Written by: NAVEENA ISRANI
Photos by: SATYAN ISRANI
“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.” This quote by the great African-American botanist and humanitarian, George Washington Carver, never ceases to inspire me whenever I’m travelling. So much so that my one-month long trip to the US seemed incomplete without a visit to two of the most spectacular natural wonders – the Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
Even though they’re both completely different works of nature and are situated on opposite coasts of the country, they strike a common cord 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 these attractions.
NIAGARA FALLS: CASCADING BEAUTY
We touched down on the east coast of USA in the first week of October. Niagara Falls was first on our list because we were told that around end-October, some of the attractions are closed to the public as the water over the Falls starts freezing. Eager to make the most of our journey, 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 pleasant weather greeted us as we disembarked at the bus-stop and hailed a cab to take us to our hotel.
To our pleasant surprise, our cabbie turned out to be 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 had come to the US 30 years ago with just $220 in his pocket and was now a multi-millionaire who owned a taxi service company, but continued to drive his own cab! He said he toured various parts of 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 at Niagara Boulevard, thinking it would be close to the Falls. But when we reached our destination, we discovered to our dismay that our ‘hotel’ was actually a motel on the highway, which was miles away from the Falls! On enquiry, we found there’s another Day’s Inn hotel close to the Falls, but because of the similar name, many tourists land up here at this smaller motel at Niagara Boulevard, thinking it’s the same one at Niagara Falls. More so since this motel offered rooms at half the price!
Anyway, our desi connection didn’t end with the cabbie; the motel owner turned out to be an Indian too – who else, but 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 due to our vegetarian food habits, since his mother herself was a vegetarian! 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, slightly larger American Falls and the largest Canadian Horseshoe Falls with their distinctive curved shape resembling a horseshoe. 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 traverses the gorge separating Canada from the US.The international US-Canada border is situated 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 proudly 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 our guide Ivan enquired what I was up to, I explained I was a travel 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’ll email you the online version,” I said.
Ivan was impressed, but still doubtful. “How will I understand it?” he asked. That was when it struck me – he was referring to the language problem! “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to understand. It’ll be in English,” I hastened to clarify. “You have English publications in India?” he asked incredulously. I had to try really hard to suppress my laughter. “Of course we do,” I declared proudly, making a mental note to email him the e-link as soon as I reached India. Really, Americans…!!!
We then proceeded to Niagara’s most popular and thrilling tourist attraction since 1846 – the world-famous ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat ride, which brought us up, close and personal with 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 magnificent Horseshoe Falls. My heart was racing as we experienced the sheer exhilaration of confronting millions of gallons of water crashing like thunder into the rocks nearby. White mist rose from the cascading water like ghosts emerging from the crypt and sprayed our faces as we ‘soaked’ in the excitement and explored the deafening roar of the Falls.
As we approached the Horseshoe Falls, I tried to stare into the depths of the dazzlingly bright Falls, but it was impossible to look at it for more than 2-3 seconds! I was forced to turn my face away from the bright glare of the water, and that was when I saw it – a beautiful rainbow stretching right across the Falls, connecting the US-Canada shores. It was an iconic moment that transcended everyday reality… a moment that will stay etched in my memory forever.
A trip to Niagara is incomplete without going under the Falls, literally! The ‘Cave of the Winds’ tour involved wearing special footwear and a poncho – this time, bright yellow in colour – and descending 175 feet down in an elevator, deep into the Niagara Gorge.Navigating our way through a series of wooden walkways, we finally reached the ‘Hurricane Deck’ – a mere 20 feet below the origin of the Bridal Veil Falls.
At first, I was hesitant to climb up to the topmost deck, but my husband pooh-poohed my fears and led me up the railing.We were the only ones in our group to climb up to the highest point – talk about being daredevils – and it sure was an exhilarating feeling! 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 bottoms-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 begin their steep descent over the edge of the cliff.White seagulls soared over the swelling rapids just before the water came crashing down the rocks to meet the river. Slowly, as darkness engulfed the night sky, brilliant multi-coloured lights emanated from the water and spread their glow far and wide. The Illuminated Show had begun – 21 xenon spotlights (each over two feet in diameter) mounted on the Canadian side were beamed across the gorge on to the Falls. Even the mist rising up from the Falls was bathed in a rainbow of light… it truly was a mesmerising sight!
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 rolled down the Falls in a barrel with her black cat. Though badly mangled and bruised, she survived to tell the tale for another 20 years. As for the cat, legend has it that it came out white!
That’s the kind of mind-blowing effect Niagara Falls has on millions of visitors. As for me, Niagara was stamped upon my heart, an indelible image of cascading beauty and wonder… a tribute to the force of nature that has sculpted this magnificent gorge for thousands of years.
GRAND CANYON: ROCKING VIEWS
Having had our fill of waterfalls, whirlpools and rapids, we proceeded to the west coast of USA for our second dose of nature, this time in a rocky avatar. The Grand Canyon is a three-hour road journey from Las Vegas. We had booked a full-day tour which started at 6 am since we wanted to see as much as possible in one day. Our tour bus picked us up from our hotel in Las Vegas and dropped us at the Grand Canyon tour pick-up point, from where we boarded another bus to take us to the West Rim.
Travelling through the parched Arizona desert in air-conditioned comfort, our driver/guide chattered constantly about the Canyon and its history, which kept us wide awake even at that unearthly hour! Along the way we passed several mountain ranges, including the Eldorado and Sunrise Mountains – the latter is also known as the ‘Sleeping Indian’ since the shape of the mountain resembles a Red Indian sleeping with his knees raised. Halfway to the Canyon, we made a 20-minute halt at Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, which is considered one of the modern engineering wonders of the world.
As we went deeper into the desert, the road became progressively rocky and bumpy. Our guide told us it takes $1 million to pave one mile of the road – no wonder this last 14-mile stretch was not paved! It took us an hour to navigate this barren area, which is home to the 900-year-old Joshua tree forest, apart from various desert scrubs, pine trees, cottonwood, yaka plants and numerous varieties of cactus – such as teddy bear, beaver tail, prickly pear and even jumping cactus!
At long last, battered and bruised, we reached the airport at the West Rim of the Canyon, where we boarded yet another shuttle bus to take us to Eagle Point.That’s where we finally got our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. The word ‘Grand’ doesn’t even come close to describing the sheer magnitude of this natural wonder. A craggy, steep-sided gorge in the parched state of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is something of a geological abyss. It took six million years for the raging Colorado river to carve out this multi-coloured vision of limestone, shale and sandstone. Surprisingly, the rock layers show little signs of wear and tear. The layers have been preserved almost perfectly, as though they are layers in a cake. No other place on Earth displays so many volumes of the planet’s history in such pristine condition.
When it comes to the Grand Canyon, there are statistics and there are sensations. While the former are impressive – the Canyon is 277 miles long, 10 miles wide and more than one mile deep – they don’t truly prepare you for that first impression. Seeing the Canyon for the first time was an astounding experience. In fact, it was more than an experience, it was an emotion that overwhelmed and overpowered us beyond words.
After we got over our initial shock and awe, we decided to explore the Canyon’s latest attraction – the horseshoe-shaped glass Skywalk at the edge of West Rim. Wearing specially designed socks over our shoes to protect the glass from scratches, we stepped out on the pathway protruding over the Canyon. My eyes were tightly shut and my hands were sweating as I walked on tiptoe at first, thinking the glass would give way at any minute! After several cautious steps, when I didn’t hear any sound, I opened my eyes to see my husband standing in the middle of the Skywalk with an amused expression on his face that read, “Do you think the US government would have spent $35 million for a glass pathway only to hurl tourists down the Grand Canyon?”
Hmmm… good point. I smiled sheepishly and joined him in admiring the view. Perched 4,000 feet above on the Skywalk, we stared straight down into the depths of the Canyon, marvelling at the rock formations and changing colours of the landscape. Far off in the distance, we spotted the Colorado river meandering its way through this gigantic abyss. It was unnerving, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!
Once we were back on solid ground, we were treated to a traditional dance performance by the Hualapai tribe, the original inhabitants of this place.We were even offered lunch, which we had to politely decline because I’m a vegetarian, and my husband is not used to eating raw chicken!
Our next stop was Guana Point, where the view was even more breathtaking than at Eagle Point.But the best was yet to come. There was a rocky hill at the edge of Guana Point, which provided a view of the entire West Rim. Having got over my initial fear, I was all charged up for something more daring – so we decided to trek right up to the topmost point of this hill. It was a dangerous climb; one false move could have meant instant nirvana! But we survived and lived to tell the tale – we were on top of the world, literally. As for the view, it was panoramic, magnificent, unsurpassed, truly Grand… superlatives fail to do justice to it.
Sitting atop our rocky throne on the Grand Canyon and looking down upon nature’s creation – unblemished by modern civilisation – with not a soul in sight, we felt we were the only two people on the planet… a world away from crowded buses, busy streets and honking cars. But we had to return to Earth soon to catch our bus back to Las Vegas.
Our tryst with nature may have ended, but we can tune into its sights and sounds whenever we want, because the images have been embedded in our minds forever. Sitting at my desk, I can sometimes hear the deafening roar of the Niagara Falls or listen to the whispers of the Colorado river emanating from the rocky depths of the Grand Canyon… Because no matter where you are, nature is never silent if you have time to really listen.
(Note: A modified and shortened version of the above article was published in the ET Travel section of The Economic Times on January 24, 2008. I have reproduced the original version here for the reading pleasure of fellow Ghumakkars.)