Las Vegas New Year

                                    Where the rich come to play

                                    And the poor come to pay.

As soon as you step into the arrival and departure lounge the mechanical whirring, dinging and ringing of the ubiquitous slot machines permeates the atmosphere like everywhere in Las Vegas. This soundscape of gaming lures the masses to sit in front of, and feed money into, these blinking and clanging automated gaming terminals, depicting in bright neon lit screens various cartoon like scenes of fantasy themes, television and Hollywood icons. Casinos are at the heart of Las Vegas and they are the foundation on which this city has been built on and is still supporting thousands of jobs and the 150’000 hotel rooms. In this mirage in the desert you can go from the Coliseum in Rome to the Eifel tower in Paris to the canals and palaces of Venice, the roller coaster and Greenwich Village in New York or enter the pyramid in Luxor by just crossing Las Vegas Boulevard on one of the many elevated and escalator equipped crosswalks.

Seventy years ago Las Vegas was just a dusty old western village where today Freemont Street is covered by the ‘world’s largest’ video screen. This section features zip-lines under the video canopy with hourly visual effect shows to 80ies rock music like The Who or Heart. Its’ gaudily lit casinos and restaurants are older and a bit seedier then the glitzy new palaces on the strip, with lots of freaky performers at street level entertaining the crowds for spare change. Restaurants like ‘The Heart Attack Grill’ where 350lbs eat for free can be found here.

Nevada with it’s abundant power and water, thanks to the Hoover dam and the resulting Lake Mead, together with its’ unrestricted gambling laws, seemed like the perfect place to build sin-city. When Meyer Lansky, Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel and their fellow gangsters built The Flamingo in 1946, they unleashed a multi billion dollar Jackpot that still makes buckets of money every day – for the Casino, the state and hotel owners that is. What is it that they’re selling? What lures millions of visitors to this hedonistic consumer orgy in this artificial metropolis? It still is gambling, fuelled by an abstract dream of untold riches just a click or a roll of dice away. Gambling is not motivated by hope but by a vision of another life. Modern superstition can be found in all manner of symbols in every casino, from the Blarney stone to the clover leaf, from the golden nugget to the lucky sevens. I was very successful with my $ 2 bill tips. People kissed them and tucked them away, not to be spent but to be kept as a talisman.

Then there are the fantastic shows: Divas, aging rock-stars, magicians and comedians come and play the many theatres featured in every hotel and advertised by lit up billboards the size of an apartment building. Some performers are here for many years like Celine Dion, others just for short engagements. You play in Vegas – you got it made. Several versions of ‘Cirque de Soliel’ also have permanent homes along the strip and we saw ‘O’, the imaginary water spectacle performed on a stage that is ever changing from solid floor to a pool into which divers, trapeze artists and clowns jump, dive, appear and disappear. Now I know where all the Olympic synchronized swimmers, tower divers and gymnasts end up making a living from their acrobatic skills. ‘O’ is a phantasmagorical, visual and oral spectacle that left us wide eyed and almost exhausted as if sitting in a plush seat, subjected to non-stop entertainment is hard work.

Las Vegas is nothing else but a ginormous shopping mecca. Every resort and hotel features a mall and these shopping centres are fantasy environments that stagger the mind. There is the ‘miracle mile’ at the Planet Hollywood Resort, which is a circular, mile long shopping mall with hundreds of stores constructed below an artificial blue sky with cumulous clouds and facades out of 1001 nights with minarets, golden domes and crusader castles. While the girls disappeared into the maws of the stores I wandered around this fantasy world on ornamental tiled floors, gawking at the staggering, artificial environment.

My sister, who lives in Switzerland was taken aback by the many overweight and obese people – entire families – we encountered, in particular planted in front of gaming terminals. I gave her three clues: fast food, junk food, pop. The American diet.

Las Vegas Boulevard or the strip as it is known is a six lane busy motorway with many overpasses and bridges equipped with escalators that lead directly into the casinos, resorts and malls. You can walk from the domed opulence of the Palazzo at The Venetian along the canals where gondolas go back and forth under the arched venetian bridges, flanked by a replica of the Bell tower at St. Marcus square and exit onto the busy shop lined sidewalk past neon studded facades and lit up bill boards the size of apartment buildings. We walked for miles every day, from Venice to Paris, across the bridge to Caesar’s Palace and Rome and the extravagant Forum shopping mall, past the mock coliseum and Trevi fountain. Next door is the Bellagio which houses a gallery displaying replicas of famous paintings and sculptures from around the world. It also features a magnificent ceiling in the main lobby by Chihuly, Tacoma’s famous glass artist and a symphonic hourly water fountain show out front, along the strip. You can walk through Monte Carlo to New York, which houses a Greenwich Village shopping mall, a half size replica of the Statue of Liberty as well as elevators just like in the Empire State building. We treated ourselves to the roller coaster ride that was an adrenaline fuelled, heart-stopping joyride over top and along the New York skyline façade. No senior discounts.

The last time we were in Vegas was in 1998, driving through in our Westy van, and we stayed at the Travellodge, just off the strip past the Polo Towers. It’s a diminutive, two-story motel, tucked in between towering resorts, kind of on the shabby side and we were surprised it still existed. I think at that time it cost $ 30.- a night, which today wouldn’t even cover the daily resort tax of US$ 36.-, applied to each and every room in town.

We saw Celine Dion who after 18 years at Caesar’s Palace Coliseum theatre still packs in 4’300 adoring fans for every performance. I must say she was a treat to watch and listen to. She chats away like the girl next door, affable and spontaneous with that Quebecois accent, but when she sings, she is embodied with a silken voice that soars and glides effortlessly and true, evoking tears and loneliness or joy and love. After the show cocktails at the Trevi Bar started at US$ 16.-. Needless to say we left sober.

We also took in Frank Marino’s Divas at the Linq Hotel theatre, a show that has been going on for over 30 years. These female impersonators pulled off acts by Cher, Betty Middler, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and several more with wit and aplomb. Bloody amazing really. It was topped by the MC’s transformation in front of a mirror from a female beauty queen to a 20 something young man in shirt and trousers.

New Years Eve we spent at the Voodoo Lounge restaurant on top of the Rio hotel, which offered a spectacular, panoramic view of the strip and fire works from the open air terrace on the 51st floor. We felt like royalty, celebrating a New Year’s Eve which will be hard to top.

On New Year’s day we treated ourselves to a helicopter tour of the Hoover dam, Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon. We soared across this barren, desolate landscape, scarred with pre-historic gullies and crevices, past the 200 meter high dam which holds back 640 square kilometers of water in the middle of the Mohave desert. Then we entered the imposing Grand Canyon, carved over hundreds of million years by the diminutive seeming Colorado River, snaking its way south. On our return we could make out the smoggy mirage of Las Vegas in the distance, only 70 years old,  while below us the immensity of the desert showing us the planet’s changes over millions of years which are so much  more dramatic then anything humans could build or destroy.

We departed as we arrived, in a taxi, careening by the glitzy strip with all its fantasy-world buildings, past the pyramid of Luxor and the emerald Mandalay Bay Resort with it’s shark reef aquarium and artificial beach, out of Lalaland, back to the rain coast and the January bills, lousy weather and the tranquility of home.

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