My holiday flight from LA to Vegas, over the spectacular if daunting landscape of the Mojave Desert, was a joy, courtesy of a flight attendant who could have earned her living as a stand-up comic. She had developed a personalised version of the safety instructions that were so funny there was spontaneous applause in the cabin when she finished. It was probably one of those "you really had to be there" moments, but when she began her patter by asking if passengers would take the safety card from the seat pocket in front of them so they could at least pretend to be vaguely interested, you knew this was going to be something different. She pointed out the seat cushions could be used as a flotation device in the event of an emergency landing in water - but since we were about to cross the desert we could instead hold onto them as we landed on the sand, and could consider them a gift from US Airways. Smoking was not permitted in the plane, although you could smoke on the wing and become part of today's feature film, Gone in 6O Seconds. If oxygen masks should appear "and you are seated next to a child or someone behaving like a child", put on your own mask first, etc. You get the picture.
Las Vegas. What a whacky place - like an adventure playground for grown-ups. Las Vegas is said to be home to 19 of the world's 25 biggest hotels. A visitor can knock Jules Verne's around-the-world record for six simply by visiting the different themed hotels on the Strip - perfect for Americans who do not go overseas much (although, since many of them have only two weeks' annual leave each year, perhaps that's not surprising).
I stayed in Paris, Las Vegas. It was obviously not Paris, France, because in Las Vegas taxis drive on the road rather than with two wheels on the footpath, and shop assistants are friendly. As I wandered through the hotels, I went under the Arc de Triomphe, rode a travelator over the Bridge of Sighs as gondoliers plied their trade underneath, and visited a very stylish Ancient Rome. And everywhere we looked were neon billboards advertising shows by such figures from history as Donny and Marie Osmond, Barry Manilow and Cher. I also took a bus to the far end of town, past more astonishing hotels and then some less astonishing signs of real life - pawn shops and a cluster of bail bond outlets. Around the corner was yet another modern high rise, but this one was sans balconies - or even windows - being the Clark County Detention Centre.
This is one of my favourite cities: majestic public buildings, brilliant museums, beautiful parks, an efficient subway, amazing monuments and, hanging over it all, the whiff of politics. What's not to like? On Sunday I visited Eastern Markets behind the Capitol. As we walked around to the front of the building, my companions and I found ourselves among a right-wing protest seeming to be aimed - as much as it was possible to identify a leitmotif - at criticising government debt, but with a generous dose of anti-Obama, anti-abortion, religious right rhetoric thrown in. It appeared to be a good-natured BYO-banner affair, but somehow I feel more comfortable riding the subway at night than being caught among fervent Republicans. And I don't necessarily assume more people would be carrying weapons on the subway than would be carrying at a Republican rally. A theme of many placards was distrust of the "liberal media", which may mean any mainstream media that is not Fox News. Still, clearly people here do follow the news, as we are being regularly asked how Christchurch is faring after the earthquake.