Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Viva Las Vegas

I walked out of Philadelphia's Market Street East station at 6.30 in the morning. I was tired, hungover, hungry and, given the fact that I had spent the previous 9 days in the desert, cold. I emerged from the escalator into that gloomy grey-blueish light that they use in movies to show that the day is about to start.  I had been to Philadelphia the year before so I knew my way around. I knew where the good bars were, where to get the best cheese steak and where to watch the day's NFL games. But what good is that knowledge at 6.30 on a Sunday morning when everything is still closed and the only other people out and about are the guys that clean the vomit and empty bottles off the street after Saturday's festivities and a couple of homeless people who were up early?
Come to think of it, how did I end up on the empty streets of Philadelphia at this time of day anyway?

Rewind about 7 months to my living room in Dublin, where I was sitting on the couch, poring over a map of the world and a note pad, trying to make an important decision.
As most of you will know, I keep a list of all the bars I visit. When I reach a landmark total, I mark the occasion by going to a special bar.  For number 500, I went to the Green Arms hotel in Sydney. I celebrated number 666 at the Jeckyll&Hyde pub in Edinburgh and for number 750 I visited the legendary Matt Molloy in Westport, Ireland. I had ticked off number 900 the previous December and I was now faced with the task of deciding on number 1000. I was going over my map now, trying to figure out where to go. 

My flatmate Renae had just announced that she would be returning home to Australia after 11 years abroad, so I briefly considered going back to Australia and picking a cool bar there, possibly a bar in Cairns with the awesome name The Woolshed. However, a trip to Australia brings along a couple of logistic issues, not in the least the fact that it's not really worth going for less than 3 weeks and I probably couldn't get that much time off work in one go. New York came to mind more or less instantly, as it always does when I have to decide on something cool to do. But New York has the nasty habit to shut down bars that I have declared awesome, and that wasn’t going to happen again. I entertained the idea of going to visit my cousin in New Zealand. He and his wife moved there in the same month that I moved to Ireland, and I hadn’t seen them in 7 years. They were expecting their first child and I figured I could go  and pick a bar there, possibly the legendary Cardrona Hotel on the South Island. In the end, I discarded the idea for roughly the same reasons as Australia. 
San Francisco? Mexico? I just couldn’t come up with a conclusive suggestion. 

                                              Afghanistan perhaps?

While I was still trying to come up with a good idea, my cable box informed me that it was nearly time for CSI, the only tv program I watch regularly that isn't sports or broadcast on Comedy Central. Annoyed with my inability to make this crucial decision, I put my map down, walked to the kitchen to get a beer and sat down for an hour of crime solving. The episode of CSI started with an aerial view of the Las Vegas strip, with the Stratosphere tower prominently in view, followed by a shot of the giant pyramid next to the Luxor casino. While I saw these famous buildings, I thought to myself that Vegas would be an awesome pl...

Ofcourse! Why hadn't I thought of this before? It would have to be Las Vegas, for sure. 

Having worked towards 1000 bars for 8 years, Las Vegas was the logical conclusion to the project. If there is one place in the world dedicated to drinking (apart from, perhaps, Glasgow) it's Las Vegas! Excited by this sudden moment of clarity, I pulled my map back from under the coffee table and looked at that spot in the middle of the Nevada desert. Las Vegas. The name alone brings up images of high stakes gambling, irresponsible drinking and never ending debauchery. It would be perfect.
I thanked Gil Grissom and his team of crime fighters for their help in solving my problem (and a triple homicide, as I found out 40 minutes later) and spent the rest of the night contemplating my trip to Las Vegas.
                                              Thanks, guys!

I had bought a Lonely Planet about Las Vegas when I was in Sydney a couple of years earlier, the reasoning behind it being that it looked cool, was on sale and I would probably go there at some point in my life anyway. I took the guide off the shelf now, unfolded the map and browsed through the names I came across. The Sahara. The Stratosphere. Caesar’s Palace.The Bellagio. Just reading these names made me want to grab my wallet and a change of clothes and go straight away.
Unfortunately, I had to wait for another couple of months before I could go. I hadn’t even booked a flight yet. The real planning got underway sooner than expected when, a month later, I got a surprisingly large refund from the Irish Revenue Service, mainly due to the fact that I had taken a couple of months of work the previous year, but had been taxed for the whole year. So with the money from the Revenue Service, I booked myself on a flight to Las Vegas and started planning. 


One of the most iconic things people know about Las Vegas, are the mega-hotels on the strip like the ones I mentioned above. I checked some prices and found that the big name hotels like the Hardrock, Hooters and Planet Hollywood all had very reasonable prices on weekdays. On those days, a room can be had for as low as $35,- if you know where to look. This is ofcourse quite affordable, but the prices shoot through the roof in the weekends, and go up to around $150,- for a simple room. I did not expect there to be a large selection of hostels in Las Vegas, but in the end there were a good few to choose from. My original plan was to get a hostel for the first weekend I was there and then take advantage of the cheap hotel rooms during the week. Upon reconsidering, and having found a great hostel, I dropped the plan of switching accomodation because I did not feel like spending time moving during my holiday and, really, how much time are you going to spend in your hotel room anyway? You’re in Vegas, baby! There’s so much stuff to do, spending more than a couple of hours a day in your room would, in my opinion, be wasting valuable party time! After consulting, I settled on a place called Hostel cat because it looked sunny and fun.

I arrived there at around 9 in the evening, after a 7 hour flight from Dublin to Charlotte, a 3 hour layover there and then a 4 hour flight to Las Vegas. As soon as I walked off the plane, I could feel the balmy evening desert air, even on the jetway. I walked into the terminal and from the first step I set on Vegas soil, I could hear it: the clicking and beeping and pinging of slot machines. From the moment you walk into the airport it is there, the white noise that you hear in a city that never sleeps, like New York or London. Here in Vegas, that white noise consists of the sound of hundreds of slot machines. It would not leave my ears for the next nine days.

The airport shuttle dropped me off at the Stratosphere hotel at the North end of the strip, which was located some 5 minutes from my hostel. I walked through the casino and forced myself not to sit down for a drink, knowing that doing that would probably end in me having to find my accommodation hours later with half a dozen drinks in me. As it was my first time in Vegas I didn't really know where I was going but, as Vegas is basically just one long street that runs from downtown to the airport, I didn't expect any problems. By exception, I found my hostel without any problems or detours and I checked in. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the place. Where in Europe hostels are often situated on the 4th floor of a building that is otherwise occupied by businesses or offices, or located to the back of a garage or on the side of a steep hill (That’s you, Cork!), this hostel had its own 2 acre piece of land, situated about a 5 minute walk from the Stratosphere and 10 minutes from Downtown Las Vegas. The lay out was awesome. It was set up as a big rectangle, with the office, kitchen and lobby making up one side and the other 3 sides made up of 20 bungalows in a U shape, thereby creating an enclosed courtyard that had tables, chairs, a couple of large umbrellas to shelter people from the ever present sunshine and a barbecue. It sort of looked like the garden in Melrose Place, for those of you old enough to remember that tv show. I liked it instantly. The courtyard was an ideal place for hanging out and partying and, I found throughout my stay there, was used for that purpose 24/7. No matter what time of day it was, there were always people there, drinking, eating and having a good time. I was given a key for bungalow 4 and made my way to the courtyard and my home for the next 9 days. I noticed that all the bungalows had a flag painted on the door and to my joy I found that my bungalow was dressed up with the Australian flag. I went inside, found that 4 of the beds were taken and claimed the bed next to the bathroom for myself. The mattress was comfy, so I laid down for a minute or so, dropped some clothes and a book on my bed (this is international hostel language for ‘This bed is mine, pick another one to sleep in’) and went out again.

             Feelin' at home

I went to reception to find out some basic necessities like when’s breakfast, where’s the nearest ATM and where’s the 24/7 liquor store. The ATM was right there in the lobby and, as the girl at reception informed me, only charged a $3 ATM fee( which might seem steep until you realise that the big casinos routinely charge $7 or 8 for each withdrawal) and, oh joy, there was a 7/11 with a huge selection of liquor just a block away and it was open around the clock. There was also a pizza place a block away from the hostel so all my basic needs were taken care of.  

Happy with this knowledge, I set off for my first order of business- the First Friday Arts Festival. I had read that on every first Friday of the month, the local art community in Downtown Las Vegas organises a street fair with art exhibitions, craftwork stalls, food karts and live open air music. As I found, it was about 50 yards from the entrance of the hostel and took up an area of about 3 by 3 blocks. The first stall I came across was a beer tent, so I picked up a plastic cup of PBR and had a look around. There was all kinds of stuff to do. There were a lot of stalls selling art, from Mexican style skulls-with-flowers to engraved mirrors to those little puppets made out of steelwire performing everyday tasks like playing guitar, riding a bicycle or leaning against a lamp post while holding a bottle (the inspiration for that last one must have come from Dublin). There were a lot of food karts and trucks, among them a lobstertruck (I’m not joking, they were selling lobster from the back of a truck), a pie shop and more taco stands than you need on one night. There were several stages set up on the street with a variety of musical styles coming at you, with the highlight being a lone guy playing a huge classic bass. Walking around this festival, I really enjoyed getting to meet actual locals, rather than tourists like me that you find elsewhere in the city.  I watched a couple of songs of a band that was playing in a half open tent and consisted of a female guitarplayer, a guy with a beard on harp, a drummer and a robot bassplayer. It’s still Vegas, you see.

             Bass dude.

I found that the festival ends at 11PM, so I finished my beer and went for a walk around the ‘hood, in search of the liquor store. I found it straight away, bought a couple of cans and headed back to the hostel garden where a party was ongoing. I chatted with some of the other partygoers, had a couple of beers and contemplated what to do. I was quite tired, which was normal as it was coming up to 1AM, which meant that it was 9 in the morning back home. The wise thing would ofcourse be to get some sleep after being awake for nearly 30 hours but those of you who have known me for a while will have guessed that I decided to walk to the nearest casino, which was the Stratosphere.
I walked into the casino and the place was packed with gamblers. Hundreds of slotmachines bleeped at me in a neverending cacaphony of noise. Delirious light shows flashed from every direction and the ticking of paid out quarters was around every corner. It was like somebody put a borderline schizophrenic in charge of every button and switch in the building. I loved it straight away.

        Wanna play?

I got a beer from the nearest bar and wandered around for a bit, having a look at the roulette tables and people playing craps, before I found a slot machine that looked cool.  I put in a 5 dollar bill and played for a while, winning some, loosing some and I was just about to figure out where I was going to get my next Corona from when, as if sent by some higher power, a very good looking waitress walked up to me and asked if I would like another beer. I certainly would, so I ordered another Corona and went back to my game. About 5 minutes later, she put down a fresh bottle on the shelf next to my slot machine. I put 2 dollars on her tray and while I was going through my pockets to find the rest of the money, she walked off.
So it IS true that they give you free booze when you’re gambling in Vegas!
This was an interesting development.

I had heard about this several times, but I expected that they’d only give free booze to the high rollers or regulars. I had been playing penny slots for about 15 minutes, and already got a free drink out of it. As it turned out, the casinos in Vegas –all casinos- are very happy to give you as much free drink as you want, mostly based on the idea that a drunk customer is a happy customer and will be reluctant to leave. Ofcourse, another avenue of reasoning in this is that drunk customers make stupid gambling decisions, so the free booze pays itself back in lost bets.


Whatever the case, I was a happy customer now and at the end of my time in Vegas I realised that I had never gotten so much free beer in any city. Over the next hours, I happily wandered around the casino, playing a game here, having a drink there and generally having a great time.
My eyes were getting heavy though. The combination of being awake for 34 hours and spending most of that time drinking made me very tired all of a sudden, and I finally decided to call it a day. I walked back to the hostel while the sun was coming up over the horizon. I made one final stop at 7/11 to get a beer for the road and drank it in the hostel’s courtyard where 2 people were just getting ready to go out for the day, 3 were still drinking and 1 was passed out with his head on the table.
Vegas does that to you. And I loved every second of it.

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