‘Ooh, look. Is that The Strip?’ Rachel was leaning over from her aisle seat next to me to catch sight of the neon track that glowed brightly in the night sky outside. ‘That’s the Ferris wheel, isn’t it? Ooh, we’re staying there. Not literally in the wheel, in the Linq.’
I’d never met Rachel before in my life, and I’ll probably never see her again, but for the previous ten and a half hours she had been a terrific travel companion. A paediatric nurse working up in the Midlands, she had put the pedal to the metal in business class, grabbing the opportunity with both hands. The three champagnes, four glasses of white wine and I don’t know how many reds said that Rachel was one of those wonderful people who lived life with arms wide open.
‘Yeah, and look can you see?’ I jabbed at the plastic window next to me. ‘That’s the Stratosphere tower I was telling you about.’
‘The one with the ride that drops you from the sky done to the ground? Terrific.’ Rachel grinned, her shoulders automatically lifting up to her ears as she did. ‘Ooh,’ her hand pointed out the window again. ‘The Eiffel Tower.’
I paused, just momentarily. Then just gave in. What was attention to detail and cultural misrepresentation now that we were in Vegas. ‘Yup, And there’s the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx.’
As I turned to her. I saw others on the other side of the aisle craning their necks for a look. I needed to stop being so cynical. I looked back through the window. Vegas at night. It really does make for an arresting sight. The lights, the architecture – there was something of a wonderfulness in its blend of gaudy tackiness and impressive structural achievement.
My heart lifted. And not just from the rush as our wheels touched the runway.
We all grabbed our bags and sped out through customs; the last I saw of Rachel she was at the cab rank with her husband, excited to head off for a weekend of rollercoasters and refillable daiquiris. If any group in the world deserves business class travel, it is nurses but I had wondered how Rachel could afford Club Class on an NHS salary. Then I saw her husband – who’d been seated on the other side of the aircraft – and it all clicked. Clearly a business man.
She’d done well, as my Nan would say. Though I would argue it was him who was the lucky one. Rachel was great fun. After take off, she’d got stuck in to Baywatch. The only time she stopped laughing was to pull off one of her headphones to tell me, ‘It’s the one with The Rock in it. It’s all very tongue in cheek.’ She heaved another laugh. ‘Ah, but you’re very good doing all that reading, you know. Very admirable.’ She glanced down at my iPad, winked at me, and put the headphones back in.
Then after Baywatch – and the red wine – she went with Alien Covenant. ‘I can’t get the Menu to work on my television,’ she said by way of explanation. ‘It’s all in alphabetical order and I’m stuck on the first screen.’ So Rachel promptly spent the next ninety minutes either hiding behind the top edges of her blanket or leaping out of her seat – complete with a yelp that startled most of the cabin (and caused me to grin) – before the alcohol eventually kicked in and she passed out on her flat bed.
So Rachel and her hubby took their cab, and I took mine.
Vegas is so small that it was only a fifteen minute ride from Arrivals to my hotel entrance – and my hotel is right the other end of The Strip – but in that time my driver covered A LOT of proverbial ground. ‘Oh my God, you’re British! My grandmother is from Chester (pronounced Chest-err) Go, West Ham!’
‘Football. The true sport.’
‘You watch football.’
‘I love it.’ He took his hand off the wheel and put it in the air. ‘I’m a Red Devil.’
I took a deep internal sigh.
‘You’re not a West Ham supporter? Being a Londoner?’ He glanced at me through his rear-view mirror. ‘North London derby then. Tottenham Hotspur and, err…’
‘You like Arsenal?’
‘Good Lord, no. More Liverpool.’
‘Gerrard!’ The guy looked thrilled to make the connection. I decided not to puncture his joy with the fact that, well, he was a few years out. ‘The guy is a legend,’ a statement which, though factually correct, marked the first time I’d ever heard those words uttered by a United supporter.
‘Do you watch a lot of football?’ I asked.
‘I watched a Champions League match a couple of years ago. A big one. Manchester versus Real Madrid.’
Bless him, the guy went on and on. He seemed so thrilled to chat about this but, instead, I watched the world pass by on the other side of the car window. We weren’t on The Strip but on the road parallel. The seductive facades of the huge casino complexes were therefore denied me and all I saw instead were the vast acres of car parks and demolished land behind these huge sterile hotel buildings, vast towers of concrete, each of which had to have thirty or so floors.
And all the demolished land behind them stood vacant, and the car parks were almost entirely empty. And the roads, I suddenly realised, were deserted.
‘160,000 hotel rooms in Vegas.’ The driver had caught me rubber-necking these vast acres of unused land and real estate. ‘Enough to fill Wembley two times over.’ He started shaking his head. ‘But there ain’t that many people here. Not anymore.’
The impact of the financial crash? Global austerity? The shooting? I wondered how I could delicately ask why that was…. But before I could, ‘And now that we’ve got that screwball in the White House, we don’t have anyone coming here.’
Ahhh…. Only barely off the flight and I’d found my first Trump conversation. Nevada, I knew, was Hillary territory – just. She’d won the state but not exactly by a landslide. As I’d packed my suitcase, I had worried about how I might react if I came across one of those who’d voted for him.
‘And now we’ve got a pedophile running in Alabama…’
‘Yeah, we’ve even heard about that back in the UK.’
‘But you know, they started with articles of impeachment now so we will get him.’
And with that, we pulled up in front of my hotel. I’d struck lucky with my first political conversation; fingers crossed I stayed lucky.
Oh, and if you want to see The Strip as you touch down in Vegas, you need to be sitting in a window seat on the right-side of the plane. Handy travel tip there!