Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Vegas Day 1 - Direct Flights, Delays, and Donkeys

I'm a fan of flying and travel. So much so, that when it comes to planning a trip, the fun starts with finding the right flights and hotels.

For trips to the USA from Glasgow, the preferred option has to be Continental, since they go directly to Newark, thus bypassing the hassle of an additional stop over in London, Amsterdam, or Iceland, and the annoyance in many cases of flying in the wrong direction for 90 minutes, only to then retrace the same route, and find myself flying over Scotland again on the westbound leg.

The problem with this, is that lots of other people hold the same view, which means the flights are generally popular i.e. more expensive. Thus I was delighted to eventually grab a deal that was comparable with the two-stoppers offered by American Airlines, Northwest, etc. £403 (~$810) return from Glasgow to Las Vegas. I was ahead before I even began.

This planning saw me and K at Glasgow Airport last Tuesday morning around 7am. In good time for the 9am departure. We passed some time with a coffee, before saying our fond farewells. Much as I was looking forward to the trip, and a week away from work, I wasn't looking forward to a week without my family.

The flight to Newark was ready to leave in good time, which left only a short period for some people watching on the international pier.

It's late in the season for holidays to the Mediterranean sun, but even so, two flights to Palma were due for departure, and there were more than a few pints of lager being sunk at 8am.

I settled down to fill in my immigration and customs forms, only to hit the first snag of the trip. The instructions were to complete in pen. I had only a pencil.

No problem. There's a WH Smith 20 yards away. Which doesn't sell pens. ffs.

Around now, I noticed a minor panic occurring within earshot. An extended family unit was in disarray. The plane at gate 33 had gone; they'd missed their flight.

Except they hadn't, as the group were too drunk/stupid to realise the departure of the second Palma flight was from gate 31. In direct line of sight, but at the furthest point in the pier.

Eventually it sunk in, and as the 'last call' tannoy messages grew sterner, they sped off down the corridor. All, save for a grotesquely fat woman, who waddled past at a glacial pace. Wheezing like an asthmatic seal. Her stubby arms pumping frantically as she tried to work up a pace.

I feared for the health of whoever was wedged beside her sweaty carcass on that three hour flight.

Soon enough my flight was called, and I soon found myself on a packed 757 winging across the Atlantic.

Time considerations meant I'd eaten little, so was looking forward to the airline 'breakfast'. This transpired to be the classic 'beef or chicken' option.

Roast beef and mashed potatoes isn't my ideal breakfast, but it was tasty enough, and certainly filled the gap.

My travel companions were a middle aged Scots couple, headed to their annual 28 days in Tampa. Not a bad life! The guy worked in the military sector, which made for an interesting chat, and they had a pen to loan me, so all was good.

It got better at Newark, as I sailed through Immigration and Customs in around fifteen minutes. Well short of the two hours I'd been briefed to expect on a couple of online forums.

After re-checking my case for the flight to Las Vegas I headed for the security checks, which took only another 15 minutes.

No great hardship, though the TSA staff at Newark are probably the second most sullen people in the airport. The checks had an air of chaos, with some agents waving people forward, others gesturing to the back. Some shouting, others apparently oblivious to the travellers around them.

My swift journey through the various checks was in one way a bad-beat, since I'd planned in sufficient time to ensure I made my connection, and now found myself in the departure area, an hour before an EARLIER flight was due to depart.

I decided to chance my arm with customer services. Approaching the desk I explained my desire to switch to the earlier flight. The lady behind the computer eyed me with a vacant, uncomprehending gaze.

My first accent issue. I explained again. Slowly. Precisely. With much reinforcement through hand gestures.

She tapped at her keyboard for a few seconds. An aura of pure disinterest emanating from her very soul. 'Eeeees full.'

The conversation was over. I thanked her for her 'assistance' and headed to the Garden State diner for a distinctly average tasting, but gargantuan in scale, pastrami and corned beef melt.

A big lunch was to prove a fortuitous choice, as the day progressed.

Newark is a slightly strange airport. Bright and airy, lots of space, a good range of eating options, and comfortable seats at the gates. Yet lacking in options to amuse anyone caught there for a lengthy period of time.

As I wandered around, I was surprised to see the queue at one of the ladies restrooms stretch onto the concourse, despite the airport appearing to be less than packed. The queue seemed more commensurate with a club at 3am than a modern hub airport.

Arriving at the departure gate, my heart sank as a two hour delay was flagged up for my flight. It sank further as the delay grew to three hours, and the bad news spread across a range of flights. Bad weather to the west was shutting out a number of destinations, including Vegas.

My people watching urges were sated by the arrival of a group of three media/PR types who were in loud despair at the hole blown in their schedule by the weather.

They were making great play of their missing some important meeting, and their voices seemed to be on a bizarre volume control setting, which peaked ostentatiously at each mention of their itinerary, or cutting edge MO.

'We'll call you when we get there and CHECK IN AT THE BELLAGIO'

'Yeah after we shoot the video AT THE VENETIAN, I'll head back to my room and POST IT ON YOU TUBE'

PR1 was a camp guy with confused fashion sense - suit by Wall Street, shirt by Saturday Night Fever.

PR2 was a foxy brunette in perilous heels and pencil skirt, who took the sexy executive vibe to it's logical conclusion with a pair of designer glasses, after firing up her MacBook.

PR3 was another girl, though more chunky than foxy. This hadn't deterred her from an outfit that was greatly more revealing than PR2, and about 100 times less sexy.

100 became 1000 when she sat down directly opposite me, and performed the first of many 'movie star' leg crosses - her skirt riding up to reveal not a Sharon Stone approach to underwear (thankfully!), but a post-pregnancy Katie Holmes style bodyshaping garment.

It was a car crash flash. I couldn't help but look, as her retreating skirt revealed what appeared to be a pair of exploding sausages beneath. Eventually, I had to move, and went off to acquire a banana and raspberry smoothie. This wasn't to be the last thought of Katie on this trip.

Finally we were boarded and ready to go. Except we weren't. The pilot explained that all the 'western gates' were closed due to weather, so he was planning to take a 'north gate' up around Detroit to skirt the troublesome front. This would add an hour to the flight time, but at least we'd get away.

As we neared the end of the taxiway, alarms bells went off in my head. We exited from the queue of departing aircraft, crossing the runway to park alone on the opposite taxiway. The pilot returned to the intercom. The north gates had just shut down, so we'd be turning off the engines and awaiting the passing of the bad weather.

For roughly an hour we had a planespotters dream view of a succession of 747, 777, A340, etc. taking off to head eastwards across the Atlantic. The plane shook with each surging roar of jet engines.

I nodded off. The sole comfort of the flight being the low occupancy rate meant I had three seats to myself.

My thoughts darkened as I recalled Ms 'Eees Full' from earlier. Had the earlier flight really been full? Could I be in Vegas by now?

Later these suspicions were allayed as I overheard another passenger complaining on her cellphone about going through the same conversation as I - though probably without the hand gestures.

I managed to sleep for a good part of the flight, and my spirits soared as the plane descended and the bright lights of The Strip hove into view.

Awaiting disembarkation, I chatted to the travellers behind me, a couple of off-duty cabin crew who were in town for some partying.

The girl was in town for one night only, so the delay had put a real dent in her evening. The guy was a Vegas local, back for ten days, but even so he was ready to hit the town straight away.

He told me he loved Glasgow as a stopover, and his favourite bar was The Polo Lounge, which made me smile as it reinforces just about every stereotype you'd care to apply to male cabin crew.

They were chatty and friendly, like most of the Continental cabin crew, and we all agreed the Vegas skyline had remarkable restorative powers after a bad flight.

The MGM Grand check-in at McCarran was closed due to the late hour, so I grabbed my case and headed for the cab rank.

Soon I was being regaled by a wiry Latino cab driver - who told me he was a boxer - with tales of his half-Scottish girlfriend.

I smiled indulgently, assuming I was getting some tourist patter, though my scepticism faded as he waxed lyrical on the merits of her pale skin, freckles, and reddish hair. This guy needn't box, he's a world class bullshitter, I thought, as his phone rang.

'Hey baby, I got a Scottish guy in my cab. I'm taking him to the MGM.', he yelled into the phone, as he activated the loud speaker.

'Omigod! I'm half-Scottish!', yelled an American female voice.

Only in Vegas!

I got a great deal at the MGM Grand via Fatwallet. $225 for three nights, inclusive of some drinks and entertainment credits.

The check in queue was mercifully short, and I was soon allocated a 'West Wing' room on the 5th floor.

I trekked to the room, dragging my case behind me, and slid the plastic key into the slot. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing happened.

From inside the room I detected the sound of a TV, and a female voice, unaware of my presence and in conversation with another occupant.

I contemplated my options. Knock the door, explain my predicament, and get them to call reception and sort it out, or traipse back to reception myself and find out what the hell was happening.

With visions of being shot on my first night, or busted on an attempted rape charge, I took the second option. This never happens to James Bond, I thought, as I descended in the lift.

'Oh, you went to the 5th floor.', deadpanned a different receptionist.

'Well it says five on the card?'

'She meant to write a three' tutted the receptionist, as she corrected the original numeral.

Seems I wasn't the only one having a bad day.

Finally at around midnight, after being on-the-go for over 26 hours, I entered my room in Vegas. I was tired, hungry, and sweaty.

There was only one thing to do. I showered, changed, collected my players card from the desk in the casino, and headed for the poker room to break myself in gently.

'Have you got any small limit games going?'

'We have a 3/6 table with a seat open.'

'Perfect', I smiled.

An hour later I was slightly regretting my decision. The table was dull, with a definite lack of social chat, and I'd had no cards at all to play.

My only consolation, most of the players were rubbish. It was a total loose-passive limpathon.

Finally, I looked down at AQo. Two players limped, I raised, and the only two players I'd labelled as half-decent both cold called with position on me. My heart sank and I immediately discounted trying to win this pot with aggression if I missed the flop - which was AQ3 rainbow.

So, not a miss. Of course I bet when checked to, both to my left called, but the pattern took an unexpected twist when I got check-raised by a dull guy in the BB who'd been haemorrhaging chips since I sat down, and communicating only with a friend who was railing him.

Three betting was automatic, which drove everyone else out of the pot, and he check-called me down, and mucked on the river, leaving me to rake a healthy pot.

Soon after, the last of his chips were gone, and he departed in silence.

By about 3am little else of interest had happened, and I was finally succumbing to fatigue. Forgetting when my blinds were due, losing track of the action, and taking an age to read the board.

Calling it quits I liberated a rack from a short-stack and cashed in about $60 to the good. A pleasant way to end a very long day.

Navigating my way through the corridor between poker room and hotel room, I chanced upon a couple of young black girls loitering outside the West Wing bar.

'Hey cutie!', they called in unison.

'Sorry girls.', I motioned apologetically. Rapidly deducing their company would cost a lot more than $60, as I detoured around them and headed for the solitude of my room, and what was sure to be a long, deep sleep.

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