Las Vegas must be heaven for those who don’t get the chance to travel much: Paris, Venice, New York, even Giza. All the wonders of the world packed into one place.
When my aunt suggested we go there for a family reunion of sorts a couple weeks ago, I recalled what a friend once told me: that I should never go to Las Vegas because it’s “capitalism in its purest form.”
But there we were, an unlikely group of Arabs including absent-minded academics, hyperactive executive directors, dyslexic writers, overworked graduate students, an artist, and a lawyer. Half of us have no sense of direction, another half are obsessive-compulsive, and most of us are control freaks. So going to super busy, overstimulating, underground-walkway-connected Vegas was bound to be interesting.
The moment we landed, I was reminded of the Gulf countries, especially Dubai. Filling the desert with sudden greenery and excessively large buildings must be an architect’s dream job. Do whatever, just make it flashy and huge.
It seems like Al Maktoum (the ruler of Dubai) came to Vegas at one point and decided he was going to emulate this city. The only difference may be that Las Vegas is a little less serious than Dubai, which made it easier for my family and I to cross boundaries and be different people than who we are normally.
Our first night was pretty uneventful, except that I won $0.05 and lost $18. My aunt gave each of us $18 to gamble away, with the understanding that if we win big, $1000 or more, we give her 10%. So, I sat at a variety of slot machines (one cent, 25 cents, and one dollar). Confronted with the lights, loud noises, I just started pressing buttons. I kept pressing buttons until something moved. I guess I won on the 1 cent machine. The truth is, I had no idea how any of these machines worked, and I didn’t I play enough to figure it out.
I think my total winnings for the trip came to $1.30. But who cares? Vegas has the ability to make one feel that money is meaningless. Put actual money into a machine and it prints out a voucher for your winnings. One game of 21 or a tiny syrupy margarita costs $10, but somehow alcohol is obligatory, so you drink too many of these hoping the noise will subside or that the alcohol will somehow make you win millions.
But none of that happens. At best, you get drunk and enjoy the night, at worse you do things that you feel you must leave in Vegas. Personally, I did things that I wish I could leave in Vegas, never mention or talk about. But scandals are made when we try to hide things. So in the spirit of full disclosure, here come my confessions.
In the four days and three nights I was in Vegas, I drank three cups of Starbucks coffee and bought two large Coca Cola water bottles. What is the big deal? The big deal is that I gave up 18 years of principle to avoid a caffeine headache and the probability of being extremely unpleasant to my companions.
I know, I know; there is a Starbucks at every corner in Seattle. Seattle is the birthplace of this company. Maybe I should have felt some Seattle pride to find a homegrown business as my morning savior. But I did not. You see, I could move to Seattle from Amman (where Starbucks also exists and is taking over all kinds of small businesses), even though it was infested with Starbucks, because there were other coffee alternatives here to the company that I have been boycotting since 1997, first for the way they deal with coffee growers in South America, then even more strongly when I learned that Howard Schultz, the company’s CEO, is an avid supporter of Israel.
But there I was, there we all were (everyone in my family boycotts this company) having Starbucks coffee in our hotel every morning.
Las Vegas was a strange place. In a way, it treats everyone as equals. We sit at the same table, we throw the same die, and we all lose.
When the noise and the corporations got to be too much, we decided to go out of the city to the Hoover Dam, where we got some vindication. After walking across the bridge and taking lots of pictures we came upon a plaque about Dr. Elmwood Mead, the world-renowned water and irrigation engineer.
The Hoover Dam was his last project in a career that spanned the globe, including water conservation and irrigation efforts in Palestine. The sign actually had the word Palestine on it! The plaque was put in place on 3 November, 2007. During Dr. Mead’s life (1858-1936) there was a sovereign country called Palestine. I stood there, took too many pictures, and as I moved away from the plaque, I pointed the word out to others reading: Palestine, see, Palestine. We are from Palestine.
There I was: an A-rab, a Palestinian from a not-officially-recognized yet still vilified nation standing in front of a stone plaque at the Hoover Dam, outside the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas where I lost my principles for a cup of morning coffee, reaffirming my commitment to the boycott.
A trip to Las Vegas, where I thought I was going for a semi-family reunion, where I was aiming to go wild on whiskey and beer chasers and win big became a trip filled with conflict and validation.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But if I ever go back, I’ll take my own coffee with me.