4 January 2004

Vegas Day 2: The Strip

We wake up early, partly because of the 3 hour time zone shift, and partly because our room faces south and gets a spectacular view of the sun rising over the desert hills. We find the café on the casino level: Starbucks coffee, and the biggest bearclaws I’ve ever seen. Once we’re awake we return to the hotel room to get ready for the day. Sara turns on the TV to find the Weather Channel, and the first thing it blares out is that erotic movies are available on demand. We collapse into laughter. The weather turns out to be moderately warm, and the hotel gleams golden in the sunlight.

The big casino hotels are nearly all located along Las Vegas Boulevard, colloquially known as The Strip. The old Las Vegas downtown district is at the north end of the strip. Mandalay Bay is one of three hotels on The Strip which are owned by the same company, and linked by a monorail. We travel to The Luxor, which is a large Egyptian-themed casino hotel shaped like a huge black pyramid with a sphinx on the front.

The main pyramid is filled with hotel rooms; all have windows on the outside of the pyramid, and doors which open onto balconies which overlook the enormous open space inside the building. The casino is on the ground floor, and on top are some assorted buildings and an obelisk “carved” with glowing heiroglyphics which shift and pulsate.

Also on the upper level inside the pyramid is the museum of King Tutenkhamen’s tomb. It contains painstakingly crafted replicas of items found in the real tomb; to add to the appearance of authenticity, they’re presented in glass cases as if in a museum.

This is why Umberto Eco loves Vegas—we’re touring a fake museum in a fake Egyptian pyramid, looking at fake artifacts. Still, the presentation is nice, and the objects look very ornate. In fact, they look rather more impressive than the real things, which as I recall are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The gift shop is quite tasteful too. As well as the obligatory Luxor T-shirts and ankh baseball caps, there are genuinely scholarly offerings such as a serious book on Egyptian heiroglyphics. There is also the “Girls of RA” calendar, “RA” being the Luxor’s nightclub, which apparently attracts women who like to take their clothes off. Still, I daresay Tut wouldn’t have tut-tutted over a few tats and titties…

Which brings me on to the subject of breasts. They seem to be a major source of fascination in Las Vegas. You take an otherwise tired concept like a bunch of women dancing on stage, add a sprinkling of tits, and magically you have compelling entertainment.

I notice that one of the shows has two versions. During the day you can see the clothed edition, which is billed as suitable for children of 5 and up. In the evening, there’s the topless version of the exact same show, which you need to be 16 to see. From this I deduce that young American children will be traumatized if exposed to the sight of human breasts; presumably they are all bottle-fed, which would also explain their later fascination with watching Vegas showgirls.

The other strange entertainment in Las Vegas is inserting money into metal boxes. The boxes have various lights which flash, and sometimes reels which rotate. Every now and again they eject a small portion of the money you’ve inserted, slowing the process somewhat. People find these machines endlessly fascinating.

I guess gambling is one of those things that you either get or you don’t. I don’t. I’m too much of a mathematician; I understand the statistics involved. It strikes me that there’s probably a link between gambling and smoking—in both cases, the people doing it are convinced that they can beat the odds.

We walk through to the third casino in the family, Excalibur, featured in a recent episode of “South Park”. It has a vaguely medieval theme, and is obviously aimed much more at families with children than the other two. My donut radar goes off, and I walk around a couple of blind corners and find myself outside a Krispy Kreme. I file away the location for later.

We emerge blinking into the sunlight. It’s now a beautiful warm sunny day, and I realize the fleece jacket was totally unnecessary. We continue up the strip to New York New York, the next casino complex on this side of the street.

I’m still not sure how much of the skyline is actual buildings (presumably hotel rooms), and how much is fake. The replica Brooklyn Bridge is a nice touch. Nobody attempts to sell it to us, but a friendly woman does try to interest us in a timeshare. They’ll give us free tickets for a show if we attend a presentation. It sounds quite tempting until they reveal that it’s a 2 hour presentation! Ridiculous. I do my best to skip any presentation over an hour at work, so I’m damned if I’m going to spend a couple of hours of valuable vacation time plus transit listening to something I think it’s very unlikely I’ll have any interest in.

Further still, we find a Moroccan bazaar, or at least something which would be a reasonable facsimile if Moroccan bazaars had Gucci stores. For lunch, I have a strange salad of field greens, walnuts, strawberries, goat cheese, salmon, and raspberry vinaigrette. Somehow it works.

As we head further north, we start to see older, cheesier establishments amidst the glitz. I suppose you might call this the “real Vegas”, if that’s not an oxymoron.

I get a look at the kind of cheap motel we’ve stayed at in other cities. Not this time, thankfully; once again I think good thoughts about the luxurious bath waiting to ease my tired muscles when we get back.

The older casinos look just like you’d expect: darkened rooms, deep red carpeting, faded gold decor, stained and frosted glass, and old people sitting around faded green baize tables, chain-smoking as they play card games.

The Fashion Show Mall has an Apple Store; I buy a replacement for my stolen iPod cable. The mall has Christmas decorations with a Vegas showgirl theme.

We attempt to get a bus back down the strip to our hotel. The traffic is completely insane; it seems obvious to me that what the city really needs to do is build a big monorail that goes all the way up and down Las Vegas Boulevard in a big loop. However, Nevada is one of those states that believes in the magic of the free market, to the extent of having minimal property taxes and no income tax. So the bus is expensive when it eventually arrives ($2), and we sit in traffic for 45 minutes.

By the time we get back to the hotel I’m exhausted. The huge bath is worth every penny, and I sleep like the dead.

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