Las Vegas – riding the Dopamine Express in world-famous Sin City

Welp…

Here I am in Las Vegas.

Sin City. The “Entertainment” Capital of the World.

I’ve never hated a place so much before even getting out of the taxi – although Mumbai was close.

Mumbai, though, had some redeeming qualities. It seemed “authentic”, whatever that means.

The Vegas Strip, on the other hand, reminds me of one of those awful arcade planets Rick and Morty visit that are full of machines designed to stimulate the various orifices and sensory glands of jaded intergalactic travellers.

Yes, it’s actually that bad – like a tacky alien theme park.

But to be honest, my culture shock began at the airport.

As soon as I get off the plane from Portland, I’m a bit overwhelmed by the scene: it’s like every type of American who you don’t usually see at airports is here.

They’ve all descended upon Las Vegas for a few days, and now they’re leaving, only to be replaced by a new crowd of similar-type people.

And in random spots within the terminal, someone’s installed banks of slot machines.

Modern slot machines, I find, are 3 or 4 feet taller than your average person, with the flashing lights extending well above and below the line of sight – all the better to hack your dopamine system with, my dear.

Welcome to Las Vegas, AKA Sin City

Built as a money-laundering machine by 1940s mafiosos, the city of Las Vegas seems to have marketed itself very well through the years – apparently, as a vacation spot for those who don’t have any better ideas.

It’s a national tourist destination for the age of air travel, conveniently located in the barely-habitable desert hellscape of Nevada.

Full of neon-lights and garish imitations of architectural masterpieces in faraway world capitals, modern-day Vegas is designed to confuse and intoxicate, as well as extract your money by any means.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure all this really appeals to a certain type of person.

Unfortunately, I’m not that type of person. I’m not “fun” and I don’t aspire to be. And that’s why I came: to see if it’s as bad as I’d assumed.

(Short version: it is.)

The airport taxi starts and stops in heavy traffic all the way up the Strip. The driver points out some of the attractions… The fountains at Bellagio. Some giant fake volcano spewing flames. The mostly-naked showgirls in feathered headdresses working the street for tips.

Finally, we get to my hotel and he drops me off. “You’re the most sober ride I’ve had all day!” he exclaims.

I tip 20% (because that’s what we do in America) and wander into the hotel.

Livin’ it up at the Sahara Las Vegas

The Sahara seems to be more subdued and tasteful than what I’ve just seen on the strip, but even so, the doors are 12 feet high and made to look like gold, and inside it’s a confusing maze of slot machines, restaurants, bars and table games, all laid out in a way that discourages people from leaving.

I drop my bags off in my room, then head out for some dinner.

As soon as you get off the main drag, Vegas is just a big city in the desert, a lot like Phoenix. Big highways, little houses, strip malls and lots of parking. I find a Thai restaurant that’s decidedly not touristy, and have some red curry. After that it’s off to bed.

The next morning starts with two objectives: to find a coffee, and to buy a few pairs of socks.

Walking out of the hotel, I find that this area of Vegas just doesn’t have a lot of coffeeshops. The hotels all have a Starbucks inside them, though. I reluctantly return to the Sahara and pay $6.50 for a cold brew before going off to look for socks.

(“What an exciting trip you’re having”, I hear you say. “Mr Hot-Dog, the world traveller, going shopping for socks in faraway cities.” Well, you try walking 24,000 steps a day and see if you don’t wear through a few pairs every month.)

On my way to Dick’s Sporting Goods, the only pedestrian on a long stretch of blazing hot sidewalk, a taxi driver stops next to me.

“Free if you’re going to the dispensary!” he says in a thick Indian accent.

I’m not going to the dispensary… I just wanna get some socks. And another coffee. But like before, there aren’t a lot of coffee places around here. In front of the mall containing Dick’s, though, there’s another large hotel.

Surrounded by palm trees, it looks like a giant gold brick standing on one end and pointing up into the sky. The name: Trump International.

Well, maybe they have coffee. I can’t think of any good reason not to go in. So I do, humming the Jay Z song What More Can I Say? with lyrics that read as follows…

Young Hova the God [racial slur] blast for me

I’m at the Trump International

Ask for me

I ain’t never scared

I’m everywhere, you ain’t never there

And [racial slur] why would I ever care?

Pound for pound I’m the best to ever come around here.

— Jay Z

It’s one of my favorite rap songs. And incidentally, the it taught me (circa 2005) that eccentric New York real estate developer Donald Trump had his own chain of luxury hotels.

Those were more innocent times. Back then, I never imagined that eccentric New York real estate developer Donald Trump would some day become president, or that I’d set foot in one of his hotels. But here we are. Life is surprising.

(Incidentally, most of my knowledge of the world of luxury products and locations comes from either Jay Z or Biggie. They’re the reason I drink Remy Martin in any French restaurant I go to, and the reason I know about the existence of Turks and Caicos, Maybach Benzes, Coogi sweaters and Moschino handbags.)

But back to our adventure in sunny Las Vegas

Inside the Trump International there’s a merchandise shop, full of MAGA hats, Trump teddy bears, t-shirts, flip-flops, shot glasses and more. And a restaurant serving coffee at the bar. I sit down and order a double espresso with a bit of water.

Not an americano, just a double espresso with a little water, I tell the bartender. He brings it over. It’s good coffee. Looking around, the crowd inside Trump’s hotel appears to be made up of wealthy midwesterners and even wealthier people from the Middle East.

I talk to Morena on the phone for a while, drink my coffee, then ask for the check. Double espresso, $9.75. For fuck’s sake, Donald… that’s quite a screwing.

I tip 13% and feel like a cheap asshole. Then I go off to Dick’s Sporting Goods and buy some socks.

Mission accomplished.

caesar's palace las vegas
Just a little tackiness at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.

Is your pickle back world famous?

Tuesday is also World Ceviche Day. And I love ceviche.

Luckily, my hotel has emailed me an invitation to celebrate at their taco restaurant, home of “Vegas’ best margaritas”. And celebrate I do.

I’m eating my bland shrimp ceviche when a mother and daughter team come into the restaurant. Mom looks like a totally normal person. Her daughter, though, is tall and curvy, and wearing a tight black fishnet dress over a thong bikini. At least a few parts of her body are improbably large and made of silicone – I’ll let you guess which ones.

And this is apparently an acceptable outfit to go to lunch in, around here. I wonder what her mom thinks about it.

Contemplating the scenery, I decide to order Vegas’s best margarita. I’m not too impressed. Actually, the whole restaurant kind of sucks. The most memorable part is the girl in the fishnet dress and her improbably large body parts.

But everything is bigger in Las Vegas. In fact, as I soon find out, many things here in Vegas are the biggest, or the best, or the most world famousest version of something.

World famous crab fries. World famous wedding chapel. World famous habanero pickle back.

That last one I actually try, later on, and it turns out to be a shot of whisky with a chaser of spicy pickle brine. It’s great! I doubt there’s anything legitimately famous about the bar, Corduroy, with its emo Tuesdays, but still, the whisky-pickle combo is worth trying.

Plus, I feel cool and hipsterish trying to keep a straight face while ordering a drink with a string of nonsense words like “habanero pickle back”.

Walking out of the bar, I head towards Fremont Street. Or, to be more precise, “The Fremont Street Experience” – another giant tunnel of bright lights, noise and strippers intentionally designed to offend the nobler sentiments of anyone with an IQ over 70.

There’s a place called Loose Slots (I think your mom probably hangs out there), a huge zip line, a DJ in a sequinned bikini who also dances and gyrates with a couple of hula hoops. Etc, etc.

All things my dopamine system didn’t even know it was craving.

I’m sick of the Fremont Street Experience in about 10 minutes, and decide to head back to the hotel, just in time for a rainstorm. Oh well. Time to get wet.

Vegas isn’t all bad, though…

There are some parts of Vegas I like.

Turns out I have family here, and we agree to meet for dinner in Chinatown.

I didn’t know Vegas was so diverse, but there’s a whole mile or more of Asian-owned businesses just to the west of the Strip. Restaurants, supermarkets, auto body shops, accident injury lawyers. Languages I recognize include Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean.

My aunt and cousin actually lived in Hong Kong before the handover to China, so they know a lot about Asian food. They take me to a restaurant called SK Seafood for salt-and-pepper pork, mapo tofu, noodles with stuff and a giant plate of green beans.

My cousin sees me picking up the slippery cubes of tofu and comments that I’m using chopsticks at the absolute highest level. I once again feel cool and hipsterish.

Another day I visit the arts district, which is really quiet compared to the more touristy areas. It’s got a lot of retro / vintage / antique shops, some Latin restaurants, and a nice coffee place full of a young and diverse “local” crowd.

Actually, the city outside of the Strip and Fremont seems pretty normal. Except for the slot machines everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

One night I’m looking for a can of cold brew, so I can save a few bucks on Starbucks the next morning, and I go into a Seven Eleven. It’s almost midnight, and there are four or five random people from the neighborhood sitting there, playing the slots, right next to the jerky and potato chips.

They look broke and tired. But so do a lot of people here.

Giving the Vegas Strip a second chance

My last full day in Vegas I decide to give the Strip a second chance.

I check out Caesar’s Palace, and Bellagios. Once again, it’s not really my scene. They’re basically giant casinos attached to luxury shopping malls, the size of airport terminals, with expensive restaurants and bars around the edges.

It’s always gloomy twilight inside, and the elevators going up to the rooms are hidden in inconspicuous corners. I briefly consider gambling, or even going to a strip club, but really, that kind of fun just isn’t for me. Instead, I go back to the area just off the Strip, order some tacos, and buy a copy of Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke on my Kindle.

The problem, as I understand it, is this: our brains are designed to release dopamine in order to motivate us to move in the direction of pleasurable experiences. However, the types (and amount) of pleasurable experiences available to us back on the savannah were pretty limited.

These days, though, most of us live in environments of superabundance, but our brains are still wired for scarcity. We simply did not evolve to live our lives surrounded by flashing red lights, weed dispensaries and 75-cent donuts.

Our brains find a lot of that stuff irresistible. And the worst part is it’s all so easy to get, and thoroughly encouraged by society.

Tough day at the office? Have some cheesecake! Wanna get away? Come to Vegas!

The culture of indulgence markets these quick pleasures relentlessly, because hey… you deserve to be constantly pleased.

I’m not finished with Dopamine Nation, and it’s got some pretty scathing reviews on Goodreads. But I think the main point stands, and it’s largely the same main point being made by Michael Easter in The Comfort Crisis and the paleo people all over the internet.

Basically, pleasure (and even basic sustenance) used to be hard to obtain. They’re supposed to be hard to obtain. And getting them too easily is messing us all up.

Think about sugar. Before a few hundred years ago, refined sugar was rare and very expensive. If you wanted something sweet, you’d have to stick your fists into a beehive. Now, sugar is everywhere. It’s used as flavoring in pasta sauce. It’s in your bread, your coffee, and even your beef jerky.

And – not to get into a long discussion of diet, because that’s not my area of expertise – that shit’s just not good for you.

Porn is another example.

See, when I was a young guy back in the 90s, if I wanted to see someone’s butthole, I had to make an effort. Go out, talk to people, be charming. It was all a process. It required me to become a better version of myself. I worked hard for every butthole.

Young people today? They just pull up a streaming site on their smartphones, and they’ve got 24-hour access to unlimited butthole, every day, forever.

Sorry for the crude example here, but facts are facts.

We all know someone who’s hooked on some sort of electronic entertainment. It seems harmless, for a while… but if they’re not careful, it starts to push out other (healthier) forms of fun, and they end up doing very little else – sometimes for months or years at a time.

People lose jobs, ruin relationships and drop out of school – all because the flashing lights and pop-up ads have hacked their dopamine and killed their motivation to do hard things.

And, of course, there are billions of dollars of marketing behind the instant gratification.

“Why do hard things at all? Everything’s easy. Everything’s supposed to be easy. You DESERVE easy… Click here to get started!”

This causes a lot of problems.

Obesity and diabetes from overconsumption, all the physical and psychological issues that come from inactivity. And all because we can get all kinds of “stuff” and have all kinds of “fun” while sitting on our asses, without making much of an effort.

A fitting end to my Vegas adventure…

Thursday morning.

Finally.

I’m so done with this place.

My flight isn’t till midday, so I decide to get uncomfortable by walking back to the arts district.

It’s 104 degrees Fahrenheit, as usual. That’s a spicy 40 degrees Celsius, if you’re in basically any other country on the planet. The heat shimmers on the pavement as I walk into a burrito place for breakfast.

Next to the restaurant, there’s a bus stop, where a guy is standing around in a blue hospital gown. He’s out there in the heat, gesturing and talking loudly to nobody in particular, and the gown is open all the way down the back, floating open whenever there’s a light breeze.

I take back what I said earlier. You don’t always have to become a better version of yourself to see a stranger’s butthole. Sometimes you just have to be at the right bus stop.

A couple hours and one large burrito later, I’m waiting for the bus to the airport. No shade at all. Just me, several lanes of asphalt, and the blistering 104-degree heat. Next stop Houston.

That’s all I’ve got for today.

Stay frosty, y’all.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Hot-Dog.

P.S. These reports on my trip to the US are becoming a bit non-chronological. I actually have Phoenix and Portland still pending, but for whatever reason felt more like writing about Vegas than about those places. If you want to read more, check out my articles from Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans. And whatever you do, enjoy. Also: do hard things. It’ll be worth it later on, I promise.

Daniel
 

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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