travelog 32

Las Vegas - City of Superlatives

Once in a lifetime you have to go there, that's what we heard. If you have been there like me, Julia, approximately 14 years ago, you don't recognize the place anymore because everything here changes very quickly. One thing is for sure: you're quite simply overwhelmed by this city - be it in the positive or negative sense. All of you who now think we have abandoned our love for the plants, be reassured that this isn't so: we couldn't stand the gambling-den Las Vegas for more than two days. After that we were drawn back to the bosom of nature.

The traffic alone could tempt you to immediately turn around and return to the desert of Southwestern Nevada. Or to drive through the center of town on the always jammed interstate without any detours just to see the big expanse again on the other side of town. However, we already reserved our space on the campground of the "Circus Circus" casino by phone and even paid for it with the credit card. There's no going back! Once we're very happy that a campground is placed right besides a freeway. This spares us from trailing from one traffic light to another on the "Strip" (THE road in Las Vegas). The campground turns out to be a paved parking lot with restrooms and showers, garbage cans, a sand-pit for the dogs and a few trees. The place is fully booked, after all it's Thanksgiving weekend and the families meet for their turkey feast.

Las Vegas is not very spectacular at daylight. Only just at dusk, when the millions of lights are turned on, this city takes shape. Suddenly many people are out and about. The "Strip" is now completely impassable. Every casino seeks to attract people with shows and special effects. Hosts try to fire the hungry audience for the cheap buffet. There is music in the parking lots. Even trees and palms are connected up and the pedestrians are "treated" with chirps of exotic birds. In the pond in front of the casino "Treasure Island" the teams of two pirate ships get prepared to engage the enemy in battle. The crowd patiently waits with free drinks, beer or Cola. There is an artificial volcanoe which erupts every 15 minutes with lots of thunder from a pool at "The Mirage" (funny detail: a sign points out that it's only allowed to take pictures for private use - although there is nothing spectacular to take a picture of). Out of the top of the pyramide at the "Luxor" a laser beam shoots into the night sky. At the "New York New York" a spectacular roller coaster races around the complex of buildings.

However, the biggest attraction - of course besides the gambling - are the mostly dirt cheap all-you-can-eat buffets. After having studied our Nevada travel guide very thoroughly (btw, half of the book describes Las Vegas) we decide on the "Rio". We can't find anymore the all-you-can-eat buffet for $1.99, as I remember it. At least not at the big casinos. Of course you need a lot of patience, it's Thanksgiving and we're not the only fellows who want to stuff themselves. The latest thing in Las Vegas are international buffets with a Chinese, Mexican, Italian, and an American section. In addition there is a salad and most importantly a dessert buffet. However we did not come because of the food itself. We want to experience the crowd, the really fat people (and we mean really fat like they only exist in the US!) who pile their plates up with food. They "mount" a steak on one layer of salad, followed by a layer of fish, much sauce and, so to speak, as the culmination by a piece of cake at the edge of the plate. Slowly we work our way through the buffet. We take little portions and save some appetite for the sweet stuff. Again and again we make a little pause to watch the activities around us. It's good that nobody understands Swiss German!

The culmination of the evening begins with a tour through the different casinos. At a bar we get our free Margarita: a indifferent prefabricated drink directly from the machine. If you don't pay for it, don't expect too much. By the way: alcohol is much cheaper here than any normal mineral water or Coke. The slot machines and the gambling tables are very busy. One can play Roulette, Black Jack, Craps, Poker. There is a "Gaming Guide: The How To Of Gaming" for the layperson; even after the reading most of the games remain a mystery to us. The chips change the owners, one fellow smiles, the other one throws up his hands in dispair. The coins ring and jingle at the slot machines. Here you play alone, you feed the machine with money and you hope to hit the jackpot. The walls are covered with posters of lucky winners who, just a month ago, took home a cheque over $1 million. Or only $13'987; this would be alright with us too. Tempting signs attract with slogans like "it pays to play at O'Sheas!". Or "up to 98% payback!" - naturally nobody talks about the fact that also 0-1% are included in this number. Or you're tempted by "$40 of slot play for $20 -you're a GUARANTEED winner!". But the maxim is: "winning's the MAIN thing!" - most of the people seem to believe in this. It's striking that it's allowed to smoke everywhere. Together with the free drinks this probably makes the gamblers more happy and generous. Practically every third person is a cop or an internal watchman. There is an ATM and cash-in-advance machine at virtually every corner.

We spend Thanksgiving on the "Strip". We take the bus to the most Southern end and the "Luxor". Suddenly you think to be in Egypt if you stand in front of the huge, 30 storeys high glass pyramide, the Sphinx, the black watch dogs, and other Egyptian statues. From the outside the pyramide looks very delicate. From the inside it's a massive, dark concrete construction with the worlds' biggest airspace within a single building. The hotel has 4500 rooms and is "only" the second largest in Las Vegas and "only" the third largest in the world. We're especially taken by the "Karnak Kiosk" which certainly does not sell any item with an Egyptian touch. No, there are cactus souvenirs and native American art objects from the Southwestern US for sale - what a contrast!

We can ride with a little train directly to the knights of King Arthur's Round Table at the "Excalibur". The focus of attention is of course the casino. But in the meantime somebody found out that kids are a good source of income too. That's why the huge and noisy basement is filled with pinball machines and other youth oriented gaming machines. In the upper storey we find the "Canterbury Wedding Chapel" where the photographer waits for the happy newly-weds. The chapel is of course only a simple room which is built and furnished like a chapel. People keen to get married can choose between different wedding arrangements. Some include a flower bouquet for the bride, t-shirts for bride and groom, a video tape of the ceremony, a bottle of champagne, even a garter and a certain amount of pictures of the event. Next to the chapel the smell of fried hamburgers spreads out, McDonalds sends his regards. A little further away we meet Santa Claus. For $7.99 you can take a photograph with him and your kids. A small Mexican boy howls. Santa Claus tries in vain to soothe him but his enormous white beard, the red-golden dress, the many spotlights, and the imposing throne have the opposite effect on the little boy. The stressed mother finally decides to put her beaming daughters alone on Santas lap.

At a street corner we find "Dream Car & Motorcycle Rentals" where shiny scrubed cars attract the attention. For measly little $500 you can take your girlfriend for a drive in a Ferrari F355 for five hours. For a Lamborghini Diablo you have to shell out $900. A Porsche, a Jaguar, a Corvette, or a Hummer are available starting at $300 for 24 hours. Particularly popular are the unusually long and ugly stretch limousines which offer room for 7-10 passengers.

Now we take the bus to the "New York New York" with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and more well known views. Opposite lies the MGM casino with a golden lion practically as tall as the whole building. A little bit further north is the "Paris" with the Eiffel Tower which was built following the original construction plans. There are also the Arc de Triomphe and the Académie Française. Right next to it someone fulfilled his dream about Venice and built the Doge Palace, the Rialto Bridge (with built in escalator!), the Campanile and some waterways. At the "Caesars Palace" you can find the Forum Romanum Shops.

At night we explore the "old" center of Las Vegas. They built a huge carpet of lights over a whole street. This is the biggest light show and at the same time the biggest neon sign in the world. Suddenly all the lights of the souvenir shops and the casinos go out. Music booms from 200 speakers. Two million light-bulbs bring the dark sky into being over our heads. Laser beams cause flames, snakes, rivers, buttons, UFOs, and much more to go wild. Like mad the figures flicker from one end to the other, accompanied by the deafening 540'000 watt strong music.

The buffet at the "Main Street Station" casino is obviously very popular. Until we are finally seated at a table we have to stand in line for 50 minutes. Fortunately we stocked up before with a 99 Cent Piña Colada. Martin spares his appetite for the different chocolate cakes while I'm working my way through the different kinds of world cuisines. The family at the neighbouring table has a good nosh-up: mother and father belong to the fat type and return to the table with completely overloaded plates. The two sweet little girls nibble at their pizza. Grandma piled a little bit of everything on to her plate, takes three bites, and leaves the rest untouched. After all they paid so that they can take as much as they want! Also the two bowls with dessert which Grandma brings back to the table are left half-full. As culmination she treats herself with three pieces of pizza but she only seems to like the dough. The pigs must be really happy in Las Vegas with all the left-overs!

Of course no visit to Las Vegas is complete without gambling. Since the minimal stake at the Roulette is too high for us, the gamblers at the Black Jack are too fast for us, and the other games are almost incomprehensible for us, we decide to gamble at one of the moronic slot machines. $10 are at stake. Suddenly we realize where the everlasting jingle of coins comes from: you feed the machine with a dollar bill and you get 4 quarters. If other people feed the machine with $100 bills the machine spews out the appropriate number of quarters. All the people around now think that if this guy was lucky they could hit the jackpot too. Our game is really empty-headed: we feed the machine with a coin, we push a bottom and we wait until three symbols are shown. Of course you only win when specific symbols are shown next to each other. Soon we gambled away our $10, make up to $8 and decide to gamble away everything or to stop gambling if we win more than $10. Of course the inevitable happens - the small pile of coins disappears little by little in the dumb machine and in the background somebody laughs about those stupid tourists.

Many of the visitors think they can overcome the machines. A man in the bus tells us that he understands his stake in gambling as a visitors' tax. After all somebody has to pay for the many lights, the free shows and the free drinks. He might be right.

November 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen