Viva Las Vegas: stunning views, a quest for a motorcycle, and karaoke during my eighth visit to Sin City

Las Vegas selfieEarlier this month, I made my eighth annual visit to Las Vegas. For the fifth year in a row, my trip to Sin City was in conjunction with the annual Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA). At TCONA, I had my usual awesome time convening with some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the United States (and even a few from other countries like Canada and Norway). It was enjoyable to reconnect with some really cool and interesting people who share my passion for learning as much as I can about every subject in the world, and whom I’m honoured to call my friends. Moreover, it was equally rewarding to make new friends who meet that description. As well, competing against a self-selected group of elite trivia players, in the diverse array of individual and team contests that TCONA offers, pushes me to improve myself and perform as well as I can.

As I do every year, I also managed to slip away from TCONA to experience an attraction in Las Vegas outside of the Tropicana Hotel where the event is traditionally held. Of course, it also goes without saying that my latest long weekend in Vegas included karaoke. :) Finally, being that I was in a town where gambling has been known to take place, I also managed to squeeze in a little bit of that pastime — and came across a new twist on the blackjack tables that I tend to hit.

The view from Paris: très jolie

The Strip is renowned for its themed hotels, including several with sections that mimic world landmarks.  For example, if you roam the grounds of the New York, New York hotel, you’ll find replicas of iconic Big Apple structures ranging from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge to the Chrysler Building. At the Venetian, you can take a gondola ride among doppelgängers of some of Venice’s most legendary sights, such as the campanile (bell tower), the Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). And then there’s the destination that was the subject of my August 2015 non-TCONA excursion in Las Vegas: the Paris Hotel, and one portion of it in particular.

While the Paris boasts reproductions of the venerable Arc de Triomphe and of several other Parisian edifices of note, the hotel’s centerpiece — and a key component of the skyline of the Las Vegas Strip — is a one-half scale duplicate of the most celebrated symbol of the City of Lights: the Eiffel Tower.

The view from the top: it’s not the Champs-Élysées, but it’s pretty darned nice

The Eiffel looms over the Paris Hotel, as seen from behind the fountains of the Bellagio across the street. This photo was taken during my very first visit to Las Vegas, in November 2008.

The replica of the Eiffel Tower looms over the Paris Hotel, as seen from behind the fountains of the Bellagio across the street. This photo was taken during my very first visit to Las Vegas, in November 2008.

Las Vegas’s version of la tour Eiffel features an observation deck 460 feet above ground level. (By way of comparison, the highest observation level in the actual Eiffel Tower in the city of Paris is 906 feet above the ground.) Continue reading

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Fast times in Rapid City, South Dakota

Prez ReaganI’ve previously recounted my highly rewarding visit to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in the U.S. state of South Dakota. This post is about the town where I stayed during my long weekend in South Dakota: Rapid City. The second largest city in the state, Rapid City has a population of about 73,000. (Sioux Falls, with some 165,000 inhabitants as of 2013, ranks as the most populous South Dakotan city.) Rapid City made an ideal base of operations for my visit to the monuments, as Rushmore is only about a half hour’s drive from its downtown. In addition Rapid City proved an enjoyable place to spend time in its own right.

Hanging with the Prezzes in Rapid City’s downtown

City of Presidents: the basic concept

Part of the reason that Rapid City appealed to me is that it boasts a compact, walkable downtown. The centerpiece of that downtown is a series of life-sized bronze statues of all 42 former Presidents of the United States, in various poses, placed on street corners over a 10 square block area. (They were installed between 2000 and 2010.) The project is called the “City of Presidents.” At an information center on Main Street, you can pick up a free map that shows where each Presidential statue can be found, enabling you to take a self-guided walking tour of the City of Presidents. (This is helpful because the Presidents aren’t arranged in the order in which they served.)

Here are a couple of examples of the statues of the POTUSes:

The statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

The statue of William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, in downtown Rapid City.

You may have noticed that I mentioned that only former occupants of the Presidency have been depicted in the City of Presidents. There’s not yet a statue of current President Barack Obama. Under the long-standing policy of the nonprofit foundation that oversees the City of Presidents, a Presidential statue cannot be erected while the subject is still in office, but must await his return to civilian life. (As explained to me by a co-founder of the foundation, the rationale behind this policy is twofold: First, this waiting period allows for the design of the statue to be informed by a fuller picture of who the President was. Second, it’s hoped that once the subject has left the White House, public passions regarding his presidency will have subsided, thus reducing the risk of vandalism against the sculpture.) The same policy was applied to Bill Clinton (who was the sitting President when the project began in 2000) and George W. Bush. So Obama will get his statue eventually — just not while his address is still 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. :)

My selfie project: a plan gone slightly awry

As mentioned, the City of Presidents covers a modest portion of Rapid City’s downtown. Thus, you can make your way through all of the statues within a relatively short timespan. Combined with the fact that I was travelling for the first time with my new selfie stick, this gave me an idea. I conceived a goal to take selfies with each of the 42 Presidential statues! It was an inspired plan. And it worked very well. Except for one thing. Continue reading

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Rushmore and Crazy Horse: the majestic monuments of South Dakota’s Black Hills

hbomb at RushmoreFor many people, bucket list destinations are, almost by definition, found in exotic and distant locales. Typically appearing on travellers’ dream itineraries are such splendours as the Taj Mahal; the Egyptian pyramids; the ruins at Machu Picchu; the moai of Easter Island; and the Great Wall of China. However, while many world travellers dream of voyaging to the likes of India or China, comparatively fewer explorers — particularly among those based outside the U.S. — aspire to descend upon the American state of South Dakota. But earlier this month, I visited a genuine wonder that’s located in that great state of South Dakota: Mount Rushmore. My conclusion is that Rushmore merits mention among the most impressive man-made landmarks that the world has to offer.

During the same excursion that brought me to Rushmore, I also swung by the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is nearby to Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Although Crazy Horse is still under construction and is quite a long way from completion, it will one day rank alongside Rushmore for majesty and grandeur.

Rushmoring: paying homage to four Presidents on a mountain

Historical background

From 1927 to 1941, under the supervision of Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), the faces of four U.S. Presidents were carved into the sheer granite face of the mountain. But let’s take a step back to reflect upon how the idea for such a stupendous creation arose. The notion of carving replicas of legendary personages in the Black Hills was first conceived of by Jonah Leroy “Doane” Robinson (1856-1946), who served for a time as South Dakota’s state historian, and who sought to create a tourist attraction. As envisioned by Robinson, the folks depicted would have been pioneers and other legendary figures of the Western United States, such as the explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark; showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody; and Native American leader Red Cloud. But when Borglum was commissioned to bring the project to realization, he had a better idea. Continue reading

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The die is cast: I’ve scheduled my heart surgery

34414285_sFriends, as you know, I found out in April that I need open heart surgery to repair a leaking valve. That surgery has now been scheduled. It’s happening on the morning of Thursday, September 10. And it won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve chosen the less invasive, robotically assisted version of the surgery, as a result of which the surgeons won’t have to fracture my sternum to access my heart. So I should recover swiftly, once I get through it.

Once I get through it.

I’m still apprehensive about becoming a cardiothoracic surgery patient, for the reasons I enumerated in my previous post. But since the condition of my heart is only worsening over time, there was no benefit to be gained from putting off the surgery. So I took the plunge and called the surgeon’s office to get placed on the calendar. The result: shortly after Labor Day weekend, at a time when millions of Americans are looking forward to the season premieres of their favourite television shows, I’ll be checking into the hospital for some pretty major stuff.

Preoperative procedures

As the operation approaches, as is common with surgeries, I’ll have to undergo some preoperative procedures. When I signed up for my surgery, I was told that I should plan on experiencing the following procedures in advance of my actual operation: Continue reading

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When real life intervenes: my heart-stopping medical journey

8001817_lI was supposed to be in China today. Since last summer, I’d been planning a trip to China and Taiwan (which was probably also going to include Mongolia), for which I was going to depart this past Saturday. By now I probably would have already walked along the Great Wall, and today I was to fly to Xi’an to see the famed terra cotta warriors. But I’m not in China now; I canceled that trip. Instead of that geographical journey, I’ve embarked on a medical journey. This is the story of an unanticipated medical diagnosis that I received this spring; the life-saving surgery that I’ll need in light of that diagnosis; and how I’m adjusting to what lies ahead.

Last month, my world was turned upside down. For the first 45-plus years of my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to have never required an overnight hospital stay — let alone a surgical procedure performed in an operating room. I’ve never been under general anesthesia. Never have I even been hooked up to an intravenous tube. Part of the reason that I’ve been able to travel so frequently during the past few years is that I’ve enjoyed robust health.

But a little more than one month ago, on a Friday afternoon in a cardiologist’s office here in my home city of New York, everything changed. On that Black Friday, I learned that I need to undergo open heart surgery.

What necessitates my surgery is a leaky mitral valve, which can develop from mitral valve prolapse (MVP). The mitral valve, so named because it resembles a mitre (a hat worn by bishops), connects the heart’s left atrium to its left ventricle; MVP occurs when that valve doesn’t close properly. MVP is actually relatively common, and according to the Mayo Clinic, “In most people, mitral valve prolapse isn’t life-threatening and doesn’t require treatment or changes in lifestyle.”

My form of MVP, however, is less benign. Continue reading

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In George Washington’s footsteps: visiting the oldest house in Manhattan

George WashingtonTo travel to a house in Manhattan that was built when New York was still a colony of Great Britain, you don’t need a DeLorean. You only need to head a few miles north of the city’s usual tourist sites.

250 years ago, a British military officer named Colonel Roger Morris constructed a summer villa for him and his wife, in what’s now the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York City. (In those colonial times, only the southern tip of Manhattan contained residential settlements. The area that Morris chose for the location of his second home was relatively secluded.) That home, an exemplar of the Palladian style of architecture, still stands today; it’s now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. (A handful of even older homes survive in New York City’s boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island.) And it’s open to the public as a museum.

What began life as Colonel Morris’s summer dwelling is renowned less for its original owners than for some of the illustrious personages who later stood within its walls. Perhaps most notably, this residence can legitimately claim that “George Washington slept here” — and on multiple occasions, no less. First, during the Revolutionary War in 1776, then-General Washington appropriated the house as his headquarters for about five weeks. (The Morrises, who were Loyalists, had fled the house at the start of the war.)

The façade of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765.

The façade of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765.

This room served as Washington's bedchamber and study when he temporarily occupied the house in 1776.

This room served as Washington’s bedchamber and study when he temporarily occupied the house in 1776.

In July 1790, during his first term as President of the fledgling United States, Washington returned to the house, as part of an area sightseeing expedition that he led for family members and his Cabinet. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 62: an art museum in Mexico City

Happy Sunday, people. On this day in history in 1867, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, which created the Dominion of Canada as part of the British Commonwealth. Pursuant to that act, Canada became a country effective July 1, 1867 (although it didn’t become fully independent of the British Parliament until 1982).

This week’s featured image comes to you from a different part of North America: Mexico City, where a new art museum opened in 2011. Called El Museo Soumaya, it was built to house the collection of Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim Helú, who according to Forbes is the second wealthiest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $77.1 billion. (Bill Gates, of course, ranks no. 1 on the Forbes list.) Designed by Fernando Romero with assistance from the firm of the legendary Frank Gehry, the aluminum-clad exterior certainly has a distinctive appearance:

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The interior is kind of a knock-off of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, with ascension between levels accomplished via a gently sloping ramp that curves around the outermost portion of the floor plan. (There’s also an elevator.) Continue reading

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Riding in a karaoke-equipped car is Uber-cool

shutterstock_35330281This past weekend, I Amtrakked to Washington, DC to audition for “Jeopardy!” (The show periodically holds auditions in various cities around the U.S.) That tryout, held on a Saturday afternoon, was thoroughly fun and stimulating. Now I wait to see if the producers choose me to become a contestant on America’s favourite quiz show; if they do, I could receive “The Call” at any time within the next 18 months. That’s the duration for which I’ll remain in what the producers call the “contestant pool.” I’ve qualified for the “Jeopardy!” contestant pool several times previously; I’m hoping that this time I’ll finally break through!

During the next year and a half, while I’ll continue to read voraciously to maintain my knowledge base (in the event that I do get summoned to compete on the quiz show where you have to answer in the form of a question), I’ll also keep on pursuing my other passions — including, of course, karaoke. Along those lines, auditioning for a game show wasn’t the only amazing and fulfilling activity that my visit to D.C. featured. I also went for a ride with the “karaoke cabbie,” Joel Laguidao, and sang in his vehicle. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 61: a leopard in a tree in South Africa

St. Patrick’s Day may be almost upon us, but my thoughts today are of a place that’s vastly different from Ireland. This week’s featured image comes from the safari that I took in South Africa. One of the highlights of my safari was seeing members of each of the traditional “Big Five” species: elephant; lion; Cape buffalo; rhinoceros; and leopard. Leopards are agile creatures and they like to hang out on tree branches, high above the ground:

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This guy was sleeping up there for a while. I couldn’t imagine catching my zzz’s in such a precarious perch; I would be afraid of falling off. :) Anyway, this photo was taken during my visit to South Africa in September 2011.

Would you like to go on safari?

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 60: Agatha Christie slept in this Egyptian hotel

Less than two weeks from today, I’ll be auditioning for the quiz show “Jeopardy!” That audition will take place in Washington, D.C. Of course, Washington is just a hop, a skip, and a jump from my home base of New York City, compared to some of the destinations to which my adventures have taken me.

For example, today’s featured image comes from Aswan, Egypt, about 433 miles south of Cairo but nearly 6,000 miles from Manhattan. Standing on the east bank of the Nile in Aswan is the The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan hotel. Before it was a Sofitel property, when it was simply the Old Cataract, this was the hostelry in which Agatha Christie, sitting on the terrace of her guestroom, penned her novel Death on the Nile. The hotel’s ballroom also appeared in the 1978 film based on that novel.

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The Old Cataract was built in 1889, and in addition to Ms. Christie, its roster of distinguished guests through the years has included the likes of Tsar Nicholas II; Winston Churchill; Howard Carter (the guy who discovered King Tut’s tomb); Margaret Thatcher; Princess Diana; and Jimmy Carter. The hotel was expanded over the years, and was extensively renovated and restored from 2008 through 2011. This photo of it was taken during my visit to Egypt in September 2012. I did not, myself, lodge in this 5-star property; I was on a cruise down the Nile, during which I slept aboard the boat.

Do you like staying in historic hotels?

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Country no. 38 on my World Karaoke Tour: I was a Seoul man in South Korea

IMG_20150109_174838At the tail end of my 2 1/2 week excursion to East Asia, I ended up spending two nights in the South Korean capital of Seoul before catching my Korean Air flight back to New York. Earlier in the trip, Thailand and Singapore had already become the latest additions to my World Karaoke Tour; and while my intervening time in Cambodia had been disappointingly bereft of karaoke, I hoped that in Seoul I could finally increase the count of countries in which I’ve sung to 38.

Despite Seoul’s sprawling size (it’s a city of some 10 million people), I had difficulty finding a venue that met my requirement of allowing me to sing in public before an audience, as opposed to to the “private room” style of karaoke that’s so prevalent in that part of the world. (Private-room karaoke in South Korea is called noraebang, and is an insanely popular form of entertainment there.)

Happily, I did find one Western-style establishment that provides the opportunity to sing in public on a stage; and one is all that I needed. :) Continue reading

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Cambodia: spiders and snakes but no karaoke for me in Siem Reap

anchored at AngkorAfter adding Thailand and Singapore to my World Karaoke Tour, I aimed to make Cambodia the 38th country in which I’ve done karaoke. What had motivated me to go to Cambodia — and specifically, to the city of Siem Reap — was the chance to see a bucket list attraction, the Angkor Wat Temple. Things didn’t quite go according to plan. By the time I left Siem Reap, I had failed to sing karaoke; and although I made it to Angkor Wat, that temple has not been crossed off my bucket list, for reasons that I’ll explain.

No singing in Siem Reap

The main nightlife thoroughfare in downtown Siem Reap is Pub Street. As its name implies, that avenue is lined with pubs, as well as restaurants. The area also abounds with vendors hawking street food. And one end of Pub Street intersects with the night market, a strip of stores that offer a wide variety of souvenirs.

Pub Street in Siem Reap.

Pub Street in Siem Reap.

Perhaps the most unusual street food peddlers (compared to what I’d encountered in prior travels) operated a cart whose culinary offerings included tarantulas and fried snakes. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 59: people taking selfies at Angkor Wat

During the past week, I participated in a personality interview via Skype which served as the third round of the audition process for a nationally televised quiz show. I’ll let you know if things go any further with that. (And yes, during that interview, I name-checked this blog, as well as mentioning my World Karaoke Tour.) :)

Anyway, this week’s featured image comes from my recent visit to the Angkor archaeological site near Siem Reap, Cambodia — and, specifically, from the Angkor Wat temple that is so identified with Cambodia that it appears on the national flag. The temple’s towers — one central tower, rising to a height of 213 feet, surrounded by four shorter towers — form a distinctive and recognizable profile. Visitors enjoy documenting their pilgrimages to the site:

document

(And yes, I realize that the photos being taken as depicted above aren’t true “selfies,” as they’re being taken by persons other than the subjects. But I did see plenty of people using the now-ubiquitous selfie sticks in front of the temple.)

The temple was built in the 12th century. The city of Angkor of which it was a part was the capital of the Khmer empire and at its peak may have boasted more than a million inhabitants; indeed, it is claimed that Angkor was the largest city in the world prior to the Industrial Revolution. Today, that former megalopolis, and the copious ruins that it contains, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Is Angkor Wat on your bucket list?

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 58: the White Temple in Thailand

I just enjoyed a satisfying couple of days attending the New York Times Travel Show. But it’s that time of week where I share an image from one of my voyages outside of New York City.

This week’s featured photo comes from Chiang Rai, Thailand. The Wat Rong Khun (known informally as the White Temple), was built in the style of a Buddhist temple, by an eccentric Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, in 1997. Actually I shouldn’t say “built” in the past tense; new buildings and bizarre artworks continue to sprout on the site. The focal point of the property is the temple (also known as the ubosot) that’s painted in white and covered with fragments of glass.

white temple edited

This photo was taken during my visit to Thailand in December 2014.

Would you like to visit the White Temple?

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Country no. 37 on my World Karaoke Tour: slinging songs in Singapore

singapore slingThe New Year’s Eve just past was my worst NYE ever; but I had a pretty good New Year’s night on January 1.

Singapore presents a spectacular fireworks show over Marina Bay on New Year’s Eve. But due to the medical condition that I discuss here, I wasn’t up for jostling among the throngs of people that typically amass at such pyrotechnics displays, or for then facing a potentially lengthy and arduous journey back to my hotel (like the time the time on New Year’s Eve in Lisbon when I waited over three hours in the taxi queue for transportation back to my hotel after watching that city’s ring-in-the-new-year fireworks over the Tagus River). Nor did I wish to attend an expensive party from which I could view the fireworks (or which required attire that I hadn’t brought with me from New York). So I decided that I would commemorate the arrival of 2015 in Singapore with a night of karaoke! But my plans were, as they say, overtaken by events. Continue reading

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