New York 1997. Part 5. The Walk to Canada.

During the [albeit sketchy, pre-internet] innocent planning of our New York trip I’d felt sure that Buffalo would be the ideal stopover point for visiting Niagara. It turned out that nobody else ever did this. No single person stayed at Buffalo in order to take a trip to the falls. Except for we two-Husband and myself. We’d made an error.

But we were prepared to make the best of things. After all-we’d overcome the hurdle of having to forego our vehicle [see Part 1], we’d find a way to mitigate this current crisis.

Evening in Buffalo and the streets were deserted, a few pieces of garbage blowing around in a stiff breeze and some tumbleweed rolling down the road in contemptuous abandon. As we approached what could be the centre of town there were cinemas, bars and restaurants, but patronised by no one. We saw no more than 2 or 3 others in the town. We walked on and selected a bar, part of a luxurious hotel complex. You could be forgiven for thinking we’d walked into a dystopian future world where unwitting tourists were lured by aliens to be consumed later.

There were 2 couples in the otherwise empty bar. We ordered beers and watched the TV screen, where ice-skating was being shown. Husband intimated that he’d prefer to watch paint dry. Then 2 men entered and we got chatting. ‘So how come you 2 ended up in a place like this?’ one asked. My thoughts exactly. We explained and I asked why the town was empty and quiet. He shrugged. ‘Used to be a boomtown, but it’s all old industry and now it’s died’. His wife was Scottish and they’d be visiting Scotland in the fall.

We left the bar and walked back up the dead street, now neon-lit but no more lively for it. En route there was the sound of a rock band playing, practising perhaps? A crumbling, stucco-fronted house held the sign ‘The Roxy’ over its porch. The windows were dark. It was a club. Inside was a strobe-lit disco floor [empty] and a bar with a few noisy teenagers [mostly girls] and a loud, blond, gum-chewing barmaid. The girls shouted and argued-mostly for display purposes. We returned to The Lenox, having judged Buffalo to be a sad place.

Next morning we rose quickly and went down to reception. The receptionist rang us a cab and we grabbed a coffee. Back at the bus depot we had time for a ‘biscuit’ filled with bacon, egg and cheese and more coffee. We climbed on to the Niagara bus, which pulled out and went swinging and lurching off to the falls. The one hour drive was unremarkable, although I always enjoy riding through foreign suburbs where the more trivial, domestic aspects of life are played out. There were pastel-coloured timber homes, porches with swing seats, screen doors and all the sights we are familiar with from watching movies.

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At the falls bus station all went according to the new plan and we deposited our luggage in a locker before walking the 4 blocks down to the Niagara river. Then there was a modest sign: Pedestrian Walkway to Canada. Through some gardens there was a visitor centre which provided a map. There were tantalising glimpses of the river but as yet, no falls. Here the flow was fast and foamed into rapids, separating past small islands and rushing along, a dim roar in the background.

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We walked down towards the American Falls and there was a sudden cut-off point where the river appeared to stop in mid-air. Moments later the American Falls were in sight, water roaring fiercely over a precipice in billowing clouds of spray and creating a sunlight rainbow. We were awestruck, although once the Canadian Falls, the ‘horseshoe falls’ came into view the American Falls were forgotten. A few hundred yards down the road a semi-circular tract plummeting over a cliff. We’d need to cross a bridge to Canada to see properly. Our Amtrak train would leave at 1.30pm. We’d have time.

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We spent time looking from different viewpoints, cameras in hand, then walked back, crossed the bridge, through a turnstile, into Canadian customs for a passport stamp before setting foot on Canadian soil, with an increasingly dramatic view of both sets of falls.

Eventually we reached a place at the top of the horseshoe falls where the Niagara river thundered over the cliff in a pale green arc of froth and fell in a billowing spray below. Small sightseeing boats chugged, ant-like into the spray, carrying blue plastic-covered sight-seers.

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We lingered as long as we dared, until time ran out and we needed to get our bus, then our train, but we felt euphoric to have made the effort. We arrived to the bus depot with 5 minutes to spare, retrieved the luggage and boarded the bus to Buffalo station, where we had an hour to wait, there being nothing but a water tap and the surly ticket clerk.

We were to return to New York, retracing our route before we could set off once more to execute the final part of the plan-to Boston!

Venturing Further Afield

With just three days to go we wake to overcast skies and decide that this is the day we can venture out to see some sights. Outside the hotel we negotiate a price with the taxi driver who spends his time there and set off down the busy road parallel to Lamai Beach, first to see the Grandma and Grandad rocks. After a slow ride through the traffic the driver makes an abrupt turn left down a narrow, bumpy lane, winds between some buildings and comes to a halt in a car park behind a welter of assorted stalls and shops-their number somewhat out of proportion with the numbers of sight-seers around.

Our driver indicates the way we should go-a passageway through a shop piled high with hats and gaudy toys. The character of the beach here is changed from wide sweep of sand to cliffs and prominent rocks-none more prominent than the ‘Grandad’. And it is immediately obvious how the rock acquired its name.

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We clamber up to see the rocks from different angles then return to the taxi. The driver has brought a companion along for the ride, although we are not sure who she is-his wife, perhaps?

Next we wind up into the interior of Koh Samui to stop at a temple complex and I’m glad I thought to fling a thin sarong into my bag to aid modest dressing for temple visits.

Inside a gilded, glass case adorned with offerings and flowers sits the ‘mummified monk’, a disquieting exhibit, his sightless eyes staring out of his leathery face.

Leaving the main road we drive up through lush plantations of banana trees and orchards of rubber trees, each trunk circled with a band and a small cup for the trees’ sap to drain into. Then it’s on and up again until we reach a rutted track and pull into a parking area bordered by a fence. Behind the fence are elephants, prepared and ready to take tourists for rides through the forest. A stall sells bananas for the punters to feed them and there is a charge to photograph these exploited animals. We know that many elephants that work in this way are ill-treated and we have not come to see them, but to look at the waterfall.

While it is not exactly a raging tumult, the waterfall is impressive enough and surrounded by immense, tall trees. It is not seething with tourists but those that are there are either bathing in the pool or draping themselves in the path of my camera shutter. And I can imagine how different it will be when the rainy season is underway. In comparison to the Grandma and Granddad rocks the number of stalls on the path is restrained, consisting mainly of piled up coconuts and a few souvenirs.

Our driver and his silent companion are [justifiably] not much inclined to act as tour guides, dropping us at each location and waiting for us to return, although our questions are answered and our expressions of appreciation acknowledged.

We return down the track and head towards another beach area. Here is an impressive shrine and another [enormous] glass case containing a vessel and what appears to be another mummified monk-this one even more spooky, peering out at us with sinister stare. The vessel in which he sits is itself surrounded by dozens of model boats.

The beach here is stacked with the hard, white shapes of dead coral, beautiful but a telltale sign of poor sea health. But the area is almost deserted, the shrine showing signs of neglect. Clearly this is not a well-known site.

We have one last site to visit, a temple complex that quickly becomes my favourite The entire venue is snake themed, the temple walls adorned with vibrant scenes rendered in terracotta and best of all, outside, a long staircase leading to the beach is flanked by beautiful cobras, their mouths gaping as they reach the base as if to snatch the unwary person descending.

It’s the end of our whistlestop tour, but we’ve discovered there is much more to Koh Samui than beach life.