Sunday, November 25, 2012

Splash in the International Fountain in Seattle, Washington

Recently my blog as been all, "Vegas, Vegas, Vegas... yadda, yadda, yadda," which is not bad if you love Vegas, but I will admit, the theme is getting repetitive.  So forgive me if I make one last Vegas reference of 2012 and tell you that I LOVE the fountains at the Bellagio.  The casino puts on one heck of a show, which I appreciate immensely after watching a documentary about the mechanics and computer technology that goes behind the production of the water show.  There is nothing like watching the water literally dance in time to the music, and it always ends with a big, cannon-like boom, water shooting miles into the sky.

There's nothing like the water show at the Bellagio... except for maybe the International Fountain in Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington.

The International Fountain in Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington

The fountain is tucked away behind the Science Center, next to the Experience Music Project museum.  I visited last summer with a friend and her two children, and the International Fountain was indeed a highlight of the trip.

When you come across the fountain, you might think it looks more like a modern art sculpture than anything.  I imagined it was a giant silver comet that fell from the sky and crashed into Earth, burying itself halfway into a patch of cratered concrete.  But when the fountain turns on, everything changes.

Just like the Bellagio water shows, the International Fountain spurts music in time to a set song.  As the song crescendos, so do the jets.  Soft music equals trickles, misty sprays, and gentle pulses of water.  Loud booms and crashes set the fountain into overtime, blasting plumes of water into the sky, or sometimes, right up an unsuspecting frolicker's shorts!

Water pulsing to the beat of the music - much to the delight of summer bathers!

In Seattle, it seems the local children (and heck, even a few adults) have a rhythm with the fountain.  During the more peaceful moments, when water is running down the sides of the machine in soft rivulets, bathers will run up to the fountain and place their hand on the shiny, silver surface, as if they were fulfilling the obligations of some wild bet. They snicker and giggle as they listen to the music and try to judge just when the fountain will spring to life.  The programmers must know this, because I witnessed more than once some false starts, where the music picked it up a notch, but the fountain remained stubbornly passive.

The finale - what an amazing sight!
Then, to the surprise and delight of the people bold enough to stand near the fountain's surface, the water will suddenly blast out, and everyone bolts away, shrieking and laughing, soaked to the core. When the fountain hits its pinnacle, even the bystanders who chose to stand further away in the hopes of staying dry might get sprayed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What I Learned in Vegas (This Time Around)

Does Vegas ever get old?  If you are like me, the answer is a resounding, "No!"  Vegas seems to get better with every visit - once the initial electric shock wears off, you can relax and enjoy what the city has to offer at a less 'touristy' pace.

Or so it was with me last week when I went to Las Vegas, Nevada for the National Conference of Teachers of English. Of course, I showed up in town with grand plans to drive up to Antelope Canyon, or Area 51, or even just go for a hike in Red Rock Canyon. I always show up with big travel plans.

Las Vegas casino, Las Vegas strip
Our hotel / casino - New York New York!

I really only had one free day in Vegas, and then the teacher's conference began.  I was tired from the flight down, and opted to just spend the day strolling the Strip rather than get up early, rent a car, and spend the entire day driving.  I think it was for the best.

The conference was wonderful - I learned a lot about literacy, engaging reluctant readers, and student blogging, to name a few sessions.  I met some new authors, some favorite authors, and ended up coming home with 63 free books to add to my home and classroom collections.  Not too shabby!

Las Vegas conference, free books
All the free books I scored at NCTE12 in Las Vegas!

But here's what I really learned in Vegas, this time around...

#1: Vegas is a great place see celebrities

Up until this trip, I hadn't really seen anyone famous in Las Vegas, other than the wax figures in Madame Tussaud's at the Venetian.  That makes sense, though, as I was always darting from location to location, determined to see, experience, and photograph everything that there was to see, experience, and photograph. 

This time around, however, I took in Vegas low and slow every day after the conference, meandering from casino to casino casually - generally just enjoying the act of people-watching.  While doing just this outside Caesar's Palace, I was drawn to a lady leaning alongside the pedway, just staring into the Caesar's Palace back parking lot.  Curious, I peeked over her shoulder and asked her what she was looking at.  (I'm nosy like that.)

"My friend works for a cattle ranch, and she's got her horses here, all corralled up in Caesar's Palace," the woman replied.  Indeed, there were about four horse trailers all lined up along the side of the road.  "Shania Twain is filming her music video here.  They're sending a bunch of ranch horses running down Las Vegas Boulevard."

Las Vegas celebrities, Las Vegas strip, Las Vegas boulevard
A music video in the making on Las Vegas Boulevard

Now, I'm not really a Shania fan, but it was exciting to think I might get to watch a music video being filmed. Even as I talked to the lady, police cruisers had begun to pull up along the intersections along Las Vegas Boulevard and began to cut off the traffic flow.  I watched the Caesar's Palace parking lot for a while more, and saw, from a distance, Shania Twain exit her vehicle and head straight into the area of Caesar's Palace where the horses were corralled.  Thanking the super-informative woman, I headed further down the boulevard.

I didn't get to see the video up close - the streets had become unbearably packed by then - but I did watch with a certain amount of interest as about 40 ranch horses, unsaddled, came clomping up Las Vegas Boulevard, led by a couple of cowboys and followed by a petite, black-clad Shania Twain.  I tried getting photos, but she was just too small and the distance too great.

Las Vegas celebrities, Las Vegas boulevard
Shania is tiny brunette-headed dot next to the black-hatted cowboy in this shot

Another celebrity, albeit somewhat obscure, that I got to meet during the conference was Natalie Merchant, a singer-songwriter from my and even my father's youth.  She once was lead singer for the band 10,000 Maniacs, and then went solo.  I was a big fan of her work in the mid-1990s. ("Carnival" is my favorite song of hers.) Anyway, she wrote a children's book of poetry, and was at our English Teacher's conference to present it, and of course, to sing for us.

Las Vegas celebrities, NCTE conference
Natalie Merchant, live and up close!

I was super pumped to be seeing her, and so I snagged a seat in the second row, right by the stage.  I couldn't have gotten any closer, as the first row was reserved.  I was thrilled!  She was a very laid-back but entertaining performer, and didn't seem to mind me filming nearly every song she performed.  In fact, she'd make it a point to look right at my camera as she sang - thank you, Natalie!

#2:  Roulette is my game of choice

I am not a gambler... not really.  I usually put in about $5.00 total into the penny slots over the course of a four day trip to Vegas.  This time, though, I got more into the spirit of things, and tried my hand at roulette.  Sitting down at a table in New York New York, I badgered the dealer to explain the game to me and help me out.  She wasn't really supposed to, but she obliged.  I was also lucky to sit with some very helpful people who pointed out the tips and tricks of the game.

Done with the penny slots - I've moved on to bigger and better!

What fun I had! I made $65.00 off a $20.00 bill my first night, made $45.00 from $20.00 the second night, and lost $40.00 the third night. Overall, I played for hours, had lots of laughs, and didn't lose out in the end.

Some things I learned about roulette: it is much more fun to bet on the numbers rather than black or red, odd or even.  The payout is more profitable, and if you spread your chips and split numbers, your odds are even better.  Also, if you bet at a $10 table, and you only have 7 chips left, the dealer will let you play with just your 7 chips.

If you want a $5 or $10 table, either gamble in the morning or afternoon.  If you are cute and convincing, you might be able to find a pit boss who will let you play for $5.00 at an empty table, just as long as no one else comes. (This happened to me a lot - I must be pretty cute and/or convincing!) I played roulette at a $15 table for about 45 minutes at only $5 a hand one night - I felt like I had some big secret that no one else had!

Vegas' newest pro-gambler - or not!

#3: There is no better place to meet people from around the world

If you want to make international friends, and quickly, sit around a table in Las Vegas and be as happy and friendly as you can.  Las Vegas is full of people from literally everywhere, and most are in just as good a mood as you.

At one point, I was sitting at a table with a rich Russian, a funny Kenyan, a newlywed couple from Turkey, a handsome Mexican, a quiet man from Israel, and two party-ready Austrians.  I was, of course, the clueless Canadian!  Our dealer was from Ethiopia.  It was an international table in America with, ironically, not a single American.  It was the most fun I've ever had sitting around a table.  Everyone was laughing and joking, and no one called anyone by their name.  I'd call out, "Hey Turkey, bet on black." He would reply, "Sure thing, Canada."  If you had walked by and not known what was happening, you'd think we were being racist, but such was not the case.

Cosmopolitan casino Las Vegas, Las Vegas casinos
Hang out with friends in Vegas - "The Chandelier Lounge" is a great place to do so!

Our table was so fun, all the same people got together again on the second night at the exact same table!  Good times in Vegas!

#4: Sleep schmeep

In any other place in the world, having only two and a half hours of sleep before a conference would be deadly.  Not so in Las Vegas, which I think has been built upon a giant wormhole that warps and twists time as we know it.

Knowing full well that I had to get up early in the morning for my conference, I made plans to go to bed by 10:00 p.m., already at this point feeling sleep-deprived.  However, 'one last round' at the roulette table led to meeting some fun people from Wales, which then led to cheering them on at the blackjack table (which I can play, but only from the sidelines), which then led to dancing in Coyote Ugly's, which then led to casino hopping from club to club, which then led to 5 in the morning and no sleep.  All done with practically zero drinks, too, I might proudly add. (I'm too cheap to buy drinks, and when I'm traveling, I run on adrenaline just fine.)

Las Vegas clubs, New York New York club, Las Vegas Coyote Ugly
A fun place to dance, especially if you like early-90s rap!

 It is hard to say, "Nah, I think I'll just go back to my hotel room and go to bed," when all of Vegas is out there waiting for you!  And I still had a great day in my conference, learned lots, and got free books!

#5: M'n'Ms are fun to play with, not just eat

If you head to the giant four-story M'n'M store on Las Vegas Boulevard, don't just wander around, buy a cheap dispenser and leave.  There is so much more to the store!  My favorite part is the Personalized M'n'M Machine, which has the capability of printing names and clip-art pictures onto the M'n'Ms of your choice.

Located on the third-story of the building, the Personalized M'n'M machine begins with two computer stands, where you type in the names you'd like to see printed on the M'n'Ms, and select any clip-art you'd like to add.  The machine spits out a receipt, which you use to pay for your selections.  The people running the counter will give you a container, which you then fill with colorful M'n'Ms of your choice.  This is the practical part.

customized MnMs, Las Vegas shop
Dumping my candies into the machine

The fun begins when you get to dump your container of M'n'Ms into the machine, which then flashes, whirrs, sings, and clicks as it fills your container with custom-designed-by-you M'n'Ms.  Tasty, fun, and a great gift!

MnM shop Las Vegas
My lovely personalized M'n'Ms!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Paris Street Food: Decadent Crepes

One of the biggest "musts" while traveling is to sample the wide variety of tasty street foods a culture has to offer.  Every nation has a specific palette of spices, smells, textures, and presentations - as a visitor, it is your obligation to try to experience at least some of these.  At least, this is my opinion as a person who loves both travel and eating.

Stereotypically, street food comes on sticks or on paper plates.  But the city of Paris does street food with more class and pizzazz, or so it seems!

Saint Michel district Paris, Paris France
The Parisian Metropolitan entrance in the Saint-Michel district.

During my Europe trip with my Junior High students in 2010, as we were walking around the quaint, cobble-stoned district of Saint-Michel in the historic Latin Quarter, I smelled something mouth-watering.  Like a Disney character who floats down the street, held aloft by a drifting waft of fragrant air, I found my way to the source: a man on the edge of the sidewalk making crepes.  He had a stand with a mounted, circular griddle, a giant jar of Nutella, and the greatest chef outfit I've ever seen on a street vendor.

French crepes with Nutella, Paris cuisine
Our engaging street vendor pours the crepe batter onto the griddle.

I wandered up to him, eyes wide and mouth salivating.  He noticed that I was with several young students, and decided to put on a show for us.  With a flourish and a flair, he poured some crepe batter onto the griddle, used his spatula to even it out with a quick twist of his wrist, and proceeded to make a pile of crepes within minutes.  I snapped photographs of his step-by-step cooking show, and he smiled and hammed it up for the camera.

French crepes with Nutella, Paris cuisine
Spreading the crepe batter.

French crepes with Nutella, Paris cuisine
Now here comes the skill - flipping the paper-thin crepe without tearing it!

French crepes with Nutella, Paris cuisine
Success!  A nicely browned crepe, ready for some yummy Nutella!

He then smeared the goopy, chocolatey Nutella onto the crepes, deftly rolled them up, and offered them to his audience of admiring onlookers.  We all bought one, cleaning up that stack of crepes instantly.  They were delicious!  (No pictures of us eating them, since we were all so focused on enjoying our fare.)

French crepes with Nutella, Paris cuisine
Yum! Crepey goodness!

To this date, I have not eaten a crepe that has tasted as good.  Nothing has come close.  Thank you, Parisian street vendor, for such amazing food!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Experience Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Las Vegas

Some people hate wax museums - a few of my friends insist that they are creepy, dorky, or a bit of both. To these people I say, "Lighten up!"  Wax museums are tons of fun - you just have to suspend reality for a moment and be willing to think up brilliant and hilarious scenarios for your dorky / creepy photographs!  There's not a lot of instructions or helpful tips to be shared about visiting Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Las Vegas, so this post will mostly be a 'photo-essay'.

Here are the facts: we visited Madame Tussaud's during our trip in 2009.  It cost us $20.76 each, because I had bought advance tickets online while still at home in Canada.  To buy at the door will cost you $25.95 each - not much of a difference, unless you want to buy a drink later on in the evening, in which case, that five bucks you saved will be warmly welcomed!

If you don't already know, Madame Tussaud's is located just outside the Venetian casino on the Strip - it is very easy to find.  You can start your tour through a maze of waxen celebrities at 10:00 a.m., or go as late as 9:00 p.m. (the attraction closes at 9:30 p.m.). 

My favorite moments - in no specific order - are:

Joey punching a very shiny, waxy-looking Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
My celebrity marriage to George Clooney! 
Ah - the infamous 'nut punch' to Dale Earnhardt. 
Making sure my boyfriend, Agent 007, has everything just-so before going off on a mission!
Full impact face punch!
My husband lives out his dream of playing in the NBA.
Oh, Tiger and 'other famous golfer' - please stop looking at my bum!
"Why isn't anyone doing anything?"
Stealing drag queen Lucille Ball's cupcake mix.
How the West was lost...
Teaching President Bush to count to five - tricky, tricky!
Our favourite shot - we love Las Vegas!
There were so many more photos, but some weren't as entertaining, and some were TOO entertaining, so I chose the best ones to share.  This is a place that you MUST visit in Las Vegas, whether you are traveling with friends, or visiting with your family.  My slogan for Madame Tussaud's, should they choose to use it: "Madame Tussaud's: Good Times for Silly People!"