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Is that the real Caesar’s Palace?

2 - 6 May 2010

R dropped me off at the airport and the flight to LA goes surprisingly quickly despite a cock up with my seat as I was told that I had an emergency exit one but it’s a normal ‘sit with your knees around your head whilst we allocate the seats with leg room to the vertically challenged’ seat. I manage to move to the bulk head before takeoff and at least that gives me some more legroom. A black mark for Air New Zealand!

LAX is a confusing airport and once I have got through the vigorous passport control (digital finger print scanning and unflattering webcam photos) and transfer to the domestic terminal, it is nearly time to catch my connecting flight to Las Vegas.

The turbulence coming into LV airport is almost enough to make me want to become religious and I fear that I am about to become a genuine CSI Las Vegas case story. Still, I make it through and get a shuttle to the hotel (once I’ve walked past the numerous slot machines that appear just as you step off the ‘plane into the airport: I guess there’s no time to waste when you have a gambling habit)

My room is positively palatial and I wander off to take some photos and grab some food. On my way out of my room I come across a couple getting married in the hotel grounds and despite it being ‘the happiest day of their lives’, the bride looks a bit glum. Maybe getting married in an Elvis suit wasn’t quite what she had in mind for her big day. Las Vegas is, well, everything that you would expect: it’s an assault on the senses from all directions and its brash, loud, ostentatious, dazzling, bigger and ‘better’ than anything you’ve ever seen coupled with large dollops of insincerity, debauchery, excess and I have to confess, a little excitement and curiosity. I find a shopping centre near the hotel and it reminds me of The Valaggio in Doha, Qatar (or ‘The Vag’, as my brother likes to call it): it has blue skies painted on the ceiling and a Venetian-style gondola in the middle of it but I don’t hang around for long and get an early night as I am meeting my tour group at 7.30am tomorrow.

There are 11 of us in the group and 6 of us are Brits and the rest of made up of Poles, Dutch and Koreans. They are a nice bunch and our leader is American/Pilipino and is very easy going. Our first stop is the Hoover Dam and it’s an impressive engineering feat. It was completed in 1935 and is currently the world’s 34th largest hydroelectric generating station and the 17 turbine-generators generate a maximum of 2,074 megawatts of hydroelectric power.

We get our kicks in a burger bar in Seligman, Arizona on the historic Route 66 which prides itself on its wacky sense of humour (‘home of the cheeseburger with cheese’, ‘dead chicken’ and ‘prices are subject to change according to customer’s attitude’) and it was established in 1953 and the original owner was ‘cherished’ by tourists for the antics that he pulled on them whilst they were trying to order their food.

The journey thus far had taken us through large expanses of greenery and juniper trees as there has been a lot of rain recently (and snow as we learn when we later reach the Grand Canyon). We have lunch in a small town called Williams and then set up camp in Tusayan, which is located 20 minutes from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Our camp site is basic and since I am not a camping sort of girl, I am pleased that I only have to spend one night in a tent. We head off to the South Rim to see the sun setting over the Canyon and to say that it is an ‘awesome’ sight is somewhat of an understatement.

It was formed by the Colorado River and averages 91 m in width, 30 m in depth and flows an average speed of 6.4 km per hour. The Canyon itself covers an area of 4,921 sq. km is 306 km long and is populated by 5 Native American tribes (the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Paiute and the Hualapai). A few more facts: it is a chasm 446 km long and up to 29 km wide and took 3-6 million years to form.

We watch the incredible differing shades of light alter over the Canyon as the sun sets and because the South Rim has an elevation of 2,134 m, the temperature drops considerably once the sun has set.This is our indication to go back to the camp site for dinner and beers. I wish I could say that we had beers around the campfire whilst watching the stars but we were not allowed to have a fire. The temperature during the night was enough to freeze a brass minkey and at one stage I was tempted to set fire to myself in order to keep warm as my ‘summer’ sleeping bag that I had bought in NZ was not really doing the trick. Nevertheless, I just about survived the night and a hot shower and some breakfast in the morning soon reinstated the blood supply to my extremities before the frost bite set in.

After a little financial deliberation, I decided to do the optional helicopter ride over the Canyon with the rest of the group as it is difficult to appreciate the scale and enormity of the Canyon from the Rim. As it happens, it was the right decision and 50 minutes later aboard our ‘Maverick’ helicopter, I had taken enough photographs to publish a book as I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the front. I was quite surprised to see snow on the highest points of the mountain and apparently they had had snow as little as three days ago (actually, I don’t know why I was surprised given that I had nearly frozen to death the night before).

It was sad to say good bye to the Canyon but we had to continue to our next natural wonder, Monument Valley, situated in the Navajo Indian Reservation, which also straddles the two states of Utah and Arizona. Of course, the Native Americans do not like to be called Indians and according to our guide, Tim (not his real name), they prefer to be called Dinè, as this is the tribe that dominates this area.

Monument Valley is a Navajo Nation tribal park, straddling the border of North Eastern Arizona and South Eastern Utah of the Colorado Plateau. It preserves the Navajo way of life and some of the most striking and recognizable landscapes of sandstone buttes, mesas and spires in the entire South West.

Tim gave us a guided tour of the Valley and after watching the sun set whilst listening to some melodies on Tim’s flute, we went in search of our hogan and dinner. Unfortunately, a cock up with the preparation of dinner meant that we had to drive around for nearly another hour and listen to some more flute tunes before we tucked in to some traditional NA food (this was just like a big taco and didn’t seem very traditional to me) and a nice cup of tea as all alcohol is banned in the Reservation as there has been a major problem with alcoholism. Next we had what I hate the most about visiting indigenous peoples: the mandatory dancing & singing show and dragging in members of the group to participate to make them look even more like idiots than the people running the show. Yes, you guessed it: we had a pow wow around the camp fire lead by a NA (but it cracked me up to see him later when he had changed from his colourful headdress and satin costume into an ACDC t-shirt and jeans!) And to think I had my reservations about it all.

Our sleeping arrangements were much better and we slept in a traditional hogan, which is essentially a mud hut. Actually, there is no essentially about it: it is a mud hut but it was a warm and dry mud hut and I was grateful not to have to experience the arctic conditions of the night before.

It was an early start to the morning to see the sun rise over the Valley and another drive around the sites, with some more commentary from Tim (‘Mission Impossible was filmed there’, ‘John Wayne walked there’ etc etc) but luckily we were not subjected to any more flute playing.

After a quick breakfast, we set off on the road towards Lake Powell and the Carl Hayden Visitors Centre. Lake Powell is America’s second largest manmade lake , spans from Utah to Arizona and has 2,000 miles of shore line. Our route dipped in and out of the states of Utah and Arizona and differing time zones (all very confusing) and we reached our last night’s accommodation in Paria Plateau, Utah in the late afternoon. This was another camp site but we had the bunk house and the entire place was clean and comfortable. Some people went for a horse trek whilst the rest of us took advantage of the hot showers and a few sun downers on the veranda of the bunkhouse.

We are allowed a bit of a lie in on the final day of the tour which is just as well as some of us played drinking games until the early hours and are feeling a bit jaded but after some breakfast and a shower, we begin to feel human again and we go for a short hike to see some rock formations shaped like toadstools.

We proceeded back to Vegas via Colorado City, Hurricane and Mesquite and arrive late afternoon. A few of us meet for dinner and see the sights along The Strip: including a fake Eiffel Tower and a casino which is a replica of Paris, France (why?!) and I lose $20 on the blackjack and decide to call it a night as I have to be up at 4am for my flight back to LA in the morning.

I was surprised how much I liked the small part of America that I saw and found the Americans to be very friendly and helpful (this considering the recent threats to security in Neu Jork) but the blatant excess and disregard for the environment really got to me: huge gas guzzling cars, huge food guzzling people, wasting of water and electricity (the fountains along The Strip give a display every half an hour to music and the ‘show’ lasts about 15 minutes each time), massive portions of food. Ultimately: consumption, consumption and more consumption!

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