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An American Affair, My favourite things, Vegetarian in America

Avoiding the Touts & Hoovering the Dam

IMG_0681 IMG_0690 IMG_0694 IMG_0706A trip to ‘Vegas-Baby-Vegas’ can hardly be considered complete without a trip to the nearby Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Note my use of the word ‘nearby’ as this will feature later.

Vegas is all about money. Everyone who is not a tourist seems to live with the totally driven and focused purpose of liberating you with as many of your tourist dollars as is possible and in the shortest time possible. Its is a game – the Truman Show, with un-savvy tourists as the unwitting participants.

For many, the hotels have first dibs on your wallet. Without doubt, many of the hotels are magnificent testimonies to scope and creativity of modern architecture. I say that without a touch of sarcasm; though many of the hotels should of course have been referred to the Good Taste board prior to planning permission being granted. The range of mixture of styles is outlandish and incredible – not to everyone’s taste, but it all somehow just works to create a magnificent array of mixed architectural styles condensed to one almighty strip.

My favourite would have to be the Wynn and Encore hotels, both  towering testimonies to the less-is-more design principle, resplendent in their bronze, matt exteriors with simple and understated signage. As a graphic design graduate, my  appreciation of design simplicity and clean aesthetics was assuaged each time we passed this hotel.

Second dibs on your money are the casinos. The hotels with casinos have got you firmly in their grasps. You pay upfront for your room, dine in their overpriced restaurants, then take a simple elevator ride to the dimly-lit, clock-less basement where you are plied with ‘free’ alcohol by waitresses wearing their underwear as outerwear, before you are systematically stripped of the rest of your money.

In the unlikely event that you manage to escape the hotel with your bulging wallet intact, the huge shopping malls want you next. Big brand names and shopping outlets are everywhere. Nerves of steel are required to circumvent them. Gritting your teeth and reminding yourself that you do not need anything that they are selling at double the price of home-bought goods, helps. I tried, and failed. But my losses were limited to my insistence on having a fixed cash budget for every day. Shopping in New York (my next stop after Vegas) was my highest priority.

McDonald’s want your remaining shekels and they’ve priced their menus accordingly. They demand your attention, with outlets every few paces. We’ve been brainwashed into ‘knowing’ that there’s nothing quite like a McDonalds, and their multinational proliferation gives everyone a taste of ‘home’. We somehow associate McDonalds with the familiarity of home and are automatically drawn to it. Personally, I think it’s the fries; they have an almost magical quality to them, rendering so many people incapable of making free choices and eating elsewhere. Luckily for me, many fast-food joints here fry their fries using the fat of dead animals. So, no Mickey D’s for me!

The dodgy non-English speaking touts and pimps, handing out their prostitute cards, are like cockroaches. Every few steps they are there. They approach every male, without exception. Undoubtedly, these people would survive a nuclear bomb, they would be the first ones to crawl out after any disaster, the first words uttered would be ‘girls, girls, girls’.

Sketchy, unclean people selling ‘wah-der, ice cold wah-der’ are strategically placed every fifty paces. However, the question remains unanswered; toilet wah-der, clean wah-der or last nights bath wah-der? What exactly is being touted by the stirling representatives of the Great Unwashed? The answer is simple; buy at your own risk and possibly spend the rest of your vacation paying for it.

If you – and your wallet – survive this assault course, don’t breathe a sigh of relief too quickly; the tour operators are waiting patiently in line for their turn.

Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam tours are ten-a-penny and offered in a mind-boggling combination of packages. Up-selling is common, so what began as an intention to go on a simple bus trip can easily turn into a helicopter ride to the base of the canyon with a champagne reception on arrival and a goat-back hike back to the summit. Unsurprisingly, we stuck to our guns and got a coach trip to both sites.

Nearby. Remember that word? Well, this turned out to be a four-hour each way trip to the Canyon. Four hours in England would bring you from London to Cornwall – practically coast to coast. The scale of America means that this is considered a short trip and therefore the word nearby is apparently appropriate.

We were collected by our selected tour operator early and had a pleasant trip, albeit with a driver seemingly afflicted with verbal diarrhoea. Luckily, his was a mild case and amongst the constant chatter we were actually given some really useful historical information.

The Hoover Dam is an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold. A feat of man-made engineering that must be seen to be appreciated and worthy of a day trip all of its own. The scale, depth and sheer magnitude of the Dam, plus statistical and historical information from acknowledgeable tour guide left me with a renewed sense of appreciation for the positive impact of some man-made structures.

We were told that the Dam had been another of the intended targets of the 9/11 attacks and of the impact this would have had on a huge swathe of western America, causing flooding and power outages with a devastating and long-term impact on millions of lives. The plane that was due to strike was, apparently, grounded due to technical issues, and then permanently grounded once the other planes had struck, as part of the 100% no-fly zone imposed over north America on that fateful day. The validity of this information, given by the tour guide, could of course be based on truth, folklore, gross exaggeration or a combination of all three.

Moving swiftly onwards to the Grand Canyon. It is difficult to adequately express in words, it’s sheer beauty, enormity and scale. My overriding thought was of how insignificant we are, as humans, in relation to natural wonders of the world and yet how significant our presence has been in the systematic destruction of the world’s natural resources.

We were given three hours at the canyon, but this did not give us adequate time to do much other than catch but a brief glimpse of what this national park has to offer. Standing at the edge of one of the ridges of the south side of the canyon, we could only look in awe; the depth, the structures, the almost unnatural uniformity and the hints of times long since past which were revealed by the exposed rock formations.

The weather was Vegas hot. A type of hot that I had never experienced and an acute reminder that we were indeed in the desert and that even in mid-September, there was a pervasive arid, thirst-inducing heat around us.

We returned to Vegas at night, having been tortured by a crappy 1980s film that the bus driver insisted on playing, on the sole basis that it was set in Vegas. It was difficult to ignore the direct comparison between the natural wonders of the Grand Canyon and the expanse of gaudy illuminations that signalled our arrival in Vegas.

All in all, an enjoyable trip, but one that requires more than a few hours or even a single day to fully experience and enjoy.

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