Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Las Vegas (Part Two)

It's 7.30 am Pacific Time. We're already on our way down the strip. I had suggested breakfast but Emma's not hungry. She wants to explore, which is understandable given the dizzying array of other-worldly sights which stretch over the next four miles or so.

Nowhere else in the world that I can think of can you see anything like this. Hotels that have theme parks, theatres and box offices, casinos aswell as several restaurants and bars. All of that without factoring in the spectacular monuments which stand outside some of the main buildings. They may be smaller, slightly tackier models, but the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty in particular are still an imposing sight.

As we move down the strip it is noticeable that there is a disturbing amount of pornographic literature littering the streets. You wouldn't want to have to walk down here with your kids and have them ask awkward questions about the disgarded magazines and picture cards which you can't help but notice sweeping across the pavements in the wind. A little further up there is a row of newspaper vending machines, only one of which dispenses what we would recognise as an actual newspaper. The rest deliver only porn. It's like a road accident. You just have to look. Unlike a road accident, we laugh it off.

At this end of the strip it seems that the most interesting places are on the other side of the road, so we cross the street. This takes an eternity. Their pedestrian crossings are slightly different to ours. At the other side of the road is a red hand, illuminated like the little red man at our crossings. You push the button and wait. And you wait. And you wait. What seems like days later, the red hand is replaced by a pale figure, similar to our walking green man, but almost white in colour. It doesn't flash, but to help you on your way there is a clock counting down above. This lets you know roughly how much time you have before you will be hit by a pick-up truck or a Chevvy. At certain crossings you get plenty of time, around 25 seconds or so, but at others you get less than 10 and it is a desperate rush to get across. All of which jolts you slightly, given that you have just spent the last five minutes wondering if the button which stops the traffic is actually working.

Some Americans take the rules regarding pedestrian safety very seriously. Later that day, we are crossing the street again when a group of people decide that waiting for the all-clear from the lights is not for them. They just run across, a practice which they call jay-walking. They make it safely to the other side, but those waiting patiently for the lights are suitably unimpressed;

"They should just be shot." remarks one man, nodding towards the offenders as he finally get the signal to cross.

God Bless America. This is a country where almost every single individual believes in the right to bear arms (in other words, be in possession of a deadly weapon), yet they dissaprove heartily of someone crossing a road at their own risk. It's almost illegal to hold the view that guns are too dangerous to be entrusted to the population at large, yet the comparatively lesser danger caused by jaywalking is apparently punishable by shooting. Perhaps they just want something to shoot. They are Americans after all.

Back to the plot. Pedestrian crossing successfully negotiated, we arrive at the Riviera hotel. It can't be long after 8.00am but it is already lit up and there are pockets of activity visible from outside. We go in to investigate an advert for a show. It's a tribute to the Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior and that other bloke whose name nobody remembers. Jason Orange, possibly. As it's so early the Box Office is still shut so we pick up a leaflet and leave. Before we do I see what turns out to be the first of many cocktail waitresses. She's not what I expected. Not the kind of cocktail waitresses you imagine getting Tiger Woods into trouble, at any rate. She's.........mature, yet still has the brass to dress skimpily. It's not a pretty sight, but the cocktail waitresses would become far more useful than just mere eye candy.

We reach The Venetian Hotel. It's another imposing sight, complete with obligatory water at the front. There are gondolas stationed at one end of the small canal. You can actually ride these for a small fee, but for now they remain unused. It's a beautiful sight really, despite the merest hint of tackiness, so we take the opportunity to get a few photographs. My stomach has forgotten about what little of that Sampler I managed at Rock'N'Rita's last night, and I need to eat something. We go inside and again have to walk through rows of what used to be known as slot machines to get to anything edible. More cocktail waitresses pass by, serving their drinks to the small but still surprising number of people who will take them at this hour.

Breakfast is a sizeable egg and bacon sandwich accompanied by a carton of tea the size of Holland. To our surprise it is nice tea. By and large Americans drink coffee rather than tea, and it would prove difficult to get a good old fashioned cuppa. There is nothing old fashioned about the carton in which the tea is served here, but it's like a taste of home. And we've only just arrived. I make a mental note, promising myself to stop being so bloody English. If I end up in a British pub watching Eastenders you have, as Sir Steve Redgrave once famously proclaimed, permission to shoot me.

A little tired of walking around (well pushing, at any rate), we decide to spend some time in the casino. Not being regular gamblers we have absolutely no idea what we are doing. We're just shoving odd dollars into machines here and there. You can no longer use coins, hence my reluctance earlier to accept the term slot machines. If you don't have notes, or bills as they call them, you have to use a card to play on the machines. It is not until it is pointed out by a member of staff that we can get one of these for free that we investigate further. She tells us we can get up to $15 free if we get ourselves a membership card. She presses a few buttons on a computer and directs us to the Players Club desk.

Here's how it works. You go to the desk, give in your name and address (telephone number or email optional, in other words don't), and they register you on their system. They give you a players card. Some may ask for some form of identification, and in most cases a driving license is sufficient, a passport even more so. It would vary from casino to casino, but at The Venetian we got £15 free play. Anything you win, you keep. Since it doesn't dispense change the slot machine will instead print out a ticket showing the value of your winnings. All the while it is deducting anything you claim from your playing card balance, but since you didn't pay for it anyway you are up on the deal.

"Drinks, cacktails......drinks.....cacktails." calls a voice behind us as we become suddenly engrossed in electronic poker. Before I have chance to consider what 'cacktails' might be I turn to see the cocktail waitress approaching us. She repeats the offer and we order drinks. Naively, we ask what we can have, and are told that a full bar is available. I order a beer and am surprised when Emma does too. Not only does she normally wait till a more sociable hour (I'm an old hand at early morning drinking thanks to several coach trips to Wembley and Cardiff to see Saints in finals), but she does not normally drink beer. If it isn't too early for beer, perhaps her usual Smirnoff Ice would be taking things a tad too far.

Minutes later the waitress returns and we tip her a generous $2. By the end of our first visit to a Las Vegas casino we have had more than an hour and a half's free play and a couple of drinks each. It has cost us the princely sum of $4 after we pushed our luck and reduced our tip to $1 second time around. Wisely we have drunk slowly. It is only just after midday after all. There are plenty more casinos to visit, so many more drinks to be had, 'cacktail' waitresses to tip.

Our most successful haunt is Treasure Island, where we win close to $15 via the new found gift of free slot play. Mostly we either break even or win a dollar or two more than what we spend, disregarding drinks. A day in the casinos in Las Vegas pays for itself, we find. Of the casinos we visit only Caesar's Palace sends us on our way empty handed, and that's because they need passport ID before they will issue their not so generous $5 free slot play. It's to be expected from a casino that is charging in excess of $150 dollars to see Celine Dion.

We get as far as Bellagio, taking in (in no particular order that I can remember) Mirage, Imperial Palace and Harrah's along the way. Bladdered and still fairly jet-lagged we make our way back to the hotel, where we witness a short acrobatic performance by the 'Internationally Acclaimed Maria' (I kid you not, PLSU) before heading up to our room. It's only just after 8.30pm, but with the long drive to Los Angeles ahead of us in the morning we slowly pass out......

Monday, 30 May 2011

Las Vegas (Part One)

Normally I'm not a particularly ambitious person.

I'm quite content to stick at my modest job without entertaining any ideas of promotion, so long as it continues to earn me enough money. Quite happy to accept that the few magazine and fanzine articles I have had published are the beginning and end of my writing career. Content to admit that I played wheelchair basektball to a reasonable level without ever troubling the thoughts of any GB Men's coaches. I lack the necessary drive to gain greater power or social influence. I don't want the responsibility. I'm a soldier, not a general.

Or just a lazy shit.

Except when it comes to choosing my holiday destinations. Some of you will have already read the accounts of my three-day trek through the Berlin snow, followed by two full days spent queuing pointlessly at the airport. Before that you may have perused my eye-bleedingly endless log of a two-week trip to Florida last summer. So how do you follow that? Well, how about flying to Las Vegas, hiring a car and visiting Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Desert, before heading back to Vegas for the finale of a 1,200 mile road trip? Trust me, it'll be a breeze.....

I can only apologise for going over old ground but I'm afraid that, just like Orlando last year, there were problems on the flight. At 10 hours 15 minutes it is almost two hours longer than the flight to Florida. Two hours is an awfully long time for someone who's watch tells him when he needs a wee, and who is on board an aircraft with toilets which appear to have been designed for meerkats. If I were 12 inches tall I'd have space enough to spend my pennies in peace. Unfortunately I'm at least 14 inches tall, and have all the balance of Nani within 20 yards of his opponents goal. This makes it difficult enough but the real stinker, the real steaming logger on the pavement is the fact that I need the on-board aisle chair to even reach these miniature loos. All of which means turning on your call light to attract attention - the aviation equivalent of putting your hand up and asking Miss if you can go to the toilet.

"Do you know where the aisle chair is?".

That's not me asking. That's the supervisor of the air stewards asking ME the question. Do I know where THEIR aisle chair is?

Hang on, I'm sure I left it here somewhere after my last flight with you lot a year ago didn't I? Oh bugger, have I not brought it on board with me? How stupid of me! Christ! I can't even be trusted to remember to pack Virgin Atlantic's mobiity equipment for the general use of people with disabilities and mobility problems. Idiot.

The clock ticks interminably, laughing out loud at my bladder as it does so until eventually, the staff get their act together and bring THEIR aisle chair. Not that the indignity is over. Aisle chair's have no large wheels and so are impossible to self propel. So what follows is a degrading weave through the aisles to the economy class toilet. I've only paid for economy class air travel, economy is where I'll be weeing. Except it's not. We get to the toilet and, predictably, it is occupied. Probably by a family of meerkats. Possibly shamed into taking the financial hit by the possibility of me weeing on the aisle chair, she takes me back to the premium class toilet. It's three rows in front of my economy class seat. Lord!

We touch down in Vegas, pick up the car (a nice low Chevvy, no repeat of the Mini-Me/Beyonce antics of Orlando) and within 10 minutes are at the strip. Las Vegas Boulevard. Traffic is arse-achingly slow, which is not all bad because we get to take in the sights. The sphinx at The Luxor, the Statue of Liberty at New York, New York, the Eiffel Tower at Paris, and the countless billboards advertising the myriad of Las Vegas shows. We're staying at Circus, Circus which apparently is at the cheaper end of the market. There's a moment when I think this might be because it is so far down the strip. It seems to take a Virgin Atlantic toilet trip of an age to get there, and when we do, it's very windy.

Emma has two cases, and the added bonus of the company of a man who cannot carry a case. She struggles to get the luggage out of the car as howls of gusty wind take hold. I can barely get myself out of the car because the door keeps blowing in my face. My shoes, which always fall off when I get in and out of the car, blow UNDER the car and are only just within reach. Farcical. I resolve once again to cut my feet off at the earliest opportunity. I need feet like Nick Clegg needs someone to sort through his fan mail.

Circus, Circus might be cheaper than The Luxor or Mandalay Bay, but it's no less bloody enormous. From the car park we have to move through the casino, past a restaurant, cafe and theme park (theme park?) before we even reach the reception desk. They call it registration, for no other reason I can find other than that Americans enjoy conjuring annoying alternatives for items and places which have perfectly good names to begin with. Why is the car park a garage? Explain to me why the lift has to be called the elevator? And registration? Really.

Checked in, our journey is not yet over. We have to go back outside to one of the two large tower buildings which house the rooms. It's almost like the rooms are an afterthought, and that the point of this hotel's existence is something else entirely. We're on the 13th floor but we could just aswell have been on the 35th. You can imagine that getting in and out of lifts is not going to be as straightforward as it at say, The Park inn in town. The room is nice. It doesn't look cheap. If it's not the journey, perhaps it is the enormous and garish clown's face outside the hotel which brings it down into the more affordable bracket of hotels on the strip?

We dine at 'Rock'n'Rita's', which is a bit like a burger bar which, like most bars in my experience of America, has large screens showing baseball, ice hockey and rodeo all around. We share something called a sampler, which is full of chicken-related products with nachos and prawns in breadcrumbs thrown in. In the middle of the gargantuan plate is a ceramic volcano which billows with dry ice and looks likely to erupt further menace at any moment.

Two beers later we hit the wall. Las Vegas is eight hours behind the UK. It's 10.00 at night, but our bodies think it is 6.00am Monday morning.

Exploration was for another, hopefully less windy day.