Rolling in and Busting Out of Vegas

January 26th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Meet Zoltar and your fortune.

Taxi drivers. Slot machines. Houdini. Elvis. Love gone haywire. Zoltar the mechanical fortuneteller. What do these all have in common? Where are they all pointing to? Our next destination. Vegas. And what came to be the lowest, potentially the most guttural point of this Southwest journey. It was all my idea, my desire to see first-hand this place where many of my friends and family have frequented. I was also looking for a dramatic contrast to what we had been experiencing. We definitely got that.

Let’s start with the taxi driver, perhaps the most enlightened individual in this segment of our trip. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even in Las Vegas when we ventured there for a day, but he sure did get it right when he offered his observations of a place he feels compelled to frequent.

Not to deviate once again, but what is it about taxi drivers? In our case, a taxi van driver. It doesn’t matter where you are, the moment you step into any vehicle for hire, you enter the very close quarters of someone else’s universe, with all the smells, the unkemptness, the hopefully stable state of mind of the person taking you for a ride. If someone ever hitched a ride from me, that lucky individual might very well stumble upon a stash of vitamins, a bottle of Advil and a few (unused) sanitary pads in the glove compartment, a travel brush in desperate need of being de-haired, a partially eaten PBJ sandwich snugly sandwiched within the crevice of the center console and the passenger seat, an emergency pair of undies and pants for my 4-year-old daughter, or some other embarrassment. It’s a constant challenge to keep my minivan in a presentable state. Taxis, my friend, are perhaps no different.

As a passenger of a taxi, you relinquish your control of the universe to this moveable habitat, voluntarily becoming vulnerable — trapped? — and at the mercy of a stranger. And you are compelled to listen to the chatter, and to respond. Maybe it’s just me, but my driver is usually ready to talk about his colorful background (I have yet to come upon a female cab driver, although I am certain she exists), his kids, his country of origin and all sorts of other personal chit-chat that you never would think of discussing with a perfect stranger, let alone your spouse. But it seems quite normal with the taxi driver. I’d put such a character in the same category as people you would talk total nonsense to, while at the same time unload your deepest secrets. Taxi drivers share the same inner circle as your hairstylist, your gynecologist, your local bartender or your manicurist.

I actually admire taxi drivers. They are hardworking hustlers, maneuvering through hair-raising traffic convolutions for a customer who is already late. They stay awake during late-night shifts and juggle with relative ease multiple activities all at once. I recall the varied forms of vehicles that share the same purpose in such diverse countries around the world. There’s the human-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta, and then the upgraded bicycle rickshaws of Dhaka. Or the becaks of Jakarta.

The multi-tasking bit is what was so impressive about Lon, our taxi van driver who picked us up from the Phoenix airport and saw us off at the end of the trip. His rapid-fire chatter, his allegiance to the Israeli cause, his love of his daughter and frustration at the new drivers he’s training, and his ability to hold an intelligent conversation with us while also conversing with the dispatcher and answering a myriad of calls on his cell. What a guy. I was both entertained and in awe at his ease.

Not to mention his observations about Las Vegas were right-on. He was planning yet another trip there, and we had just departed from Sin City. He does the same thing every time: Go to all his favorite all-you-can-eat buffets, catch a show, crash in a cheap hotel and then back home. When Lon was younger, an old man asked him if he wanted to know how Hell looked like. Sure, said Lon. The old man said just cut off the roof of a casino, look down, and you’ve got Hell.

Along The Strip.

That exact vision reemerged in my mind. It was Caesar’s Palace, in the slot machine areas, where people monotonously stuck quarters into the slots, pulled down the lever and watched with veiled anticipation while the symbols stop whirling in front of them. There was an eerie quietness that gave way to the methodical click-clicking of the slot machine’s arm and the spinning of the reels. This I viewed while walking with my three children through a designated pathway along the perimeter of the casino areas. If we ventured off the route, a security guard popped up to point us in the right direction. No kids allowed.

Let’s take a step back and start with our journey into Las Vegas. The day before, we had experienced the magnificent Zion National Park. We were back on the road in our rented Cruise America RV and just passed a sign that said Rockville, Nevada, population 237. Another sign read Las Vegas, 97 miles.  On US 95 South, we traveled through a desert valley with clumps of brush as the only sign of vegetation. A dramatic landscape once again emerges: rock formations jutted out from different angles as we cross a sandy Virgin River. We are in Arizona now, and just as soon as we entered a different state, the dramatic rock mountains ended and there was flatland as far as the horizon can be seen. Desert Springs.

Arizona didn’t last long, and now we were in Nevada, and with it came bigger clumps of grass and cacti springing out of nowhere. Then humanity entered the picture: Billboards began popping up of adult shops, bankruptcy attorneys, McDonalds and gambling casinos. Vegas, baby!

We decided on overnighting at a KOA, and proceeded to wedge our RV into a sea of other similar RVs in this faceless RV park behind Circus Circus. We bought 24-hour bus passes that allowed us to go up and down the long Strip for $7 apiece. What a mistake. Our goal was to go all the way to the other end of the strip, about seven miles, to Chili’s. I had a few gift cards that I was hankering to use. We didn’t go further than two miles in a sweaty, overcrowded double-decker bus before we had to bale out. Visually, Las Vegas was stimulating and even energizing. But that energy was quickly sapped out of us, and we wondered why we ever came here. Maybe it was because of the kids that brought a different reality to our environment. It seems to be a place for men on the prowl, or girls out to party, or to get in a good show perhaps, at its best.

Las Vegas actually became downright ugly to us within a short period of time. After a hundred-dollar dinner at a burger joint in a nameless casino, we waited outside for our overcrowded double decker bus. Suddenly there was an outburst. A belligerent man came within inches of his girlfriend and called her “bitch” over and over again. He raged on and on and I was waiting for him to physically wail on her. She tried to calm him down and even said, “There are children here.” That didn’t stop him at all. If anything, that seemed to enrage him even more. John took the boys away while I held a sleeping Francesca and sat on a slate bench, waiting for the damn bus to finally arrive. I didn’t want to cause a bigger scene but was this far away from laying into him. I didn’t want the woman to get in more trouble than she already was. So I just watched quietly as my boys gaped, feeling bad for the girl who just sat there with her head in her hands. I was at a loss for this woman who had to succumb to the rantings of a man, knowing that there is no way to win and challenging would mean worse than losing. “I felt so sorry for her,” my oldest son echoed later. (We lost sight of them after boarding the bus, but spotted them later sitting in the back, his arm around her shoulders and both sipping stiff drinks from tiny glasses. Another shining example of what this city evokes.)

It was the hottest of any place we had been. A furnace. Why did anyone want to live here? No ocean around, the spectacular natural scenery is at least two hours away. Why do people go to Vegas? To win after losing so much? Friends of mine, brothers even, love to go and gamble. Seedy is too complex of an adjective to put on something like this. It brings images of the underworld, of the dark layers within someone’s psyche. But this is just so literal, so contrived.  I must say, though, that I desperately wanted to see Elvis. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Plenty of Elvises for everyone.

A day before, we were climbing the sides of cliffs. Now we were climbing escalators and  diverting human traffic as we maneuvered around slot machines and poker tables and unnaturally large-bosomed dealers. There was absolutely nothing natural about this desert oasis. But its extremeness was almost as unnatural as the otherworldly beauty of Monument Valley. It was mind-bending in the realization that this was real. And we existed within all these elements and contributed to their creation and their longevity.

It really wasn’t all bad. We ventured into Houdini’s Magic Shop, where employees performed feats of magic for us for the next 30 minutes. I watched, mesmerized as an employee at the front counter tossed a playing card in front of him that circled him in mid air without any sign of attachment. We walked out with a small bundle of tricks, eager to try them on my poor sister, Maria, the brunt of many of John’s antics. Now he was training the boys in subversive escapades. (The snake popping out of a Pringles can was a real hit.)

If anything, I’d say the boys and Francesca did most of the gambling, or a legal-for-children version of it in the Adventuredome in Circus Circus, with its myriad of carnival games. Monday morning, we ventured back into the dome and Richard braved the double-looped roller coaster with John before we high-tailed it out of Vegas, in search of higher ground.

The bright lights.

A Child in the Garden of Eden

January 16th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Early-morning dictation.

Certain moments strike an intensity when it comes to raising children, similar to mini maelstroms at points in the day like mornings before going to school (pre-coffee is dangerous for anyone crossing my path, although I’ve become a lot better since I have a cup before the others awake), or the after-school confluence of our children having some down time before the chop-chop rituals of doing homework, practicing on an instrument, eating dinner, bathing and getting ready for bed. Despite any planning ahead of time, there’s always the wildcard of one of us having a meltdown for whatever reason. (Except for my husband, who is way too cheerful in the morning and is conveniently tucked away in his studio come mid-afternoon.)

When you think about it, it’s such an awesome responsibility, being a parent. It’s something we don’t necessarily take for granted, but accept by default, and oftentimes we don’t really fathom what we’ve been handed: a human being, utterly helpless at first, totally dependent on us. We are entrusted with guiding that child through his or her monumental, mind-formulating years. Holy moly. And to think that the weakest of humans, ones considered the dregs of society, those you wouldn’t even hire to mow your lawn, can easily be some kid’s parent. And be good at it. How’s that for putting you in your place?

The other night, in my sleep, I was handed a new baby, a dark, curly-haired one this time around, and I was immobilized. At that moment, in my dream, the implications, the repercussions, the depth and breadth of raising another child left me frozen.

Good thing I have a better grip of the responsibility during my waking hours. But there have been moments when the weightiness of it all nearly struck me down. Or so it seemed. As women (I can’t speak on men’s behalf, but you’re welcome to comment), we take on more and more and more, and we handle it all with relative grace. Pretty amazing. We’re sort of like the French mastiff (we have such a dog, Emma, who is nothing short of incredible), who has a strong instinct to protect its adopted human family, yet there’s no clear explanation as to why. She just does it. We women, we’re like a dog on a bone. The bone is our home, our family. It’s just part of our character. My mother oftentimes says to me that I need to slow down, that I need to take some time for myself, that I’m taking on too much. Then I look at her, and see what she has weathered through (rearing me, for instance), and I just shrug her off.

We are human, though, and there are instances when things just break down and have to find some sort of release. Or relief. I think back to a time when we were living in Bali, and, at age 43, I had given birth to our third child. Soon after, I had a second strain of dengue fever, knocking me out just at the worst time. I was the single source of nourishment for my baby (I was in the throes of lactating), we were in the process of packing up our lives after 12 years in Asia and moving back to a place where my three children had never lived. Life was definitely shifting in a major way. At that point, probably because of my frustrations from my illness and everything else piled on top, I felt myself slump.

Actually, there were moments when I thought I was going to die. Really. What made it even more frustrating is that the doctors couldn’t find anything fatally wrong. I had to turn to someone besides my doctors and my husband. So I started talking to my friends and realized that life’s intensity was getting, well, too intense. And I had to take a step back and regroup before moving forward again.

I did, and I came out of my funk, both physically and mentally. I was up for another challenge. This relatively painful process made me realize that there were so many other women who had been through their own major shifts in life, and had to cope with it in different ways. I know some of you know what I’m talking about. And I can now understand, and sympathize, when someone seeks therapy, or takes an antidepressant, or goes on a retreat to get away from it all. You can only take so much before you ask for help. If you don’t, you’re at a greater risk.

Change, or going through dramatic moments, isn’t a bad thing. It’s just life. These moments are life-altering, these challenges are maturing, and they also have shifted my view of life and my understanding of the universe.

I digress. Or perhaps not. What I’m saying is that the intensity of life is what makes it so worthwhile. I thrive on it. At the same time, I have been savoring those moments when we can just hang out. I’ve been trying to do a bit more of that lately as my children grow up at a rapid pace. I’ve been told by a number of my “older” friends that before we know it, our children will be adults and out the door, ne’er to look back. At least not in the same way as they did when they were our little ones.

That brings me to little Francesca. Sometimes, when I look in the eyes of my 4-year-old girl, she looks back at me with an understanding and a connection that transcends age. Her eyes radiate a wisdom that calms me, comforts me, that makes me take a step back and linger in the magic that connects all us humans. It is those moments that reassure me that there is some higher level of being that makes each an every one of us special.

Where is this leading? For me, back to our road trip and a six-hour drive southwest across Utah, from the Arches to Zion National Park. At Zion, we sat among dramatic rock formations and sand dunes. We took a long walk through the crevices of vertical slated rock, towering so high that the sun’s rays never reach the ground. We were in the Narrows, known as one of the most unusual hikes on the Colorado Plateau. That’s because a lot of the trek is in the Virgin River, and for a good chunk of the journey we waded in water that spanned from canyon wall to canyon wall. At one point, the water came up to my chest, and the little ones rode on our backs. We were ready for it, wearing swimsuits and carrying small life vests. We were warned about flash floods that could fill up the slot canyon and trap us, so I couldn’t help but keep a close watch at the water level as we waded through.

John giving a lift through a segment of the Virgin River.

This part of the trip has become a maturing and enriching experience for Francesca. She has become assertive, focused, wanting more adventures. At first, she was inhibited and needed me or John to hold her hand tightly as she carefully walked across rocks smoothed over through the centuries by the currents.  By the middle of the three-hour walk, as I reached for a stumbling Francesca, she defiantly says, “I don’t need any help!” Well! I have a feeling that this is the first of many times she will be saying that as she matures. I was thrown forward to when she is 12 and uttering that same phrase as I try to pick out her outfit, or brush her hair, or walk her into school. And forward further to age 16, when I guide her on how to drive, or how to choose a boyfriend. And forward again to leaving for college, when I offer to help choose her major, to set up her dorm room, or to pay tuition. I just hope we’ll continue to be travel buddies and explore the world together.  And if she asks for help, I’m right here ready to jump in.

"Stand back....I don't need any help!"

I watch her now maneuver through the Virgin River’s knee-deep mild current, a determined look on her face as her blond waves plaster against her face from the splays of water. I see myself through her, a little girl, and savor the moment of being that young again.

Every once in a while, we pass by other visitors hiking the riverbed. But for the most part, we are alone and the coolness of the rocks and shade and brief sprinkling of rain make me not want to leave. The moments pass, then give way to something even more incredible. Francesca looks up. I follow her gaze and time pauses for us. What a vision. Lush plants grow on the crevices of the steep cliffs, and trees fringe the tip-top edges of the plateaus above. A small waterfall cascades done the steep incline nearby. It was as if Eden had opened its doors for a moment.

We later stop at what is called the Emerald Pools, the last one was on the third level. The children throw dampened sand balls at each other in a cavern where caverneers descend from cliffs. It got darker, and after snacking on pretzels, Skittles and water, we descend down ledges and uneven rocks back to where we began. We had flashlights, but the small beams of light barely made a dent in the darkness, and the trek back became a slightly harrowing experience. As we walked further away from our little oasis, I could see the flashlights of the last two caverneers only just halfway down the cliff, calling to each other.  At that moment, my little Francesca turns back to me, pauses, and then grabs my hand, holding it tightly. She’s my little girl again, albeit wet, exhausted, enlightened.

The Virgin River in its beauty.

Devils Garden

January 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Dancing with the sun.

The next day, we headed due north to Arches National Park. The ride was about two hours, and we passed ridges and land formations and dusty dwellings on the way to the town of Moab. It was a surprisingly happening spot in the middle of a vast deserted showcase of monoliths creased out of sand, rock, wind and ocean currents. Moab reminded me a bit of Chiang Mai, near the Burmese border in northern Thailand, a sort of backpackers’ filling station and hangout, just a whole lot more expensive. Here, adventurers regrouped before rock climbing, mountain biking or white-water rafting on the Colorado River.

We decided to forego yet another lunch in the RV of cold cut sandwiches and, the pizza lovers that we were, found ourselves at a small, pretty basic-looking storefront eatery. Our order of two large pies seemed a bit much for just us. Surprisingly, we plowed through it all, and then John and I pored over the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Southwest USA while the kids watched I Dream of Jeannie on a TV in the back room. (John reminded me yet again that this was one of his boyhood favorite shows, so much that he kept a magazine cut-out picture of Barbara Eden in his plastic Flintstones wallet. He was obviously drawn to her curves and smile; I simply loved her bubbliness.)

By this time we had come to an understanding that commercial RV parks were pretty much just nondescript parking lots, with a smattering of trees and a hookup to dump your refuse, fill up water tanks and connect to a power source — all essentials to a family traveling for a while in an RV. But the ambiance wasn’t there. For something more, there are the national parks. (We took a friend’s advice and had purchased online an $80 pass that would get us into all the parks for the next year instead of paying between $10 and $25 to get into each park. Staying in a federal park’s campground is an additional cost, but the entry fee is waived.)

It was late afternoon, all the campgrounds in the Arches were full. So we made reservations for the next day (most take reservations up to four days in advance), then headed back to one of the nondescript RV parks. With the electric hookup, we switched on our AC and kept it on all night. (If there wasn’t an electrical source at the campground, running our generator could become costly. Cruise America charges $3 per hour to run the RV’s generator, plus the cost of the natural gas.) In the morning, I did two large loads of laundry while taking a dip with the kids in the Arctic-frigid swimming pool. The pool deck was barren except for a man with tattoos covering his body, and with piercings on his lower lip, nipples and ears. An attractive woman lounged beside him and nodded occasionally as he guzzled his second Monster energy drink while rambling on about how much he partied the night before. Ah, romance blooming poolside at an RV park. I thought of what I was missing out on, being married for 18 years and three children to boot. Not much, it appears.

Back to the laundry, then time to move on. By high noon, it was hotter than a three-dollar pistol. The thought of going to the Arches campground didn’t hold much appeal at this time of day, but we wanted to stake our claim on the site that we had reserved the day before. We couldn’t resist being drawn into what lay before us: clusters of sandstone mounds, varying in shape and breadth, reaching more than 20 stories high. Size again was at a giant’s scale, and it was truly breathtaking. This area is known for its arches, forever in flux as the ground shifts and they crumble at times. What started as a quick stopping point for John to take a few photos turned out to be a two-hour hike until nearly dark. We meandered through crevices of monstrous slip rocks, then an arch emerged deep within our footpath. Richard played “babysitter” to Francesca as they both held crooked sticks to secure their steps. Then to wildly swing at each other. Konstantin scurried up the red rocks and tumbled down sand hills, with the others following him in scorching heat topping 100 degrees. Every guidebook advises to have a gallon of water for each hiker, and I can understand why.

We climbed into the RV and drove a few more minutes to our campground slot Number 48, equipped with a fire pit, a picnic table and a nearby communal toilet without running water. Before darkness fell, we went on another trek. We passed by long-eared rabbits and tracks of other small animals. The boys found a boulder that reached up to a large opening. After a long struggle, they finally climbed on each other’s shoulders to reach the opening and carried on with their exploring from high above. Usually John lets them go off on their own if they want to do some “Indiana Jonesing”, but after a while he was getting a bit concerned himself and started calling for them. My mind raced: predators, sun stroke, falling down a large opening, or something even worse, even more unimaginable. Lost in the desert. My heart started racing alongside my thoughts of doom.

Trying to reach the opening above.

Finally, a faint, distant response from above, and we looked up while walking toward their voices. I’m just not into heights at all, so my stomach did a slight tumble when I spotted the boys way up high, in the center of what is called Landscape Arch. I ogled at their tiny bodies the size of my fingertip, then cringed and turned away as John told them to stand taller and go out a bit more so he could take a photo. My mothering instinct took over and I just wasn’t into it anymore. I couldn’t watch.

An apprehensive (and cheering) mom watches her sons in the arch.

Just before it became totally dark, we went back to camp and John started a fire in the pit while I washed up the kids in the RV’s shower. We grilled chicken and had that with white rice and peas (a favorite staple from our Hong Kong days) and then topped it off with Richard’s version of S’mores: sandwiching a toasted marshmallow between an Oreo cookie. Talk about a sugar injection.

It wasn’t a good night, with temperatures seeming to hang in around 80 degrees with very little breeze. Inside the RV, our sleeping arrangements oftentimes shifted, but pretty much were as follows: The boys slept in an expansive bed above the driver’s area, in the front cabin. Francesca was in a convertible bed that, by day, was a dining table. And John and I slept in a curtained-off queen-sized bed in the back of the RV. Konstantin woke up three times: once for water, another to move in with Francesca, and a third time to move back to his bed. Before each move, he tapped my leg to let me know what he was doing, while shirtless Daddy slumbered away.

Our plan was to wake up at 6 and climb more rocks. At 7 a.m., after an utterly restless sleep (if there are no electrical hookups at federal campgrounds, generators usually cannot be run between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.), I pulled myself out of bed, poured cool water out of the cooler and filled it with more ice from the freezer, boiled water over the gas stove to make coffee in our French press, and sat outside to write.

Before me was a red sandstone formation, and the sun was already making a pronounced statement. I drank my coffee and waited for the dark liquid to jump-start my engines. A small squirrel came to my feet, and an unusually blue-colored bird and a black crow swooped near a tree limb nearby. By 8:15 a.m. a group of Japanese tourists attempted to scale one of the rocks, stopped halfway and then collectively turned around for their guide to take a group photo. Then my little Francesca woke up and, in true form, stated, “I’m hungreeeeee.”

Our breakfast wouldn’t be a usual order for any roadside diner: Francesca, scrambled eggs, white rice and blueberries. Richard, just white rice (he isn’t much of an early-morning eater). John, Special K with berries. Me, oatmeal, and Konstantin was yet to be determined. At 9:15 a.m., he was still in bed. As I look around this cul-de-sac shaped driveway with camping lots spaced evenly off the road, I see a fellow Cruise America family parked nearby. There was also a van with a folding table set up beside it with the huge spread of breads and cheeses, coffee and pastries. Ah, the French know how to set up a campsite. Then there was a two-person pop tent right next to us that sheltered a young couple. I felt bad that they were stuck next to us, following a night of giggling and horseplaying by our two boys playing iPod Monopoly from their bed.

Then someone’s car alarm goes off, echoing into the caverns and reminding nature that we humans were here. After an eternity (10 seconds) the honking stops, and we are quickly put in our place. The earth dominates again with its awesomeness.

We befriended three chipmunks and Richard started tossing blueberries to them, which they happily held in their front paws and nibbled away. Even with Francesca chasing after them in her underwear and tank top, they came back for more within minutes. I guess the choice was to scavenge food from a dry desert with a bunch of big rocks and little vegetation, or eat succulent blueberries while a 3-year-old girl tried to catch you. They chose dodge-the-girl-and-eat-the-blueberries diet.

A fine morning.

So here I am now, catching up on some writing in the parking lot of Sand Dune Arch, watching tourists with bottles in hand, sunglasses on and hats pulled down to shadow their eyes even more. Soon enough, I found myself shifting into the RV, generator churning away with the AC cranked, while John and the kids explore outside. I’m looking at the map to get an idea of where else we should stop in the Arches, and the names given to the various points sound intriguing, but not quite the oasis that I was now yearning: Fiery Furnace, Salt Valley, Dark Angel, Devils Garden. I go back to writing until the rest of the gang return and we move onward to our next destination, wherever that may be here in the searing Southwest.