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2005-11-29 Nevada's danger and decadence

I sauntered along the buzzing Roman street, pausing briefly by a magnificent fountain. Above me, the near-perfect blue sky changed and shifted. Below me, the footpath began to move.

 

The statues started to dance, and talk aloud. Everyone could hear them, not just me. I was not losing it, I had taken my medication. I was not even in Rome, I was in Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas. Unlike the genuine article, this reconstructed Rome looked as though it may indeed have been built in a day.

 

I had always wanted to sample Vegas, even though sometimes when I am about to visit somewhere, I already know what my reaction is going to be. Howard Hughes said that when the mother of all earthquakes wipes out California, this manufactured city, which is ever-sprawling horizontally, will become the new coastline, as it lies just beyond the edge of the Californian shelf.

 

We flew in above Nevada's rugged arid mountain expanse, over sweeping desert valleys (some used to test military aircraft and weapons) and the 726ft Art Deco curve of the collossal Hoover Dam. Beside me on the American Airlines flight, a single guy in his 50s explained to me how he was going to Vegas for a long weekend, with his savings, and was confident that by blowing the lot in casinos, this town was going to transform him into an overnight millionaire. Suddenly my weekly gamble on the Lotto seemed tame by comparison. When we arrived at our gate in Vegas airport, the first sight and sound was of slot machines - even the airport and gas stations offer opportunities to gamble. This south-western region of the US inevitably inherited many Spanish names from its days of Spanish occupation - San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Fe.

 

With almost no rainfall, Nevada incongruously means `snow-covered'. Even less apt, Las Vegas means `meadows'. During the Depression, gambling was legalised, and before long an illegal activity had become a huge source of revenue and a tourist attraction.

 

Now with almost half a million inhabitants, Vegas is a major city, with gambling as its major industry. Las Vegas Boulevard is ten miles long, but it is the three-mile section called "The Strip" which is home to all the world-famous hotel/casino-names. We were performing `off-strip', as they say (different to `strip-off'), at the Suncoast Casino. My luxurious room on the ninth floor was strangely peaceful - away from the deafening sound of the slots, and the disturbing sight of the waitresses in their demeaningly skimpy `Minnie-Mouse' outfits.

On the morning of our departure, we drove down early to take a closer look at The Strip.

 

At The Venetian, guests can be taken by gondola from street to foyer, through St Mark's Square. Las Vegas Hilton is home to the world's highest roller-coaster. MGM Grand has 6,000 bedrooms, as well as a 33- acre theme park. The Paris has an Eiffel Tower half the size of its original. Hard Rock Hotel is memorabilia heaven, New York, New York recreates the Manhattan skyline. Bellagio boasts a thousand fountains which dance to Sinatra tunes, as well as a hand-cut floral glass ceiling in the lobby. But as I descended another spiral escalator, it is the faux-glamour and reconstructed magnificence of the legendary Caesar's Palace which impresses most.

 

The huge variety of entertainment on offer in Vegas reads like a "who's who" in showbiz - Elton John, Celine Dion, Jerry Seinfeld, etc. However, at times it feels like anybody who WAS anybody performs in Vegas, present company excluded. Sadly the image I took away with me was of a vast sprawling kitsch monument to excess, decadence and all that is wrong with human leisure time and recreation - 24-hour drinking, smoking, eating, gambling and spending. Nevada is a southern state, but there is a noticeable lack of churches, apart from the odd drive-in wedding chapel, although the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago Evangelistic Ministeries still manages to stand out in the memory. Vegas would not be my idea of a holiday - send the kids to the theme park while mummy and daddy shoot crap! The varied casino architecture is undeniably attention-grabbing, but the lack of clocks, windows and fresh air in these gambling theme-parks seems somehow wrong, and just not `me'.

 

I wonder how that guy got on on the slots. Gosh, I hope for his sake and sanity, his dream became reality.