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Face to face with Niagara

The falls may not be a certified wonder of the world but that doesn’t keep them from being wonder-full

Face to face with Niagara

There is much ‘fake news’ surrounding Niagara Falls: firstly, the Falls are neither the highest, nor the widest falls in the world. They may be the most well-advertised falls in the world, but that’s simply because they are North American. It may also be true that they are the most beautiful, but then again, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder so no one could win that argument. The Falls are also not, contrary to what you may have heard, part of any of the world’s Wonders: neither ancient nor modern nor natural.

Thirdly, and possibly the piece of false information that took me the longest to wrap my head around, is that Niagara Falls is actually the collective name given to three separate waterfalls in close proximity: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, in descending order of width.

If you’ve seen as much Bollywood as me, you likely think that the Horseshoe Falls, the widest of the three, is actually Niagara. This waterfall lies on the Canadian side, as opposed to the other two which are on the American side, and is easily the most attractive which is why it often pointlessly finds itself in the backdrop of A.R. Rahman songs. All three sit in the Niagara gorge, which is where they get their collective name from.

There is nothing particularly special about the American Falls, as is telling from its innocuous name. You can see them easily from the American side and they’re wonderful to look at, the way a full field of sunflowers or a starry night is wonder-full, but on their own they couldn’t have turned the America-Canada borderline into the ‘honeymoon capital’ of the world. To do that, they needed the wayward, turbulent beauty of the Bridal Veil Falls and the smooth, wide and dangerous fall of the Horseshoe.

Another charming aspect of the Bridal Veil Falls is that, after entering the Niagara Falls State Park for free, if you are willing to cough up USD 17, you can take an elevator to the bottom of the waterfall and then walk your way back up. This is called the ‘Cave of the Winds’.

Because this waterfall is so narrow, the trek up the wooden bridges and staircases is quite safe. You will, no doubt, despite the cheap plastic poncho you receive, get wet, but you are at a waterfall so it’s safe to assume that you thought that part through.

It was in the Bridal Veil elevator line that I first realised that all the families in front of me and those behind me were all Indian. Later I also saw information pamphlets in Hindi. The country does of course have one of the fastest growing populations in the world — not that Pakistanis are too far behind — but still the sheer number of mothers-in-law, bhaiyyas and young bahus that I saw struggling with each other up and down the Bridal Veil was enough for me to whip out my phone and Google: ‘Is Niagara Falls a very famous destination for Indians?’.

The Maid of the Mist, a boat that departs from the park and wavers a bit into Canadian territory is named after the Native American legend of Lelawala, a young widow who wanted to end her life by going over the falls but changed her mind half way through and successfully prayed for a mythical rescue.

Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my observation, scores of others had wondered likewise. There were also questions about why the Niagara Falls city has as many Indian restaurants as it does. However, I found no clear explanation as to why Indians favour the tourist spot over other American destinations. Some answers on Quora and Reddit were pretty racist, claiming that since the State Park is free, Indians favoured it. Others claimed that Niagara Falls are a part of the Indian national syllabus and hence any Indian vacationing to the US felt compelled to visit it. A more interesting answer was that word of mouth had popularised the falls within Indian communities and there was a pressure to put up pictures while aboard the Maid of the Mist or with the Horseshoe Falls in the background on social media. My personal favourite but unverified answer is that Hollywood and Bollywood have made Niagara ‘cool’ and romantic.

To be fair, however, no one should ever really have to justify why they wanted to visit Niagara. Some of the park’s beauty lies in its incongruencies: The falls are equal parts beautiful and dangerous; the destination is so commercial and yet this hasn’t made it devoid of romance, and despite 12 million-strong crowd that it draws yearly, when you come face-to-face with the Falls it is common to feel lonely and small.

After getting thoroughly wet at the Cave of the Winds, I made my way to catch the Maid of the Mist, a boat that departs from the park, wavers a bit into Canadian territory, wades towards the Horseshoe Falls and then lands you back where you started. The Maid leaves every 15 minutes, costs about USD20, and is named after the Native American legend of Lelawala, a young widow who wanted to end her life by going over the falls but changed her mind half way through and successfully prayed for a mythical rescue. She is believed to be the original Maid of the Mist.

One of the reasons the Maid of the Mist boat ride to Horseshoe Falls is remarkable is because it’s not only your visual senses that are tantalised; as you get close to the Falls, you will undoubtedly feel splashes of water and mist on yourself; you will be able to take in the smell of water falling at a speed of 600,000 gallons per second; the deafening roar of the falls, which some say carries the echo of Heno’s (the Native American god of thunder who saved Lelawala) voice will charm you and cause you to either speak in whispers or from the top of your lungs; and lastly, while tasting the water of the Falls is neither advisable nor accessible, there is enough excitement and wonder on the boat for all the tourists to take a bite out of it.

There is a sixth element to the Niagara sensory experience: the history of the falls. Apart from the Native American folklore, Niagara also has a more modern and equally incredulous history. The latter is astonishing because when you finally set eyes on the Horseshoe Falls, you cannot fathom how in 1901, a 63-year-old woman, Annie Taylor, shut herself in a cushioned barrel and with the help of her friends was purposely set off to plunge down the Horseshoe. Taylor was the first person to plunge down Niagara in a barrel in the hope for fame and fortune. She was successful, but only in that she stayed alive; she made no fortune. Lots of men and women followed her daredevil antics in later years — most survived.

Before embarking the Maid, that would take me as close to the Falls as is considered safe for regular, non-daredevil folk, I had made a mental note to try and imagine how these barrels, crates and boxes, with adrenaline-charged humans inside, would look as they fall down the Falls, but I failed. And it was not for lack of trying. It was simply because as you approach the Falls, they appear so overwhelmingly menacing, that it seems unlikely that their intense beauty would not destroy whatever dares to pass through them.

The entire park deserves a full day to really be appreciated, the Cave of the Winds and the Maid of the Mist are only two of the many activities and sights it offers. There are scenic trains to be ridden, zip lines to glide across, hot air balloons and helicopter rides to opt for, educational tours to take, and a million photo-ops to choose from. The falls may not be a certified wonder of the world but that doesn’t keep them from being wonderful.

Maham Javaid

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