Monday, June 07, 2010


"Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?"

-- Herman Melville

Since nobody in the world I've been living in for the past eleven years -- the Asian world, the countries of Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines -- has ever heard of my hometown, St.Catharines, I tend to identify my starting point in this life as being a small city near Niagara Falls, that globally recognized symbol of natural awe and cheap honeymoons. That cascading descent of water, mamoth in scale, miniscule in interest (to me) for most of my life.

The mention of this place is sure to gain a jolt of second-hand recognition from all who hear its name, no?

Not necessarily.

On my first visit to Cambodia, long before I decided to live there, me and a handful of Japanese volunteers were guest-speakers at a high school in the second-largest city in the country, Battambang, near the Thai border. Upon telling the students that I grew up not far from Niagara Falls, instead of involuntary nods of recognition and surprised smiles I faced, instead, an adolescent sky of blank, indifferent stares. Later, in the same class, I showed the students a small Canadian flag, explaining that the red maple leaf was placed in the centre as a symbol of Canada itself. Made for a good story, I guess, true or not. The teacher then vigorously nodded his head and explained to the malleable students that the same principle applied to the Australian flag, which, as everyone knew, featured a kangaroo in the middle. I smiled and nodded. (One does not publicly deny and insult the hard-won knowledge of a high school teacher in Battambang, Cambodia.)

Natural wonders of the world attract and enhance curious minds, but I often imagine that modern-day Egyptians living amongst the pyramids must feel the way that those of use raised in the misty outskirts of Niagara Falls often feel: bored, indifferent, bluntly amused by what all the damn fuss is about. I can count on one hand, probably, the number of times I visited the Falls to see the Falls, from the ages of zero to eighteen. Come to think of it, that number may very well include my trips to the city itself (a fact which often astonishes many a foreigner I've met -- that the Falls is not merely a ready-made-photo-backdrop but is also a place to live and die and divorce and eat in.) My most vivid memory of the place as a whole remains not the time I was not saved from certain death by Superman soaring through the sky as he did to a reckless young lad playing on the Canadian side of the Falls in Superman II -- a common daydream for kids lucky enough to have grown up in the Niagara region -- but rather a night spent in downtown Niaraga Falls, watching professional wrestling in a dingy stadium in front-row seats acquired by a friend of my father's who worked for the city. Slapping the Junkyard Dog on his gigantic, sweaty back and marvelling at the a) intense and b) quite obviously pre-rehearsed and fake exploits of the tag-team of the British Bulldogs.

(Wonders of the world are all well and good for the history books and Facebook photo montages, but they can't approximate the childhood awe one can hold for WWF wrestlers. Or adulthood awe, apparently, as WWF chairman Vince McMahon's wife is spending her way to a Senate seat in Connecticut even as I write these words, I think.)

No man is a hero to his valet, and no natural wonder is wondrous to its smaller, lesser, all too human neighbours. Beautiful, yes; and not without its own quaint charm, to be sure. But as a beacon for the world's lovers?

Only now, years removed from the days and nights of my youth, can I begin to appreciate the Falls in that respectful, mythic manner. Every culture needs its own mythology, its own vantage point from which to hurtle oneself into eternity via a wooden barrel. We must all, eventually, come to terms with the soil from which we sprung. Reading Moby-Dick for the first time at the age of 34, I come across a reference to Niagara Falls, and I remember where I came from, an unknown city known very well to me and my circle of youth. Reading this 19th century classic, coming across that sudden, welcome jolt, I think not of the glorious path of another boat, the Maid of the Mist, which took us under the waterfall and gave us a brisk taste of its watery embrace, but instead of a night spent watching Emmaneul 'Webster' Lewis and Marc 'Skippy' Price perform at Yuk Yuk's comedy club in the city itself. (The absurd is so often intertwined with the awesome, is it not?)