Saturday, June 22, 2013

Of Megaphones and Memorable Trips

Earlier this month, I took my parents to see the Niagara Falls and they were overwhelmed by the experience. This was, of course, the desired effect, but at the same time it also posed the challenge of showing them something more overwhelming afterwards, something so massive that it would dwarf the Niagara Falls in comparison. There must be many such places in the United States, but I had been to only one of them. That is how we came to decide on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

A trip to the Grand Canyon is easier said than done. We started off by travelling to Philadelphia one afternoon with the intention of catching our flight to Las Vegas from there. The plane arrived on time, but then, the boarding process was stopped due to some technical safety problem. Our flight would not leave without fixing it.

Everyone was worried. Were the engines malfunctioning? Had the wings developed cracks? Was the cabin losing pressure? No, the crew explained. It was the megaphone that had stopped working, and we could not fly until that was fixed. Minutes turned to hours as we were informed that the airline had given up trying to fix the thing and was now trying to buy a new megaphone from another airline. Then we were informed that there were a lot of government paperwork involved in such a transaction and so there would be further delays. Finally, more than three hours after the scheduled time, our plane started on its westward journey. With the megaphone. So much for a thing that I never even knew existed on aeroplanes.

This was my fourth trip to Las Vegas in the last four years, and I will not write again about my second most familiar city in the US since I have written about it before. We did see some beautiful hotels all day the next day, but the fun part of our week-long trip started on the day after that. That was the day when I rented a car from the airport and drove 273 miles east and 5000 feet up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We reached nicely in time to check into the Yavapai Lodge inside the national park, have an early dinner and also go and see a sunset.


In the course of the next two days, we saw one more sunset and two sunrises. I have described the Grand Canyon earlier too, and I will only reiterate what I said before: the sunrises and sunsets of the Grand Canyon are best enjoyed at a quiet spot. Also, the rim is highly convoluted, and therefore no two points offer the exact same view.

The evenings in the Grand Canyon National Park are quiet and dark, and a flashlight was essential for our walk back to the hotel. We encountered deer, but didn't see any elks like I did last time. There were a few more differences from the last time. This time the days were longer and hotter, and I slept in a hotel room instead of a tent. This time, I did not hike down into the canyon, but I did visit many more viewpoints on the rim. The nights were star-filled like the last time, although there were a few clouds on the second night that somewhat obscured the view. With erratic phone signal and 4G barely available at times, these two days we felt truly away from the rest of the world.

Of course, the biggest difference for me was the presence of my parents with me. I have wished for this day since I first visited the place in 2009, and finally it happened.

On the third day, we checked out of our lodge in the morning and after a four-and-half hour long drive through the desert, we were back in the middle of civilization again. This time we checked into another hotel and spent the next three days exploring Las Vegas. Three days later, we flew back to Philadelphia and then took four different trains back to my apartment in Newark.

This time, thankfully, the megaphone worked without a hitch.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


View of the Hudson and beyond from the train
One of the first tourist destinations that I visited after coming to the US was Niagara Falls. It was the Labor Day weekend, and the place was as crowded as possible. Still, the experience was overwhelming enough to rob me of words, and I did not write much about it here, although I did promise to be back with a post about Niagara, which I never did. That was five years ago.

Last week, I visited this natural wonder for the second time, this time with my parents. In some ways, this visit felt even more special than the first, so here comes the promised post, although with more pictures than words.

Cave of the Winds
I had decided to rent a car and drive to Niagara but my parents felt the seven-hour drive would be too tiring for me, especially since I have started driving only recently. So we reserved three seats on the Amtrak train called Maple Leaf and climbed aboard from New York City. Within mere fifteen minutes of leaving New York Penn Station, the train started offering unimaginably beautiful views over the Hudson on the left side. The train was running at the level of the water, practically along the edge, and the land beyond was hilly, covered in forests interspersed with Windows XP wallpaper style rolling meadows.

Moss-covered rocks under the falls
The train seats were very comfortable, with more leg room than I have ever seen in any form of transport. It passed through Albany, Utica, Rome, Amsterdam and Buffalo with gradually decreasing enthusiasm before dropping us at Niagara Falls and heading for Canada. Niagara Falls, NY is a tiny station in the middle of nowhere, with no platforms and the road coming right next to the train. We took a taxi to our hotel, which was next to the falls. After checking in and depositing our baggage in our room, we went to see the Cave of the Winds.

Baby gulls
The Cave of the Winds is approached via an elevator through the cliff wall that takes the tourists 17 stories below the ground to a wooden platform right underneath the Bridal Veil Falls on the American side. The experience of standing almost directly below the massive Niagara is quite humbling. The Bridal Veil Falls, which is just the smallest part of Niagara, is massive enough to have broken gigantic boulders off the face of the cliff. These boulders now lie in a heap at the bottom of the American and Bridal Veil Falls and the water leaps down on them, and then onto the tourists standing on the platform. The rocks all around are covered with thick velvety green moss. A rainbow permanently adorns the moss-covered rocks and the raging white water due to the spray from the falls. Also, the place seems to be a sort of nursery for baby gulls of all sizes.

Niagara at night
The bad thing about human beings is that they try to change Nature for the better, usually making it worse in the process. In case of Niagara, they decided that the falls were too beautiful to be allowed to disappear at night. To fix this problem, they light up the falls with lights of various colours at nightfall. While this undoubtedly robs the falls of the all-engulfing natural darkness which seemed so soothing to me at the Grand Canyon, it also has the effect of making the Niagara look absolutely mesmerizing. Add to it the glittering modern skyscrapers on the Canadian side, and the Niagara suddenly seems out of this world.

The Horseshoe falls, from the Maid of the Mist
After light-watching, dinner and sleep, next morning it was time for the Maid of the Mist boat ride between the horns of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. We were on the upper deck of the boat. The ride started as a simple boat ride on a warm day passing by the American and Bridal Veil Falls, but as it approached the Horseshoe Falls, the spray increased to the intensity of heavy downpour. The Maid of the Mist lived up to its name, drenching the passengers in spite of their blue disposable raincoats. The water seemed to fall in impenetrable sheets all around us as the boat was engulfed in the white mist. Even my weatherproof camera, which I had been getting wet without worry, refused to focus since the glass was all wet and the vision was blurry. I realized I could see much better if I removed my glasses, and that's what I did in the end. After what seemed like an eternity under the falls, the boat turned back and headed towards the jetty again.

Full view of Niagara, with the boat on the right
After that we didn't have much left to do. We took the elevator to a high observation deck for a full view of Niagara, and then came back to our hotel. the taxi ride to the station was short and uneventful. We arrived at the station half an hour before time to see the train standing. Our taxi driver drove the taxi right around the train and dropped us at our compartment door. Noticing our hesitation, he told us that only one train passed through the station each day, and this train had to be ours even if it had arrived earlier than its scheduled time. We climbed aboard and curiously, sat down in the very same seats that we had occupied during the previous day's journey.  We reached home close to midninght.

Tourists near the Horseshoe Falls, with Canada in the background