…so thats the end of the blog post then…
..well not quite.
I had been to Vegas before, twice on a roadtrip on the west coast of the States. I met one of my best friends in San Francisco as he was traveling round the world and we hired a car and drove from there through Yosemite, the Sequoia forests, Death Valley, Vegas, monument valley, back to Vegas, Joshua Tree, LA and then back to San Fran. Whilst in Vegas we met up with some of my other best friends who just happened to be spending a week in Vegas. We hired a helicopter between us and did the whole champagne breakfast in the Grand Canyon thing. It would be interesting to see how things have changed since then.
Getting from Saskatoon Canada to Las Vegas was relatively cheap (well cheaper than flying from Belfast) so easy to justify a photographic trip from there rather than home but I would have been quicker going home! The route was Saskatoon to Regina, to Denver, past Las Vegas to San Francisco and then back to Las Vegas. The journey reintroduced me to how crap US airports are and how even post 9-11 they are still regarded as similar to a bus service with people arriving late to the gate, planes packed to the gills and it just being an ‘ordinary’ experience rather than a travel experience. Of course that only applies to travel in the US, arriving in is a completely different matter. I wondered what I was going to do with a 4 hour stopover in Denver, just not long enough for a quick trip into the city I thought. In fact marginally longer than the time it took to go through security! Scanners for everyone and of course the immigration queue where you queue to go through immigration, wait for ages, get quizzed about how your last visa entry was still valid (from my trip to Florida) and had I actually been back to my home country in the interim (my indignation at the question didn’t really help speed me along) go out then re-queue for security to be asked the same questions you were asked 4 hours ago with the same bags and that you walked past the same security desk on the other side of the glass 2 hours ago. Ive decided now that getting into or worse, through the US is something I don’t really want to do any more unless I really have to. Similarly with Heathrow in London.
Travel is now officially a pain and the whole ‘security’ charade is just a job creation exercise and funds a growing scanner producing industry. People reading this will say about 9-11 and all that and I was one of the horrified people watching it all unfold live on TV but again with the benefit of hindsight, if they had applied the security precautions applicable at the time, it would never have happened. I love traveling to and through the US but in future I’ll try as best I can to travel from Dublin and go through US immigration and customs there, not that its easier, its just there might be only one flight queuing up instead of dozens.
Still I had arrived and had a week of the best Vegas had to offer lined up. On my last trip back in 2000 Vegas was still primarily gambling whereas now I got the impression it was all about all round entertainment with more focus on exhibitions and shows as well as the gambling. I had pre-booked some stuff and had some trips earmarked. The last time I stayed in the Luxor as I fancied staying in the big Pyramid. It wasn’t long built then and so still a novelty. My friends stayed in the Excalibur, the next door Camelot castle themed hotel, so I booked it this time, primarily because it was one of the cheapest going and I was really only going to use the hotel room to sleep. The hotel reviews weren’t as good as they used to be, no coffee maker, no wifi in the room etc, well that’s because they don’t want you staying in your room and also because it was now an old hotel and starting to creak a bit. That was the site of my one and only Vegas show to date, the medieval jousting downstairs with the half chicken dinner served on pewter type plates and ate with fingers. Copious amounts of alcohol probably made it a lot better than it actually was but it was a real good night out. I had missed the Blue Man group the last time I was there, and in New York and in Hong Kong so as soon as Id booked the trip Id managed to get myself some tickets for that show and was really looking forward to it.
Id booked a seat on a minibus from the airport to the Excalibur and as it started the endless cycle of driving around hotels to get to the official entrance and dropping people off then driving for 10 mins just to move 100 yards next door I asked the driver to drop me off on the strip and I would walk the 100 yards to my hotel. Obviously nobody does this as I had to explain to him about 3 times that Id been there before and that I wouldn’t get lost because my hotel was only 100 yards away and besides it was all lit up and how could I miss a huge fucking medieval castle thing glowing against the night sky? Id forgotten about the whole tipping for doing your job thing and realised he was concerned about not getting a tip for dropping me to the door so a couple of bucks were produced and informed him that I would drop them in the plastic bucket if he stopped right here and opened the doors. David Copperfield couldn’t have made those doors open any quicker.
It was funny walking up to the hotel entrance and seeing people standing under gas heaters. After all it was only 14C, in the dark, at night. After coming from -20C a few hours earlier I thought it was borderline shorts territory! Of course no shorts packed on this trip and Id need to get a couple of t-shirts if it was warmer than this as Id had no intention of going anywhere warm when I left home.
One of the big things I noticed was that everything was more expensive than previously, a lot more expensive. I had asked about this and partly due to the recession but also due to the fact that in the past things were subsidised to keep you gambling whereas now its more of a tourist place with shows, high end shops and so on which all draw from the gambling dollars. I was also here in mid December so I’m assuming it was off season. Things looked a bit rough round the edges and some of the older hotels (like 15 years old) had worn carpets (like my own) and it just didn’t look as clean or as tidy as I remembered. Then again when do they get the time to change the carpets, repair the escalators and so on. Is there an off season here?
A new thing I hadn’t seen before were the porn slappers. Gangs of pain in the arse people who blocked your way, pissed you off and generally were looking a smack in the face every time they stood in front of you with a stack of stripper or prostitute cards with numbers on them. They slapped these cards against their hands to get your attention and then stuck in them in your face or hands or just blocked your path. Of course after politely telling them no hundreds of times on one walk I just got into ignorant mode fueled by the blisters on my feet and lowered the shoulder into the chest of a few of them. This was more than likely to get me stabbed at some point but after twisting and turning my bad leg so many times to get out of their way I didn’t care any more.
There were also a lot more ‘characters’ about, people dressed as film, tv, characters and standing on the sidewalks to get their photos taken with tourists. I have to say the guys in the transformers outfits were the best going and doing a bit of research later I found out that a lot of the people who used to be employed in the casinos have turned to this to make money.
I spent most of the first few days getting used to the heat that most people thought was cold and wandering up and down the Strip taking photos. I took the bus into the old town and went to see the shop were ‘Pawn Stars’ is filmed. I had wanted to take a wander in and see the inside and maybe buy some bit of tat to take home but the queues of people were right around the block. Maybe some other time.
The nights were pretty much my own because it was winter and I could get all the day/night shots I needed between 8am and 6pm. I went to the last minute ticket booths a couple of times and managed to get tickets for Carrot Top, the titanic exhibition (with actual real section of the titanic lifted from the sea bed – as opposed to the crap exhibition in Belfast), the bodies exhibit as well as my pre booked Blue Man group tickets.
Any show where they give you a poncho as you walk in was going to be a good night and for some reason I had managed to get front row tickets for the Blue Man. If you haven’t seen the act, front couple of rows means probably getting covered in paint, water and masses and masses of bog roll. Thoroughly recommended, as was Carrot Top.
I also booked a couple of trips, one that Id missed the last time out to the Valley of Fire and once again the flight into the Grand Canyon. It was different to the last time as instead of the helicopter going from McCarron airport in Vegas you bus to a small airport, get a plane to the grand canyon then get the helicopter down over the edge and then vice versa. Theres also a boat ride on the river so a separate blog post on the trips.
After about three days I was getting sick to death of burgers and crap food. In one of the burger joints I got a drink that must have been about half a gallon, which I discovered you cant really balance on a tray…. …unfortunate that it decided to go over the balcony and give people below a cola shower. I got a dirty look from the security people but hunger and blisters just made me shrug back. The tray of ‘food’ above cost less than a fiver so is it any wonder they are having a health crisis.
I finally found a single solitary browning banana in the supermarket near my hotel and I paid 3 dollars for it! Id have paid 10 at that stage for fresh fruit having had sugary donuts and shit coffee from a stall in the hotel foyer every morning and ate on the walk/run when doing the photos. I put a message out on facebook for anyone to suggest where I get some good food and a lot came back with the suggestion of going to the buffet at the Bellagio. I got there fresh from my trip to the Valley of Fire, tired, exhausted, in t-shirt and shorts, covered in dust, queued up wondering if they would turn me away because of the state of me but maybe that’s a UK attitude. I paid my fee by credit card and was seated at the table. At first I was starving and didn’t pace myself out but to be honest, even given a 3-4 hour window there was no way on earth I was going to sample everything. I did get to sample the king crab that you see on the arctic fisherman show on discovery channel. The food was superb and without a doubt some of the best I had ever tasted in the USA. The buffet price is dear by US prices for food but you do get the quality. I waddled back to the hotel that night I can tell you but I certainly felt better than a couple of days of eating burgers and trying to explain I just wanted water with no additives rather than cola with my meal.
For me, on this trip anyway, having been there before there was a lot of walking to do. The last time I was here I had a car and we breezed up and down the place but this time I did the day and night walk from the Luxor to Caesars and back and once down to the Stratosphere and then the bus into the old town. It doesn’t look that long on the map but everything is deceptively far away. I really have to sort out this getting blisters thing as after 2-3 days of walking it does become virtually impossible to go any further. Something to really investigate for the next walking trip. There was also a large element of shopping involved, not because I had intended to come here for a shopping trip but because it was a last minute thing, I came with only one bag hand luggage (without realising 2 is the norm with US internal flights) and of course it was a lot warmer than I thought and Id only sub zero weather clothes.
After my trip to Florida Id sort of developed that shooting bug and there was a range not far from my hotel (well on the map it wasn’t far, directly behind the hotel which turned out to be a half hour walk). It was a different experience to the Florida one, Florida was more relaxed you hired your lane, hired your gun then loaded it yourself with packs of ammunition you had bought. Here it was more expensive and you could buy packages. Of course I had never fired an AK-47 before so that was my package, a clip for the AK, two glock 9mm clips, 5 rounds for a tactical shotgun and a clip for an M4 automatic rifle. I don’t think the Florida range allowed automatic weapons but after a few rounds semi through the AK I let her rip! It was a lot more powerful and a lot less accurate than I thought it was going to be. Whilst the Florida range was an hour or two, the weapons here were pre loaded and handed to me by the range master, I fired, gave them back and so on. It was over quite quickly (about a half hour total) and although I did enjoy it I thought it wasn’t great value in terms of time. Perhaps if there were a couple of you or you’d been before and they let you just buy boxes of bullets and work away then it might be better. I could have asked but had other plans for the rest of the day so just motored on. As part of the package I did get a nice t-shirt which was just in time for my growing smelly wardrobe collection and saved me washing some in the hotel sink, well that and the voucher for a cheap $5 t-shirt from the hotel.
I even managed to gamble on this trip. I was about 40 dollars up at one point playing on the blackjack machines. I thought Id stick to something I know and something I know how to play so from an initial 2 dollars stake that wasn’t too bad. That was until Id used the free drink voucher the hotel had given me on a rather large glass of wine and on the way back to my room stumbled across a rather shiny star wars one armed bandit that I had no clue how to work. Hence why I got up the next morning with my 40 dollars gone and a ticket for 10 cents. Not exactly Oceans 11 material!
I’ll do another post on the trips after this one but that’s about all for this trip, well that’s about all I’m prepared to divulge! The journey back to Canada should have been reasonably uneventful, Vegas to Chicago to Regina to Saskatoon, except for them taking my bag off me in Chicago to put in the hold on the small plane to Regina and Saskatoon. Normally that wouldn’t be much of an issue except Id left proof of my home return ticket in that bag… ..and instead of having the bag at the door of the plane at immigration, it was on the baggage carousel after immigration. So as I’m trying to explain I’m only coming back in to Canada for 3 days before I go home and I watch as my bright orange bag is the only bag left on the luggage carousel but without any actual proof. After a lot of pointing at a single orange bag and telling them where the printout of my flight details were in it I was allowed back into the country. I then realise if they had decided to deport me I would have been deported back to Chicago with my luggage in Saskatoon etc etc.
So moral of story, always always carry your return ticket proof on your person!