Thursday, January 9, 2014

Viva Las Vegas Part II

Having gone to sleep at around 5.30 in the morning after being awake for over 30 hours, I expected to sleep until noon and pick it up slowly from there. When I opened my eyes, had a big yawn and realised where I was, I looked at my phone and found that it was 8.30. In the morning. On Saturday. I pulled my blanket over my head again in order to put some more sleep on the clock. I closed my eyes, drifted off, woke up again and looked at the clock. 8.35. I tried once more but around 8.50, I conceded that I was not going to get any more sleep. I simply wasn't tired. 

I figured that, if I wasn't getting any more sleep, I might as well get breakfast. I got up, banged my head on the bunk above me, splashed some water on my face and walked to the kitchen. Good days begin with good breakfast and, to my joy, I found that breakfast consisted of pancakes. Many American hostels provide pancake breakfasts and I'm always very happy about this. European hostel breakfasts typically consist of white and brown bread, butter, some jam and a large tub of peanutbutter. If you're lucky, there's some cereal thrown in but that’s it.
Pancake breakfast, on the other hand, is FUN! The hostel provides a couple of buckets of pancake batter and cooking oil and the rest is up to you. Breakfasts are always more popular when 'all you can eat pancakes' is on the menu. From early in the morning, people dart around the kitchen, fiddling around with frying pans, flipping pancakes in the air and building pancakes with all kinds of fillings.

Yay for pancakes!

It is a great start to the day. As I had not done any shopping  (apart from beer ofcourse), I stuck to pancakes with maple syrup and after baking up a couple of them, I made my way to the courtyard. The sun was now out in force and about a dozen people were enjoying the early heat. Apart from the people having breakfast, a couple of guys had already started the day’s party.

One of them was a guy I later christened Bud as, throughout my stay at the hostel, he was nearly always there, sipping 27oz. cans of Bud Ice. He had short blond curly hair, wore surfer clothing and functioned as the defacto ring leader of whoever happened to be there. The only times I saw him leave the courtyard was when he ran out of beer and was forced to make the trek up the block to 7/11 for a new 12pack of tall boys. He was a nice and funny guy and I had several conversations with him throughout the week, mostly about drinking. I just wonder what brings someone to Las Vegas for a week and half, only to spend their entire time in the hostel garden. As I said, the hostel garden was great, so great in fact that I decided to join Bud for a beer. I had a quick shower, got a couple of cans at our neighbourhood Liquor Paradise and sat there with Bud and a bunch of others, enjoying the sun, talking about travelling and partying and having a good time. Every now and then, someone would leave, and others would join, and so the party never ended. After 2 cans of PBR, however, I decided that was time to go do something, so I got my things together, said goodbye to Bud and his cronies and set off for the Strip. 

As my hostel was technically on the Strip, I succeeded in record time. Don't be fooled by this though. The Strip is Very Long and you'll be easily mistaken by the distances between seemingly approximate points. The weather was amazing and made me realise I didn't bring sunscreen so I walked into the first drugstore I came across and handed over 5 dollars for a new tube. Now suitably protected against the sun, I sat down on a fence and looked at Vegas.

Las Vegas is a big city with nearly 2 million people, but 99% of all the tourists only ever see those people carrying trays or pouring beers. The state of Nevada has the highest high school and college drop-out rates of any state in the USA. The reason for this soon becomes clear when you look at the data: Nevada is roughly the size of Great Britain but has only about 3 million people in it. Of those people, 2 million live in Las Vegas and another half million live in Reno, a city that also thrives solely on the gambling industry. The rest of the state is desert with a bunch of small towns scattered across the empty plain. When you further consider that 90% of all jobs in Vegas are minimum wage jobs, it's easy to see why people throw in the towel on their education: you're most likely going to end up waiting tables anyway. It's amazing that the owners of the casinos managed to transform a dusty hamlet in the middle of a desert into one of the biggest money spinning operations on the planet.

I was distracted from my thoughts by the sound of yet another Boeing making its approach into the airport. It was the 4th in the maybe 10 minutes that I had sat there in the sunshine, comtemplating what it must be like to live in a place like this.  Las Vegas takes in 37 million tourists each year. That's the combined populations of New York, London, Los Angeles and Paris and all those people are squeezed into a city the size of Birmingham. That's a lot of people. McCarran airport is one of the busiest airports in the USA (and consequently the world) even though Las Vegas is is no way one of the biggest cities. In case you were taking notes, the busiest airport in the world is Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta. I bet you didn't know that and guessed it was JFK or Heathrow. Another jet was making its approach to the airport as I got off my fence and considered that, no matter how you look at it, Las Vegas is a circus.
And the circus was where I was going now.

The CircusCircus is one of the oldest hotels on the Strip. It was already there when Hunter S. Thompson visited Las Vegas in 1971 and wrote his classic book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. One of the best known passages of the book (and the corresponding scene in the movie) is set in the CircusCircus. Thompson completely loses direction (and his mind) when confronted with the organised chaos inside. I can see why this would happen. I walked into the casino at around noon and the gaming floor was already swarming with people. The noise was deafening from the buzz of the crowd, the music and announcements on the PA system and the never ending bleeping and clanking of the slot machines.

But that's par for the course in Vegas. What gives the CircusCircus the edge is what you see when you look up. On the first floor there is a complete state fair worth of noisy games and attractions and all of this is topped off with a fully functioning circus at te centre of it. On the midway level, you still hear the noise from downstairs but it is pushed into the background by the proprietors of the games. Everything you remember from visiting the carnival or the state fair when you were a kid is there. Shooting a BB gun at  moving plastic ducks, landing balls in a bucket that always bounces them back (Better luck next time!), throwing slightly off-balance darts at a target for a price, you can all do it here. HURRY! HURRY! STEP RIGHT UP! 3 BALLS FOR 2DOLLARS!     
I walked around for a bit, looking at the games and encountering surprisingly large numbers of children for a casino. As I found later, there is a large RV park to the back of the Circuscircus, built there especially for all those families with small children that do the ‘drive around the South West’ tour thing in their campers and this gives them a perfect spot to park their vehicles, relax for a day or two and take in the atmosphere of Las Vegas without having to drag their toddlers through the neverending parade of drunks that is the center of the Strip. I walked around for a bit, still amazed, with a nearly empty pint of lager in my hand, when I noticed that the circus acts were about to start.

I was never a big fan of the circus when I was kid, but somehow I was compelled to stick around and see at least one of the acts. A sizeable crowd had now gathered around the performance floor and a petite Asian girl walked into the centre of attention carrying a big clay pot, like the ones you would see in an office lobby with a 3 foot tall plant in it. After taking in the initial applause, she sat down on a footstool, rolled on her back, put the clay pot on the soles of her feet and started juggling it in the air. She did not just roll it around on her feet, or flip it from the one to the other (though that would have been pretty amazing in itself), she kicked it 4 feet up in the air, made it do double summersaults on the way up and even had it spin around it’s own centre. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. When she walked off the floor a couple of minutes later, she got a standing ovation from the entire crowd but rather than enjoying the applause and shining in her moment of greatness, she waved an extended index finger at the crowd as if  to say ‘keep it down, I’m only getting started here’. Wondering what she could possibly do for an encore, she walked to the corner of the floor, put down the pot, walked back to her footstool and did the same thing again.

With a coffee table.

                                                    Don't try this at home, kids!

If I had seen this on tv, I would have called Bullshit after 3 seconds, but as it was, I was witnessing this from perhaps 7 or 8 feet away and it was clear that this was real and not some trick. You can count the number of times that I have been completely dumbstruck in my entire life on the fingers of your own hands, but this was one of the few occasions that you could add a +1 to the total. It was spectacular.

When the Asian wizzard girl had finished her show (and walked off to a deafening applause from everybody present, not in the least me) I made the full round of the games floor and decided to go downstairs again. I walked to a bar and found that they were selling drinks in novelty glasses should you be interested in one. Normally this extends to either those ‘yard of ale/margaria/etc.’ type of glasses or comically large versions of regular glasses. You have seen them, those wine glasses that will hold the contents of an entire bottle, or those cocktail glasses that you could easily house a colony of piranhas in. Here in Vegas, ofcourse, they took things to a whole other level. I’m not even going to begin listing them all here, but my favorite one was a plastic container in the shape of an electric guitar. Yes, I have seen those too at the Hardrock cafe, but this one was different. This one was also the SIZE of an actual guitar. It came in green or pink, could be slung over your shoulder with a strap and contained 5 pints of beer, which you could drink by either using the rubber straw that came out of the side, or by pulling a small lid and pooring it in a cup. It was all very Metal and funny, but if you’re on your own, there is no way you will drink 5 pints and still have cold beer in the end. On top of that, there was no way I could get this back on a plane as a souvenir, so I just got a regular pint and headed for the slot machines.

I found the coolest slot machine ever on the ground floor. It was a Cheers! themed machine. All the regular characters from the show smiled at you from the high pannel and the games were based on the tv show. Best of all was the fact that the stool in front of it was attached to the machine and when you attempted to sit down, you would hear the voice of Norm saying “euh, excuse me, I was sitting there”. I got a waitress to take a picture of me standing by the machine and then spent a while playing it. My plan for the day was to make my way down the Strip and take in a couple of the big casinos to see which ones were the coolest so I could go back there later. Always handy to get a bit of a feel for the city early on in your trip so that you can find your way around later when you’re drunk.
Euh, lost, I mean lost.

I exited the Circuscircus and was surprised to see that it was so bright and sunny on the outside. I shouldn’t have been, as it was only 2 in the afternoon but walking around a casino without clocks or windows and with artificially created temperature and atmosphere, it’s easy to loose track of time. That is why the casinos do it. All casinos in Vegas are designed and operated to keep their customers happy, smiling and, ofcourse, spending money for as long as possible. Casinos intentionally keep you unaware of the world outside and even blow fresh and oxygen-rich air onto the gaming floors at times when people will normally zone out and start thinking about going home or somewhere else. Stories abound of customers who walk out of casinos and realize that they have spent 12 hours there, not realising that they had been in there for half a day. One man later told me that he once walked out of a casino under the impression that it was Thursday afternoon, only to find that he had missed Friday breakfast. As I said before, they don’t do half work in Vegas. I passed Lucky, the elephant sized clown that welcomes you to Circuscircus, walked across the parking lot and entered Slots O’fun.

Despite the cheesy name and 70s look of the place, I had heard good things about it. 5 seconds after I crossed the doorstep, I knew that the rumors were correct. I was in heaven.

Slots O’fun is what my house would have looked like if I had won the lottery at age 15. There were slot machines, arcade games, pool tables, a long bar on the left, flanked by a hotdog stand on one side and a pizza counter on the other, airhockey games, mechanic craps tables and a battery of pinball machines. And ofcourse, all of this was ringfenced by endless bleeping and miles of Christmas lights that would never go out.

I don’t think I ever felt like a kid in a candy store as much as I felt the moment I walked in there. I got a cold Corona, shoved all my banknotes under 50 in the change machine and went on a tour of the building with a bucket full of quarters. It’s hard to explain how much fun I had. I played slot machines, shot pool, spent god knows how long playing pinball and upon every change of game made a stop at the bar for a cold Corona. I never wanted to leave. 
My return visit to my mid teens came to an end when I reached the bottom of my bucket of quarters and  realised that I had spent 40 dollars in quarters on games. I also realised that I had worked down half a case of Corona. And I also realised that it was now dark outside.
Not that I cared about any of this. I had had so much fun that I happily postponed my plan of making it at least halfway down the Strip until the next day. With the idea of checking if anybody in the hostel had interesting plans for the night, swaying back in the general direction I had come from hours earlier, I noticed a bar about a block from the hostel that I hadn’t seen on the way out. I later established that this was because coming from the hostel you were basically looking at the back of the building, but on your way to the hostel, you passed the front, which announced that it was called Dino’s- “The last neighbourhood bar in Vegas”.

The door was open and a sizeable crowd had gathered both outside an indoors, so I made my way to the bar. The place was great. It was dark, dingy, had poker machines embedded in the bar and of course the mandatory dive bar staple of year-round Christmas lights. Booze was cheap and to top it all off they had an ongoing offer on PBR: $3 a bottle and if you could guess the cards symbol that was pictured on the inside of the bottle cap, you’d get your bottle for free. I started off by guessing Spades and was happily surprised to see I was right and had earned myself a free beer. This was going to be my local for the week.

Best game ever

It is ofcourse needless to say to all other plans were off for the night and I committed myself to playing ‘guess the ace under the cap’ until.. well, I don’t remember exactly. Karaoke was in full swing when I left, so I guess it must have been around midnight.

Good night Vegas, see you tomorrow!

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