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A Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream, Pt. 1: Arriving In Las Vegas

The start of our stay in Las Vegas.

Our home for the next five days.

“That coffee is awful! It’s like brewed water with something in it.”

– A fellow traveler in the lounge at Newark Airport commenting on the finer points of the barista arts.

Anyone who knows me would know that one of my favourite novels and films is Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and my entire perception of what Las Vegas is like is based strongly on that work. However, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is set in 1971 and I never thought that I would get to find out for myself if that image was still valid, but the opportunity arose when Anna registered for a conference there.
It would have been quite easy referencing Fear and Loathing in the title of this post, but I already did that when we went to Madurai earlier in the year, so I needed to get a little more creative and just used the sub-heading from the book. Anyhow, let’s get to the heart of this matter…

Thursday, November 12, 2015

fear-and-loathing_1“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit light-headed; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals…?'”

Wait, sorry, wrong version.

We were lying in bed in our apartment in Manhattan when the alarm began to ring. I remember saying something like, “Just five more minutes, I’ll get up soon…” All of a sudden there was nagging and screeching and Anna was frantically pacing around the bedroom, continually reminding me about how we’ll be late to the airport if I don’t get up now and a voice was screaming, “Holy Jesus! What’s wrong with this woman…?”

As usual, Anna’s extreme organisational skills were on par and I’d get nothing done at all if she wasn’t like that. We caught our Über to Newark airport in New Jersey to catch our 12:20pm flight to Las Vegas and everything you have probably heard about New Jersey seems true. It looked pretty grim. We’ve been traveling so much that we are now gold class members and can access some of the lounges in the airports. This meant that in Newark we could treat ourselves to all of the free hummus, fruit and crappy coffee we wanted. Great success. I’m still not sure, however, why the USA require passports for domestic travel, but we needed them for this trip to Vegas.
Eventually it was time to board our cramped little plane and for the next five and a half hours we would be sitting in the air, hungry and bored out of our minds. Why? Because it costs money to even look at the in-flight map when you fly with United Airlines! They paid a fortune to make their extremely annoying and tacky safety video, but you can’t even get a packet of peanuts out of them on a reasonably long flight. I managed to sleep for a bit, read for an hour or so, played some Solitaire on my phone, all while a man seated a few rows behind us continually laughed, tried to start conversations with random passengers and eventually cut his hand on a razor he had hidden in his bag.

That's a small portion of what you see the second you get off the plane.

That’s a small portion of what you see the second you get off the plane.

Finally, we landed and disembarked. What struck us first was that the airport was full of slot-machines as soon as you exit the plane! Sure, we know this is the world’s second-largest gambling centre thanks to Macau, but surely people could wait until they had picked up their luggage first. Anyway, we collected out suitcases and made our way down to catch our shuttle to our home for the next five nights, the Flamingo Hotel and Casino.
I was kind of excited when I found out that we were staying there as that is where the second half of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is based.

“This was Bob Hope’s turf. Frank Sinatra’s. Spiro Agnew’s. The place fairly reeked of high-grade Formica and plastic palm trees. Clearly a high-class refuge for Big Spenders. Have they started the show on stage?”

Also, just like in the novel and film, when we were checking in there were a lot of cops checking in too, in town to attend a police convention being held in the building. I would post the scene from the film where this happens, but some young eyes see this blog and it is definitely NSFW, so just watch it here on YouTube if you want to see it. Check in time is at 4:00pm at the Flamingo and the line was so long it took about 45 minutes, but it turned out it is like that around the clock. Pretty incredible for such an average hotel. It really isn’t that special at all, but there are Donny and Marie Osmond shows, as well as Olivia Newton-John shows every night. Another option is to cross the road and see Britney Spears or Celine Dion, all of which have been voted the “Best Show in Vegas”. Or you could just go to a bar, get hammered and retain your dignity.

After we arrived we showered, got changed, grabbed a small bite to eat and then decided to check out some of the sights:

The next item on the agenda was dinner. Many of Anna’s former colleagues from Singapore are in town for the conference, including two of her best friends, Don Pek and Yvonne Chung. They had booked a table at Picasso in the Bellagio Casino. You know it is a fancy restaurant when they have actual Picasso paintings, not prints, on the walls. It was an amazing dinner, here’s how it looked from my perspective:

It was quite late by the time dinner had finished and Anna had a reasonably early start at her conference the next morning, so we headed to Jimmy Buffett’s Magaritaville for a nightcap consisting of a couple of beers for me and half a glass of essentially undrinkable wine for Anna and then it was back to our room, which, in itself, was another of those “Expectation vs. Reality” experiences:

The exterior of the building at ground level, however, remains the same to this day with the same lighting design and features as in the film, albeit with a giant Donny and Marie advertisement covering the entire facade of the hotel.


Our home for the next five days.

Friday, November 13, 2015
It was our first full day here and, because Las Vegas is three hours behind New York, I awoke reasonably early by my standards, about 9:30am, and decided to hit up the brunch buffet at the Flamingo. Big mistake. According to the Flamingo website, for US$19.99 you get:

The brunch buffet features all-new action stations with breakfast, brunch and lunch offerings available from open to close daily. New breakfast selections include Southern and Mexican influenced dishes, as well as a made-to-order omelet station. For those with a sweet tooth, fresh waffles and pancakes will be featured on the menu with all kinds of customization options. Also debuting is the made-to-order breakfast sandwiches and burgers station. The barbecue station is a meat-lover’s haven featuring mouthwatering brisket smoked in-house and pulled pork with traditional sides of Texas toast and coleslaw. Lunch offerings will include Cajun and Southern-inspired dishes, brick oven pizza, antipasti and an exhaustive deli sandwich bar with a wide array of meats, cheeses and breads. A complete salad bar and build-your-own yogurt parfait bar will highlight the chilled options. Rounding it out on a sweet note, the buffet will feature a chocolate fountain, dessert bar and made-to-order crepes.
The abundance of choices continues with the buffet’s beverage selection. Guests are now treated to a build-your-own Bloody Mary and Mimosa bar, featuring fresh garnishes and ingredients like fresh and crispy bacon, beef jerky, pickled vegetables and a variety of hot sauces to punch it up or keep it classic. Draft beer, wine and champagne also available, all inclusive.

Now, I’ve lived in Asia long enough to understand that many countries don’t differentiate between breakfast and any other meal. Breakfast in Korea is generally rice, fish or meat and some kimchi. In Cambodia it is usually noodles. That sits fine with me, but pizza, burritos and mac and cheese are a tad heavy first thing in the morning. That explains the abundance of obese people here on motorised scooters. Those things are everywhere, even the woman who served me was in one and she must’ve been at least double my body weight!
There are a lot of horrible people here as well and when I was being seated, another customer started yelling at the waitress to come over. She politely put a hand up and said, “I’ll be with you in a minute, sir.” This set him off, big time. “Did you just put your f___ing hand in my face? Nobody puts their f___ing hand in my face, the last time… Hey! I’m talking to you! The last time somebody…” We both ignored him, I smiled, told her I wouldn’t put my hand in her face, she winked and served me before that guy the rest of the morning. It pays not to be a dick. Anyway, I promised myself I wouldn’t overdo it and tried to stick to the traditional breakfast dishes, but I don’t normally eat breakfast, so it was just a recipe for disaster. I’d better try to walk this one off.
The Flamingo has a flamingo park, so I checked that out and the took a stroll down the strip. Here is some of what I came across:

I walked around for an hour or two, but I had to get back to our hotel room for several reasons:

  1. I was too bloated and needed to lie down
  2. Everything is so fake and I was tired of being bothered by people trying to make a buck.

There are bad impersonators everywhere, a ton of terrible Elvis ones, we saw a Marilyn Monroe impersonator on Thursday that was so bad we only knew who she was supposed to be because she was standing on a grate! The Pee-Wee Herman one kept hassling me as I was walking past, but that soon stopped when I walked over to him and pointed out that he was being paid to pretend to be a child pornographer. Women in bikinis just come up to you asking if you want a photo, elderly Mexican women hand out business cards for prostitutes, not brothels, but individual ladies. People will compliment you on something and then try to drag you into their store to buy something or sell you tickets to a show. It is all so contrived and fake, even the rocks in the garden at our hotel aren’t real, they’re fibreglass! If it isn’t people paid to annoy you, then it is the people who have paid and have become annoying! Every couple of seconds, any time of the day, some drunk will scream, “Woooo!”, It sounds like I’m being constantly followed by Rik Flair!

At least I can't hear Rik right now...

At least I can’t hear Rik right now…

I wasn’t in the mood for that, so I headed back to our room, kicked back and watched an NCAA basketball game while I waited for Anna to return.

Soon, Anna arrived and it was time to don some bad clothes and hit the strip. We were both thirsty and hungry, so we stopped off at The Tilted Kilt, initially just for a drink, but then for what turned into dinner.
After dinner we continued our walk up the strip, dodging the touters, drunken bridesmaids and obnoxious frat-boys and eventually ended up at The Venetian. The Venetian is a casino based on the city of Venice in Italy, with its canals and gondolas, but it’s really hard to tell the difference once you’re there. Except, that is, for the fact you are indoors in a building in the middle of the desert in North America! Okay, not that similar at all.

We pulled up a couple of stools at another bar and had a few drinks and chatted to the bartender for a while, but Anna was fading. The time difference was still a bit of a problem for her and she had to get up early again for the conference the following morning. But, it would seem sacrilegious if we walked through a casino to get back to our room and didn’t place a bet. Between us we had a grand total of US$7.00, so we decided to play the slots for a bit. How these things are addictive to many people is beyond me! I will never understand how they work, if you get a few of the same thing in random places, you might win and the buttons to press don’t make a whole lot of sense, either. That part of the casino floor is just depressing:

“Who are these people, these faces? Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used car dealers from Dallas, and sweet Jesus, there were a hell of a lot of them at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, still humping the American dream, that vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the last minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.”

When you are on the gaming floor of the casinos, it is a miserable sight, but it seems to have changed a little since 1971. One just needs to look at how ostentatious these places are to see for an undeniable fact that the house always comes out on top, however, there are still a ton of people who think luck is on their side. But, the people, the faces? There are a few categories now:

  • Drunken frat-boys and hipsters playing poker and table games
  • Cowboys with big hats and enormous belt buckles playing poker
  • Extremely depressed looking and/or morbidly obese people, generally with their motorised scooters, playing the slots
  • Incredibly cashed-up Asians, usually from China, playing anything, just always betting on number 8.

We’re having a  great time here, it’s a place I’ve always wanted to see, but now I have I don’t think I’d bother returning. Maybe that’s just because I have no interest in gambling.
Anyway, we’ll make the most of it while we’re here, Anna has a dinner tonight, so I’ll watch the UFC and have a few drinks, tomorrow we’re going to the factory outlets and we’ve got tickets for Penn and Teller on Monday night.

One last sight from today:

Classy begger.

Classy begger.

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