Thursday, May 17, 2012

America 3 - the desert

So once we'd regrown what little brain could be harvested and used for higher functioning, we hopped onto a shuttle bus and zoomed out to the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon. And by zoomed I mean caught the bus to another hotel where we queued up for a while as some guy was telling us "what you're gonna wanna do." Then we made little cups of coffee in little paper cups, I learned about that strange thing called 'creamer', and THEN we got to the zooming.

Our bus driver was very informative, telling us all kinds of interesting and occaisionally not-so-interesting tidbits about the local area and its development. The local area, for what it's worth, is beautiful once you reach an area devoid of human settlement: on all sides, steep hills and ridges follow you as you drive. As the vista opens up, these ridges start to look increasingly like the skeletal remains of long dead super lizards. Snake spine country on a monumental scale. Deserts always feel old and the Mojave is no exception.

Speaking of all things monumental, the Hoover Dam is impressively huge. a grand total of 112 lives were sacrificed to its construction, not including those who died of illness such as TB or disentry contracted in the workers' camps. Interestingly, the first man to die on the job, J. G. Tierney, and the last, Patrick Tierney, were father and son. J. G. was a surveyor tasked with finding the best spot in the Colorado River to construct the dam. He drowned in 1922 in the midst of his assessment. His son, Patrick, fell from a crane 13 years later to the day. 

Back in the present day now, with the construction of the Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge completed in 2010, we were able to get views of the Hoover Dam once available only to people in helicopters. It was a nice walk to get up there especially after so many days of enforced sloth, and though I was feeling somewhat unfit, I was guiltily pleased to see that many other people were struggling with the simple walk up the gentle incline to the bridge. Fat Americans, my self-esteem salutes you! Being a dick of epic proportions, I jogged back to the bus.

The next few hours of driving saw us go through some incredible countryside punctuated here and there by tiny settlements baking in the sun. If there are such things as ghost towns, which there are, these looked to be at death's door. I thought they were beautiful.

We drove through the Joshua tree forest, the largest of its kind in the world. The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is an ancient species that can only grow between 400 and 1,800 metres elevation. These trees are technically a kind of cactus and were named by Mormon settlers who thought the bifurcated branches of the trees looked like the arms of the prophet Joshua outstretched in prayer. Of course, some of these plants had many, many branches and unless Joshua bore a striking resemblance to a many-armed Hindu god, I don't really see the connection. At this stage, we cannot rule out dehydration-related mass hallucination. As the Joshua tree is of the cactus family and so has no rings from which to calculate its age, scientists say that if you want to know how old a specimen is, you should count the total number of branch splits and then multiply the number by ten to get an approximate age. Based on that estimate, some of those trees are over 900 years old.

The section of the Grand Canyon we visited was part of the Hualapai Indian Reserve. The people of the Hualapai tribe commissioned the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which is a bustling tourist attraction. It's a horse-shoe shaped structure made of thick and extremely durable glass that extends out over the Canyon. The views, both horizontally and vertically, are breathtaking. It costs $25 to walk on and you're not allowed to take any camera or mobile phone with you. Instead, staff take photos for you and sell them at exorbitant prices (I bought two). This was infuriating at first, but once you realise that every cent goes to the local people on whose land you're standing around and eating ice-cream on, it's hard to begrudge it.

The Grand Canyon is well deserving of its title as one of the Wonders of the Natural World. It stretches forever and from where we were standing looked to encompass the whole world. The sense of size that being at such an elevation gives the land is a real stretch for the mind to process; it just seems... not real. You can imagine how a place like this would generate endless stories -- and speaking of stories, one of the best things about the Hualapai area of the Canyon is that we were able to see the incredible Eagle Rock formation, which looks like a giant bird descending on a its prey, talons outstretched. 

If there was one thing disappointing about the Grand Canyon (and I have to really think hard to find any fault), it's that I was really interested in the local legends of the Hualapai people and adjacent tribes. I wanted to know what stories they had about how the Canyon was formed and if they had any stories about the giant Eagle or any other animal. There were lots of ravens around. Was that bird significant? All that side of things. Unfortunately, though there were many local people at the site, there wasn't much information about the Canyon's place in storytelling and spirituality. Something to look into when I get home.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

America 2 - Vegas

Las Vegas was a strange place to get used to and I think our problem was an inability to approach it in the right frame of mind - i.e., we should have been well rested and enthusiastic rather than jet lagged and homicidal. Or perhaps that's just me. Mum was certainly exhausted to the point of delirium and Dad wasn't that far behind, having already secured the best seats in delirium's VIP area and got the drinks in beforehand, as it were.

Everything is fake. There's a fake Ancient Rome with fake centurions and a fake Trevi Fountain inside it, a fake pirate ship with battle re-enactments, a fake castle which looks nothing like a real castle as it happens (one way we were able to tell) and where they do fake jousting sans fatalities. There's even a fake Venice, which is where we stayed - the Venetian hotel. Like Caesar's Palace, the shopping mall section of the place is done up to resemble a Venetian street with the stores designed to look like shop fronts. The ceiling is painted light blue with realistic-looking clouds on and with the warm lighting, it looks like you're outside on a late afternoon. This is extremely disconcerting at 10:30pm.

When nuclear winter happens, we'll have to make our bunkers look like that just to keep our mental health going. As a thing to do in a casino on the other hand, it is decidedly shitty because it's so very easy to lose track of time. "Midnight? Wait, no, it's... Oh. Where is my family?"

So with all this in mind, we found ourselves wondering if there was a fake Las Vegas resort on the Strip as well. Vegas Town would have its own fake Strip complete with fake Rome, New York, Venice, pirates, pyramids, castles, etc -- and yes, another fake Vegas. And that Vegas Town would follow the same pattern as well ad infinitum. This all begged the question - where does it all end? The answer is obvious, and I suspect you can guess at it: It's Las Vegas all the way down.

Madness takes its toll.

The Venetian is a massive place; really gorgeous and opulently decorated with marble and (fake) Renaissance art. The suite we booked into was huge, containing two queen beds and a sunken sitting room level with couches, chairs, TV and minibar. Minibar got quite the work-out during our time there. The wallpaper is cream and gold, reflecting the dominant motif of the entire hotel, and the curtains over the beds are heavy with ornate print and tassels. The suite's bathroom was large and decked out in pale marble. In addition to the ordinary showerhead, there were these two other things which looked disconcertingly like nipples from which burst twin jets of water aimed just about at shoulder blade height. It was a great shower.

So the next three days were exhausting for me because I couldn't get more than five hours sleep in a row and I also didn't have much opportunity to get out on my own and so be my own person on this trip rather than the Dutiful Daughter, or more often than not, Tech Support. Eventually, I did manage to get away, egged on by none other than a street performer doing a disconcertingly sexy rendition of the Joker. What am I saying? An even sexier version.

The street performers dress up and act in character for tourist photographs and make their money in tips. There was Dora the Explorer (desperately in need of a responsible adult!), Optimus Prime, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Mickey Mouse and many others. This guy doing a Heath Ledger style Joker, he had it all. The stance, the body language, the make-up, the insinuating himself into your personal space and then standing behind you and whispering in your ear in that voice. Brrrr! He told me to ditch my parents and "go raise some hell." So I did. Well, responsibly. After giving them directions to get back to the hotel. And it wasn't really hell, it was more like aimless wandering, but it was nice to just do that.

 I wandered in and out of casinos and bars, got lost inside another mall decked out to look like the street on a nice summer's day and found myself in a tattoo parlour, sorely tempted to get a little ink. Though there was a very good, simple design of a tree that appealed to me a lot, I couldn't think of anywhere I would want to put it on my body. There were options, but none of them I liked. While I was in there, I watched a woman get her family name tattooed on her foot (Spring) along with a flower. She was telling the guy doing the work that she was going to Paris "in France!" and how excited she was. They got to talking about art and she exclaimed how she didn't really "get" Picasso at all. The tattooist goes, "He's the guy who makes people look like pineapples, right?"And so I left and went to a pole dancing bar.

There's nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear than to stand in the bar of the pub with no strippers. They were already closing up shop when I walked in. But with that avenue closed, I was at least able to buy one of those silly yard glass slushie cocktails with silly straw everyone over the age of 21 (and some under) was walking around with. Mine had rum in it and a picture of a stripper in pink silhouette. It was also pretty modest compared to some of the giant pacifiers out there. There were huge containers in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, giant plastic steins fit to hold a good two litres of alcopop, gold coloured plastic champagne bottles worn on chains around people's necks like the most nouveau riche of bling. Though at first hilarious to my mind, it quickly became distasteful and then a total turn off. Giant babies sucking on their bottles, looking at the shiny lights.

This is what I mean about being in the wrong frame of mind when it came to appreciating Las Vegas. The idea is to see the tackiness and artifice for what it is and not be angry at it for failing to meet your standards for what passes as fun; Vegas is not a normal place and you should not have normal(ish) expectations of it.I'm 98% certain my attitude would have been different had we not gone through the horror story of getting there from LAX. I mean, we lost an entire day that we'd scheduled to get over the flight. But after finishing my litre or so of rum and strawberry slushie, I had my photo taken with some women dressed up a sexy lady cops, watched some bouncy go-go dancers and bought a novelty plastic cup. This was sufficient for me and the next day was much better.

The next day, we went to the Grand Canyon.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

America 1

Where the hell do I begin?

Let's start with the time of the planned journey and the time it actually took. The flights as scheduled had us on a journey of 17 hours. Sydney to LA, LA to Las Vegas. Easy, right? Well, it ended up being 27 hours from Sydney to Vegas. That's not a typo; twenty-seven fucking hours.

Here's how it went down.

All went reasonably well on the flight leaving Australia. Virgin Australia, premium economy. Our travel agent had told us that we'd have access to a special lounge at the airport, but 'twas not to be. Still, no worries, right? We made it into LAX two hours before we left on the same day and then it started - immigrations, customs and the goddamn TSA.

Being as we were premium economy passengers, we were first off the plane after the well-rested our-seats-recline-fully first class toffs. This meant that we were quite close to the front of the queue for going through customs and immigration. So we lined up in the corridor in front of the escalators, where a TSA official told us to stop and wait while people from a different flight that had also just arrived were hustled through first. Fine. Then after a while, we got clearance to go down the escalators. At the bottom of the escalators, there was a small rectangular room and a woman directing us into different lines. After getting out of the line we'd been mistakenly put into at first, we made it to the front of the queue for foreigners. It was not until all the American citizens had been cleared to go to the next stage that they asked about anyone with connecting flights. Our flight was in an hour and a half, so it was getting close. The woman herding us through these lines was taking her orders from the TSA on the desks in the next room and though the system she was implementing was not of her design, she was doing it atrociously.

"We have a connecting flight...."
"Ma'am, I will get to you,"
"It's quite soon...."
"Ma'am, step back inside the line, ma'am."

Time ticked on relentlessly and the room got hotter. There were a fair couple of hundred people to be processed and the queue looked like the final stages of a game of Snake on an old Nokia mobile, where the snake is zig-zagged and curled in and out as much as possible to cram maximum snake into minimum space. And we were at the front of the queue. Poor bastards in the middle or the back couldn't hear what was happening.

We made it through after a forever and were allowed into the next room and the third queue. This was the immigration check, where they electronically finger printed everyone. It took  a while, but it eventually happened. Then to the baggage carousel and out.

OK, so LAX Arrivals Terminal Styx. Finding ourselves standing blearily on the side of the road, we're trying to figure out how to get to Terminal 1. There's really not much in the way of signage and it's very chaotic, so we ask around and eventually figure out the shuttle bus to get us to the Terminal we want to be at. All systems go, we're winning the race.

We get off at Terminal 1 and head to the check-in desk but there's a problem. Wrong terminal, wrong airline. Fuck. We're late as it is but the man says if we hurry, we should be able to make it. We race to the shuttle bus stop and hope for the bus to arrive but it takes ages. Other buses pass but do not stop. Dad gets on the wrong one but I check with the driver and we avoid that particular disaster. Eventually bus comes. right, on we hop. Our terminal is 6 stops away and on the 4ths stop, there's some kind of hold up. Are these people asking directions? Why is the driver getting off the bus? FFS. Time passes and we are cutting it super fine. We make it to the check-in counter for United and get in line but when we get to the front, the woman tells us we've missed our connecting flight.

But all is not lost! She can try to get us on another one leaving at 8:30pm. Right. Tappity, tappity, this lady is working on entering everything into the system. There are three seats left on this flight and we've got them! Yes! My boarding pass is printed first but then there's this error with the computer system.  The United woman, who is herself rather disoriented ("they changed the computer system and I haven't used this one.") gets another assistant to help out. The verdict they arrive at and which we accept as fact is that these three remaining seats have been booked for us and when we get to the gate to board, the staff will allocate us the seats. Which are ours. Which are booked as of...... *click* now.

Right, brilliant, off we go. TSA, shoes off, witnessing pat downs, shoes back on, done. Terminal Lethe, we are in you. The gate is located. It's many, many hours to go until we even come close to approaching boarding time. After a coffee (atrocious) and a sandwich (is this bread sweet?), we we find some seats and wait. I curl up on the floor and sleep like a dog.

While I've slept (jerking awake every time the PA system booms, "US Service Personnel, we salute you," offering free access to a special lounge - "Become a citizen! Enlist today!"), Mum has been going to the boarding gate every so often to ask about those seat allocations. Staff tell her to wait until the plane is ready to board. The good news out of this is that when at the 11th hour (actually, it was more like the 8th hour, but who's counting?)  they change the boarding gate to one a kilometre or so away without making any announcement over the PA, we're already on our way. The plane is arriving shortly and staff are setting up. It's been hours and we feel sick, but we're finally going somewhere and that feels pretty great. We make it to Gate 70B and go up to the guy at the front desk.

"We missed our connecting flight and the woman at the check-in desk re-booked us new tickets. She told us to tell you so you could allocate our seats."
Tappity tappity tappity "May I see your tickets, please?" Tappity-tappity. "I'm afraid only one of you is booked on this flight," the man says. Reality crumbles, madness sets in. The walls shake and crack; the blackness beyond beckons.
"But the woman at the desk said we were booked on. We've been waiting eight hours. She said it was done."
"You're on the stand-by list. If there is a cancellation, you will be allocated those seats."
"But she said it was just a matter..."
"Yes, the flight is over-booked."
"I understand you're upset, ma'am, but you are on the stand-by list."

I have come to the conclusion that in America, "ma'am" is code for "person I happily compare to dog poo."

Samuel's Adagio plays as we head back to the seats. People are staring. The thing about a situation like this is that although you really want to lay into everyone within a five mile radius, you have to smile and be polite and calm, because when the only way out of this fucking insanity trap at in the discretion of one man, you have got to make that man believe you are not thinking of throttling him.

We're desolated. It's been so long. Dad has retreated somewhere and Mum is furious. I'm about to cry but am trying to keep calm for the both of them. It's seeing my parents distressed that upsets me the most. I go up and mention to the guy that if there's anything he can do, we'd really appreciate it; "My father has brain damage and this has been very, very distressing." Meanwhile, Mum starts going through her bag, giving me cash, the receipt for the accommodation in Vegas. If they can't get on the plane, I'm going alone.

You know that scene in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers' when the wild men are rampaging through Rohan aided by Saruman's orcs and a villager puts her two tiny blonde children on a horse to raise the alarm and get to safety? And they're blubbing and it's all very heart-rending?

Just saying.

The plane is delayed and it looks like everyone who needs to turn up has. We're out of luck. The guy at the desk calls us up. I'm certain he's going to tell us he's very sorry but, etc --- but he doesn't. Someone's late and they're missing out. We're in. The man is told he is a 'golden god' by the twitching blonde woman in the jacket (i.e., me) and we're boarding. Holy fuck we're boarding. It's been over 24 hours by this point in time and I've slept uninterrupted for.... none of them, really. Approximately 4 hours cumulative, I guess.

Listening to 'Space Oddity' by David Bowie while a plane goes through turbulence is fucking awesome.

Eventually, we land. Shuffling like Jack Nicholson at the end of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', we disembark (I will NEVER 'deplane') and after a crushing tram ride find ourselves at the baggage carousels. We're through, we've done it. Achievement unlocked: luggage obtained. Let's. Fucking. Go.

Out the door marked 'taxi pick up', we are greeted with a picture from a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Crowds of people, smoke, noise, confusion, chaos. Men in uniform shout taxis to the side of the road and shout passengers into them. The line stretches down to the corner of the building and then back up towards us, back again to the corner and then back up to us again, and then back up to the corner of the building and then, yes, back to us again. We join the queue and eventually make it up to its first bend at the other end of the building only to find there's an extra bit in it and it GOES AROUND THE CORNER.

I've never seen anything like it.

Once I went to New Year's Eve at my brother and his fiancee's flat in Milson's Point and foolishly believed I'd be able to catch the train back into the city afterwards. The teeming throng of revellers stretched on and on, and when I was finally able to start making it up the stairs, seen from above, looked like one of those magic-eye pictures from the 90s.

That suburb-wide human gridlock has nothing on the despair this crowd of people evoked in me. It was going to take hours.

Then one of the guards started shouting. Some guys had broken out of the line and had approached the driver of a shuttle bus. "NO HUSTLING! YOU KNOW THE RULES!" But from what we were able to hear from their aborted conversation, there was some hope of alternative transportation.

Can you believe it that when we made it to the shuttle bus side of the building, the man there said it would be faster if we went back to the taxi queue? Well, when the nice young man in the suit driving the private hire superposh SUV deluxe going-somewhere-not-here-mobile drove up and asked where we were going, we got the fuck in, money be damned. A life saver, a legend, a limo driver.

Incredulously, Dad ventured, "It's not like this all the time, is it?"
Diplomatically, the best man in the universe replied, "Not ALL the time...." and then less diplomatically, "but most of the time."

It was midnight when we arrived at the hotel and a while yet before we were able to check in and find our room. But the time in transit stopped at this point at 27.5 hours.

Twenty fucking seven point fucking five hours.