Monthly Archives: August 2012

Weekend in Vegas

Mom and I recently spent a few days in Las Vegas, which was totally crazy. Three days is definitely not enough time, but you could spend three months there and still not see and do everything. There is so much on every single night, with happy hours (food and drink), buffets, shows, comedy shows, live music, concerts, free events, sports events, the list goes on. There are also so many hotels that are attractions in themselves, such as the Bellagio, MGM, New York New York, Paris and the Venetian. It is also the city that never sleeps, and I found it so odd that you can walk around the street drinking alcohol. In glass, aluminum or plastic, you can go between casinos drinking what you want. And if you order a drink while at a slot machine or a table within a casino, all you pay is the tip to the waitress – the beer or wine is free! And there are slot machines EVERYWHERE. In gas stations. Lobbies. The airport! The car rental area at the airport! So the minute you step off the plane, bam, time to gamble.

Our first night, we went to downtown Las Vegas, to Fremont Street. It is totally separate from The Strip, which is what you usually think of when you think “Las Vegas”. It is an older part of town with older and less flashy casinos, but the main street has events going on all night long, including music and a kind of light show above the main street, dedicated to Queen.

Downtown Las Vegas

Fremont Street – Queen “We Will Rock You”

We also checked out the Strip, all the beautiful hotels and impressive lights. It really just takes your breath away.

Mandalay Bay – with the reflection of the sunset on it

Las Vegas

Paris Hotel

Bright lit up signs around Vegas

And despite prostitution being illegal in Las Vegas, there is a proliferation of signs and ads around Vegas for girls direct to your room, hot babes, and all that. We got stuck behind this trailer whilst trying to get back to our hotel one night…

Hot Babes advertisement

One of the fab things about the Vegas hotels is that you can actually feel like you are in Italy, New York and Rome, all in one night. The Venetian was a beautiful hotel. The Canal Shoppes were beautiful. The ceiling is painted like the sky, they have a canal with functioning little boats (called gondolas) you can have a ride on. So much detail. And although MGM got rid of their lions earlier this year, there are still real flamingos at the Flamingo Hotel.

Hotel of Bugsy Siegel

Flamingos at the Flamingo Hotel

Canal Shoppes at the Venetian

And of course, we didn’t just look at casinos and gamble our entire time. We went to the Mob Museum, which is a non-profit museum housed within the former courthouse and post office. It is all about gangs and mobsters, with a focus on their involvement in Las Vegas and the casinos, as well as a broader look at gangs throughout the United States. It was a fantastic museum. Really informative. We also went to the chocolate fountain at the Jean-Philippe Patisserie at the Bellagio Hotel. It is 27 feet (8 meters) high with 2,100 pounds (950 kg) of melted flowing chocolate. It took 2 years to engineer and design, and is the world’s tallest and largest volume chocolate factory. It also has milk, white and dark chocolate flowing through it 24/7.

Chocolate fountain at the Bellagio

So much chocolate!

We also saw two shows – The Blue Man Show and Ka by Cirque du Soleil. Both were mindblowing. There was no actual stage in Ka, they had two moving “stages” that could go completely upright or flat, and any angle in between. The stage and theatrics and aerobatics they did, completely amazing. It totally exceeded our expectations. And of course, we waited in line to have our photo with the Vegas sign. On our last day. We really should have had a photo with the other side of the sign, thanking us for visiting and wishing us a safe journey!

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas!!

 

 

 

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Two shooting locations in one day. Must be Texas

America is a unique being. It is a single united country with a single President, however it has 50 individual states, each with their own laws, governors, courts, and general ways of doing things. In order to understand, you have to think of each state in the USA as if it is own individual country, only bound to each other through national (federal) laws and regulations. The people in each state have their own values, foods and even their own accents. Many people who have been to LA, New York or other main tourist destinations may not find this the case, because big cities around the world are all very similar. However if you have been to Texas, you notice right away that it is very different. In my opinion and experience, Texas is so unlike any other state in the USA. It really is just different. And this past weekend, I definitely felt that difference.

I lived in Texas until I was almost 5 years old, and my family returned during the following summers to visit friends and family. I grew up in the countryside, near a tiny town called Poetry, and my childhood involved a sheepdog called Shellie, toasting marshmallows outside in our forest, playing outside and very little of the prevalent fast food that plagues the nation now. I grew up knowing Texas and all the wonderful things it had to offer, including pulled pork, Tex Mex, the Arlington Six Flags theme park, hot 100 degree summers and welcoming Southern hospitality. However, growing up overseas, I realized how lucky I was not to live there – schools in Texas, and in lots of other states now, have metal detectors at school entrances. Because kids carry knives to school. College students can even carry guns to their classes (at certain colleges only). And the American flag is always at half mast to mourn victims of a recent shooting. Will it ever be raised fully?

Although I always wanted to return to Texas and continue to grow up there, we had a much safer upbringing in New Zealand, and even in Indonesia. In New Zealand, the police do not carry guns. They recently were allowed to carry tasers, which many people opposed. However in Texas, you don’t need a license to buy a handgun or a rifle. This is the general population, not police. You need a license to carry a concealed weapon, but anyone is allowed to buy a long gun from a dealer or private seller provided that they are over 18 years of age and have no felony convictions. You can buy a hand gun at 21. You can also use deadly force to protect your property. Even if you ignore the fact that Texas is different because “everything is bigger in Texas”, Texas really is completely and totally different.

And this past Sunday, I really experienced Texas. We attended a morning service at the local Baptist Church with my Grandad and Aunt. My Grandad has attended that church for almost half a century. And in 1999, it was the location of a massacre where a lone gunman (17 years old) came in and shot at a 150 person congregation on a Wednesday night. 7 people died (luckily only 7) and the gunman turned his gun on himself at the end. It is just crazy that this happens. Although most Texans would say that this is why more people need to be able to carry guns. Criminals will always get guns, no matter what the law is, and therefore if someone starts shooting at a church, a mall or a restaurant, you want people to take the gunman out. If law-abiding citizens can carry guns, they may be able to take the gunman out and save lives.

I have always been anti-guns, but Texans present a convincing argument. And after we attended Church, we went to Luby’s, a chain restaurant which had its own massacre in 1991. 23 people died and 20 people were injured. It was the deadliest shooting massacre until the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. And this was in an ordinary restaurant, with ordinary people. Unlike the Church, where the gunman may have had anti-Baptist feelings, there was nothing that made Luby’s any more of a target than your typical fast food joint.

So even knowing that people previously died at this Church, I still wanted to attend the service. I wanted to see what a Southern Baptist church really was like. If it was as restrictive and conservative as I thought. And honestly, no words can even describe the experience. It was so different to what I expected. Firstly, it is incredibly progressive. My Mom, who attended the Church whilst growing up in Fort Worth, could not believe how progressive and modern it had become. And personally, I could not believe the entire service.

Clear your mind and visualize 2 guitarists, a drummer, a pianist and keyboard player, 5 performers with microphones on stage, with a choir behind them. People moving with the music, yelling out, clapping, and raising their hands fist pumping in the air. It sounds like a rock concert of sorts doesn’t it? This was no rock concert, this was the Sunday morning church service. It was like those televised Church services on Sunday mornings. So superficial and put on, a performance of sorts. People actually said “Hallelujah” or would speak out and agree, “Oh Lord” during the service. And during the songs, people would close their eyes, sway, and raise their hands (to the Lord) up high and keep them there. That would get tiring after a while…must be good exercise I guess for their arm muscles!

Now I am not a complete foreigner to religion. I attended an Anglican high school, where I attended church services and sang in the choir for several years. I love choral music and although I do not practice religion, I am not an atheist. I just have not found a religion that I can fully identify with. I understand the attraction of religion and at school services have considered religion. Even in my more adult years I have attended services and find them really peaceful and beautiful. I enjoy the hymns, the spirituality and the values taught in such services. But I disagree with how religion can be so black and white, and I prefer to take what I like from religion and live life my way with my own values, regardless of what a preacher or what a text says on how I should live my life. But attending that service, all I could think was “Get me out of here!!”. There ain’t no way I am going to be a Southern Baptist I am sorry but firstly, where are the beautiful hymns. What was that they were singing! It was horrific. It was like modern music to brainwash youngsters into attending church, but with really black and white messages, and very man made with prominent messages portrayed through the songs. What happened to Ave Maria, The Lord is my Shepard and even the Lord’s prayer??

And speaking of the black and white, they “dedicated” two children to the church during the service. The Minister asked the parents to pledge to bring the children up in the Baptist faith, because ‘if you are not brought up a Baptist from day one you are doomed to fail’. It was basically ‘us’ versus ‘the enemy’. Jesus Christ. No wonder cults pop up like the one in Waco Texas years ago. People truly believe that you have to follow that faith in order to be saved, and to live a wholesome life you must dedicate yourself truly and completely to their God and their values. And during one part of the service, the elderly and disabled went up to have the Minister pray with them, as if to heal them!?! As I said earlier…words cannot begin to describe…

The one thing that made it all bearable was that up front, there was a woman interpreting the service in American Sign Language (“ASL”)! It was incredible! I really enjoyed watching and trying to learn ASL during the service. Many of the words I will never use in day to day signing, such as Lord, Jesus, sacrifice and worship, but it was interesting. In New Zealand, interpreters are scarce and costly. Many people do not know anything about Deaf people, Deaf culture or sign language itself, despite New Zealand Sign Language being an official language of New Zealand. So I just thought it was great that there was an interpreter for the Deaf at a Church, as I have never come across that in New Zealand. Although then again I haven’t attended too many churches there to really say.

And another progressive thing that made me think of the services you see on TV is that it is filmed and put on the Internet! So if you want to watch the 36 minute sermon I endured, where the Minister discussed a passage of the Bible, and also compared church goers to Indian beggars wanting 1 rupee on the streets of India, this Church uploads all their sermons online!! So, due to the wonderful creation of the Internet, you no longer have to take notes of the sermon (although most of the congregation was)! Or, even if you have taken notes, you can revise and take more notes once you are home!!

And even better, if you want to listen to the music, the announcements and hear the random outbursts of “Hallelujah” throughout, the Church streams if live! So really, Mom and I could have stayed in Garland, rather than woken at 6:30 in the morning to get ready and drive over an hour to Fort Worth for Church. Or, if I ever feel compelled to convert, I can watch the services online after I return to San Diego. Personally I don’t think I will…but you never know, pigs might fly.

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San Diego one week down.

One week ago, I flew into LAX, was welcomed ‘home’ by immigration (and asked whether “people over there [aka Asia] were nice” to me) and greeted by my Mom, who had flown over to help me settle into my new surroundings. It has been three years since I was last in the States, and despite having traveled extensively in Asia, I haven’t traveled as extensively in the USA. For example, although I was born in LA, I have never been to San Diego (a mere 2 hours drive away), the city I plan to spend the next five months.

And now, 10 days after I arrived, I feel like I have a good feel for San Diego. I was so surprised by how close the ocean is to downtown. Driving down from LA we passed multiple beaches with people out enjoying the warm weather. I had a tour of my new university, have seen many apartments, condos and rooms, and actually signed a lease for a one bedroom apartment! So although it has been stressful, waking up each morning checking Craigslist, real estate websites and driving around trying to find available housing, I have seen lots of different styles of living in different parts of town. And I have met lots of people along the way. Even though it didn’t work out with many of them, everyone has been incredibly friendly and very interested in the fact I am studying here on exchange. No one I have met so far has been to New Zealand, but they all want to visit. And many people from law school have offered to introduce me to people, give me the “inside scoop” or meet up for a coffee.

I have also eaten a lot of good food. It is crazy how meals are so big in the States that you can go to a Mexican restaurant, order a $10 meal, get free chips and salsa (refillable too!), and have a meal so big that you take more than half of it home for lunch and dinner the next day. It is ridiculous how big things here are. In WalMart, they had a pop tart box the size of my head. Pickles and jalapenos come in jars larger than my head. And you can buy family bags of 18 frozen burritos, or other frozen goods in huge bulk. And things are so cheap!! A bottle of vodka is only $11 from the local drugstore. I bought a Nine West laptop bag for $30. And you can buy a 1.5 L bottle of wine for $5. America is such a different world. But it is exciting.

And today I moved into my apartment. Granted, furniture does not arrive until tomorrow, and I don’t have my Internet, phone or TV installed until Wednesday, but I have keys! I have cutlery, wine glasses, a duvet cover and a small amount of groceries. It is in a big apartment building, with a beautiful pool, an in-house gym, sports room and business center, and is located in Little Italy, a really cool hip suburb with cute cafes and of course lots of Italian restaurants. There is a market every Saturday morning, which starts only 1 block away. There is a great gourmet grocery store nearby, and a British pub around the corner. And I will soon be all moved in! I am so excited about the market, there are so many stalls selling organic locally grown fruit and vegetables, fresh bread, pastries and lemonades. It is going to be a fun neighborhood to live in. As close to Wellington as I am going to get.

And despite the stress of trying to find a place to live, Mom and I sure have eaten well. When I was tossing up between studying in Singapore or studying in San Diego, it was also a toss-up between the food: yum cha and BBQ pork buns, or Mexican. And Mexican won. Of course America has a lot of other foods to offer, such as a hot dog on a stick, covered in artificially flavored blueberry pancake, in the frozen section, or a waffle breakfast sandwich from Jack in the Box (consisting of a fried egg, American cheese, and a sausage patty nestled between two lightly sweetened maple waffles). But it does have great Mexican food, alongside other delicious things such as crab, pulled pork and tender BBQ ribs. We ate the latter at a bar where part of Top Gun was filmed. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, we were sitting right by the piano that features in the film (I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t tell you the details of it or know the importance of the piano). Based on all the delicious food available here, it is pretty lucky that my apartment building has a gym, because otherwise I might return to NZ twice the size as when I left! Although I doubt that will happen. Californians seem incredibly healthy and health-conscious. Whole Foods, this fantastic grocery store, has a huge variety of marinated tofu and tempe, and a beautiful salad bar. So I can live a very healthy and wholesome lifestyle here. But then again…pop tarts just taste so good.

Rubio’s Mexican – A sustainable Alaskan wild salmon taco with Mexican rice and black beans.

And of course, BBQ. Baby back ribs with homemade onion rings at Kansas City BBQ, which features in Top Gun.

Joe’s Crab Shack at Pacific Beach