Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Around the world in 80 ways
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

"Barbary Coast, Paris, Caesar's Palace," yells the bus driver as the Strip Special rumbles to a halt on its way south along Las Vegas Boulevard. "You see everything and anything that's in the world in this city," says Brook Kelsey, a visitor from California. Was that the Italian lakeside town of Bellagio that just flashed past? Anyway, in six weeks' time the driver's announcements will include the unwieldy "New York New York for Nine Fine Irishmen".

"Barbary Coast, Paris, Caesar's Palace," yells the bus driver as the Strip Special rumbles to a halt on its way south along Las Vegas Boulevard. "You see everything and anything that's in the world in this city," says Brook Kelsey, a visitor from California. Was that the Italian lakeside town of Bellagio that just flashed past? Anyway, in six weeks' time the driver's announcements will include the unwieldy "New York New York for Nine Fine Irishmen".

Try saying "Nine Fine Irishmen" after a few pints of stout. That is the name of the world's biggest Irish pub, which is due to open within the New York New York hotel-casino in July.

Unlike the rest of Las Vegas (see opposite), the new pub is devoid of neon. Like most things in Nevada's largest city, however, it is pure fabrication. But Nine Fine Irishmen is at least pre-fabrication. It has already been constructed in Dublin, then knocked down, placed into 14 containers and shipped across the ocean and the desert to become an oasis where tourists will slake their thirst for Guinness at $5.50 (£4) a pint.

Painstakingly painting "Established 1848" on a building that did not exist until 2003 is meat and (especially) drink to Desmond O'Connor, the cheery project manager who is reconstructing the pub by numbers. He has already convinced the people of Seoul that the thing they've been missing all these years is an Irish pub. By comparison with the Korean capital, Las Vegas is relatively easy. Everyone is from somewhere else, and - in the absence of any coherent reality to the city - incoming cultures meet zero resistance.

Besides, the Irish motif is already visible on O'Shea's, further north along the Strip. This is the best place to gamble in the city because the minimum bet for blackjack is the lowest in town, and blackjack is the game at which, played sensibly, you lose money most slowly. Accordingly, O'Shea's is a favourite with the gang at the USA Hostel - mostly British backpackers who have found Paradise, or at least the bus of that name that runs from McCarran airport to Downtown.

The hostel is a former Howard Johnson motel that has fallen upon hard times and been reclaimed by budget travellers. These days, the management practises "yield management" (ie charging as much on a particular night as you think you can get away with). This means that, on a Saturday, $46 (£30) a bed is the going rate.

Chores are mandatory: a poster in the kitchen announces, "Surprise! Your butler just called to say he couldn't make the trip. Guess what: you're going to have to clean up after yourself."

In some parts of America, anyone who drinks more than a pint in one evening is considered an alcoholic. To avoid such a smear, restrict your attention to the soda fountain at Everything Coca-Cola in Las Vegas, two floors of merchandising for the planet's favourite soft drink. A $2 "Taste of the World" sampler comprises eight cold, fizzy and brightly coloured liquids, made by the Coca-Cola Corporation for places where Coke isn't necessarily It. In the People's Republic of China, things go better with Smart Watermelon. In Costa Rica, try the lurid pink Tutti Frutti Fanta Kolita. Israelis apparently love Krest Ginger Ale, while Stoney Ginger Beer is tops in South Africa. In Japan, you can buy the world a Vegita Beta. I think I prefer the real thing.

My global journey was conducted with a tape recorder, because I was finding out how uniform the world has become for a BBC Radio 4 programme (We Do It Our Way, to be broadcast on Friday 6 June at 11am). As we increasingly eat the same food, drink at the same Irish pubs and watch the same TV, it is easy to conclude that uniformity has an awful inevitability. Yet travellers steadfastly refuse to comply with the wishes of the multinational marketeers, and help to contribute to cultural divergence - usually.

One worrying trend is that some Chinese people have an interesting grasp of the term "book". A sleepy backpacker reading Lord Of The Rings on a long train journey through the People's Republic occasionally drifted off and the book would fall to the floor. Fellow travellers helped out by tapping him on the shoulder and saying: "You've dropped your Lonely Planet".

Plenty of backpacking guidebooks to India recommend Western travellers try their luck getting a bit-part in an all-singing, all-dancing "Masala Movie", as the homegrown products of Bombay's "Bollywood" film industry are known.

Two weeks ago I found myself on a studio set for one of these melodramatic movies. A fee of a couple of thousand rupees could sustain you for weeks in India. So I tried for a role, even to the extent of wearing a tie in the hope of looking vaguely colonial. But Tanuja Chandra, a leading Bollywood director, tactfully explained that my chances were not especially auspicious. Indeed, her exact odds were "slim to none".

"There aren't too many white characters, especially Britishers, in Hindi movies. And if there might be one, you are unlikely to get that role because the producer might, you know, look for real actors."

"If you can use some exotic booze, there's a bar in far Bombay...", crooned Sinatra in Come Fly With Me. The Irish pub has made it to India's largest city - with a twist. Not a drop of beer from Dublin or Cork is on sale; instead, you drink the Australian brand Foster's, brewed in India.

The cheap way back from Bombay is aboard Kuwait Airways, the no-singing, no-dancing and no-alcohol airline. For his visit to Iraq via Kuwait this week, Tony Blair decided not to fly on the national carrier. The prime minister thus avoided two things: the Sars check upon arrival, which involves sticking a thermometer in every passenger's ear and asking when they were last in Toronto; and the "war tax" that the airline has imposed on travellers from India.

The Indian government's Department of Civil Aviation has imposed a 500-rupee (£7) fee. Or that's what Kuwait Airways tells its passengers. The tax, says the airline's manager in Mumbai, is an unusual one. It is an insurance premium for passengers while they are at the airport: "As soon as you enter the terminal you are covered," says the airline's man. "It is not paid to Kuwait Airways."

Other staff insist that the fee is a fuel surcharge imposed because of the war in Iraq. But all agree that it is the passenger's travel agent's fault for failing to collect it in the UK.

"They probably thought that, because the war was over, they did not need to collect it," says the manager. "You'll get a refund from your agent when you get home," promised a colleague.

This was news to Expedia, with whom I booked. The notion of passengers paying an airport insurance policy was a new one on the Indian government, too. And, indeed, everyone I asked in the passport queue to leave Bombay travelling on other airlines was oblivious to the new "war tax".

What was the point of that, then? That is what they will be asking in Paris tonight, when the last scheduled Concorde flight touches down from New York?

The villagers of Roissy will rest more easily now, knowing that the earth will no longer rumble twice a day. The world's statistically most dangerous airliner is to be retired, at least from French airspace.

Air France, along with British Airways, was a beneficiary of this beleaguered Anglo-French project; both airlines were effectively given the supersonic jets in a bid to bestow the hopelessly misguided venture with a raison d'être. But the French national carrier has always had a much tougher time trying to make a go of the ability to fly people at twice the speed of sound and many times the price of a subsonic flight.

The first destination Air France served from Paris was Dakar in Senegal, a fine city but not quite the high-spending market for which Concorde was designed. The supersonic jet also linked Dakar with Rio - again, a "city pair" that is unlikely to over-excite an airline sales team.

Inevitably, Air France's Concordes ended up as party planes. A significant proportion of passengers were UK travellers aiming for New York. They could have reached America's biggest city just as quickly on an ordinary direct flight from Britain, because of the added time involved flying to Paris and hanging around at Charles de Gaulle airport. But because Air France was selling its supersonic birthright so cheaply, it was worth travellers' whiles taking the long way round in order to enjoy the Concorde experience.

Air France also flew Concorde between Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow surprisingly often - but rarely with passengers on board. The French airline rented out its supersonic planes for joy-ride flights to UK companies, at prices undercutting British Airways' charter charges, and sent over Concorde to pick up the passengers.

In July 2000, it was a charter flight from Charles de Gaulle to New York that crashed with the loss of 109 lives on the aircraft and four on the ground. Besides the profound grief of that tragic event, Concorde has caused sustained damage over the past 27 years. The main offenders are the four absurd 1960s military jet engines, which make an appalling row and vaporise a ridiculous amount of fuel as they power the wealthy payload pointlessly around the world (or at least to those few airports prepared to receive the supersonic jet).

Yes, Concorde is a beautiful sight. But in the messy arithmetic of human happiness, the world will be happier without her.

C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas l'avenir - it's magnificent, but it isn't the future.

Comments