Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Puja Snippets

Another Durga Puja came and went by. Last year I did not write a post on the Puja here in New Jersey simply because I felt it was not worth the trouble. The Puja here is just another excuse for people to meet and party. A suitable weekend is chosen around the time of the real Puja and everything religious is completed within that weekend. Or to be precise, the mornings of that weekend. The evenings are for merry-making. The non-resident Bengalis arrive in their cars and run to the dinner queue from the parking lot. After dinner they enter the auditorium from a side door and fight over seats with other fellow "Bongs." Then someone suddenly remembers that they forgot to take a picture with the idol in the background this year, and they run to the goddess who stands neglected at one side of the hall. Sanitized. No dhak. No sandhya arati. No incense fumes for fear of setting off the fire alarms. A bare minimum of flowers lest the idol gets stained and rendered unusable for next year. They buy Bengali books, Puja issues of Bengali magazines, DVDs of Bengali movies, saris and jewelry from the stores put up on the premises. Then there is a lot of song and dance till midnight, and everyone goes home satisfied that they enjoyed another great Puja. So I had decided I didn't want to write about this kind of Puja on my blog. This year, however, I will describe a few things that happened during this weekend here.

House Full

Kallol of New Jersey organizes one of the larger Durga Pujas in the state and they were charging $65 per person ($40 for students) for participating in the celebrations this year. Participation means letting you see the idol (which they had kept stowed away somewhere since last year), feeding you dinner for three nights and letting you watch the cultural functions by famous and not-so-famous celebrities ("The famous Miss Xyz who won Zee TV's Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa in 2005"). This combination of goat meat and music seemed so irresistible to the local culture-deprived Bengalis that the number of registrations permitted by the New Jersey Fire Code was reached within seven days of opening the gates. I tried registering on the eighth day and found the "House Full" sign staring me in the face on their website. Of course, being an Indian and a Bong I knew that house full seldom meant house full and I managed to get a kind of back door registration due to the infinite resourcefulness of my sister-in-law and owing to the fact that my nephew was acting in a play there. Of course, when I walked into the hall and saw last year's idol, much of my enthusiasm ebbed away, but that is a tale of misplaced expectations and it's no use ranting about it here.

Unbroken Song

When Pundit Jas Raj took his seat on the stage at ten on Friday night, there was utter chaos in the auditorium. Men were discussing the economy, women other women and the kids were running around the place chasing each other. The mood was anything but suitable for a classical singer and I did not help remembering Tagore's lines about Baraj Lal, the old singer in the poem "Broken Song":
Old Baraj Lal, white-haired, white turban on his head,
Bows to the assembled courtiers and slowly takes his seat.
He takes the tanpura in his wasted, heavily veined hand
And with lowered head and closed eyes begins raag Yaman-kalyan.
His quavering voice is swallowed by the enormous hall,
Is like a tiny bird in a storm, unable to fly for all it tries.
Pratap Ray, sitting to the left, encourages him again and again:
"Superb, bravo!" he says in his ear, "sing out loud."

The courtiers are inattentive, some whisper amongst themselves,
Some of them yawn, some doze, some go off to their rooms;
Some of them call to servants, "Bring the hookah, bring some pan."
Some fan themselves furiously and complain of the heat.
They cannot keep still for a minute, they shuffle or walk about -
The hall was quiet before, but every sort of noise has grown.
The old man's singing is swamped, like a frail boat in a typhoon:
Only his shaky fingering of the tanpura shows it is there.
I hoped switching off the lights would probably quiet the crowd and help Punditji concentrate and was really surprised at the confidence of the man when he asked for the lights to be switched on. "I want to see my audience," he said in broken Bangla, "I want to see if my song is reaching you." When he started singing, I realized my mistake; I had been remembering the wrong Tagore lines about him. His singing could only be described as
The seven notes dance in his throat like seven tame birds.
His voice is a sharp sword slicing and thrusting everywhere,
It darts like lightening - no knowing where it will go when.
He sets deadly traps for himself, then cuts them away:
The courtiers listen in amazement, give frequent gasps of praise.
I am no connoisseur of Indian classical music, but it wasn't difficult to sense his mastery over his voice. Although there was a trickle of people leaving the hall at all times, it was more because it was late than because they did not like the music. The rest of the people sat spellbound throughout the performance as if stunned by the singing of Goopy Gyne.

A Timeless Masterpiece

A Bengali movie made forty years ago from a story written about a hundred years earlier. A group of non-resident Bengali kids who have grown up on Cartoon Network and can hardly speak Bengali clearly, let alone read. What happens when you bring them together? The result may not be as predictable as you think.

When Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was first chosen as the story for the children's play at Kallol this year, many of the actors did not know what it was all about. When they saw the movie for the first time, they did not understand many of the dialogues due to the dialect of Bengali used and the poorly placed subtitles. Yet, after a few days of practice, they loved it so much that they genuinely enjoyed acting in the play, and didn't have to be forced like they usually have to be. They learnt up all the dialogues, not only their own but everyone else's as well, and they learnt them up well enough to use them as quips in everyday conversation. They learnt up things not required of them for the play, like the songs being sung in the Shundi court, and used them to pass their time when they didn't have their Gameboy handy. And when the king of Shundi broke his arm fighting with the king of Halla after rehearsal five days before the act, he insisted that he will act despite that broken arm. The most comic moment of the whole play was witnessed by me (and probably only by me) - the children playing Goopy and Bagha had come down from the stage during the play. They needed to go back up and re-enter from the other side. As they approached the stairs, they were accosted by a smaller child from the spectators holding a pad and a pen. "May I have your autograph please?" was the sincere query from this little fan with genuine admiration in his eyes.

Such is the appeal of a timeless classic. We don't need learned critics to tell us why a classic is great. We don't need a scene-by-scene analysis of Ray's movies to understand his greatness. The reaction of an audience that was untrained, unbiased and culturally alien demonstrated beautifully what a timeless masterpiece looks like.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Artful Scheme

This, I think, is the ripe time to announce it, although some of the finer details still need to be worked upon. I, to use the popular phrase, will soon be rolling in money. And if you thought I have won the lottery or have been gambling in Las Vegas then you are mistaken. This money of mine will be cash of the hard-earned variety. Nor am I robbing a bank as some of the people who know me well might assume. While I cannot deny that I have been called upon to break open locks from time to time by friends, and robbing a bank produces money that is harder earned than many other professions do, I do not think I have it in me to rob a bank. I have hit upon an idea that is free form any criminal act, and yet it will fetch the right stuff by the millions. At least.

The idea is very simple. I'm going to become an artist. Or, to be more precise, a modern artist.

I hit upon this idea while visiting the modern art section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last weekend. Now, let me confess, I was never much of an artist. I have tried different art forms since my childhood but never been too successful beyond securing good marks in the drawing class in school. I tried wax crayons, watercolour, oil pastels, pencil colours and of late, charcoal and even mouse (the electronic type, not the flesh-and-blood type) but I never got the acclaim that I craved for. In fact, whenever I have sketched a friend's portrait and shown it to them, there has usually been a certain amount of coldness in our relationship after that. The typical chat conversation often goes like this:

"Hey, I would like to show you something."

"Sure! Go ahead!"

"Here - check this out:

(Silence of a few minutes)

"Hey... did you look at that?"

"Yes I did. Were you trying to sketch me?"

"Well yeah, that was the idea."

"I may look like that ten years later, or if I eat too many pizzas. But I don't look like that now."

"But you recognized yourself, didn't you?"

"That is beside the point. Do I have unequal eyes? Or a double chin? Does my hair look like that?"
"Well, I think if you showed it to some of your friends and asked whose picture it is..."

"Very funny. You have greatly disappointed me."

That was by no means a very objective critical review of my artistic capabilities, but you get the general idea. Besides, objective critics never review my work. But I digress. I was at the Metropolitan museum looking at some works of modern art that are worth millions of dollars, and I suddenly realized where I had gone wrong all these years.

All my paintings were supposed to look like something. My charcoal sketches were supposed to represent real human beings, and therein lies the problem. As soon as you draw something that resembles something real, people start matching your something with the real something and find flaws. Draw something that resembles nothing in the world, and you are perfect by definition. As proof of this concept, I would like to present a few highly acclaimed works of art I saw at the Metropolitan last weekend and at the Guggenheim Museum last month.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956)

Enamel on canvas; H. 105, W. 207 in. (266.7 x 525.8 cm)

Attic, 1949

Willem de Kooning (American, born in the Netherlands, 1904–1997)

Oil, enamel, and newspaper transfer on canvas; 61 7/8 x 81 in. (157.2 x 205.7 cm)

Blue Green Red, 1962–63

Ellsworth Kelly (American, born 1923)

Oil on canvas; 91 x 82 in. (231.1 x 208.3 cm)

There are some more: you can take a look at this, this, this, this and this. By now you may have noticed that these paintings do not resemble anything in the real world. At least I, a person who has spent over a quarter of a century residing in the real world cannot recall having come across anybody or anything that these paintings resemble. But more importantly, I can identify with those works of art even if they resemble nothing. I have myself created such works of art many times - in fact every time I have created a painting, I have created one of these as a by-product. Even now, whenever I make a charcoal portrait, something else is automatically born which could be titled thus if I had not thrown it away:

Portrait Rub-off (Number 7), 2009
Sugata Banerji (Indian, born 1981)
Charcoal and graphite on tissue paper; 12 x 12 in. (30.0 x 30.0 cm)
Since that was before I attained enlightenment, I threw all of them away. Coming to think of it, I and my parents must have cumulatively thrown away artwork worth billions if you count the drawings I made since the age of one, and ditto for my sister. As I realise now, if the drawing or other form of art is too abstract, we don't even need a name for it - a name of someone you know, or a name like Great Painting, or even Untitled will do. In fact that last name is quite popular - there are several artworks in the museum titled Untitled.

Modern art is not all about abstract expressionism, of course. Put in simple words, that means I have more than one way to make my millions. If I insist on imitating real world things, there is a much better way to do that than painting them painstakingly or sculpting them out of stone. In my school biology lab, we had an assortment of reptiles and amphibians immersed in formaldehyde solution in glass jars. Alas, if I had had the good sense to pinch one of those jars at that time, I would not have to run after free pizzas today. I did not understand that dead animals in spirit could be considered art but someone else did. Damien Hirst was the person who reeled in a neat fifty thousand pounds for a dead fish with a fancy name.

Damien Hirst's creation "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", which according to Wikipedia is the iconic work of British art of the 1990s, is literally a dead shark suspended in a transparent tank of formaldehyde. Some rich kindly soul (of the type that part easily with their money) by the name of Charles Saatchi offered to pay him for whatever he wanted to create. I wonder why I never come across such people. Now if someone had promised to pay me for whatever I made, I would have designed a gold statue probably. That's not the modern way of thinking it seems, for this bloke goes and spends 6000 pounds on catching a shark and then hangs it in formaldehyde and calls it art. He pours the extra formaldehyde in some other tanks and puts some sheep and stuff in them an calls them art too. How easier can it get? This is perfect imitation of Nature. Surely even the severest critic can't find flaw with a real shark! The shark was, of course, unaware that he had turned into a work of art and did what a dead shark does best, viz. decomposed. So after a few years the artist caught another shark and replaced the old one with it. The shark community may find this a bit macabre, but the humans seem to approve of it.

So my plan is very simple. I will either turn a painter and express myself through such paintings:

Ugly Color Combination (Number 107), 2009

Sugata Banerji (Indian, born 1981)

Ink-jet printer ink on paper; 6 x 6 in. (15.0 x 15.0 cm)

or get hold of some formaldehyde and produce the most amazing imitations of Nature the world has ever seen. That is why I call it an artful scheme. Or should that word be artsy? Who cares? Soon I will be too rich to blog anyway.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Grand Canyon

Can you imagine a time span of two billion years? Or for that matter, can you imagine just five million years? I can’t. That is why, when I learnt that the place where we were going has rocks two billion years old, or that particular geological feature took five million years to form, those figures didn’t really seem as impressive as they should have. But when I lay my eyes on the thing itself, the one thing that I could not help noticing was its size. If you make a list of the places in the world that would be foremost in impressing by sheer size, the Grand Canyon would definitely take one of the top spots. And yet, that million-acre landscape was sculpted by one little river.

The Arizona plateau was an ocean two billion years ago. As the water deposited sandstone and limestone on the ocean floor, the earliest rock layers of Grand Canyon were formed. Then, due to the collision of two geological plates under the region the whole area was lifted straight up into the air, layers and all, and the 7000 feet high plateau took shape. Suddenly, along comes the Colorado River six million years ago and starts eating away at the rocks. Its tributaries did the same. As the gorges of the rivers became deeper and deeper, the side walls collapsed in many places, quickening the process of erosion. And soon (geologists say five million years is a very small time frame) we had one of the most impressive geological formations on the face of the planet – a gorge that is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide at its widest point and having a maximum depth of 6000 feet.

We started from Las Vegas on a rented van on the morning of the 28th. During the five hour drive through hilly roads, we made a brief stop at the Hoover Dam and then moved on. As we slowly climbed the plateau, the landscape changed dramatically from desert near Las Vegas to coniferous forests near the Grand Canyon south rim. The cloudless desert sky gave way to white fluffy clouds. We checked into our two accommodations – a room at the Yavapai Lodge and a campsite at the Mather Campground. Finding the room and setting up the tent both took longer than we had anticipated, and so when we reached the Yavapai point to see the canyon, the sun had just set. We spent the evening listening to a ranger speak about the history of the park rangers at the amphitheatre. After dinner in the hotel room, my cousin and I came and slept in the tent.

When I had visited the Niagara Falls exactly one year ago, I had been impressed with its beauty, but at the same time, a little irritated at the commercialization of a natural wonder. In other words, what do most people do when they go to the Niagara Falls? They take an elevator down under the Bridal Veil Falls for a fee and get wet; they take a boat ride and go closer to the Horseshoe Falls. They stay after dark and utter Oohs and Aahs when the American Falls are illuminated with colourful lights at night, then they see the fireworks over the Canadian side and come home satisfied. The Grand Canyon is a totally different cup of tea. The first thing that struck me when we reached the canyon rim after missing the sunset was the darkness of the abyss below. There was nothing to suggest that the landscape that I was seeing before me had changed a bit since the days of the last dinosaurs. Not a single speck of light could be seen below. The observation station was a crude cabin made of wood and stones, and there was a crude path coming out of it, but until you reached the big road, you would not see anything really modern. When you walk on these paths at night you need a flashlight – not only to see the path where you are walking but also to prevent your running into elks, mule deer, mountain lions and rattlesnakes (we met plenty of the first two, and thankfully none of the other two). Cars aren’t allowed everywhere within the park – you have to use the free bus service instead.

Turn heavenwards and you will see the most spectacular sight. Las Vegas had a crystal clear sky but no stars were visible because of light pollution. Here, the sky was literally cluttered with stars – there were just too many of them. At Grand Canyon, I saw the Milky Way after a very long time.

Next morning I left the tent while it was still dark and walked shivering to the Yavapai point again. People had already assembled to see the sunrise and I chose an outcrop of rock jutting out into the canyon and looked at the canyon in the faint light of dawn. I couldn’t really look away for the next one hour.

At moments like this I feel my shortcomings as a writer – blogging about daily incidents has not given me the ability to describe the most magnificent things – and the Grand Canyon may well have been the very best among them. The only analogy that comes to my mind is that of an ocean, but an ocean without a beach or water. Imagine yourself standing in front of a mile deep stretch of the ocean with underwater cliffs coming right up to the surface, and where the sides do not slope into the ocean as beaches but plunge straight down thousands of feet as cliffs. Now remove the water from this ocean of your imagination and you start to get some idea of what the thing looks like. I say “some idea” because you do not get a complete idea until you set eyes on it yourself. And people all around me were setting their eyes and cameras eagerly on the spectacle slowly unfolding before us. Nobody spoke. The feeling was somewhat similar to being in a church or a quiet temple – the scene was to be taken in alone and admired in silence. As the sun rose above the horizon behind us, the tips of the Shiva Temple, Isis Temple and Buddha Temple (these are the names of mountains in the Grand Canyon) caught the sunrays and turned from a dark red to a glowing golden. The gold reached down slowly until it touched Cheops’s Pyramid. Then there was no more change in light. However, even at this time the bottom of the canyon was submerged in deep jagged shadows. These places stayed this way through most of the day, and since the lowest rock layers are black schist, the effect is even more pronounced. We saw the same process in reverse again that evening at sunset, though from a different point on the rim. The rim itself is so undulating that the view changes dramatically from point to point. Sunrise the next day was also a completely different experience as this time I was facing east and saw the sun itself rise out of the horizon.

I could write in detail about every small experience, each sight and each sound of the Grand Canyon National Park. Everything was so new to me and so exciting that I remember every detail. However, I will not describe the twisted-trunk junipers, the charred-yet-standing forest, the bear-proof dustbins, the finger-biting squirrels and the huge jet black ravens here. Before I end this post I will just write about the most breathtaking (in more ways than one) experience that I had. I am talking about the hike down the South Kaibab Trail into the canyon and back.

At the head of the South Kaibab Trail, there is a large sign with a photo of a beautiful young girl. “Can you run the Boston Marathon?” it asked. “Margaret Bradley, a 23 year old medical student from Boston, ran the Boston Marathon and was a very good athlete. She died from dehydration and exhaustion on this trail two years ago.” It goes on to elaborate the circumstances of her death, leaving no doubt in the minds of hikers what could happen if they ran out of water or energy on the trail with temperatures running over 40 degrees Celsius. The serpentine trail runs steeply along the inner wall of the canyon and a six mile hike would have taken us down to the river. That hike, however, often takes more than a day to complete and we were not prepared for it. So I, my cousin and his nine-year old son Joheen started on the trail to see the “Ooh-Aah Point” and return which was a mere mile and a half. There was a striped cliff of layered rock on one side of the path and a sheer drop on the other. The scene changed every few yards but the hike drained more energy than we expected. We sat down once to chew on chocolate bars (rather lick them off as they had melted) and then proceeded on our way. Just before we reached our destination, Joheen said he could walk no more and so my cousin sat with him on the roadside while I walked down the final fifty yards or so.

As I said before, the path has cliff on one side and the gorge on the other. At the Ooh-Aah Point, the cliff suddenly disappears from both sides and you are left standing on a sharp hairpin bend in the path. For probably 300 degrees around you, there is nothing but the Grand Canyon, as far as you can see. The rest 60 degrees contains the path by which you came, and which continues downwards toward the river. However, we turned back at this point after we had filled our memories and memory cards. The hike up was way more difficult than the hike down and we had to rest several times now to catch our breath and drink the water that we were carrying. There is no drinking water on the hiking trail and hikers are instructed to carry a litre of water for every hour of hiking.

Our stay at the canyon rim was short; we arrived at sunset one day, spent the next day there and left for Las Vegas again the next morning. We all felt we could have spent a few more days at this serene place without running out of activities or sights to see. However, the truth is that the Grand Canyon is one of those places that never grow old and so even if we had stayed a month there, I’m sure we would have felt the same way. But we had the Manhattan skyscrapers beckoning us back and so had to bid adieu to the skyscrapers of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Buddha, Isis, Zoroaster and Cheops.

American explorer John Wesley Powell said, “You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.” While I doubt that I can do the toiling from month to month part, I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll go back to see the Grand Canyon again. One can see Las Vegas in a day, maybe New York too, but to see the Grand Canyon one needs to spend more time. A lot more.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Visiting Las Vegas

Ever been the last passenger to board an aircraft? I earned that distinction on the US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Las Vegas last Wednesday evening. As I entered the aircraft, the steward closed the door behind me, and I found myself facing a plane full of people glaring at the person who was holding up their flight. Even the pilots peered out through the open cockpit door to take a look at me. I tried turning invisible, but it wasn’t easy while carrying a backpack that barely cleared the size restriction for cabin baggage and a folded tent, especially since I was part of a group of seven people that included two kids and two senior citizens, all carrying various large baggage items that hampered their progress down the aisle. After squeezing our luggage into the gaps available, I went to sleep for the five-and-a-half-hour long journey.

When the pilot announced Las Vegas, we were still airborne. The first thing that I noticed as I looked out of the window was that it was almost completely dark outside. Before I had slept, I had seen the surrounding areas of Philly and they looked very well-lit. However, the scene outside now was in accordance with the fact that Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert, a fact that was further confirmed by the warm and dry wind that we faced as we rode to our hotel on a cab. But much before that, I saw Las Vegas from the air and then from the airport and realized that Google Earth can be misleading. There were more hotels packed in a smaller place than I would have thought possible. I also saw the jackpot slot machines for the first time – the airport lounge was full of them! I knew Las Vegas was full of casinos, but I had never expected the airport to be a casino itself. Soon afterwards we checked into the Circus Circus hotel, set our watches back by three hours and went to sleep again.

We spent the next day seeing Las Vegas. We went back and forth on the Las Vegas Strip several times, visiting various hotels and casinos, and so there is no point in trying to put any chronological order in the narration. What I will try to do is an overview of what Las Vegas is like.
The first thing that you notice, as I said earlier, is that the place is full of hotels. I read somewhere that 19 of the world’s 25 largest hotels in terms of number of rooms are located in Las Vegas. Each of these hotels has a casino, and all of them wanted to appear unique to tourists so that they could lure them inside. What they came up with were looks so unique that the city’s appearance became unmatched in the world. In short, most of the big hotels on the strip are modeled on particular themes – which in some cases include huge replicas of famous monuments of the world.
People may differ with me on this one, but the most conspicuous among these is a half-scale exact replica of the Eiffel Tower at the Paris hotel & casino. The same hotel also features a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a building that looks like a portion of the Louvre Museum and a replica of the fountain in the Place de la Concorde. The hotel also has a replica of the first balloon that was flown by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris in 1783.

Among other replicas present on the Las Vegas Strip are the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Grand Central Terminal and the Brooklyn Bridge at the New York New York hotel & casino, Fontaine de Trevi, the Colloseum and Winged Victory and other statues at Caesar’s Palace, a pyramid, sphinx and obelisk at the Luxor hotel & casino and a Venetian canal complete with some surrounding buildings, covered bridges and gondolas at the Venetian. We saw some of these during the day when the temperature was over 40 degrees Celsius and some during the night when they were brilliantly lit up. But I’ll come to the lighting part later. First let me describe some other hotels that are not built around replicas of famous buildings. The most remarkable among them is the Bellagio.

The Bellagio hotel & casino is separated from the Las Vegas Boulevard by a small artificial lake – a lake that holds the amazing dancing fountains show every evening. There is a very beautiful garden with lovely flower decorations and strange fountains inside this hotel. There are large statues of snails and beetles that are covered fully with perfect flowers. Quite obviously, the flowers have to be replaced and rearranged every day. There are colourful birds and some fountains that are jets forming arches of water over a path in the garden. This was something I had never seen before – you walk through a series of parabolic arches that are nothing but finger-thick jets of water, yet not one drop falls on the path. Touch one with your finger and you’ll see what happens! And besides all this, the hotel has about 4000 rooms.

There were other hotels with different themes – Treasure Island with a pirate ship, Caesar’s Palace with large roman palaces, MGM with a large lion statue and also live lions inside, Flamingo with a live flamingo habitat, the Mirage with white lions, white tigers and dolphins, Circus Circus with the world’s largest permanent circus. Then there is the Stratosphere tower which is the tallest tower in the US. We saw some of these things and did not have time for the rest. Also, not all the shows are free.

My nine-year old nephew is very irritated. “Why did you choose such a destination for a vacation where I’m not even allowed in most of the places?” he asks. What he is referring to are the casinos – the most important features of Las Vegas. I had never seen a casino in real life before, and on seeing the rows and rows of slot machines here one can get some idea of what lures people to this city in the middle of nowhere. We saw some people sitting mesmerized in front of the machines playing one game after another. Apart from these machines there were tables where people were playing roulette and different card games. The dexterity of the attendants in dealing the cards and collecting the chips is truly amazing. We also saw people begging on the streets saying they have nothing and need money to go home. No wonder you have to pay first at the petrol pumps in Las Vegas before they fill your tank. I would have tried my luck with a dollar or two too, but I did not have the required change in cash and was too lazy to obtain it.

But although Las Vegas attempted to take my breath away with its visual extravaganza, it failed to come up to my expectation in some ways – an expectation formed by viewing James Bond movies and other similar stuff. Daytime Vegas was awesome – no doubt about that, but at night I was somehow expecting more lights. After spending so many evenings at Times Square for the last one year, the Las Vegas lights simply didn’t measure up. And I don’t mean this from just a subjective point of view – this is not what I feel. It is the truth as measured by the light meter of my camera. I found no point in Las Vegas as bright as Times Square is at night. Of course, remember that Times Square is just a couple of blocks while the Las Vegas Strip is over two miles long, so the total amount of light is still much more in Vegas. Just that I expected much more. The casinos were mostly empty because of the economic downturn. We found some hotels in various stages of completion that have been abandoned due to lack of funds. The worst thing about Las Vegas is, however, its very existence.

In an era when mankind is struggling to conserve any available energy and save the last drops of clean water, Las Vegas stands as a scar on the face of the planet that should be the nightmare of any environmentally conscious person. This city, built in the middle of a desert, is one of the most water guzzling cities in the world. As you walk from hotel to hotel in the scalding heat, the breeze that you feel is, surprisingly, not that hot. The reason? Atomizers are spewing out water mist all over the place all the time. Add to this the numerous fountains, pools, ponds, lakes, springs, gardens, lawns, lush golf courses and even small waterfalls all over the city artificially fed by clean water 24x7. Then there are the thousands of hotel rooms (I am unable to find the exact figure). They not only consume astoundingly large amounts of water, but also sickening amounts of energy, adding to the greenhouse effect. The lights outside the casinos are never turned off. The amount of energy wasted here can be guessed from this small description on the webpage of the Luxor hotel & casino:

“At 42.3 billion candlepower, the Luxor Sky Beam is the strongest beam of light in the world. Using computer designed, curved mirrors to collect the light from 39 Xenon lamps and focus them into one intense, narrow beam, engineers say that an astronaut could read a newspaper by Luxor’s Sky Beam from ten miles into space. On a clear night, the Sky Beam is visible up to 250 miles away to an airplane at cruising altitude, and is clearly visible from outer space.”

The Luxor is just one of the many hotels in the city. Yet, it is impossible to find a single solar panel in this city. The Nevada sky is surprisingly blue and devoid of clouds – forcefully creating a city does not change the desert climate. However we humans do not want to harness the power of this tireless desert sun. We are happy with our non-renewable carbon-fuel-burning ways. As Las Vegas grew in the last century, its tolerance of gambling and other forms of adult entertainment earned it the nickname “Sin City.” Today, while more family-friendly forms of entertainment have taken centre stage and even the casinos are on the decline because of the recession (a temporary phase, I am sure), the title of Sin City seems more appropriate than ever for this city. What can be a greater sin than throwing away the resources of our planet while people die of hunger and thirst elsewhere?

We spent one full day in Las Vegas and two partial days. One of those partial days was later, before we returned home. But during the middle portion of our trip we visited another place that was as different from Las Vegas as can be imagined. A natural wonder of the world that makes Las Vegas seem like a tiny speck in comparison – something that is visible from outer space without spending 42.3 billion candlepower. A place that becomes pitch dark after sundown and where wild animals come out on the streets.

I will write all about it in my next post.