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  ARTICLE  
     
  Walking over Niagara Falls  
  King of the high wire  
   
 
THE antidote to jetlag is sound sleep for a whole day. This is an advice I received long before I started travelling by air. I had the option of sleeping like Kumbhakarna in our underground, cellar-like accommodation at Mississauga or going all the way to Niagara Falls to see a daredevil walk across the majestic Horseshoe Falls.

Waterfalls have always fascinated me. I still have vivid memories of my visit to Kurtalam where, despite my insistence, my father did not allow me to take a bath under the falls. I envied those boys and girls who were allowed to play in the water, though nobody dared to stand under the falls. "Will the water break one's head?" is a question that came to my mind.

It was much later that I realised why my father had hydrophobia -- fear of water, not the disease. He did not know swimming and feared he would die of drowning if he stepped into a river or lake. Though we lived on the banks of a river, he preferred to take bath in the bathroom while, for me, bathing meant swimming across the river a couple of times.

I visited Sahastradhara, near Dehradun, when I heard about it during a visit to the city. There were, literally, a thousand showers from the cave-like formations there. The heavy sulphur content in the water attracted tourists, particularly those with skin diseases, from far and near. A couple of years ago when I revisited the spot, I found that all the thousand showers had become extinct like the Emperor penguins at the Dion Islets penguin colony, close to the West Antarctic Peninsula.

I wish the Indian delegation attending the Rio+20 Earth Summit had mentioned Sahasthradhara as an example of the ill-effects of global warming and climate change. My pursuit of waterfalls took me to Cherrapunji in Presidential candidate P.A. Sangma's Meghalaya state twice. The first time I visited the once-wettest place on earth, I was shocked to find the numerous falls there without a drop of water. I went again to Cherrapunji during the rainy season.

The second time, too, I missed the falls. Because of heavy rains and mist, visibility was poor and I could only hear the roar of the falls which still echoes in my ears. However, it is Niagara which comes to mind when I think of waterfalls. This may be because we had to study in social studies class about the Niagara Falls, considered the most majestic.

Thus, in 2001, when my wife and I got an opportunity to visit New York a few days before 9/11, I made it a point to visit Niagara, though it cost the two of us a substantial sum. I found the American town Buffalo, where we stayed one night, quite quaint. Incidentally, it witnessed the toughest battles between the British loyalists and the American forces in the 1812 war, whose bicentenary is celebrated now.

It was only after we reached Buffalo did we realise that the waterfalls could be seen better from Canada than the US because the water fell from the American side to the Canadian side. It separates the two countries like the Victoria Falls that separates Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Americans are good in exploiting the tourist potential of any place. So they have built observation points that jut into the no man's land from where visitors can look back and see the waterfalls. They also provide boat services which take the visitors close to the Horseshoe Falls.

The tickets we purchased included what is called the Maid of the Mist boat ride. Everyone was given a complimentary reusable plastic raincoat. I realised how foolish I was to take my SLR camera because the mist was so heavy that nothing was visible. All I could hear were the roars of the Horseshoe Falls. Back to the land, we envied those on the Canadian side, who could see all the four major Falls and take photographs to their hearts' content.

From the American side, we could see the Canadian National Tower, named after the railway company that built it, but is known simply as CN Tower, which remained the world's tallest tower for 34 years until Dubai's Burj Khalifa was completed in 2010. At that point, we could only wish that we would be able to visit Canada and see the Falls from there.

However, we could never have imagined that we would be able to visit Niagara again on a day when millions of people the world over would be glued to television screens to watch Nik Wallenda create history by becoming the first person to walk across the Horseshoe Falls on a high wire. How could I miss the opportunity of a lifetime?

My hosts -- Alex and Usha -- were equally excited about a trip to Niagara, which I always misspelt as "Niagra" until I saw a signboard that said "Niagara Falls". A friend, whose command of the English language is as impressive as her knowledge of Adi Shankara's Advaita Vedanta is, had disabused me of my belief that Niagara was spelt like "Viagra", though modesty prevented her from mentioning the uplifting drug.

Canadian police would not allow more than five persons to travel in Alex's car, though it is a SUV from the Merc stable. I wish I had brought a newspaper clipping that had a picture of 23 persons, mostly children, travelling in a humble Maruti 800 from a small town in India. They were the winners of a "pack-your-Maruti" contest an imaginative Maruti dealer had organised.

Newspapers and news channels had predicted that hundreds of thousands of people would assemble on both sides of the Falls to witness Wallenda's daredevilry. One thing I dread in life is parking. Most of the time, I prefer parking the car at home though my wife and daughter-in-law scold me for my habit.

From what I have learnt about Alex, the thing that he values most is a little device he had bought about four years ago. It is a GPS receiver. Though I have seen it in cars, both abroad and in India, I never paid much attention to it. For starters, GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It is a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information anywhere or near the earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites.

The device which draws power from the car's engine needs to be "told" about your destination like "10, Janpath, New Delhi" and it will guide you all the way till you reach the destination or till the police stop you. At every intersection, at every corner, it will tell you in advance, both orally and graphically, to go straight or turn left or right.

Even if you overlook its advice, it will patiently guide you till you reach your destination. Like Amitabh Bachchan calling the computer in his TV programme Kaun Banega Crorepati? "Computerji", we nicknamed the little machine "grandpa". Alex set the destination in the GPS as "Niagara Falls" and it began its navigation job so perfectly that I developed an instant liking for it.

Machine is machine and there have been cases of the GPS devices landing the motorists in lakes, instead of on the highways. But in our case, it brought us safely to Niagara. There was some confusion about the exact time of Nik Wallenda's walk. We thought it was 8 p.m., whereas it was 10 p.m., chosen to attract the largest television viewers the world over.

In the town, we did not find any great excitement for the walk. The crowds, Alex surmised, were the usual ones -- tourists bitten by the Niagara bug. But we found dozens of Outside Broadcasting (OB) vans and vehicles occupying prime space all along the pedestrian path on the Canadian border. There was no space for parking in the designated parking areas near the Falls. "Grandpa" guided us to a parking slot where the owners had jacked up the rate to $50. Canadian Shylocks are no better or worse than their Indian counterparts.

But Alex was not prepared to be fleeced. Again "Grandpa" helped us locate another area where parking was available for $15, though we had to walk much more than Wallenda had to walk on the high wire. We could make out that Wallenda's promise had evoked a huge response. There were thousands of people on both American and Canadian sides with their eyes focused on a tight high wire strung across the Horseshoe Falls, the most magnificent of all.

For once I wished I had a Press accreditation card so that I, too, could occupy a vantage position from where I could take photographs. No, in Niagara as in New Delhi, I am a VOP, which stands for a Very Ordinary Person. I abandon all such thoughts as I join the crowds and wait for Wallenda's exploits to begin. Alex recognises a couple, who are the anchor persons of the popular "Good Morning America" programme.

Finally, we gravitate towards the observation deck, which is chock-a-block with people of all nationalities, including sari-clad South Indians and Punjabi-speaking "Kenyans", not to mention Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. Though it was not the best of places, there was a roof over our heads and protection from the cold winds. It was almost impossible to take a picture from there but we decided to stay put because we had no alternative.

An enterprising Black Canadian was flattening one-cent coins and embossing on them the picture of Wallenda crossing the Falls. The coins were available for one dollar each. In India, he would have been in jail for misusing coins, though Dhirubhai Ambani's success had its origin in a numismatic venture, as recorded by his biographer Hamish McDonald in his book "The Polyester Prince".

While Ambani was employed in Aden, he realised that certain local coins had more metallic value than face value. He collected such coins in large numbers only to melt them and sell it in the market. He, thus, made his first killing, laying the foundation of the Ambani Empire.

We waited and waited till a not-so-young man standing next to me turned ecstatic and said, "Look, Wallenda is coming". I strained my eyes but could not see him. I went out of the room braving the mist to take a nice shot. All that happened was that I got drenched. Even 10 minutes after my neighbour sighted Wallenda, I was struggling to see him. Finally, I could see for the first time a red dot moving towards us.

Wallenda holding a pole for balancing became clearer and clearer in the pictures I continuously took. I lost breath for a second when at one point he kneeled on the high wire only to rise up and wave to millions of people watching his every move. I had earlier in the day seen a video of his great-grandfather Karl Wallenda, his "greatest hero in life", falling to his death while performing a stunt. No, it was his way of paying a tribute to his "hero". Again, my heart lost a beat when Wallenda ran the last leg of his walk that lasted 25 minutes.

As he was walking, he was being interviewed by a television channel, which refused to report the fact that what sustained him during the walk was his faith in God. In fact, he was liberal in glorifying Him but for the secular American media, words like "Jesus" and "saviour" are anathema. Wallenda began his walk with a prayer and ended it with another prayer. Countless were the people who shared his prayer.

On his arrival in Canada, the first ones to accost him were the immigration and customs officials, who asked him about the purpose of his visit and whether he carried any arms or plants. I did not find him being frisked. Wallenda's next plan is to walk across the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Given his determination, lack of fear, dedication and the family tradition that flows in his blood, I am sure he would make it a success.

People were still cheering Wallenda as he joined his family. On the way back, we took a short-cut only to realise that we had reached the wrong parking lot. Over-dependence on technology can kill skills like remembering telephone numbers, doing multiplications and subtractions and recalling road names and road-signs. But once we reached our car, we knew that we were in the safe hands of our dear "grandpa".
Courtesy: www.indiancurrents.org
The writer can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com
 
  By  A.J. Philip  
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