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Life Lessons in NiagaraImages

By Wendy Paris

Listen with RealAudio: Postcard from Niagra Falls

Dear Rudy,

Everywhere you go in Niagara, you hear about the fifteen brave daredevils who challenged the falls during the past one-hundred years, ten of whom actually lived. I consider myself open to influence. And Giles is downright porous. But not once during our entire visit have we felt the urge to plunge over the falls in a barrel ourselves. Granted, it's illegal. And you'd face a heavy fine, if you lived. But that didn't stop the others. And besides, you'd be paying in Canadian.

Perturbed by our lack of pluck, Giles decides we should spring for an over-the-falls photo shoot instead. You set your things on the counter, step behind a plastic barrel perched on the edge of a fake waterfall, and scream into the camera. Giles refuses to put down his bottle of Evian, so in our over-the-falls photo, he's enjoying a refreshing sip of mineral water while I'm peering over his shoulder in fear, worried that someone will walk away with my purse. Still feeling inadequately daring, Giles next wants to brave the haunted house, a top spot on Clifton Hill, the center of Niagara nightlife. Clifton Hill is so packed with man-made tourist marvels it's almost as awe-inspiring as the falls themselves.

Now, I'm against haunted houses as a rule, the rule being I'm afraid of things that are scary. What kind of person gets a job terrifying children at a haunted house? But Giles is determined. And there are three little girls bounding into the faux victorian mansion in front of us, their shiny ponytails swinging behind them. How scary can it be? We step through the front door into complete darkness. Old-fashioned howls, like from a black-and-white movie, echo through the hallway. The girls giggle. "This is just an attraction," I think. "Nothing real."

The lights snap on in a hidden alcove, revealing a bloody skeleton rising from a grave. I close my eyes. Cap guns explode. I hear yelling and shrieking and running. The kids start crying. We try to move forward, but we can't see where the walls are, and I'm afraid if I reach out, someone will grab my hand. I try to meld my body into Giles so no one can touch me.

And then I have a flash of inspiration. "Even if these are creepy, jerky people, they're still just people, like me. And... So... Like me, they too can be scared." "Grrr!" I say. "Whoo! Whoo! Down spike! Back!" I bark like a mad dog. I stomp. I shriek. The kids start wailing in terror. "No. Don't you see?" I say. "If you yell louder than they do, you can't hear them. You can scare them right back. Bad Spike! If you maul one more person, you're going back to the pound."

A light snaps on, illuminating the kids' faces, now purple with fear. Their father smiles shakily and hurries them away. Giles bays like a werewolf, and together we launch a full-scale scare-a-thon on the haunted house personnel. We stomp through the halls, snarling and spitting, arriving at the front door far too quickly. We burst out into the clear night air. I'm exhilarated, transformed. "It's just like real life," I shout, stepping up on the curb to witness from a higher ground. "If you let people scare you, they will."

"But I bet you just believe you have to be so polite around your boss, worried what the neighbors think, intimidated by that New Yorker editor you meet at a party. I bet you could scare them right back if you tried. I bet everything's like that!" I'm shouting and waving my arms. I see those same three kids being pulled in a wide circle around me. But I don't care. I feel liberated from my old inhibitions. Maybe I don't have the nerve to tumble over over the Falls, but I sure won't be frightened by some person again. You know, you don't have trek through ancient ruins with a smithsonian guide to have an epiphany. You can have a relatively deep insight even at a place as aggressively shallow as Niagara Falls.

Feeling inspired? Well, here are some fun facts about Niagra Falls you may not know:

Fourteen million visitors head to Niagara Falls each year. At 4000 acres, this garden-with-a-view is actually large enough to accommodate them.

Niagara Falls is actually two cities--the Canadian tourist Mecca we've been enjoying, and the rundown, industrialized New York city of the same name directly across the Niagara River. For over-the-top tourist glee, head to Canada.

The Maid of the Mist is one of North America's oldest tourist attractions. It's been chugging visitors as close as they care to get to the falls since 1846.

Marilyn Monroe stayed at the Skyline Brock while shooting the 1952 film Niagara. You can still stay here (some rooms have balconies with whirlpool tubs), or dine in the elegant, flower-filled restaurant with a great view of the falls. But beware: Niagara chefs take the blandest dishes from the British diet and water them down.


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