Viva Las Vegas

I turned 21 as of the 13th of December. Unfortunately, I had an 8am exam on the day itself, which seemed horrendously unjust. Nevertheless, after 11 weeks of being under-age all over again, not even being able to plonk my butt down in a pub to have a quiet pint… not that I’m bitter and twisted about this, of course… I wanted to celebrate being able to drink legally in style. What better way, when this side of the world, than Sin City itself?

The plan was as follows:

  1. Complete the Unspeakable Birthday Exam.
  2. Finish up packing.
  3. Say a few good-byes to other residents at Tropicana del Norte.
  4. Wait for my suite-mate Charlie to finish his midday exam.
  5. Drive to Los Angeles.
  6. Get the Greyhound bus to Las Vegas.
  7. Check-in at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino.
  8. Tear it up, generally and whole-heartedly, for 3 nights.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a general rule with Sin City: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. However, for your reading pleasure, I am going to relate some of what happened. Enjoy:

  • The Underbelly of the Land of the Free- Greyhound Bus Service

After a decent drive down to LA with Charlie, we drove through the industrial, and incredibly dangerous Charlie assured Giles and me, part of LA which was home to the Greyhound Bus Station. He dropped us off, and Giles and I entered the grey (fitting), low, building. GIles checked in his bags, and as we had made good time on the way down from Santa Barbara, we had a couple of hours sitting around in the station. 

This was a surreal experience, I’ll be honest. We saw some incredibly strange people during this time. Most of the people were just minding their own business, snoozing on the benches or furiously focusing on their phones or mp3 players. However, there was the occasional person shuffling around, chatting to themselves, people who seemed to have the strangest collections of recyclable materials on their person instead of luggage, and generally sketchy looking people. It was like something out of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In a similar manner to J. D. Salinger’s most famous novel, it was comparably disillusioning and perhaps not depressing, but it was definitely sobering.

At this point, I want to relate quite an interesting part of my journey. I hadn’t brought a hold-all or gym bag with me for the first term, for long weekends away and travelling etc. As a result, I borrowed a large US army backpack from my suite mate Vinh, who’s involved with the military and cadets back in his home town. Minding my own business and placing this bag at my feet seemed to successfully deflect most of the wandering mutterers or other odd patrons of the bus station. Interestingly, it did get some worried looks from some of the sketchier characters in the station. Moreover, as I walked around, I noticed several people nodding at me, or moving to clear my path as I walked over to the coffee shop. I want to clearly emphasise at this point that I did nothing to perpetuate the seeming assumption I was military, as this would have been highly disrespectful and utterly unacceptable.

Most people should have realised I wasn’t American as soon as I opened my Queen’s-English-speaking gob, let alone US military. However, you have to bear in mind, in that kind of setting, you don’t often just chat to random strangers, and Giles and I kept ourselves to ourselves and spoke to each other mostly. The assumption I was military extended to the staff, and as I got on the coach, I was taken aside to have my bag inspected and to be scanned with a metal detector. Being used to the high security of Heathrow and LAX, I was bracing myself to have all my possessions upturned and rifled through. Yet, I was asked “Do you have your firearm on you?”, to which I responded with a slightly surprised but firm “No”, partly because there was an assumption that I had one in the “your”. I then expected the search of my bag to be more thorough as I assumed the staff would want to make very sure of this…. yet, all he did was open the zip to the top of my bag, cast a cursory glance into it, shine a torch into it as if to double-check there were no firearms resting on top of my clothes (where I would logically smuggle a weapon onto the bus… insert sarcasm here), and grimly nod at me and then towards the door to the bus.

This odd experience continued on the bus- a woman who looked decidedly touristy was sitting across from her travel partner, and had set herself up with her bags on one seat, taking the other chair herself, as was her friend. She had quite a good seat, near the front, away from the toilet at the back of the bus, and I was about to pass her. She saw me coming, leaned across and spoke animatedly to her friend and grabbed her arm, then nodded towards me… I was about to walk past them and head further back on the bus, but she tapped me on the shoulder, and pulled my arm and brought me back to her seat. She then moved her possessions, and insisted I sat in her seat! I don’t know if she spoke English because I was trying to tell her I couldn’t take her seat, but she either didn’t understand me or chose not to listen. Eventually I just shrugged my shoulders, threw Giles a puzzled look, and sat down.

I do not know to what extent any of these experiences were linked to the military bag on my back, stamped in black with “US”; but at the time, I definitely felt some kind of correlation. I text Vinh and related some of it to him, and he put it down to the respect US citizens have for the military. He suggested people see a uniform or whatever, and instantly their respect is won. Evidently, I am not military, but even this accidentally extended to a British, American Studies student when I wore a piece of military garb. I’m still getting my head round it, but whether or not there was a correlation between my experience and the bag on my back, I still admire the respect that Vinh refers too. Not, I regretfully acknowledge, that this would be true in all cases for all US citizens. I’m sure respect for the military isn’t universal, even in the military-industrial complex addled U. S. of A.

  • A Lucky Turn

After more than six hours on the bus, a sandstorm along the way, and that moment when you bank a corner on the Interstate Highway 5, and Las Vegas appears out of no-where, sprawled out below with no rhyme nor reason, we arrived in Sin City. The lights were dazzling as we drove through the city, and my chin rested on my chest as I watched it all pass by the window of the bus. Giles and I pulled into the bus station at about 1.30 am, and took a taxi to our hotel at the Treasure Island Resort.

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We arrived at the hotel, and in a sleep-derived, zombie-like and wide-eyed state, we headed into the reception to check in. When I made the booking online, I had just selected non-smoking by default. However, the receptionist asked us to confirm if we still wanted non-smoking or would like to switch to a smoking room. I asked Giles, as I hadn’t even considered this when booking, and he smokes. He said switch if it was no bother. So I asked the receptionist if we could swap as it didn’t bother me either way. He confirmed we could… but told us the only smoking rooms left were on the top floor… the VIP floor… Would we mind switching here?!?!


Slightly nervously, but excitedly, I asked how much it would cost to upgrade…

“Nothing, sir. The upgrade would be free of charge…”

Viva Las Vegas, baby! 

This was an as good start as any I could have possibly imagined to our Vegas shenanigans. Giles and I had stupid grins as we made our way across the casino floor and towards our special elevator, where we had to use our key to reach the top floor. The Canary was going to be flying high this week- metaphorically, and literally in our 36th floor nest!

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Sorry for the poor quality, but it was 2 am and we had been travelling for about 12 hours… give us a break!

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Panorama from our window, looking out over Vegas towards the mountains in the distance. Not bad.

In fact, we were so happy, our exhaustion fell away and we freshened up, changed and went back down to the casino for a initiation drink and gamble.

I had been building up to this moment for weeks. I cannot verbalise how maddening it is to be under-age all over again. I hated not being able to buy booze, go to a pub or club for those first ten weeks of term. So I had my drivers licence, my passport just in case, and I pulled up a stool at the main bar on the Treasure Island casino floor… and I ordered pints for the two of us. (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…). The barman nodded and moved off to pull the pints… (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…) He brought them over to us, swiped his keycard in the till and worked out the total and relayed it to me (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…). I frowned, looked to my left at Giles who was smirking and shrugging… and cautiously handedo ver the cash. Still no bloody ID request! What an anticlimax! 10 weeks, and all I wanted to do was smugly whip out my drivers licence, in the midst of SIn CIty, and finally have my status as a legal drinker confirmed to me all over again. It clearly wasn’t meant to be… maybe it was the beard….?

  • Sin City Unleashed

I couldn’t possibly go into all the gory details of the next couple of days. There was muchos alcohol, muchos gambling and muchos revelry, let’s put it that way. But here are is a list of some of the shenanigans we experienced:

  1. Gambled in the main casinos- Caesar’s, the Flamingo, the Bellagio, etc.
  2. Had an All-American dinner at Denny’s (I had never been before, and this wasn’t specifically Vegas orientated as they’re all over the states, but it was still an eating experience!)
  3. We rode the roller coaster at New York, New York! This is a roller coaster that runs THROUGH a hotel, out of it,up above it’s roof (offering dazzling views of the Strip) before your flung down a huge descent and around a loop-the-loop and the rest of it is thrilling!
  4. We went clubbing in the Bellagio and blagged our way onto the guestlist for Bank, for a mere $10 tip each, instead of paying the usual $30-40 entry fee. Score! This was an insane night out, and was perhaps the best, classiest and generally most incredible club I have ever visited. Stunning dancing girls up on platforms, brilliant music, and a great atmosphere. This more than compensated for the $12 bottles of beer…..
  5. I’ll let some of the photos do the talking:

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Caesar’s Palace, where the guys in The Hangover eventually found Doug on the roof.

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The Bellagio, looking incredibly swanky.

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The Venetian.

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We got lost and found ourselves in Paris… Not. The mock Eiffel Tower outside the Paris casino testifies to the extravagance of Las Vegas perfectly.

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Las Vegas at night. I wish I had more night photos, but I was reluctant to take my camera out at night for various reasons. Mostly because it’s too bulky, but also I was utterly sloshed a lot of the time at night (and afternoon), so it wouldn’t have been in my poor camera’s best interests to include it on our nights out.

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Giles and me at the entrance to the Bellagio. Check out the flowery ceiling. We gawped at that for far too long, now I look back on it.
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And yes, I did lie on the floor and take a photo of it from below, I didn’t care what security made of it- too good to miss!

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Giles and me in front of the Bellagio Christmas tree. At least it wasn’t over the top or anything… I’ve never seen so many baubles (that’s not a euphemism, steady)! Very festive nonetheless.

  • We found Doug…

I wish this were a joke, but we literally found a bloke called Doug. As in a guy of the same name that the characters in The Hangover are looking for. It was a moment of pure brilliance.

After we went clubbing in the Bellagio, we made our way back to Treasure Island, via Caesar’s Palace. Giles insisted there was an amazing ceiling I needed to check out, and we searched all over the casino for it… however, we were somewhat worse for wear, and casinos with all the lights and their sea of fruit machines, can be a bit disconcerting. Moreover, it is difficult to find points of reference. Essentially, what I’m dancing round, is we got lost. Badly Lost. We ended up barrelling out of a side entrance to Caesar’s, which was clearly the wrong exit, and were in a drop off area which was partitioned off from access… we hurriedly made our way back onto the Strip and were probably hysterically laughing the whole way.

Within minutes of being back on the Strip, we bumped into a group of girls who were also out celebrating a 21st birthday. The birthday girl, Audra, had three friends, and her Mum with her, who also had a friend there to keep her company as well…. but in addition, they had acquired a drunken bloke who had lost his group of friends… Doug. Despite being 3/4 am in the morning, Giles and I looked at each other shrugged our shoulders, made the familiar announcement of “When in Vegas…” (our motto for the weekend and general excuse for all of our outrageous behaviour not mentioned in this post), and proceeded to head out again with our new group. It was one of the best nights of my life: it had started with watching rodeo in Gilley’s; it included muchos gambling; perhaps the best nightclub I have ever visited in my life so far; and ended up completely rejuvenating itself as a night out, with the after party taken back to our room, Grey Goose vodka in tow. Wow.

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Our gaggle and the Grey Goose Vodka (I am so sorry, that was awful, but I couldn’t resist that line…)

That’s Doug in the background with his shirt off. Doug was… well… barking. But he made for a good laugh.

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Oh yes, and this definitely happened…

It was definitely a memorable way to turn 21.

  • The Return Journey: What a Difference a Day (or three) Makes

The return journey was no-where near as weird as the journey towards Vegas. We were on an Express service at an ungodly hour (8.30 am, but after our last night, this relatively decent hour became unbearable). The bus was newer, had more leg room, and was generally more pleasant (less psychos). Plus, it was more direct, so we were back in smoggy LA in about 5 hours 30 minutes. Not bad.

I left Giles and Charlie at Union Station, as they left for Beverly Hills so Giles could rest a couple of days before flying home from LAX. I hadn’t known for sure Vegas would be happening, so had booked my return flight for the Christmas break from Santa Barbara airport. As a result, I got the train from LA back to Santa Barbara (considering the return bus journey from LA to Vegas had cost £57, the single train ticket from LA to SB- a 2 hour car ride- had cost $32?! Bit overpriced.) I got back to SB late at night, fell into the first taxi I encountered, and went back to Tropicana Del Norte so I could unpack, crash on my bed, and watch Breaking Bad until I fell asleep.

  • Summary

Overall, I had an absolutely phenomenal 21st birthday weekend.

I experienced (endured, some more critical than I might say) American public transport, and rode the Amtrak and Greyhound for the first time.

I not only received a free upgrade, but a free upgrade to the VIP floor.

I gambled seriously for the first time. By this I mean gambling more advanced than the 2p machines at Southwold.

I rode a roller coaster that comes out of a building.

I saw the dazzling lights of Vegas.

I bought my first legal drink in the USA (even if with less ceremony than I had hoped for).

I met some great people.

We found Doug…

Overall, Sin City provided me with some life memories, that I’ll probably be bugging my friends with for far longer than they will want me to. However, I do realise that I was very fortuitous to even be able to celebrate my 21st birthday in such a manner. As a result, I tried to make the very most of the opportunity. But boy oh boy, we didn’t half do it in style, and that’s all I could have asked for.

Nevertheless, the final point I’d like to make is that the whole experience was emotionally and physically draining. The intensity of it all means that I probably couldn’t have coped with more than 4/5 days there. Moreover, getting in at 4/5 am in the morning each day physically knackers you, so I doubt I could have actually managed it anyway! Some people I know who have been have said they wouldn’t want to go back- once was enough. However, I disagree. With a city like Las Vegas, I don’t care how experienced or world-wise you think you are, it’s a learning curve for everybody. You learn the protocol for new situations, you adapt to an intense style of living, you brace yourself to spend a lot of money, and generally you have to be pragmatic. As a result, I personally would love to go back, and experience it all over again, bearing in mind all that I learned the first time round. Knowing the ropes just a little bit more would make the second time round even better. But not any time soon, I do admit….

…. maybe my 25th?


Finals in the US

Well this is the first of several, long-overdue posts about the end to my first term at UCSB. I figured that I should work chronologically, so here are some thoughts on the examination process this side of the Pond. I am actually writing this in Santa Barbara Airport- I arrived ridiculously early, and it’s strangely deserted. However, I have the view of the mountains to keep me company, so it’s not so unbearable.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the system here, or haven’t read one of my posts before, the University of California Santa Barbara uses the Quarter System. There are three ten weeks terms, and you change classes for each. Therefore, all your studying, participation, midterms and finals all take place in this relatively short period of time. As a result, the quarters can go by very quickly, and I can personally testify to this. My first quarter has flown by.

However, I have to be brutally honest, the examination methods seem…. favourable for students? I’m not sure if that is an adequate description, but perhaps if I list some of the examination types I have either experienced or heard about, you might get my drift. For all the UK readers out there, keep in mind that this is like-for-like as a third year student..

  1. Multiple Choice:
    We have these in the UK, of course, but no-where near as frequently. Sometimes entire finals can be 50 multiple choice papers. I guess the downside to these questions is that I have heard they can have misleading answers to choose from, or they can be absurdly specific. If a lecturer mentioned what seemed like and aside during the quarter, these seemingly insignificant facts could well form a part of a multiple choice question. Nevertheless, most people I have spoken to have found these quite easy.
  2. Fill-in-the-blanks:
    60% of my American Literature mid-term AND finals were based on this. It required pure memorisation- authours, titles, and basic images or themes in poems or short novel extracts. 40% were essay questions, but even in the final, this consisted of two 1 page essay responses. I had three hours to complete this exam, I doubled the essay response required with 4 pages of essays (any less would have been ridiculous, take my word for it), I took my time and read the questions thoroughly etc, and I still finished in under half the allocated time. I haven’t been examined with such short essay responses expected since high school, and even some of those like my History GCSE were longer than this…
  3. “Take-Home Essays”:
    Now this really was alien. This was an assigned list of questions…. which you chose between… had to respond to from home…. by an assigned date… just like any other essay you might have for homework… except it has a “Take-Home” attached to the name… Why not just call it an essay? I had two classes that had no finals, but the major assessment method in each, as it were, consisted of two 12-15 page essays. That’s fine, I get it. I didn’t have a “Take-Home Essay”, but the only minute difference I can see is the time frame. These essays are set quite late in the quarter (compared to the major ones I had to do) so you have a smaller turnaround to complete them, but they do tend to be shorter: 5 or so pages. 5 pages double-spaced, I should add….
  4. Presentations:
    Ok, so this wasn’t an actual Final examination method for me, so to speak, but it formed part of an attempt to get “extra credit”. Personally, I haven’t really experienced opportunities for additional marks or credit in the UK, so I was interested to see how this system panned out in the States. In one of my classes, you could gain extra credit by reviewing the recent Lincoln movie… I didn’t take the Professor up on this, and elected for another option: presenting the thesis of my long essay. I was able to do this in two of my classes. I had to present my arguments/s, explain some of my sources, discuss any problems I was facing in writing it (the presentation came before the deadline, obviously) and invite any comments or questions from other members of the class. The idea was we could get some feedback and respond to this before the deadline, and in theory this was a great idea. However, when you have various members of the class, looking at wildly different topics, all at different stages of writing the writing process, the results could be mixed to say the least.

Overall, I have to admit that the experience of finals in the US tends to reinforce my conclusion on the general comparison between the education systems across the Pond. In the US, you have a larger, denser volume of work (comparatively, in the 10 week period), which you get through quicker, but it tends to be easier. In the UK, your assessments are less densely packed, but harder and generally longer in length (in terms of essays, exams, etc.) Moreover, the marking system is different: to attain top marks in the US, an A+, you have to be hitting 95%+ in the exams. To get a First in the UK, the percentage is technically lower, 70+ marks secured out of 100. Nonetheless, I feel that receiving a First in the UK is as hard as getting an A+ in the States, if not harder, because the expectations and requirements you have to meet to get a First are very high, even if you only get a red”70″ at the top of your paper, and not a “96”.

I am not necessarily passing judgement or drawing any conclusions on which system is “better” or “harder”… I’ll leave that up to you readers. However, I hope in reading this post, you can understand some of the differences, similarities and comparisons that I have experienced first-hand. If this helps you draw your own conclusions, or offers an interesting affirmation or contrast to your own experience, then all the better.

(Featured Image courtesy of