I assumed it would be like any other large city – diverse, busy, loud, fast paced, ignorant of the issues beyond its boundaries, and typically isolating even when surrounded by people.
The tourist brochures, the posters, the movies, the gossip and the stories that Vegas conjures and gregariously flaunts are all accurate – it’s an indulgence Mecca unlike anywhere else – and it’s extreme in its extravagance. I thought I would detest Las Vegas for all the credit its lavish, overspent reputation gives it. However, my opinion has rapidly been changed.
I try to avoid highly populated cities as being instantly welcomed into a busy hive without knowing anyone is often a rare occurrence. You may think that it’s easy to stroll into a bar, be friendly, talk the talk and make friends – and it is for someone who is gregarious and able to overcome their innate introversion. However, add to the list of challenges of needing somewhere to sleep that same night, having less money than it costs to buy one beer, and carrying everything you own on your back, and the task is infinitely more difficult. The pressure is high, and the likelihood of sleeping on the street is almost a sure one. I’d rather take my tent to a remote field, behind a billboard or farmers barn on a rural back road, than to the streets of a sleep-depriving, noisy city, with plenty of authorities or unsavoury characters, seemingly unhappy or too interested in my presence.
Too often in a city, people operate at such a pace, that trust and hospitality are not priorities. Assumed money tends to be the first detail that people react to, and unless you fit the criteria of looking and sounding like someone who is going to pay for a welcome, it is hard to base an opinion on a city. I find comments and actions of relaxing locals are the best clue, but on the Vegas Strip, they’re hard to find: Tourists “relax” and locals work.
A few miles from the famous strip, locals find me, and the way they behave and treat a stranger (through this blog and a rather loose introduction) is like they are in a much smaller town than a city of two million people. With the feeling that the strip is a million miles away, hospitality, generosity, and the sense of community upon arrival is noticeable – which is absent in other large cities.
One thing I quickly learnt about Las Vegas, is that NOBODY here, is from here. With the large majority of its citizens working in the tourism, restaurant, gambling, hotel or nightclub sector, its unsurprising that so many people in Las Vegas are living in some kind of transient state: job to job, house to house, city to city. Nobody seems to have roots in the here, and everything moves at a rapid pace.
Everyone is either a tourist, a worker that never escaped, someone who’s life was a little too much to handle and somehow, Vegas provided a safe haven, or they came like a moth just to see the bright lights, and are still here forty five years later, fluttering around the place, a little unsure as to why.
There is one exception who found me. Her father is a committed, life-long Vegas stage hand; her mother’s whereabouts are unknown after she found the bottle during an arguably successful dancing career in Vegas. Her relationship with her father is strong, constant and happy; the other, without being over dramatic, is virtually extinct. I don’t think I could have been welcomed by anyone “more Vegas”. Typically streetwise and more knowledgable about the city’s extremes, smart about its indulgences, conservative over its extravagance, lenient towards its liberalism, and more loving of its qualities, Deadre has Vegas in her beautiful, infectious soul.
I told Deadre that I prefer to see a raw Vegas, a version that tourists don’t get to see, one that doesn’t involve losing my $6 a day fortune and the one that she loves, or hates, to be home. I really didn’t have to wait long before the desert city threw down a few surprises.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas…apparently. So I won’t go into too much detail about time spent amongst the bright lights, the strippers, the extravagance, the hedonism, the flash cars, the fast women, the fancy dress, the gambling, the lightning-storm during a roof-top pool party, the excessive drinking and drugs at a free saki tasting night, the impulsive shopping, questionable outfits, setting fire to myself, waking up in my clothes with “chicken” written across my chest, swimming in the Bellagio fountain, being taken go-carting, being thrown out of the rainforest café, being propositioned by two men, being poked in the eye by a wookie, finding the secret pizza bar, bottom tattoos, or being forced to drink a hot chocolate and watch a terrible episode of True Blood. Some (or all) of those items may be true…
Here is a little taster of what Las Vegas is not so famous for, and what I definitely did (or did not) enjoy while galavanting through with less than $6 a day.
There are ski resorts less than 15 minutes from Vegas. In the desert! The natural landscape around Las Vegas isn’t sandy desert to the horizon – there are ranges of vast, drastic hills and mountains, creating and effecting the weather all year round.
I was taken out of the furnace and in to the washing machine. It was raining, and amongst the grumbling skies, it is eerie, foggy and cold. While being drenched in a storm as if I was standing on a hillside in West Yorkshire, I could see Vegas gleam in sunshine less than a dozen miles away. Not all the resorts have ski centres, but the hotels operate all year round, and I’m told all the lovers (adulterers) go here to escape the city. The ranches, restaurants, canyons and hillsides are all soaking wet, muddy and some wait for snow, but the hiking, camping and outdoor “pursuits” in the area are stunning.
Wandering around the warm hillsides and small, wealthy towns on the outskirts of Vegas are wild horses and burros. There is argument (with prehistoric fossil examples) that wild horses did exist prior to western settlement, and that American horses were eradicated to stop native tribes leaving U.S. government land. Fitting with history, there is no evidence that supports this eradication, but it isn’t too difficult to believe that some horses could have travelled west and survived the ice age. Technically the horses and burros that roam now are ferrel animals, but called wild by anyone who needs to advertise that they are there. They were used by the conquistadors, and over time either escaped or were cut loose.
Roaming the desert and indulging on lush areas of human-watered grassy spots, the burros are a rather rustic bit of history that nobody holidaying on the strip would even hear of. As well as the Equidae roaming around Vegas, there are desert tortoises, desert bighorn sheep, a multitude of desert reptiles, humming birds, and burrowing owls.
I have found it impossible to understand places, cities and rural towns without local knowledge, and as I desperately wanted to learn about American culture and people on my trip, the only way I could really get to love or hate Vegas was to see it from my new friend’s eyes. Deadre is somewhat of an awesome foodie, knowing every back door and secret food spot in the city. With her, every meal is a treat, and as Vegas is open 24/7, it doesn’t matter if you get peckish at 3am. Surprisingly, both of us did on a few occasions and for me, it’s rather odd to see how many people around town eat in the middle of the night! Deadre also knows where and when every happy hour is, where her friends are who DJ in strip bars on “free-pizza-Sunday”, and where the best bar managers are, who she may have worked with; I really didn’t spend much on extravagant plates of food.
Deadre wasn’t the only foodie I met in Vegas, and it’s never a shame to say that when you meet a food lover, and they wish to share their hospitality, it ALWAYS means a fine feed. I was treated to a meal by Claudia, the first non-Caucasian American I had received hospitality from since the week I arrived in the country. For a more in depth chat about my experience of race and culture in North America, see my recent post “Diversity and Division”. Claudia is Mexican/Italian, so if I pay attention to any sweeping statements on racial stereotypes; the fiercest, most passionate, most argumentative and volatile woman on earth! Indeed, if all those things are focused on food, she takes no prisoners, and picks out the best ocean chowder in town before I’m “forced” to drink a pineapple cider and attend a free saki-tasting evening… I have to put my best shorts on for the occasion!
My feet might be well used and in need of some time on a podiatrists table, but in Vegas, my belly is in fine fettle. I didn’t think I would be on the verge of gout on this trip, but when on such a tight budget and when people offer food, I’m only eating a few meals a day, and then again on a whim at 3am because I assume I’ll need the energy. It’s also rude to turn down any offering – and when they lead to lifelong friendships, all are welcome!
There is no absence of hiking in Vegas as trekking from one end of the strip and back again, via a plethora of colourful, mind boggling and overindulgent sights is no stroll in the park. It takes hours and has just as many ups and downs (if you take the stairs to the many shopping floors) as any hike in the hills, only with a few more, easily accessible water sources. However, don’t assume I’m enjoying the strip. On $6 a day, it really is just a sightseeing hike, and it’s a long and loud one. I prefer my indulgent trips to the hills, and not because I have experienced any of the affairs that the locals do…
One experience which can’t go unspoken about however, was the vision of the Bellagio fountain. It’s a Vegas must-see. While all the tourists stood, all taking their photos from the usual walkway, I enjoyed it in a secret spot, where there are no tourists, hidden from view and with a true “Lass Vegan”. No other details needed – I’m not sharing Deadre’s Vegas secrets, and if I indulged everyone, hotel security may want a word…
On my last night in Vegas, I find myself in a country club. Not the type you might imagine, with the average age over 70, a stock of Bentleys in the parking lot and everyone with a sweater draped around their shoulders, but a country club – a nightclub, playing only country music. I have never been to a country-nightclub before, at least one where they take their country dancing so seriously – all night! It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced and to say the dancing is impressive would be an understatement. EVERYONE knows the dance moves, and EVERYONE can dance with a partner. Ok, so some are more impressive than others, but it’s a little daunting going anywhere near the dance floor. Normally I’m flying there after a few beers, but not on this occasion as it’s too hypnotic, and rather than ruin it with my two left feet, I’m sat in awe. In an odd way, amongst the usual nightclub vibe; alcohol, bad outfits, men’s “elevator eyes” wandering up and down as their girlfriends react: its all very entertaining, but I find it completely romantic. I wish I could dance like the country dudes as I’m completely envious…but not of the ones being beaten by their cowgirls.
She may be extravagant, over indulgent, ludicrous to the point of being sickly sugar coated with “forced good times”. She may be an expensive date to the usual traveller, gambler or shopaholic, but Las Vegas showed me some true colours of what a city can be, away from her hypnotic and horrendous façade.
In my last post, I mentioned that it appears that the sustainability of the Las Vegas is almost at a crucial point, but for this “prefers rural” tourist, I am overwhelmed with the sense of community and hospitality from the real people of Las Vegas. I’m not one for a bold, loud, tactless and tacky flirt, but under her guise, she’s converted me.