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Wonder & awe of Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon

The Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon strike a common chord due to their sheer enormity, beauty and the overwhelming experience they provide to visitors.

Last Updated: Jan 24, 2008, 12.00 AM IST
I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in...” These words of the great African-American botanist and humanitarian, George Washington Carver, never cease to inspire me when I’m travelling. So much so, that my one-month trip to the US seemed incomplete without a dekko of two of America’s most spectacular natural wonders — the Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon.

Even though they’re both completely different and are on bang-opposite coasts of the continental-size country, they strike a common chord due to their sheer enormity, beauty and the overwhelming experience they provide to visitors. And being intrepid explorers, neither my husband nor I wanted to miss either of them!

We touched down on the east coast of USA in early October. Niagara Falls was high on our ‘do-fast’ list as we were told around end-October, some parts are closed to the public since the water starts freezing. So we decided to take an overnight Greyhound bus from Penn Station (New Jersey) to Buffalo, from where we switched buses to reach Niagara. Beautiful green countryside, wide roads lined by picturesque cottages and good weather greeted us as we got off and hailed a cab to take us to the hotel.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that our cabbie was an Indian by the name of Anil Jain. “But you can call me John!” he told us warmly, as we started chatting about life in the US versus India. John’s rags-to-riches story had me hooked: he came to the US 30 years ago with just $220 in his pocket. Now, he was a multi-millionaire who owned a taxi service, but continued to actually drive a cab! He said he travelled the world with his family every year and even offered us tips for a Caribbean cruise. Wow! This cabbie was really in the big league!

We had booked our stay at Day’s Inn hotel on Niagara Boulevard, thinking it would be close to the Falls, but it turned out to be a motel on the highway, miles away from our destination! We then found out there’s another Day’s Inn hotel close to the Falls, but because of the similar name, many tourists end up like us! More so, since this motel offered rooms at half the price.

Our desi connection didn’t end with the cabbie; the motel owner turned out to be an Indian too... Surprise, surprise! He was another one of those ubiquitous Gujaratis who have revolutionalised Uncle Sam’s motel business. True Gujarati that he was, Ricky (aka Rakesh) Patel was at his hospitable best and assured us we would have no dietary problems as his mother was a vegetarian too! On Patel bhai’s recommendation, we booked a ‘Bedore Tour’ for the afternoon, which would take us to the Falls. Our bus driver-cum-tour guide, Ivan, promptly arrived to pick us up and we set off to view the thundering Falls that have lured lovers, poets and adventurers for centuries.

The Niagara Falls can be viewed from either the American or Canadian side. The latter offers a better frontal view, but since we didn’t have a Canadian visa, we had to be content with the American view — which was a spectacle in itself! The Falls consist of three sections — the narrow Bridal Veil Falls, the slightly larger American Falls, and the largest, Canadian Horseshoe Falls with their distinctive curved shape.

Less than 10% of the water flows over the American Falls, with the rest going over the Horseshoe Falls. The enormity only struck us when our guide said the average depth of water below Niagara Falls is 170 feet, and the water falls at an accelerating rate of 32 feet per second! As the water thundered, frothed, sprayed and crashed over the edge of the cliff, all we could do was gawp at its majestic intensity!

The observatory on the American side gave us a panoramic view of the Falls, as well as the Rainbow bridge, which spans the gorge separating Canada and the US. The international border is at the centre of this bridge and we saw the flags of both countries fluttering in the morning breeze. Across the Niagara river, we could clearly see the Canadian side, with the Skylon and Minolta Towers strutting out against the blue sky.

While my husband was busy clicking pictures, I scribbled my observations and trivia about the Falls in a notepad. When Ivan enquired what I was up to, I explained I was a journalist. This intrigued him no end. “I would love to read what you write about our Falls, but I don’t think I’ll be able to,” he said in an amused tone. “Why not?” I asked. “I’ll email you the online version.” Ivan was impressed, but still doubtful. “How will I understand it?” he asked.

Then it struck me that he was referring to the language! “Of course you’ll understand... it’ll be in English,” I clarified. “You have English newspapers in India?” he asked incredulously. I had to try really hard to suppress my laughter. “Of course we do. In fact, I write for India’s largest English business daily!” I declared grandly. Americans...!

We then proceeded to Niagara’s most popular and thrilling tourist attraction since 1846 — the Maid of the Mist boat ride, which brought us close — too close?! — to the Falls. Wearing blue recyclable raincoats, we boarded a diesel-powered boat that cruised past the base of the American Falls and then into the basin of the Horseshoe Falls. My heart raced as we experienced the sheer exhilaration of millions of gallons of water crashing like thunder into the rocks. Mist rose from the water like ghosts emerging from the crypt and sprayed our faces as we ‘soaked’ in the excitement and the deafening roar.

As we approached the Horseshoe Falls, I tried to stare into into its dazzlingly bright depths, but found it was impossible to look at it for more than 2-3 seconds! I was forced to turn my face away from the glare of the water; that’s when I saw it — a rainbow stretching right across the Falls, connecting both shores. It was an iconic moment that transcended everyday reality; a moment that will stay etched in my memory forever.

And how could we come away without going ‘under’ the Falls? The ‘Cave of the Winds’ tour involved wearing special footwear and a poncho — bright yellow, this time — and descending 175 ft in an elevator deep into the Niagara Gorge. Navigating down a series of wooden walkways, we finally reached the ‘Hurricane Deck’, just 20 ft below the origin of the Bridal Veil Falls. At first, I hesitated to climb up to the top deck, but my husband pooh-poohed my fears and led me up.

We were the only ones in our group to climb up to the highest point — talk about being daredevils — and it sure was exhilarating! The rushing waters loomed above our heads, dousing us with a generous spray, as we faced the billowing torrents head-on. Though we got completely drenched, this bottom-up view of the thundering falls was a surreal experience.

As evening drew near, we walked up to Terrapin Point on Goat Island, which offers a view of the water over the sweeping curve of the Horseshoe Falls, as they approach the edge of the cliff. White seagulls soared over the swelling rapids and slowly, as darkness descended, brilliant, multi-coloured lights emanated from the water — the ‘Illuminated Show’ had begun as 21 xenon spotlights (each over 2 ft wide) mounted on the Canadian side beamed across the gorge on to the Falls. Even the mist rising up from the Falls was bathed in this rainbow of ligh.

For centuries, Niagara Falls has inspired awe and wonder among its visitors, who come to watch water and gravity work their magic. But it has attracted its share of daredevils too. Ivan told us the first person to go over the Falls was a 63-year-old school teacher Annie Taylor in 1902! Eager to be rich and famous, Annie went over the falls in a barrel with her black cat. Though badly mangled, she survived to tell the tale for another 20 years. As for the cat, legend has it that it came out white!

With Niagara stamped upon my heart as an indelible image of cascading beauty and wonder, we headed for the West Coast for our second dose of nature, this time in a rocky avatar.
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