Photo: Josh Angehr
My 7-year-old son clutches the railings at the top of Niagara Falls, on the American side, and watches the cataract crash over the precipice into Canada, below, feeling the freshwater spray freckle his face.
“Awesome,” he says, without turning away, finally using the word in its proper context.
Waterfalls of this scale are indeed awe(some)-inspiring, and humans have been drawn to them throughout the ages to wonder at the exhilarating power of so much water moving with such force.
It’s a spectacle that imprints itself indelibly on the brain; a sight so extraordinary that Stanford University researchers recently concluded it actually gives people the sense that time has slowed down.
As my son and I took in Niagara’s tumbling tract, on a summer weekend intended as respite from a difficult year and a slew of personal challenges, my churning thoughts slowed down, and came to rest on a distant waterfall of my childhood.
I was 6 years old when I visited Victoria Falls, at the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, with my mother.
We travelled there on a small charter plane from then- Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), wearing matching sundresses in bright African fabric that my mother had made on her sewing machine.
I held my mother’s hand tightly as we stood in the slippery rainforest near the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist and business magnate who founded both Rhodesia and the diamond company De Beers, watching rainbows dance on the cut-diamond cataract across the chasm and feeling the thunder of 38,430 cubic feet per second of cascading water pounding far beneath our feet.
At 355 feet tall and 5,604 feet wide, Victoria Falls is the world’s largest curtain of falling water. Niagara Falls is roughly half the size – 167 feet tall by 3,947 feet wide – but with twice the volume of water, 85,000 cubic feet per second, flowing over it.
As I stood at the top of Niagara Falls, monkeys and maple leaves, casinos and crocodiles, swirled together in my mind. These trips spanned two continents, two hemispheres, and two generations. But other than the view of falling water I wondered, what did they have in common?
Both waterfalls serve as boundaries between sovereign nations: Zimbabwe and Zambia, the United States and Canada. And both are marked by their colonial history.
Victoria Falls, “discovered” by Cecil Rhodes and named for England’s queen, has long been known to Africans as “The Smoke that Thunders,” while the name Niagara, derived from the Iroquois word Onguiaahra — the strait — is the legacy of a long-vanquished population.
Both places speak to our strength — we have harnessed nature’s power to generate electricity — and our vulnerability; deaths from accidents, incidents of daredevilry and suicide, are common occurrences.
Water wears away rock at the rate of one foot per year at Niagara Falls and roughly seven centimeters a year at Victoria Falls in a slow but unstoppable process of erosion.
The landscape changes gradually over the years, much like our lives and our point of view.
Approximately 30 years after my Victoria Falls visit, which I remembered as an idyllic childhood experience, I realized that reality is not always as lovely as our recollections.
Less than a year after our trip, my family left Africa, fleeing the country with many others in the face of the escalating Rhodesian Bush War. And shortly after that, two Air Rhodesia passenger planes from the same fleet we traveled on to Victoria Falls were shot down by nationalist guerillas.
As we stood hand-in-hand all those years ago, contemplating the crashing water, worries about our circumstances cannot have been far from my mother’s mind. The country was changing, and our lives with it. Yet today those days feel like distant history — far downstream and close to forgotten.
Change comes by stealth or by force, and there’s no stopping its course.
Yet amid its turmoil and uncertainty, life offers us moments of transcendent beauty and it is essential that we see them; that we slow our thoughts for a moment as we stand on the edge of the chasm, and look out at the smoke that thunders.