Having had come precariously close to it in April 2007, I finally ventured past the San Francisco International Airport late last month for my first foray to the United States.
It was a two-week trip of spontaneity — the best kind, I’m told — on finding out at work I had 50-something days to use up by the end of the year.
Decades of procrastination gave way to visiting Mohammed Salim, a mate I knew from high school days and who now lives with wife Diana and their two adult children in Hayward, the sixth largest city in the Frisco bay area which has some similarities with Hawke’s Bay in terms of climes and horticulture.
No doubt, I still had a few nervous moments after a 12-hour United Airlines flight from Auckland despite lodging an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) to US Customs and Border Protection for US$20 days before departing.
You see, in 2007, while on my way to Vancouver, Canada, with a group of other journalists on a then Fiji passport, the travel agency in Auckland had overlooked the need for a transit visa at Frisco.
Shortly after landing there at 7am this time, I was asked if I had visted the “back room” and was ushered there again.
Cringing at the thought of another long haul back a U-turn later, I was relieved to find the poker-faced female immigration officer had asked me a few questions pertaining to Salim and why I hadn’t visited him in all those years. When I intended to return was her final question before rubber stamping my clearance, much to my relief.
Minutes earlier the male colleague had warned me about not using phones in the back room, something I sheepishly acknowledged after reading the sign on a wall as I tried to text Salim waiting to pick me up.
A few minutes later I was exchanging bear hugs with Salim, climbed into his daughter’s spivvy Maserati and hit the freeway to meet his wife and kids for the first time.
A snappy breakfast later, I joined him and Di for an eight-hour drive to Las Vegas, the neon lights to Sin City beckoning us as dusk kicked in but not before I had made several pit stops along the route. I suspected it was my body acclimatising to the US autumn – or fall, as they like to call it.
Battling sleep and monotonous desert terrain, I’ll advise against that to anyone else contemplating doing it straight off the aircraft from a New Zealand port.
Every few kilometres giant billboards from Christian communities warned of the dangers of gambling and other immoral activities, punctuated by a verse or two from the Bible.
If anything, all that only heightened my expectations of what lay await at the Vegas Strip.
Majestic casinos dotted along either side of The Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard) openly flirt with wide-eyed visitors at regular intervals of the 6.8km stretch, from Mandalay Bay to the Stratosphere Tower.
What struck me most was how mesmerising the dazzling neon lights can be. Equip yourself with a Las Vegas Strip map because sightseeing along the Vegas strip is like travelling the world on foot.
As we took the hotel shuttle to our drop off point, we spotted the Pyramids of Giza (Luxor Hotel), the Statue of Liberty (New York, New York), the Eiffel Tower (Paris, Las Vegas-style), to the Colosseum of ancient Rome (Caesar’s Palace), and the canals of Venice (The Venetian).
I was just an insignificant, starry-eyed statistic among more than 40 million who annually pay homage to the The Strip.
Weaving one’s way through a sea of people, chattering like minahs, is a feat in itself. It’s standard for touts — albeit some of them attired in tuxedos — to accost mostly blokes with offers of food, live entertainment and pleasures of the flesh.
They hand out cards — explicit with females in states of undress and sporting cellphone numbers — as one would bubble-gum baseball cards.
With a wry smile, I had politely declined but, not surprisingly, found out at the hotel early next morning that my mate had surreptitiously snuck a few cards into my jacket pocket.
“Just take it back with you, man,” Salim had urged amid laughter from a married couple who were friends from Sacramento. I knew better than to test the ire of immigration officers.
The pungent smell of marijuana punctuates the air as people openly walk around puffing from fluorescent bongs. Some sip cocktail from almost metre-long glasses, including one in the mould of a woman’s leg in fish-net stockings that Di had gifted to me.
Somehow sleep was the last thing on my mind as I had hit adrenalin overdrive. I showed immense discipline in not giving in to the poker machines after a burger and beer for dinner. I had mentally programmed to park my regimented eating habits to indulge in everything American … well, just about anything although I drew a line on sugary substances (no syrupy pancakes for brekky, thanks).
Earlier I had struck up a rapport with an affable Caucasian police officer at a busy crossroads where traffic lights took ages to change. As I posed with him for a photograph, it suddenly dawned on me that my touristy gesture had African Americans frowning.
I didn’t see any homeless people but spotted an empty blanket, rolled up in sleeping-bag fashion. I read in a newspaper that the state is trying to pass laws to offer them food and shelter as it isn’t good for the tourism industry.
It was the wee hours of the morning and we had missed the last shuttle back to the hotel minutes from The Mirage before midnight. No sweat as the concierge at the resort foyer got us a taxi.
We had three more days up our sleeves so I hit the sack at the Tahiti Village hotel like a tranquilised baboon.
I started the next day at the Dennys restaurant chain which promises classic American comfort food. Mindful of the big-size-me culture there I conservatively opted for a pensioner’s big breakfast only to find my stomach agreed.
I made the 15-minute trip to the Hoover Dam which produces about four billion kW hours of hydroelectric power each year for use in the states of Nevada, Arizona and California.
It threatens to come across as a university tutorial session but, I must admit, it was fascinating stuff to go down on a tour here guides sprinkled humour to break up facts and figures.
Vegas, though, also feeds on solar enegry to whet its neon appetite. I got a computer-generated photo of the dam for US$18.
An auto transmission entrepreneur, Salim attended a conference during the day while I loitered around a mall near the hotel with Di and the Sacramento couple.
I’m not ashamed to admit I had become a shop-aholic. Short on patience when my wife is browsing at any mall, I embarrassingly found I was holding up others that day. With chilly temps still prevalent on day two, I had invested in a gym sweatshirt and matching wollen hat with the approval of a famous commercial tick. Mostly, though, it was garments for my family and perfume.
With Salim and Di insisting on paying all the bills I had lost the concept of money, never mind the gulf in the currency exchange.
Everything that seemed cheap was pretty steep when converted to the kiwi. It also meant factoring in the GST plus the gratuity (tips) for just about anyone who serves you — from shuttle drivers to restaurant staff. It can be embarrassing if you have enough cash to buy something but overlook the tip.
However, I got stung on an overhead bridge where two “flamingo girls” in teal outfits offered free photographs with the high-rise skyline in the background.
“Oh just make a donation,” one of them had dismissively told Salim and Di who had talked me into it.
I snuck between the two of them while Di captured the moment on my cellphone. But the older of the two suggested I hold up a leg each for another snap. I sheepishly obliged.
Then the drama began. I offered US$10 but the mother hen wouldn’t take it.
“What about her?” she asked pointedly as the “chick” marched off.
Said Salim: “Oh just give her $20.” I submissively did … mistakenly on top of the $10 I had offered initially but she still wasn’t having a bar of it.
“Sorry,” I said with a shrug of the shoulder and walked away. “That’s all I have.” Okay I had been done like dog tucker but my mates had also profited from cheap laughs.
That night I stepped outside my comfort zone, slipping $10 into a Buffalo penny machine at Caesar’s Palace. It helped that my wife had dropped a message on social media: “Hope you win millions so we can give up our jobs.” I got back $18.65 and I decided that’s all the flutter I could handle.
I was content to simply watch mostly middle-aged people perched around black jack tables. An elderly woman at a poker machine was raking in close to $1000 as several others watched enviously from a distance, waiting for the chance to occupy her seat the second she had vacated it. Two did in succession but found luck was not a given.
Like ghost stories, there are countless accounts of people having heard others rake in thousands but few have actually witnessed it.
My bugbear, which started at the Paris casino, was finding water-holes unable to offer me a decent ale. Like most American beers, they tasted too sweet. I made do with Guinness stout.
At the Bellagio, I had the most impressive buffet which cost US$45 but it pays to join the queue early as the waiting game can rob you of your appetite. You name it, the restaurant had it and the quality was up there, including sugar-free desserts. Have an allergy — don’t panic. Just ask and most places offer safe alternatives.
It was Halloween night so costumes were out and performers took control. That week, Paula Abdul was among the gala entertainers I was familiar with. A jacket I bought in Hastings got a thumbs up from a bloke at a ritzy outlet in a casino mall.
I managed to pose in front of a boxing ring at the MGM and took in a riveting Indian Summer exhibition at the foyer of Bellagio the Hindu marriage ceremony was intricately woven into Diwali (festival of lights) as well as Bengal tigers and peacocks.
Even more mesmirising is the Bellagio Waterworks, from 3pm to 8pm. It is an aquatic symphony and plays 30 songs in 15-minute intervals.
Caesar’s Palace, with it’s bluesky dome mall, offers replicas of Michelangelo’s Statue of David, boxer Joe Louis, Augustus Caesar and Cleopatra’s golden chest. Feel free to rub left index fingers, touch toes, chest and gloves appraently for good luck.
Just as you can only eat so much, you can only digest so much glitz and glamour before the legs start begging for a rest.
Mercifully I had a trip to the Grand Canyon with a bus tour group and to another one with the clan in the nearby state of Utah to break The Strip saturation point.
When we hit the interstate highways back to Hayward — taking a shorter four-hour journey that Saturday — it turned out to be a nine-hour marathon to the disbelief of Salim’s cousin who had suggested the route in Vegas.