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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Travelogue: Las Vegas


Each place you visit teaches something about yourself- something you never knew or something you had long forgotten. Las Vegas, which means ‘The Meadows’ in Spanish, has something to offer to everyone. Whether you will remember it as the ‘The Entertainment Capital of the World, or ‘Sin City’ or by some other name depends on what you are looking for in your trip, and what you find really.

He said he wanted to spend his birthday with me- just me, and that he wanted to take me to Vegas. Soon enough, we made reservations for our hotel, rented a Jeep Liberty (usually, we don't use our own vehicle on road trips) for what could be a 8-10 hrs drive- depending on the pits stops and the traffic. We knew it would be a gas guzzler, but we found comfort on the road and were happy with the choice of our car. Initially, we wanted to see Death Valley on our way, but later gave up on the idea to save some time.

We started early morning on his birthday- July 8th, Friday. On our way, we stopped by San Luis Reservoir, and at Bakersfield for lunch. Windmills always remind me of Don Quixote - the canonical ideologist disenchanted by society.

We saw Boron, named after the element, which inhabits the largest deposits of borax in the world. A dead river at Mojave made me sad. There were interesting posts that said :
'Water=jobs, Keep water flowing into farms'
'Congress created the dust bowl'

We always stop to buy some farm fresh fruits on our trips. The spiced pistachios we picked from a fruit stall made delectable munching material. He drove, I DJ-ed on our ipods & the satellite radio, and we sang old favorites together. When the first road sign mentioning Las Vegas appeared, we were still a couple of hours away. But the appetite to get acquainted with the city increased.

A couple of billboards said,’ Going to Vegas? Go where Vegas began. Flamingo.

One of the most celebrated early resorts; Flamingo Hotel was built by the mobster Benjamin’Bugsy’ Siegel, a member of the Meyer Lansky crime syndicate. Lansky and Siegel were lifelong friends and the former is said to have convinced the Mafia to place Siegel in Vegas. Lansky had heavily invested in the Flamingo, like many other syndicate bosses in the 1930s who invested their illegal profits in a smorgasbord of ventures.

After long delays and cost overruns, the hotel was still losing Mafia money. Most of the bosses wanted Siegel dead. It is said that Lansky bargained twice to save Siegel and give him some time. But in 1947, Siegel was shot and killed in Beverly Hills, California. The crime went unpunished. Only his brother and a priest attended the funeral. Much of Siegel’s life is the subject of the 1991 movie,’Bugsy.’

The Ten Commandments and another billboard stating,' Not everything stays in Vegas' prepared the wayfarer morally for what lay ahead.

An outlet mall greeted us a few miles ahead of the city. On other occasions, we might have ventured inside, but a detour was the last thing on our minds. We also discovered that we were running low on fuel- a long stretch of the road was without any gas stations. My G2 and our GPS (which we call our reliable aunt -‘mashi’) helped us reach a filling station- just in the nick of time. It was called ‘Terrible’s’ and was at Charleston Blvd.

It was when I sighted the first homeless. I have seen enough to be perceivably shocked by contrasts in a city. And anyone who watches CSI would know that a labyrinth of tunnels, built to protect the desert city from flash floods, run for miles under the Las Vegas Valley. That must be premium real estate for the homeless.


We checked into our hotel, Stratosphere, famed for its thrill rides and the observation deck at its Tower which offered a 360 degree view of Vegas- something that reminded me of the Prudential Tower in Boston. We asked for a complimentary upgrade when we slipped a 20$ bill with our credit card. The rule of the thumb in travel industry, specially in Vegas, is that if there is no room upgrade available, the front-desk employee will return the bill. He smiled and acknowledged,'You know how things work in Vegas.' and raised our deluxe premier view room to the 18th floor. We had booked for the thrill package which allowed us any two rides(except the SkyJump)- limiting two adults each, limitless access to the Tower, and 2 tickets for the price of 1 to an adult show at the hotel theatre, ‘Bites’, where people dressed up as Vampires and danced to Classic Rock.

We were tired from the long drive, but wanted to make the best use of our weekend, so after a shower and a change of clothes, we ventured into the casino in the ground floor, marked as ‘C’ in the elevator. We dined at the 40s style Roxy. The seafood chowder was decent, the baked chicken was bland but the retro-style Coca Cola glasses cheered me up and reminded me of the one I have at home.

I whiled away at a slot machine, while he enjoyed his smoke indoors- which was a rare thing. The casinos allowed smoking, booze was free, and SG told me that it is believed that casinos pump oxygen in the air to keep people from getting tired. Not so sure about that but I noticed that each casino had a distinctive smell. Also, nowhere could I see a clock or a window or even a vent that could let sunlight in- you wouldn’t know what part of the day or what time it was. Inside it was a maze, outside an adult wonderland.

Maybe it was the mythical oxygen, we now wanted to go out and see the strip at night. Most hotels and casinos have free parking, and if you stay overnight, the valet parking is free too. That doesn’t mean you should tip the valet any less. We picked our Jeep and crawled on Las Vegas Blvd like a tipsy reptile. The traffic was drowsy. SG observed that we would have to start early for our David Copperfield show the following night, scheduled at 10 pm at Hollywood Theatre, MGM Grand.

The strip looked seductive at night.


The following morning, while he was still asleep, I consulted my G2 again and made a list of the free attractions we could view during the day, noting their weekend timings. I reminded myself that it was for times like these that I was paying my bills for a smartphone. I hated to wake him up, but I wanted us to see as many hotels and casinos as we could. I had a disadvantage- there was no coffee maker in our room. Usually, a cup of hot tea or coffee served with a kiss did the trick.

He let me decide our itinerary, and I chose to visit the Lion Habitat at MGM first.

The sheer size of the huge lions sleeping on a glass ceiling above us awed me. The crowd moved slowly with gaping mouths and flashing cameras. Two men sat beside the lions. I have heard those lions can sleep for 20 hrs a day. Seeing them, I believed it. For a fee, we clicked our picture with a lion cub. I loved petting its coarse fur. The lion trainer sitting next to it looked like a lion himself.

We picked our tickets for our Copperfield show. The hotel staff was very cheerful and chatty. She asked me if it was our first time in Vegas. I said 'It is my first time, but he has been here before', pointing towards him. He smiled: 'First time with wife- and it is so much better with her.' It was my turn to smile.

Next, we had an Indian lunch at Riviera and drove off the strip to reach Silverton for the Mermaid show in its aquarium- which was a letdown because it didn’t start as scheduled and we did not have the tenacity to wait for another hour. Nevertheless, I had a great time watching the fishes and a sting ray eyed me for a while.

It was almost 4 pm, SG wanted to get back to our hotel to get some rest before the evening show. I reasoned we could squeeze in the Bellagio conservatory on our way. The floral extravaganza with its azaleas, hydrangeas, and sunflowers greeted the visitors with colorful smiles. I didn’t think of the efforts of the numerous horticulturists then that went into the display that changes every season. I just imagined it as the most natural thing on the strip, with the flowers growing on their own accord in rows, queuing up in the most civil manner, without fighting for attention. Maybe if I visit again in fall or winter, my opinion will change and I will be closer to accepting reality - that everything in Vegas has been carefully crafted by man -to seduce, to excite, to intoxicate with wonder.

The glass flower art on the ceiling reminded me of Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Mountain View Center.


We arrived at Hollywood Theatre in good time. Our seats were booked in the second row. A couple from Texas shared our table. The husband asked me if I had seen him before. ‘Only on TV’, was my honest reply.

We ordered some snacks, a glass of white zinfandel for me and Pina Colada in a memento glass for him. Several trivia about the magician were projected on the screen before the show began.
‘Only living magician to appear on postage stamps.’
‘Knighted by French government.’

all of which helped with the post-purchase evaluation of the show tickets.

‘One of the highest paid entertainers in the world.
‘ which we contributed tonight’ added the lady from Texas. Later, I learnt that he owns an island in the Bahamas, which he bought for $65 million.

There was a twitter contest open to the audience; the winner would have a chance to meet him after the show. SG thought that I should post. All I could think was how tired he and his team must be after 3 shows in a day. I thanked him for his time and mentioned how excited we were to watch him.
After the show, I checked my mail. There was a direct message from his twitter account, ‘Hi! Wait under the TV at the front right side if you are facing the stage. I will have someone meet you after the show.’


The day I had first watched him fly, I knew it was an illusion. But this man had stretched my imagination and capacity to hope, to believe. Though as a grown-up, I can guess more of his tricks, the charm doesn't fade with knowledge. And I love the way he incorporates stories in his show. It was overwhelming to meet him in person. Not because of his success, but for what he meant to me. I could have kissed his hands, but I restrained my emotions and satisfied myself with a handshake, an autograph and a photograph with him. Of course, SG was with me too, and I owed it to his nudge to tweet. I called up my father to share what had transpired. I knew he would understand.

The rest of the night passed in a trance, I don't remember being so awed in my adult life. I hoped I would be alright the following morning. We had plans to avail of the thrill package.

Our hotel room had a live feed on TV of the SkyJump. In the morning, we watched a couple of people free-fall from the 108th floor, diving almost 855 feet, while tethered to a metal cable. I discovered my level of fear with Xscream and Bigshot and decided that the SkyJump would have to wait. We had the brunch buffet at Aria- the menu was mediocre and overrated. I loved the selection of pastries and the King Crab legs though.

At night, I watched my first adult show- 'Bites', got myself a pair of vampire fangs and wore them while we walked on the streets, startling people when I smiled at them.

Read more about Vegas here:
History of Las Vegas
Las Vegas Homeless, ABC
Free attractions

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