Las Vegas, Nevada.
Las Vegas, Nevada.
Image: Supplied

Don’t do it. The bucket list, I mean. Just let it remain what it is: a wish list. The whole thing is a bloody scam. When one imagines an item on one’s bucket list it always seems such an amazing, tantalising possibility. But the reality, I have found, can be quite something else. I know. I have the scars to show for this tidbit of wisdom I’ve just shared with you.

Driving across the vast United States of America has always been on my lovely wife’s bucket list. Why not? We were in Los Angeles, California, on the west coast of the continent, and were headed for New York. Instead of a boring six-hour flight, why not catch the sights and sounds of America while chugging along on a leisurely seven-day road trip?

So, we pack up the trusty Volvo and head for the first destination on our adventure: Las Vegas, Nevada, the world’s gambling capital. Now, we are non-gamblers. Our idea of gambling is James Bond in Casino Royale. Say “gamble” to us and we imagine handsome men in tuxedos drawing on their cigars, and drop-dead-gorgeous femmes fatales sipping cocktails and clutching mink stoles. We imagine glitz and glamour. With that image in mind, we had lassoed a friend into tutoring us on the basics of blackjack. I should have realised that everything wasn’t quite right when he gave us pitiful looks before starting on his spiel.

So, after five hours driving through the desert, we see the bright lights of Las Vegas looming on the horizon. Our excitement is palpable. The thing about Vegas is that, if you are a product of American film culture, as most of us are, you almost know the place: there’s the Bellagio hotel with its iconic fountains, as seen in a thousand films. There’s the New York-New York Hotel and Casino, and of course The Venetian Resort (which cost a cool $1.5 billion to build), and the unmistakable Caesars Palace. With the temperature hovering at 33 degrees C at 8pm and Elvis Presley wailing Viva Las Vegas (“All you need’s a strong heart and a nerve of steel / Viva Las Vegas, Viva Las Vegas”) on the car radio, we roll into Sin City.

We are not prepared. Thirty years after reading Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I understand why the man had to take so many drugs and drink so much alcohol to get the hang of the place. It can only be enjoyed through a drug-soaked, alcohol-addled lens. To get into our hotel, and most hotels in Vegas, you must walk through the casino. They are not subtle about this. They want you to gamble, and gamble you will, by hook, crook, or immersion. Only, it isn’t the kind of suave, gentlemanly gambling we’re expecting. Red-eyed, desperate-looking, sweat-soaked punters (in attire that looks like it came straight from their local thrift shop) are hunched over slot machines, punching tokens into their maws, and swearing as the house does what the house always does — win.

We run through the casino, get into our room, lock the door, and sleep

We hurry on towards reception. Every step of the way, we are offered free drinks. All gamblers get free drinks. I am not one to turn down a free drink, but I look at those desperate punters at the slot machines and I decline. After unwinding in our huge room (it’s a measly $40 for a four-star room — they make the rooms cheap so you can gamble), we head out for dinner. To get out, you must go through the gambling den again. It’s pure torture. We make it out onto the famous Las Vegas Strip, the almost 7km-long concentration of hotels and casinos.

I look up and a massive billboard stares back at me. It carries an advert for a shooting range: “Shoot a .50 calibre (for) only $29.” I’m still staring at it when a man, seemingly high and wasted all at the same time, asks me for a dollar. We quicken our step and make it to the casino restaurant where we have a booking. Our fellow diners have not made an effort. They slouch in their chairs in mismatched sportswear, shove their burgers down their gobs, gulp down their sugary drinks, and rush back to their slot machines. We’ve seen enough. We run through the casino, get into our room, lock the door, and sleep.

We’re out of there first thing the next morning. And this is just the first stop in what’s to be a seven-day trek. Bucket list? Mmm, it’s not always what it is cut out to be.

  • Justice Malala is a journalist and political commentator.
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