Monday, April 11, 2005

Our US Trip: Part 5 - Las Vegas - Big and Gaudy.

Tuesday 7th December

Last morning in LA at Manhattan Beach - but missing the waffles for breakfast. Despite this, I'm starting to feel sure that I'm going to come back from home from the US very, very large indeed. A bit of a rush, preliminary farewells to Roz, as Paul is dropping her off at work on the way to the airport. Outside it is overcast and just a little muggy, with the never-ending haze of a normal LA day.

Traffic, despite travelling away from the city south towards Torrance, is terrible. The usual stuff: large break in traffic, accelerate to 60mph, hard break to a full stop, sit and wait, eventually creep on. I question Paul's constant use of the freeways, when we spend so much time on them stopped, surely it'd be quicker on the back streets. I figure afterwards it is his unfamiliarity with the city.

Eventually we arrive at Roz's work; we're seeing them again in less than two weeks, so only a temporary goodbye. Then it's the big turnaround north to get back to LAX. Surprisingly, the traffic back in is not too bad in comparison, though it is possibly the time of day, as it is getting on towards 9:30a. Into LAX, see off Paul, then to United check-in for our flight to Las Vegas.

Uggghh! United check-in. Are they the worst airline in the world? The lines for the check-in were not encouraging. Paul had clued us up about the "Self Check-in" and so we decided to give that a go. Insert a credit card for identification and away it went. Only it didn't. After a while a bloke there took pity on us and gave us a bit of a hand, and after recognising my credit card, a couple of minutes later it did work. So it happily clicked away and told us to wait for someone to complete the process by attaching the stickers to our bags. Only there was no one there to do it. There was a security guard there who frequently advised us and anyone who'd listen that he wasn't allowed to touch the bags at all — it seems United was short-staffed this morning and this guard could see a very humourous side to it all. Eventually one of the two women who were doing normal check-ins broke free and grabbed the bags of us and two or three other people who had self-checked in. Then the security guard picked up the backs and put them on the conveyor. "I'm not really allowed to do this you know." Now, I must admit, I also was seeing the funny side of United's problems. So, "Self Check-in" reduced the check-in time from (say) 30 minutes to about 30 minutes.

Through the bag screening. Ah, not so fast. It seems they didn't like the look of my cigarette lighter and my choice was... none. I could either not board the plane or surrender the lighter. Well maybe a heavily-weighted choice. Luckily it wasn't an engraved lighter or anything, worth about $30. I reckon one of the guard took a liking to it, and it is now lighting his disgusting little tailor-made cigarettes. Up till then my lighter had only either lit my hand-rolled cigs or cigars.

Neither of which I smoked the whole time I was in the US. Ah well.

So they let us go on.

Breakfast at Starbucks, I ordered something better than the "shot" of coffee I'd gotten at Peets, and Ali her normal Cap, and we toddled off to the embarkation area. I did a bit of shop-cruising and picked up a new wallet for $12 to replace my aging Jag one. With all the check-in and security kafuffle we didn't have all that long to wait to board our flight. The flight itself reminded me of my first times flying when I suffered from airsickness quite a bit. I had to actually tell Ali to leave me to myself because all her attention was making me feel more ill. Also driving us both bonkers were the people in the seats in front of us. Quite large people, they talked too loudly and chatted across the aisles and generally made quite a nuisance of themselves to everyone around us.

We landed — at Las Vegas, really only a short flight, and I'd managed to stave off the spewing part of the travel-sickness thankfully. Las Vegas is a bizarre place from the air. It looks like a city picked up from some other place and plonked in this wasteland. And the airport is much closer to the city than any other I'd been to. We exited to plane to see — poker machines inside the terminal. Our mate Ray was right in saying that you cannot walk a straight line in Vegas without walking through poker machines.

The chatty cabby was quite proud to show us billboards proclaiming the "Wonders from Downunder" or something similar. Both male and female version of strippers bought exclusively in from Australia. Hmmm, well I'm glad we're famous for something. He virtually gave us a guided tour of the Strip on the way to our hotel, "...and this one was owned by the same consortium who owns Treasure Island and was built in 1984, blah, blah..." His effort was appreciated though. I was quite frankly too goggle-eyed to pay much attention to the cabbie's spiel. Everything was huge. Hotels, statues, water features, electronic billboards, colours all clashing to compete for your attention and (presumably) the contents of your wallet. And it was also with the cabbie that we first heard those fateful letters "NFR."

It seems this week was the National Finals Rodeo, and there were cowboys everywhere. I mean real blokes walking around in all that wild and crazy cowboy gear as if it were normal to be walking down a city street and knocking people over with the size of your hat brim. And thinking that leather tassels are a great accessory for a shirt. Chaps! No really! There were cowboys everywhere. I have never seen anything like this before in my life.

After a little while we pull up outside Treasure Island, our casino/hotel/home for the next two nights. It is a three-spoked monstrosity, and you can't call it "Treasure Island" — it is "T.I." Check-in was painless. I sort of was expecting to be fighting off bellhops wanting to take our bags upstairs, but everyone was content to handle their own, as was I. The crowds just inside the hotel were simply amazing for the time of day, possibly 1p. The lineup outside the bistro were legendary. Cowboys, cowboys everywhere. So we toddled off on the crooked path to the elevators to our hotel room, dodging cowboys and poker machines with a quickly-learned dexterity.

By the time we'd settled into the room and changed and went back downstairs it was freezing cold and raining, so both tired and me still a little seedy from the flight, we went back upstairs to have a sandwich and a sleep. I took some time to wrestle with the in-room internet access via the television set to check/send emails. Aside from the shockingly bad resolution of the screen, the fingertip joystick on the IR keyboard kept on drifting down, down, so everytime I wanted to click on a button or on a site, it was force the joystick up and hold it up whilst simultaneously pressing the mouse button. Wow. After struggling with this for about 45 minutes and a short read of my book, I joined Ali for a sleep.

We finally emerged, showered, dressed and refreshed around 8:30p! What had happened to the day? The lobby downstairs was noisy, smoky and full of cowboys, so we retreated into the nightclub Tangerines for a couple of hideously-expensive drinks. From there we watched the twice-nightly Pirate show, which, although incredibly cheesy, was amazing for the ship which sails up the lake, and then is sunk by cannon shot — naturally all simulated, but the lake and the people diving into the freezing water were real. And the ship sinks into the lake! Very cool.

After this we made our first excursion outside into the cold night with the hundreds of other people who had watched the show, and we headed south down the strip. One thing which amazed both of us was the sheer size and space of the casinos. For most of the casinos, just to walk from the front door to the street is a huge effort, and I'm certain that it took almost 15 minutes just to walk past the Bellagio. Ali had to get a shot in at the Trevi fountain since she's been to the real thing.

So south along the strip, Mirage, Bellagio, etc. eventually all the way down to New York New York, and it was getting very late and we were very hungry. So we stopped into an Asian buffet to have possibly the worst mixed Asian food of my life. Huge amounts, but dry, tasteless, and spice-free. They even had a Mongolian BBQ set up, but I wasn't game to try it. One of the staff, this piratical-looking bloke with scary tattoos all over his forearms had obviously overheard our accents and came over to talk to us. At first his accent defeated us, but it turned out he was an Indonesian from Surabaya, and wanted to talk about things closer to his home. He had relatives in Darwin. His description of his life certainly furthered the impression of a pirate — we parted wishing him well.

We stopped in at Paris for a quick gamble, well Ali to have a gamble, me to watch. Inside the casino under the legs of the one-third size Eiffel Tower replica, it was like day, there were even clouds painted on the sky blue ceiling. Roz had previously mentioned this tactic of the casinos to fool you into not knowing what time of day it is, and I must say it was very effective. Ali lost about $10 on the "I Love Lucy" poker machine and then we went walking around to perve on the people playing. I was gob-smacked watching these people push bundles of $25 chips around the blackjack tables, and not even showing any interest in the game at all, aside from the mechanics necessary to ensure they weren't absolutely stuffing things up. All the croupiers (or whatever they are called) looked young and bored, and there seemed to be a lot more black people than white working there. Later on up the road at TI, it was the other way around. Do certain casinos have hiring policies?

Eventually we got sick of this and went back to our casino. Ali needed to lose some more money, and the bloke at the prize wheel was quite ready to take $20 off her. I was quite surprised how invisible one becomes when you are merely accompanying gamblers. Gamblers and staff only talk to gamblers, not to others. We stopped in at the "centre" bar for a quick drink. A lot of cowboys were there watching the NFR replays on the telly. I had a brief thought that it was weird that they would spend all day doing it and then go home and watch it, but Ali reminded me that we do exactly the same thing when we film one of our concerts! A couple of drinks later and we'd had enough, it was winding our way through the poker machine maze to show our room keys to the security card at the elevators to prove we weren't terrorists or whatever, and off to bed.

Another day of firsts in the good 'ol US of A.

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