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Public Lives

Las Vegas

/ 11:57 PM November 12, 2011

All eyes today (Sunday) are focused on a little boxing ring inside the humongous MGM Hotel in the pleasure strip of Las Vegas in the arid state of Nevada in the United States of America. That’s where the boxer Manny Pacquiao, the greatest Filipino warrior of all time, and incidentally a member of Congress, fights his latest Mexican opponent. What he recently said in jest packs a lot of truth – that given the number of his fellow congressmen who have traveled to watch his fight, a legislative session could well be convened in one of the gigantic casino hotels after the fight.

In a time of economic decline, Pacquiao’s fights are a boon to Las Vegas. The people who have come to watch him are also expected to pour their money into the city’s countless gambling tables and slot machines. They will be dining, watching a broad array of other shows, and, most of all, they will be shopping. What Las Vegas will pay the two boxers, who will spend maybe an hour punching each other on the face until their eyes puff and blood oozes out, is insanely huge. But, it is a pittance compared to the money that this event is expected to draw into the city’s casino hotels from all over the world.

In the 40 years that I have traveled to this vast continent, I never had a chance to go to Las Vegas – until last month, when my sisters who live in California treated me to a three-day bus tour to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon for the princely sum of $99 per person, hotel room included. Obviously, at this give-away price, the big money is not to be made from the tours themselves, but from the shops, the restaurants, the entertainment, and most of all the casinos to which the tourists are taken. There is a stop, for example, at a place called Barstow on the way to Las Vegas that features nothing but endless rows of “outlet” stores offering incredible discounts on branded goods. My jaw dropped in amazement when we alighted from the bus. Ninety-nine percent of the shoppers were Chinese tourists, lugging not shopping bags but newly-bought suitcases filled with shoes, bags and clothes.  For a moment I thought we were in Shanghai.

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The idea of spending long hours inside a tourist bus without a proper lavatory intimidated me no end. Motorcyclists like me think of cars as cages. By the same token, a tourist coach would be a prison ward. And I had just come from a four-day motorcycle ride with my youngest brother and a cousin along California’s stunning Pacific Coast. In a place like this, between the sea and the mountains, a rider on two wheels could be forgiven for imagining himself as a seagull gliding smoothly over an infinite ribbon of winding highways. At a certain speed, time slows down, and from the blur, images of the sky and the landscape assume a welcoming form and embrace the rider.  That rare sensation of freedom stayed with me long after the ride, and promptly vanished when I stepped into the tourist bus.

But the chance to be with siblings I do not see and talk too often, simply because they live in another part of the world, was something I did not want to miss. Leila, the third child in our brood of 13, who has also retired like me, was in charge of our small group and took care of all of us the way our late mother did. I particularly wanted to spend more time with another sister, Claire, who, a year ago, took an early retirement option because of health problems. Of all my brothers and sisters, she is the one who has written me regularly, a habit she started when I first went abroad in the late 1960s as a graduate student. We sat beside one another throughout the Las Vegas trip and kept a long conversation about family, our children, our childhood, our illnesses, inherited allergies, food, hobbies, pets, anxieties, and hopes.  In between, we dined and shopped, blending seamlessly with the battalion of mainland Chinese tourists who occupied the rest of the bus.

Las Vegas was exactly as I imagined it to be: dramatic in a jarring way, an ironic pastiche of replicas of classical and ancient façades, an exaggeration of artifice, and perhaps the most improbable demonstration of the human capacity to make money from the consumption of things normally considered non-essential. If it were not so serious in what it does, which is to sell packaged leisure, one would think Las Vegas was precisely invented to serve as a parody of human society, a commentary on the superficiality of modern living.

Grand Canyon, about six hours away from Las Vegas, was the exact opposite – bare in its grandeur, massive in a sublime way. Whoever included these two contrasting destinations in one bus tour might have meant to put the two places in conversation with one another. The Grand Canyon invites the visitor to contemplate existence in geological time. It shows Nature in all its power, timelessness and silence.  Las Vegas, on the other hand, invites the visitor to forget the world and all its cares, and to let the Strip encapsulate time into one brief but spectacular evening of sight and sound. It shows humanity in all its conceit.

But life springs even in the most barren places. On our first evening in Las Vegas, we stopped at Denny’s Diner for hamburgers and fries. A Filipina in her late 50s waited at our table, ecstatic at seeing compatriots. Within 10 minutes, while clearing our table, she managed to share with us her family’s life in America. It is a life of struggle, of patience, frugality and courage. Listening to her gave me a good feeling. That night in Las Vegas, as the world entertained itself, one Filipino worked, focused only on one thing: to be able to save enough to retire comfortably in the Philippines.

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