanting more. One of the highlights I thought was early in the show when 2 girls swam around and flipped into a large fish bowl. The schoolgirl with the hoola hoops was pretty neat too.

In all, this was an excellent introduction to Cirque Du Soleil for me, and I was hungry for more. I was lucky enough to watch another show, this one named “Ka” later in the week. This show was a lot more serious, and the stunts were a lot more impressive. The stage and the theater itself is a marvel. I had a loose understanding of the story however, but perhaps what I was watching is ‘high art’ for all I know.

I heard “O” is perhaps the best Cirque Du Soleil show, but maybe because of that, I couldn’t procure cheap tickets like all the other shows. I was on a budget after all, and I’m sure I’ll probably be back to Vegas someday.

Most of our nights weren’t very late, which I found odd considering it to be the “City that Never Sleeps”, but I appreciated the rest from all the walking we did. That first day was a killer naturally, but Lester and I did pretty well after that. On the second day we bought tour tickets for the Grand Canyon and the Hoover dam. We spent the afternoon in the hot tub drinking, and spent the night walking the strip again.

We had hoped to save money after spending so much on the tours, that we tried to see some of the many free shows they have playing. Unfortunately for us, most of those shows are outdoors and it was an oddly windy night, cancelling many things. We still covered a lot of ground though, walking in and around various casinos and hotels, as you can see pictured all over this blog.

We got up early Wednesday and headed out to the Grand Canyon. The tour bus driver was a very political girl, and listening to her talk was like being in church as depicted in many southern African American movies I had seen. Until then I thought it was interesting, but now I was getting the full cultural experience. At first it was really cool, but after an hour or two it got annoying with the constant politics, and many people on the bus vocally agreeing or disagreeing with every 2 words she said.

Luckily after a couple hours she put on a documentary of the Hoover Dam first, then later of the Grand Canyon. We had quickly stopped there earlier for pictures, but it was a long trip to the Canyon so we had time. When we did arrive and walked out to it, it was like walking to the edge of the world. The ground falls down sharply, and out into the void… was a blizzard.

Just our Canadian luck, it was snowing. It hadn’t snowed in the Canyon since 1992, so looking at it another way… we were lucky? It was really interesting seeing the canyon on one side, then seeing some tanned tourists on the other completely ignoring it, taking pictures of themselves instead holding up a tiny clump of snow near their face. I guess like Ann, they hadn’t seen snow before, so why not eh?

One thing I love is the word “Canada” because it’s a simple enough word to pick up in any language. Lester was walking around the snow in his shorts, and some Chinese tourists were laughing and talking up a storm. Of course, the only word I understood from them was “Canada” but I still wondered a bit how they knew where we were from ;)

Luckily we had 3 hours, which went by way too fast, and the blizzard cleared up enough to see more of the canyon. Lester’s camera is much better than mine for piercing the white haze, so my pictures didn’t really turn out. The place looks a lot better in person anyways. If you have trouble fitting things in a picture frame, the Canyon is hard to fit in your eye frame. It was just so big, that I couldn’t see as much of it at once as I was trying to. It was everywhere, and it was massive. Words don’t do this place justice.

We spent hours soaking up the atmosphere, while keeping an eye on the time. It takes a while to absorb what you’re looking at, and it’s very humbling. I definitely want to come back again sometime, and when I do, I want to go white water rafting down it.

Well, back on the bus watching Hollywood movies for the long haul back. A Chinese lady didn’t have very good English and missed her ride home unfortunately. The landscape is expansive and bleak out in the desert, but I’m glad I got to see this as opposed to all the other stereotypical desert you usually see, for example in Egypt. This was more like what you’d see Wile-E-Coyote running around in.

Now it was Thursday, and we celebrated American Thanksgiving through a Turkey buffet at the hotel. We had a lot of good meals in Vegas, including an all-day buffet for $25. We only went twice because of how much we ate though we were free to come and go all day and the second time I only was able to see one isle of food before I was full, missing a whole separate isle of food.

It was a slow day of recouping and digesting turkey, but we saw another show, Penn & Teller that night. I’ve always been a fan, though I haven’t seen as many episodes of their TV show, ‘bullshit’, as I would have liked. I really enjoyed it anyways, and am happy those guys do the work that they do: things like speaking out for civil liberties, and exposing frauds who prey on the vulnerable.

Now it was Friday, or the American Cultural Phenomenon better known as “Black Friday.” It was pure coincidence our trip worked out this way, and we definitely saw a spike in traffic on the strip during the Thanksgiving holiday; with one rumor I overheard being over 250,000 people came in. For those who don’t know, “Black Friday” is the day after Thanksgiving, and the ‘first’ day of Christmas shopping. Many stores go out of their way with huge deals and what not, making the event as anticipated and crowded as Canadian Boxing Day.

We spent the morning at the Premium Outlet Mall where I got most of my Christmas presents for the year. To give an example of the sales, one store we walked into was 50% off, then 10% off that, then 15% off that. Almost 75% off everything in the store basically (key word being basically) and since that was confusing, they had charts posted around the store telling you about how much items were worth. As an example, I got a $150 coat for around $60.

In the Afternoon we went to an Electronics shop that was even more crowded and crazy than the many outlet malls. I’m used to big crowds because of where I lived the last 3 years, but it didn’t make the outing any less stressful. I was thinking of getting a camera to replace my lost one, but oddly electronics usually aren’t discounted as much as clothing or other items.

To unwind that night we watched Carrot Top do some comedy at the Luxor. I was amazed the hotel, although pyramid shaped, was hollow on the inside. Despite his bad commercials, he was quite hilarious and we had a great time again. At the Luxor they had other displays like human bodies cased in glass, and Titanic salvage on display. I didn’t have time to go see, and it was kinda pricey, but maybe next time.

On Saturday we went to the Hoover Dam for a tour. The scale of this place, again, is just awesome; 50ft diameter overflow-tunnels among other crazy things. We were able to go into the turbine room, and interestingly enough, most of them were turned off. Apparently there has been a severe drought the last 20 years and the water levels are at a record low. Soon the Federal Government may step in, as the dam’s main purpose is providing water, not power.

Even though we had 3 hours to lounge around again, it went by too fast. We walked along the top and got a bit of vertigo looking over the massive sides, as both were high up. You could see the “bathtub rim” where the water is suppose to rise up to far removed from the actual water line. The dam stretches across the Nevada/Arizona boarder and time zone; so two different clocks are displayed accordingly. It is such an amazing place with lots to take in, especially with that huge new bypass bridge that recently opened.

Like tours in Thailand and so on, the bus stopped at a tourist trap gift shop. This time it was an overpriced chocolate factory, but the samples were tasty. We got back into town and I called my friend Ike, who I haven’t seen since we left Japan together, as he was in town for his stag party.

It’s an amazing life we had before cell phones, as he didn’t have a way to reach me. I went to his hotel where he was waiting for me, and called him from the front desk. In all, we were only able to hang out for an hour, but I got him that lovely duty-free alcohol from the airport as a gift.

We played a bit of “texas hold’em”, but what a terrible game they made out of it. I had to watch for over 30 minutes before I figured how the betting worked on the table, and when I did play, 3 hands and 3 folds later I was out $30. I guess it was an experience, but it’s like they’re not even pretending that you have a chance to win money in Vegas anymore it was that bad.

I suppose the recession is bad and those big hotels don’t pay for themselves, but still. For the most part I stayed away from the gambling, and the longest I went was about ½ hour at a $3 blackjack table at our hotel. The only upside is that the drinks are free, but if you’re losing that much money it’s not really worth it. I remember Lester put $20 in a slot machine, and slowly would press the ‘spin’ button.

When I asked why he was taking his time, he responded ‘to try and make it last longer’. Even spinning slowly at a 25 cent machine, $20 only buys you around 2 minutes of ‘entertainment’, if that. Normally I hate slot machines completely, but Lester put the idea in my head that “you can play blackjack all day and maybe come out $100 up, but on the slots all it takes is one spin.” I ended up trying some with him, but naturally, lost everything in minutes so I didn’t play much.

Anyways, I had to leave Ike because I was seeing that ‘Ka’ show while Lester was off seeing an Elvis Cirque Du Soleil as he saw ‘Ka’ already. I had a feeling it was tailored more towards Elvis fans so I wasn’t interested. Anyways, I was hoping to meet up with Ike after his show was done around midnight, as he had to leave early in the morning. I had Hooter’s wings with Les for supper, bided my time in my room, and before I knew it I woke up after 1 in the morning in my clothes. Sorry Ike, I’ll have to catch up with you next time :( I hope the wedding goes great! Again, Congratulations!

Sunday, lazy Sunday. We did some shopping at the “Bass Pro Shop” and ate at a “Jack in the Box” fast food place. Whenever I saw a fast food place in the states, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed at how much Canadians are getting ripped off at their fast food joints. It’s unfortunate really.

After some more shopping we went back to the strip and found a Nascar CafĂ© place, of which Lester is a growing enthusiast; he was telling me some tidbits from his large book: “Nascar for Dummies” and I was humbled how much was involved in a seemingly simple sport. Anyways, it was Lester’s birthday the next day when our plane left, and it was our last night, so it was time to let loose and party.

After racing the simulation cars for a couple hours, I was usually a clear champion. We ate food at an adjacent sports bar advertising “every sport all the time.” Imagine our disappointment then, when we couldn’t find the Grey Cup game playing (Canada’s Football Championship). This, despite being able to take bets on the game with terrible odds too. For example, you’d have to bet $100 to win $10 if your team won (either team). Who takes those odds? Is that even legal? Ridiculous.

We did in fact find the game on channel 500 something, but they weren’t subscribed, so we relied on Lester’s friend text messaging him updates. The main draw to this place was their huge burrito where you can watch people trying to eat it on a live webcam, and the monster beer tube that fit a gallon. I was surprised at how Lester was putting his drinks away, and I tried to keep up with him. 5 minutes in and the first one was 1/2 empty.

The huge burrito challenge is 6 pounds, but I grabbed the 1-pound variant and had trouble finishing that. After, we raced the Nascars simulators some more and this time Lester kicked my butt each time. I’m not sure if that makes him a ‘real’ winner though, as he just drives drunk better I guess.

After we had more time to kill before our last show started, so we split another gallon of beer. The show this time was called “Striptease” in honour of our last night and his b-day. The main performer was some “Pet of the Year” from Hustler magazine on the December cover, so after the show Lester bought a copy in commemoration. Although he tried to silence me, I still pointed him out when the girls made their rounds so he got a Birthday gift: some special attention from the performer. I think he was reluctant to attend that show, but that made up for everything.

After the show we were drunk and exchanged our ticket/voucher for chips, where we hit the roulette table and I was up a good amount by hitting lucky on number 33. That luck didn’t last long though, and I walked away with most of those chips I think, though it was a bit of a haze.

It was fun, but we weren’t up too late and a bit hung-over in the morning. Our plane left in the afternoon, so we took a stroll around the strip as a way to say farewell to this great time. I don’t think we did too much, and were back in Regina by that night.

I know this feels rushed, but it’s way too long for a normal update, and I wrote over half of it a week or two ago. Anyways, I was hoping to get in one big road trip before working again, and this was a great time. I apologize to all the friends I have across this continent, and hope I can visit them next time. I hope to have a December update before the year closes. In the meantime, Merry Christmas ^_^

"Your only limitations are those you set up in your mind, or permit others to set up for you." -Og Mandino


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