Home Away from Home
There are some things life doesn’t prepare you for. Some things that the lens of a camera really can’t capture. Some places that really do feel like they belong to different world.
The city of Niagara is the love child of Blackpool and Las Vegas. Arrive there at night and it’s all lights and colour and women with plunge bras. It’s a party town, full of young people, tourists, and enough souvenir mugs to build a ceramic island.
We arrived at dusk. My grandma, my second cousin, her friend (who drove), and me. Checking in at the Best Western, I could smell chlorine from the swimming pool. The foyer was stacked with tourist crap; postcards galore, novelty keyrings, and of course, maple syrup.
After dinner we went to see the city’s namesake.
At night, the falls are lit by coloured searchlights that shine out across the water. They glow in yellow, baby pink, mauve and mint. Even from the vantage point, the air is full of the kind of mist that sticks your hair to your forehead and makes your lungs feel cold. Horse traps go clattering along the street, strung with LEDs, and the water swirls silver, down into whirlpools that even out in the calm, black Niagara River.
I opened the car window, and the sound was not so much a roar as a continued hush, like a shell cupped to my ear.
Niagara is a commercial haven. In daylight, the bridge that leads to the American border is more obvious, a thick grey cable that stretches between nations. Across the water the lacquered lawns of a golf course rise out of the spray like a strange Avalon, and you can see the gates on the border flashing green and red.
My great aunt remembers when crossing the border into the USA was easy. Now, it’s too much hassle.
By day the young men playing soccer between the cars are gone, replaced by families that glisten with sun cream. Walking down to the welcome centre for the falls, I found it easy to imagine myself as one of many pilgrims, called here to worship a wonder of the world.
There is no shortage of things to do at Niagara Falls. You can take the boat, and get close to the water, or take the tunnels behind and stick your hand through its white curtain. There is a cinema experience with an earthquake simulator, five shops, and even, if you’re lucky, an (unconvincing) Elvis impersonator.
On the boat, the water roiled around the hull and the spray lashed my face. My unattractive rain cape billowed around me, and I had to put my camera away to protect it. Halfway between laughter and gobsmacked awe, I emerged with my shoes squelching and my drenched trousers clinging to my legs.
There is no denying that Niagara caters for tourists, so if you go expecting the isolated beauty of a natural wilderness, you will be disappointed. However, I do think this place is one that deserves the horde, because the falls, both the crumbling American and the magnificent Horseshoe, are beyond the scope of words.
The spirit of Canada is, from my experience, a generous one. I chose a lighter to reflect this. It isn’t mine. I asked my cousin’s friend if I could borrow hers, and she extended her hand with no questions asked. I think it’s true that some places are kinder than others, and that visitors are often treated with more generosity. Perhaps it is a feeling of impermanence, that a fleeting impression can be a wholly good one.
Some places make you want to stay longer than a holiday. They offer a kind of adopted belonging; a homeliness away from home.