“I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the fear.” “Nonsense, we came to find the American dream”
I sit beneath a huge skyscraper of a hotel and there is a half size replica of the Eiffel Tower before me. It is stunning; perhaps. Further beyond there is something that appears to be the London Eye; yet this wheel is bigger than the original. Incredible; sort of.
Yet just minutes before I walked past something of a Venetian scene complete with a Rialto Bridge and gondola rides. There are a multitude of sounds, there are lights that sometimes flash all around me, and there are throngs of people walking past with wide eyes. I am near completely mesmerised.
Yet what has captured my attention in this moment is the relatively unkempt man rummaging in one bin after another. He pulls out discarded cans, empties out any remaining liquid onto the floor, crushes them under foot, and places them into one of his bags. Those cans may not be of value to others but to him they are. Perhaps, I imagine, he will sell his collection and it will bring him enough money to get him through another day.
The man goes about his business methodically and with all the distracting opulence around him he seems to go by largely unnoticed. I wonder if what he is doing could be considered the most worthwhile thing I’ve seen anyone do that day. . .
The antithesis of happiness
Las Vegas has long intrigued me – probably ever since I came across portrayals of the city in films such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Casino. Some call it the (live) entertainment city of the world, but much of Vegas’ notoriety seems bound up with the mega-casino hotels that one finds in abundance there. There might be the odd winner or two, and something of an entertainment value for others, but in the long run it is the casinos that are the big winners.
I certainly didn’t come to Vegas to find happiness. In fact, from all the years I’ve spent trying to understand happiness I thought I’d be more likely to find unhappiness; for Vegas seems to stand in contrast to most of what I’ve come to understand is important for obtaining happiness.
Yet interestingly what seems to keep Vegas not merely just ticking along, but turning people upside down and shaking from them most of the loose and not so loose change, is ensuring that people firmly believe that they might just find happiness there. That the big monetary win, and therefore the much hoped for happiness one might associate with financial wealth, no matter how much has been lost up until then, might be just around the corner with that next roll of a dice or spin of a wheel.
The casino environment is intentionally lavish, like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and the rich and famous appear nearly close enough to touch; all I suppose seeking to remind people of what might be permanently possible from a big win. The quintessential American dream at one’s finger tips. Yet it is one carefully crafted façade – money is not the key to greater happiness, nor is there any real likelihood of fortune.
The disturbing reality is that most people might be much closer to the man I see pulling aluminium out of the trash than any fame or fortune. From the folk on the slots; those trying to double back up on roulette to perhaps make amends for their night’s losses, to the souls still trying to beat the unbeatable casinos as it gets light outside – seemingly unable to say enough is enough – hooked, addicted, abused.
What would be their fate when there was nothing left to play with? Would they eventually become “unneeded” and “unseen”?
There are thousands of people scampering about the streets of Vegas destitute. Many of whom seem desperately in need of mental health care – or for that matter any kind of care. Whenever I sat watching what was before me it would not be long before what seemed to me a desperate person, perhaps with no shoes or muttering obscurely to themselves, entered the scene. A tear still comes to my eye when I think of the one lady I saw in a wheel chair. She had a sign that read “homeless, disabled, pregnant” and there was a look of utter despair in her eyes.
From those who simply do not have enough to those that have little conception of enough, Vegas is a city that seems to feed on desperation. I for one often felt desperate and on numerous times I deeply questioned my own mental health state. I had this idea that I would be able to go into casinos and be able to just watch and observe with psychological interest and be very zen about everything around – but instead I felt anxious and distressed and near unable to cope in the manifestly manipulative environment.
Yet with a searing heat outside that can quickly debilitate one physiologically it seemed that before long one would have to return inside to eat, drink, gamble, consume in the presence of air-conditioning on overdrive.
There were very few safe spaces for me in Vegas – spaces where I felt I could be and just breath. Constantly on guard. Just surviving. Far from thriving.
Some really seem to like Vegas and I did have a mixed reaction from friends and family as I reported on my experiences in the city. Overall it was something close to a personal hell. Yet I sort of knew that it would be before I arrived, but nevertheless on a journey about happiness it seemed somehow important to make it part of my journey – to experience the antithesis of happiness, the dark side at its most ruthless. I’m happy I went, but I’m relieved I had the strength to get out – many don’t.
***I have since written and published a book about the journey to Bhutan on a bicycle. If you like what you’ve read here then consider buying A Journey For Happiness: The Man Who Cycled to Bhutan today.