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.