Monday, May 28, 2012

After the fall

They're called "Falls" for a reason.
Day Three
The sun comes up. We eat food. I'll skip the details.

Sometime later, we get on the whisper-quiet Swiss train and leave Fribourg behind. An hour or so later, the picture-postcardy lake outside our windows makes the photographers on the train go hommina, hommina, homina and start clicking like mad.

We roll into Interlaken. Walk around for awhile, waiting for our guide to pick us up.
The sky is thick with paragliders. Our guide picks us up.

We check into our lovely hotel and instantly leave. After various trams and trains, we take a leisurely, idyllic paddleboat ride across Lake Thune. Destination: the Hotel Giessbach and Giessbach Falls at the lake's other end.

This hotel is at the base of a hill; the waterfall thunders down that hill. Impressive. Not quite so impressive as the nearby Reichenbech Falls, where Holmes and Moriarty fell to their fates. But not too shabby. God's fire hose that never shuts off. Constant white noise; a demonstration of turbulent forces. Moriarty, should he fall, would still be pummeled into Moriarty meat.

Photographers swarm around the Giessbach Falls like bugs around a bug light. (Not dying. The comparison sorta ends there.) These photographers include Mike and Rod, who tromp up the steps running up the hill beside the falls, then deploy at the bridge bisecting the falls about halfway up. Kay and Cindy stay down below, at a table at the hotel's terrace restaurant. I sit with them for a couple of minutes, then move. I head for the steps and climb.

These steps are basically slabs of wood pounded into the hillside. As you ascend, the falls are to your right, hillside trees and undergrowth to your left. It's all very scenic and woodsy.

I climb the steps and make it to the top. Here, the path actually goes behind the waterfall, then continues down on the other side -- but I'm not there yet. To get to the other side, I have to walk behind the falls -- a 30-foot span or so. The ground below my feet is muddy from the constant spray. Cliff face to my left; cascade to my right. What's between me and the waterfall? Not much. Somebody's driven a series of metal stakes into the muddy ground. These vertical stakes are about a yard apart. These stakes are strung with three horizontal wires, about 18 inches apart. That's the basic situation. Picture it ...

You walk behind the waterfall, a cliff face to your left, an arc of roaring water and Moriarty's fate to your right. The only thing between you and that crushing dance of hydraulic turbulence are those three parallel wires. That's all you've got between you and the Edge. And, in the space behind the falls, the ground is actually wet and muddy.

So, I walk. I slip and slide a couple of times, and start keeping a firm grip on the top wire like Mr. Wimpy. What with all that slip-sliding, it occurs to me how easy it would be to slip, fall on my ass, and go sliding under the bottom wire (which is 18 inches or so above the ground) and continue sliding on my ass into the falls below, screaming, "Nyah, nyah, nyah," like one of the Three Stooges, all the way down. That'd be the last of you. Or me. Or Moriarty. Here, I make another observation ...

The Swiss are not big on safety.

In lawsuit-happy America, they probably wouldn't let you go behind the falls in the first place. If they did, there'd be an all-American warning sign:

Do not swim or dive into the Giessbach Falls. Gravity and hydraulic forces may result in death or severe bodily harm or both. While proceeding in designated pathway behind the falls, maintain at least one foot distance from edge at all times and walk with low center of gravity. (See diagram A) Please control small children or excitable adults at all times! It is strongly advised that Giessbach Falls excursion participants avoid horseplay and dancing (including folk, break and clog) at all times. (See diagram B) Excursion participants with weak hearts, vertigo or bladders should not participate. By continuing on this excursion past this point, you agree to hold Hotel Geissbach harmless for subsequent consequences.

No such sign. Not in Switzerland.

In America, there'd be anal-retentive guards. Not here. There's no adult supervision whatsoever.

In America, falling on your rear and sliding to your doom would be impossible. The falls would be blocked with impenetrable chicken wire. But there are only three wires. Not even high tension.

Go figure.

The Swiss, as crazy as it may seem, seem to think that adults are adults. "You are an adult. You are responsible. We trust you paid attention in physics class and have a natural fear of death, but it is not our problem. We don't have to coddle you. Have common sense, or die."

That seems to be the working assumption.

It's oddly liberating. But weird. The perception that my working assumptions aren't universal. The disorienting sense of a different cultural operating system -- a code I'm not familiar with. Subtle differences, stuff you have to look for. Switzerland ain't Oz. But I'm not in Kansas anymore.

I make it back down, and sit once more with Kay and Cindy. Order a beer not tasted. Another lager. Not bad. Light and frothy. I'm an American, and don't dig heavy, thick, syrupy beers. My loss perhaps, but what can you do?

Up on the transecting bridge, Mike is aiming his camera in our direction. Cindy and Kay smile, flattered. Mike comes back down after awhile. The women joke that they felt like fashion models.
What? says Mike. Well you saw you taking photos. Oh, he says in all innocence. You thought I was taking photos of you? No. I wasn't taking photos of you. I didn't even see you.

He's young.

The Swiss aren't big on safety.

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