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What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas: The Talking Stick Colloquium #62

Convenor: RAVINDER SINGH

 

 

I view myself as a bit of a prude and somewhat old fashioned.

Faced with the prospect of visiting Las Vegas - billed as the Entertainment Capital of the World - I was filled with some apprehension, but also a little anticipation. Although I have lived in this country since 1976 and travelled quite a bit, Vegas and I have never met - until now.

A place with an epithet like 'Sin City' and that lives by the slogan “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” has never been high on my list of must-see travel destinations. I have no interest in gambling; don’t drink (my drinking friends call me a waste of a Sardar) and don’t believe in making a display of sex - all de rigueur in Vegas.

But a business conference there beckoned and here I was, seated on a flight to Vegas.

As we approached McCarran Airport and the city came into view on a clear afternoon, the sight of mountains surprised me because I had always imagined Vegas to be a vast arid stretch of desert with a concrete and neon jungle sticking out in the middle. Yet, here was a strange beauty to the brown soil.

Las Vegas, it turns out, is also one of the fastest growing cities in the nation!

I could see the tall buildings and concluded that must be the where all the gambling happens. As we approached the runway, in my mind I was convinced that I was descending into some kind of hell, where the snare of Maya was going to lead me astray.

Another part of me wondered if I was being too much of a prude. Priggish? I reminded myself that that Guru Nanak had travelled to all manner of places (on business) and that he had gone out of his way to seek out thugs, cannibals, and murderers?

Were he around today, would Guru Nanak travel to Vegas, I wondered. Despite my best efforts, I just could not picture Guru Nanak cozy up to a slot machine or be seen watching Jubilee at Bally’s.

But I discovered that there is a gurdwara in Vegas. The Baba is everywhere!

The minute you set foot in the airport terminal, row after row of slot machines greet you - as if to assuage impatient gamblers, who, like antsy children, “have to go.” Gleaming and shiny, with flickering lights and knobs, the machines seem to invite, as if to say, “Please, play me!”

A quick taxi ride and I found myself in the large, cavernous lobby of the MGM Grand, one of the landmark hotels on what is called The Strip - a stretch of hotel resorts and casinos with names like Luxor, Mandalay, Harrah and Bellagio.

The sheer size of the hotel (10,000 rooms, I was told) was overwhelming and all the glitz and dazzle quite disorienting. The hotel corridors were like a labyrinth, as if by design, meant to confuse the likes of me. It took me several wrong turns and stopping to ask (the signs notwithstanding) before I made it to the Convention Center.

Because of the lighting and ambience, one couldn’t tell if it was night or day. I suppose one is not meant to keep track of time in Vegas. I did not notice a wall clock in the hotel lobby either.

No surprise, but as I meandered around the hotel, gambling was ubiquitous by its all-pervading presence - slot machines, black jack tables and an assortment of other gambling arrangements would appear, seemingly endlessly.

Another surprise awaited me. As my head adjusted to the psychedelic ambience, I began to notice skimpily clad women in large numbers floating around everywhere. They seemed almost apologetic for what little clothes they had on. Later, I found out that they were so-called escorts, a euphemism for call girls.

I should have known from their giveaway revealing dresses and high heels.

Should I be looking away? Or should I gawk? That was the question.

The prude in me - not to mention the old fashioned fellow - quickly surfaced. My aversion to the things Las Vegas stands for runs deep, made all the more so by a close encounter of the Vegas kind - the blatant promotion of call girls.

As I walked the Strip in Vegas - a ritual that had to be gone through – and made my way up the 3-mile stretch, I felt assaulted from all sides by seminude vixens - on huge freeway billboards, placards and newsstands - strutting their stuff.

What’s a good Sikh supposed to do? Lower one's gaze?

A middle-aged man approaches me carrying a bunch of flyers and cards. Like the decorous Sikh that I am, I greet him warmly - not with a Gur Fateh, of course - and accept he flyers, thinking he was hawking some product (which he was) and moved on with a thanks.

What I had in my hands were flyers depicting garishly made-up women, with oversized bosoms and behinds and single names like Electra, Misty, and, get this, Chastity - all offering to calm me down in a variety of ways and in places with names like The
Pleasure Palace.

Didn’t the idiot notice that I was wearing a dastaar?

No trip to Vegas is complete without watching one (if not more) of the so-called shows. My wife, who was accompanying me, made arrangements for us to see Jubilee, a long-standing (30 years) show that promised wonderful acrobats, brilliant dancers and lovely music. Off we went.

We were in for a surprise. When the curtain opened, at least fifty beautiful women in exotic costumes sailed onto the stage - topless! My wife had no idea when she bought the tickets. The sensory overload just left me cold.

I did not want to be seen at such a venue with my dastaar.

In my mind, erroneously perhaps, I have always felt quite strongly that a dastaar-wearing Sikh carries a special responsibility and it extends to not being seen in certain places. That is why when I hear or read about a Sikh complain about being denied entry to a night club/bar because of wearing a turban, my first reaction, surprisingly always in Punjabi, is “utthe ambb lain gaya sein?" - Literally: 'What were you doing there, shopping for mangoes?' or, in common parlance, "What the hell were you doing there in the first place?”

Should I have gone to the show or just holed up in my hotel room? Well, left to my own devices, I would have perhaps just stayed put, but with my wife around, that was not possible. She loves to step out and see places, watch movies and yes, shop. I did not want to be a killjoy.

When I murmured something about my discomfort at being seen at these shows, she dismissed it as humbug and hypocrisy. She called me Talibanesque (puritanical) and questioned my holier-than-thou stance. Did my strong aversion to the things Vegas actually conceal a strong prurient interest in the very things that I wanted to avoid?

Knowing me as she does, perhaps she has a point.

My reaction to Vegas goes beyond my anxiety at being seen in such dubious venues with a dastaar. I saw a few Sikhs sporting baseball caps, but am not sure if that is the solution. A couple of them greeted me since I was hard to avoid.

Without wanting to sound like a right-wing extremist lamenting the loss of conservative values, I do wish to raise some broader concerns for our community. Not too long ago, gambling, drinking and the like were frowned upon. Today, I find that a lot of us specifically plan vacations to Vegas – to gamble, to drink and to...?

What used to be marginal behavior is now mainstream. Is this cause for concern? This raises deeper, more fundamental concerns around the moral relativism that is central to contemporary American culture.

I hate to confess this but Las Vegas, despite its self-proclaimed Sin City status, did teach me a thing or two. There was something to be said for its audacity and couldn’t-care-less attitude. To be able to gamble, drink and indulge (occasionally, I hope) may perhaps make us more accepting of each other.

Perhaps I need to lighten up a little myself! I don’t know.

Las Vegas may not just be a haven for gamblers and bar hoppers and swingers. It may well be a retreat for prudes like me - to reflect and contemplate.

Or let one's hair down, for a change?

 

POINTS TO PONDER

What do you think?

Have you been to Las Vegas?

What did you think of it?

Would you go back? Why?

If not, why not?

 

October 3, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), October 03, 2011, 8:39 AM.

Sikhs are suppose to be learners. Learn what Vegas has to teach you, rather than trying to make saints out of them.

2: A.J. Singh (San Francisco, California, U.S.A.), October 03, 2011, 9:45 AM.

I have been to Vegas four times in the last year and more often in the last few years - and every time, my tolerance for the city has decreased - not because of the "sin", but because it is more of the same. Your experiences have been interesting. Still, as a Sikh, it is important for us to live in the world and still be detached from its "falsehood". In spite of it being the 'sin city' of the world, Las Vegas still boasts a large Sikh population that ably supports a wonderful Gurdwara where we attended a wedding last winter. As a travel destination for a first timer, Vegas should include a trip to the Strip, along with a few shows - there are quite a few universally-rated shows that one can enjoy with the family. for a quick getaway from the Strip, one should check out the Red Rock canyon, the Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam areas, which offer plenty of activity for an avid traveler.

3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 03, 2011, 12:46 PM.

Sikh community in Las Vegas? I certainly hope it's a good and clean community ... spiritually, I mean.

4: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), October 03, 2011, 12:56 PM.

I Hate ... Hate ... Hate Vegas. Yet every time I fly into Vegas, I am the happiest I can be! Have been there many times. My reasons to hate it: 1) It is built on the misery of Mexico - diverting the river Colorado and stealing all the waters from it. Those golf courses, resource-hogging resorts and the cheap buffets where tons of food is wasted each day come at a very expensive cost to mother earth and its poor dwellers. 2) You have mentioned them all - the city seems soul-less. Yet, I am sure I will be going there many times over in my life again. Why? Ironically, the airport is central to the most spiritual and serene lands surrounding it. The Grand Canyon, Death Valley, the Zions, Bryce Canyon - the list goes on and on. These are the places where you can go with your Sikhi and feel that you have done it right!

5: Sahib Singh (Fremont, California, U.S.A.), October 03, 2011, 2:50 PM.

Nice article. It is true what you describe about Las Vegas. However, another way of looking at Las Vegas is that it is due to the casinos and hotels along the famous strip that employment is available to a lot of people; they can therefore pay their bills, put food on the table, and look after their families.

6: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), October 04, 2011, 5:07 AM.

As a frequent visitor, in my view, a trip to Las Vegas perhaps can be the most eye-opening experience. It represents many unique traits people fancy about America: Freedom of expression, opulence, good/ugly extremes, architectural limits, indulgence/ pleasures, limitless temptations; all in the middle of the least expected/ desired geography. It is a laboratory to test one's true value systems. Whatever we may be able to hide in the gurdwara, Las Vegas offers/forces to confront and discover your fallibility quotient. Las Vegas should be a must place to visit and observe every color/shade in the rainbow of human life on this planet. Ravinder ji, in your case, whatever you saw in Las Vegas is being broadcast all over. That is another uniqueness in Las Vegas' deliberately coined slogan.

7: Mandeep (Alberta, Canada), October 04, 2011, 11:43 AM.

Great article, Ravinder! I was in Vegas just a few weeks ago, and I share some similar feelings about Vegas. As you have learned, it is quite difficult to avoid the "filth" bombarded at you constantly. Unlike TV shows and movies where the channel can be changed when inappropriate content comes up, Vegas has no 'off' switch. If you are the type of person that is sensitive to this type of content, then Vegas will not appeal to you. Personally, I am okay with this content on TV, as long as it is in small doses. However, being present in Vegas can really challenge your comfort level, and can make the visit less enjoyable, especially for old-fashioned people like me. Also, I wear a dastaar, and I also believe I have a responsibility and image to maintain in public. I don't want people to think Sikhs are into this kind of stuff, and Vegas doesn't make it easy. An easy way out would be to wear a ball cap or let my hair down, but I am too proud of a Sikh to do that. So I just accept that my discomfort in Vegas is a defense mechanism placed in me by Sikhi to protect me. I will continue to factor my experiences into any future decision to visit Vegas, and perhaps next time, I won't be as willing to go ... time will tell.

8: H.S. Vachoa (U.S.A.), October 04, 2011, 1:18 PM.

People have the right to experience things in their life the way they want and I don't see anything wrong in observing this at all while maintaining Sikhi.

9: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), October 04, 2011, 3:45 PM.

I went a few times to Las Vegas for training on company business. Enjoyed the beautiful buildings with different themes. I have seen many Sikhs hiding their identity under baseball caps. Interesting there are now two gurdwaras, about 5 mile away from the Strip. If Sikhs want, they can enjoy kirtan on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The famous Hoover Dam - a great attraction worth visiting - is also nearby.

10: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 05, 2011, 2:28 PM.

Yes, we Sikhs are free and extremely successful (flying First Class and being in the top Airport Lounges on and NOT drinking the free champagne and alcohol!) ... but why Las Vegas? And why hide your identity under a baseball cap? Is it because it's Las Vegas? Or are they up to something?

11: Guravtar (Johnson City, TN, U.S.A.), October 06, 2011, 10:34 AM.

Las Vegas is a test lab in every sense for human indulgence and control. Examining every challenge of every vice face to face may test one's spirituality and honesty to self and sincerity to motives and beliefs. Bold and benevolent Sikhs react the same as you did while enjoying the Creator's multicolored manifestations.

12: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), October 06, 2011, 12:36 PM.

I must confess that, of all the places I have visited around the world, Las Vegas is one of my favourites. I love to watch its decadence as an observer and marvel it as the ultimate man-made sight of all time; nothing else proves to me better how much man is capable of doing, and how easily he fritters it away on trivialities. I do not participate in or enjoy most of its offerings, but I still go back at periodic intervals - through choice, not because I "HAVE TO" for a conference, etc. - because I love the overall ambience. But, even more so, I love leaving Las Vegas - for the wonderful sights it has to offer in any direction, all within a short driving distance from the city. The Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead, Valley of Fire National Park, Mt. Charleston ... and my two top destinations: Death Valley and Grand Canyon. Take a cheap flight to Vegas, get a cheap package with a luxury hotel, and use it as a base for the holiday of a lifetime. And yes, don't miss late-evening walks through The Strip. If you have little kids, stay at "Circus Circus", and they (the kids!) will thank you ad nauseum for the treat! Remember, Sikhi encourages you and allows you to enjoy life to its fullest ... and yet, it protects you from being tainted by the filth that is always found around the lotus flowers. So, never, ever use Sikhi as an excuse for not living life to the max. And, ah yes, if you do go ... don't be an idiot, skulking around in a baseball cap or a pony-tail. Wearing a turban, you get treated like a VIP, just like everywhere else!

13: Mandip Kaur Sandher (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), April 05, 2012, 6:09 PM.

Ravinder ji: I loved your article. It made me giggle so much, I nearly fell off my chair and I mean that in the nicest way. Simply great, graphical expressions. I have been to Vegas a few times on business and with my husband. We always enjoyed it for the entertainment, the hotel themed sites, and simply the "experience" of how other brothers and sisters live in the world. After all, are we not all connected to the One Source, irrespective of what our outer "acting" costume looks like? It is only the One playing with each of us. "He Himself is the One, and He Himself is the many. He Himself instructs, and He Himself learns. He Himself mingles with all. He Himself created His own expanse. All things are His; He is the Creator. In the spaces and interspaces, He is the One. In His own play, He Himself is the Actor. He produces His plays with infinite variety." [GGS:279] The funniest moment we had was the same experience you had with the chap flipping cards. I eagerly grabbed the card thinking it was a show offer! I normally warn friends of this beforehand now. Las Vegas is a place of great history. It is no surprise that there is a gurdwara there now. Did you know that Indian mythological names have been given to some of the Grand Canyon formations? The Creator makes no mistakes, simply subtle "reminders" of perhaps hidden mysteries we are supposed to realize at the right point in our spiritual "tuning." Would I go back? Yes. Why? When we research, it is evident that people of Las Vegas do need some empowerment. After all who would want a job flipping naked-women strip bar cards all day long? But that is all they have right now. There is a whole underground city living in the waterways and tunnels. Homeless and the like. With all the money and wealth in Vegas there is still poverty. This is where our Gurus' teachings will come into play and perhaps one day alternative options for Vegas will rise. Keeping the vision steady because it all starts with the imagination!

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