A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

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.


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