Welcome to the Carnival - but who enjoys the ride?

Words by: Cila Warncke
Posted: 25/8/11 14:51

Welcome to the Carnival - but who enjoys the ride?This summer I determined to avoid the worst of the Ibiza summer chaos and nip off to the US for July and August. I’ve been through the dog days of summer on the island enough times to know that the torrent of tourists hell-bent on hedonism does nothing for the quality of life. Rather than a pleasure, it is a cross islanders’ bear, sustained by the thought that in a matter of weeks the invaders will have disappeared and Ibiza can get back to being a civilised place to live.

On my summer ramblings I stopped over in Las Vegas – a city that is the ghost of Ibiza’s summer future. There are immediate physical differences: Vegas is an older destination, and more crudely materialistic. Its links to violence, extortion, prostitution, and exploitation are far more explicit. It is hotter – in the physical sense. The temperature hit 45°C while I was there. But the parallels between Sin City and the White Island are undeniable. Both offer the lure of the carnival, a place where everyday restraints and responsibilities can be cast aside and every guilty pleasure can be indulged. They are places where people forget how to behave. Where the main attraction is licence to drink, get loaded, stumble off into stranger’s hotel rooms; where money buys every form of instant gratification and no matter what you do it’s only wrong if you get caught.

On the surface, both Ibiza and Vegas offer a much-needed escape from the crushing routine of life in a frazzled, economically-challenged, anxiety-riddled world. If we didn’t have a chance to blow our brains out (metaphorically speaking) with a combination of thumping beats, illicit substances and copious quantities of booze we would rapidly lose the will to face the drudgery of real life. The key, though, is the freshness and spontaneity of escape.

Ibiza is fortunate enough to alternate short summer carnivals with long, recuperative winters. It still has enough authentic freedom to make holidaying there a pleasure. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is a grimly fascinating case study in what happens when the party goes on around the clock, day after day, year after year, its flagging spirits artificially pumped up by infusions of money.

Las Vegas is what happens when carefree holiday mischief gets codified into increasingly outlandish displays of excess that attempt to substitute for a lack of genuine pleasure. Not surprisingly, if you want to have fun in Vegas – even cheap, tawdry fun – you had best get away from the glitz and head for down-at-heel north Vegas (the place where, as Hunter S Thompson noted “you go when you’ve fucked up once too often on the Strip”).

Sin CityNorth Vegas is not quite the West End of Vegas, more like the Playa d’en Bossa – a mix of family hotels and kid-friendly attractions with cheap casinos, bars serving cheap food and expensive cocktails, innumerable neon lights and endless tacky souvenir shops. Amidst the chaos, however, there is a palpable sense of fun. Teenagers and white-haired men dance side by side in front of a sound stage; parents push their kids past a group belting out 80s covers; people smile and nod at each other. It is a sliver of respite from ordinary life.

Head south till you hit the Strip and it’s a different story: the pavements are empty beneath the glare of casino lights: everyone is in the dim bellies of overpriced gaming floors. Drinks cost a fortune, unless you’re at the gaming table, where they’re free – just one of the many cynical little touches that make the Strip feel as coldly sterile as the diamonds glittering in the windows at Harry Winston.

This is a place where “fun” is for those who can afford it, and every interaction is determined by dollars. Bartenders water down your first drink – once you’ve paid for it (and tipped) they may deign to put a decent dollop of alcohol in the second.

Take a snapshot of your friends goofing around on the casino floor and a security guard will ooze up behind you and threaten to take your camera. Faded stars front gaudy shows that charge ludicrous entrance fees, but it’s always cheaper for women who, like everything else on the Strip, are a commodity for sale.

Beneath the veneer of reckless abandon Vegas is so materialistic as to be Puritanical. The result is sheer hostility from workers, numbed by a year-round onslaught of suburbanites and rich tourists desperate to get their kicks. Everyone from the hotel staff to the pizza guys look like they’d as soon snap your neck as offer service with a smile, and who can blame them? In Ibiza one hot month is enough to render the workers surly and sick of it all – imagine having August all year round.

The lesson of Vegas is that even debauchery is boring when it becomes a ritual. And nothing sucks the fun out of a place faster than raising the prices on everything. While Ibiza is keen to improve its “image” and court high-end tourists it should remember that you can’t put a price on fun. People dancing on beaches are as important as those popping bottles in VIP rooms. And, as the silly season draws to a close, spare a thought for the run-ragged workers. They keep the carnival rides whirling round.  

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