Sunday, December 28, 2008

Southern Crossing: Atlanta-Charleston

Atlanta marked the apex of our swing through the south, and so when we left John's house early in the morning we were driving north for the first time in more than a week. We set off northwest toward the South Carolina border, stopping mid-day in Athens, Georgia, a still-waking-from-winter tourist town that featured a lovely walking path along the river. We stripped off our sweatshirts, relishing the warm air, and enjoyed the flowers and trees along the walk-- two northeastern girls ecstatic to have driven into spring.

An old train bridge in Athens, Georgia

Spring flowers


South Carolina is a big state, so although we crossed the border shortly after Athens it took us all of the afternoon and some of the evening to arrive in Charleston. I could tell that the sunset was going to be incredible, and we decided we wanted to go out to the tip of the city, an area called the Battery where the river and the ocean meet, to watch. But in my hurry to get us there, I got turned around with the map and we ended accidentally going in the opposite direction. We watched the orange ball flicker from behind buildings as we raced the sunset and lost, but it didn't matter. Even without the sun, that night's sunset was one of the best of my life. We jumped out of the car and ran across the manicured lawns of the Battery to the river. There was a light breeze, warm and moist as bath water, and we watched pelicans swoop over the water in the blue air as the horizon turned deep pink and orange.

As if all that weren't magical enough, as we watched the horizon transform we heard a strange squeaking. For a sudden period of ten minutes only a swarms of insect appeared, and a cloud of bats followed, making strange, gravity-defying turns in the air to feed. As quickly as they came, they were gone (and the insects with them.) We were left to marvel at the water, the sunset growing more vivid by the minute on one side, and a full, white moon hanging 180 degrees behind, over the rooftops of the city.


Possibly the best sunset of my life thus far: Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

We walked back to the car, enjoying the Charleston night, dropped our things at our (fantastic) hostel and went looking for dinner.

Light on a colonial house, on the walk back to the hostel

We found ourselves in one of Charleston's main arteries, choosing a casual restaurant where we could dine outside and enjoy our tank-topped-at-night freedom. Our server, Isaac, was very friendly and made small talk as we ate our meal and enjoyed the mix of spring air and margaritas. Originally from Mexico, he was now a geology student at the nearby College of Charleston, and he offered to be our guide to the city the next day. We gratefully accepted. The rest of the night was spent on our hostel's front porch, drinking Yuengling and talking about the world--just the way nights at hostels always seem to go.

The next day was especially full because we weren't sure when we would be leaving Charleston. We spent the morning exploring a few of the old neighborhoods, ending up in the tourist hub of the city on a carriage ride. Normally, we would not have entertained the possibility of this kind of activity. But because I was still recovering from my broken ankle it actually made a lot of sense, as we could cover a large area without exacerbating my injury. Besides, the carriages were quite charming.

Images from Charleston's Civil War-era neighborhoods:

(Note the intense fence, for guarding against slave revolts)

The triple porch is very typically Charleston

The tour was quite interesting. We learned a lot about Charleston history, about the high life now (for example: Many of the nicest houses use gas lamps instead of electricity because it's more expensive and thus shows their wealth. Also, many Charleston houses are very long and skinny because house owners were taxed based on their street-front property, rather than the overall area of their houses.) I think my favorite thing we learned was about the little old Charleston ladies who still refer to the Civil War as "The Recent Unpleasantness."

The tour ended back where it began, in the midst of an enormous, tourist-soaked craft market. We embraced the commercialism for a moment, getting lost in the sea of people and art. I took the lesson I learned in China about controlling your tourist experience and put it to good use: I ended up buying a woven basket from one of the many women dotting the market, who stood out because of their ebony skin and what seemed like acres of woven baskets surrounding them. These women were part of the Gullah culture, an ex-slave community that grew up in the barrier islands of the Carolinas during and after the Civil War. The baskets are traditional crafts of Gullah people, and I took it upon myself to talk to the women who made my basket, something I didn't see too many other people bothering to do. She told me about learning to weave from her mother; about how her whole family is part of the process; about how her elderly father still goes out every week on Sundays into the marshes to collect the reeds to dry and make baskets. Emma laughed and told me I was "such an anthropologist." Maybe it's true, but for me that made the experience, and the basket, all the richer. Why buy something if you don't know the story behind it? Really, for me, the story is the most valuable part. The basket is really only a reminder of that story.

Woven Gullah baskets at the market

That afternoon we explored the city further, walking through the lovely multi-colored neighborhoods to one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, Temple Kahal Kadosh, which dates back to the Civil War. I was not expecting to get in touch with my Jewish heritage during a trip to the American south, but this temple was beautiful and story of the Charleston Jews quite interesting. This was the place that the Reform movement took hold in the US, and there was some interesting lore about tensions between Reform and Orthodox before the split. The building was beautiful; we were given a short tour, and both of us bought "Shalom Y'all" t-shirts in the gift shop.

The fourth-oldest temple in the United States

The caption above the bimah (platform) says "Know Before Whom Thou Standest"

It was about this time that Emma and I called Isaac, our waiter from the night before. He met us in the Battery and led us around the city to some of his favorite neighborhoods. We had a delicious picnic from a restaurant called Five Loaves, heard a little about South Carolina's geological history, and walked along a promenade by the beautiful harbor, where the river meets the sea. The three of us plus Susan, one of Isaac's college friends, spent what became another spectacular sunset at Isaac's favorite rooftop bar, where I had a mint julep in honor of where we were.

Sunset at the rooftop bar

As dusk fell, we were faced with an important decision. Our hostel was full for the night, and we had originally planned on moving on to the north part of the state that evening. Having decided we were too in love with the city to leave quite yet, we had thought we might spend the night on the beach, but the weather was a bit chilly for that kind of adventure. Luckily, Isaac was kind enough to offer to let us stay in his apartment for the night. Without realizing it, we had discovered couchsurfing.

The evening that followed was wonderful, surreal, hilarious. Isaac took Emma and me back to his house, then invited over a friend of his, John, who was on furlough from the Army. John was a tall, lanky blond soldier with an aristocratic southern accent (a la Rhett Butler). As we later discovered, he also had a photographic memory, but that didn't become evident until he rattled off a list of the past 15 presidents and their vice presidents, in order and with dates of office, during a lightly alcoholic game of Trivial Pursuit.

The evening got continually weirder as we ventured to, of all things, a Red Sox bar in downtown Charleston, then home again after enjoying some pool and the rowdy atmosphere. John lost his social skills as he drank, but that made him more interesting to be around. In fits and starts, he told us the story of a nerdy, intensely smart boy in rural South Carolina who knew early on that something about how his brain worked was different. Frustrated that the teachers at his school could not give him the education his overactive mind needed and unable to come up with the funds to escape to college, he had finally joined the military, eschewing higher education. The violence and psychological stresses of his life and his sheer intellectual capability had come together to create a formidable, but slightly off-kilter, intellect.

John had a fabulous sense of humor but little concept of social mores. He told jokes and stories entertainingly but had no sense of physical boundaries. One minute he leaned in too close, telling us about his anti-piracy missions in India and boasting about the number of pirates he'd killed (19); the next he flopped across the couch, detailing an intricate, light-hearted system for rating women on the street and an in-depth theory about Woody Allen films. In short, he was the sort of character you only meet on a road trip and the kind that every road trip needs.

Needless to say, an evening with him and Isaac provided plenty of entertainment and food for thought. We went to bed at 3:30 and were up at 6 to drive to the Isle of Palms for sunrise on the beach.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Southern Crossing: Nashville-Birmingham-Atlanta

Another leg, another early morning. Emma, John, and I got up at dawn for an epic day: south from Nashville to Birmingham, then across Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia. Our dance card was quite full, as well, as we were planning to stop at a roadside archeology museum in rural Tennessee and to spend several hours in Birmingham.

John slept in the back as we sped down the highway toward Cornersville, TN. The idea to visit the Wyatt Archaeological Museum came from the same road-side attraction website that had been the source of our trips so far, and, as usual, we were not disappointed. Cornersville was a quiet town of rolling, green hills sheltering a patchwork of small farms, the kind with wagon wheels resting against the shed and a smattering of cows in the paddock.

A few wrong turns finally brought us to the museum, which focuses on the life and work of an archaeologist who spent his life trying to scientifically prove biblical events. The museum was shuttered, and we were concerned that it had closed until we heard a door slam in the trailer parked next door. A tall, bearded man strode across the gravel driveway, unlocking the tiny two-room building just for us.

He introduced himself as Wyatt's protege and successor, pointing out a few highlights as we made our way to a drafty cinder block room at the back of the building. The room, which was covered in posters and a large mural depicting Noah's ark, was bare except for a big screen TV on an AV cart, the sort your teacher would wheel in to the classroom to show you NOVA in middle school. He pressed play and left the room

What followed was a homemade documentary about Wyatt's work. According to the video, the man's calling began in Turkey when he became convinced he had found the remains of Noah's Ark near Mt. Ararat. He went on to claim he had found the ruins of Sodom and Gommorrah in southern Israel, the point of Exodus out of Egypt on the Gulf of Aqaba, and the tomb where the Ark of the Covenant was buried. The video, edited sloppily, followed his rise to semi-fame with a mixture of awe and adoration. Emma's head was on my shoulder, as we were both tired from the early start, but neither of us could take our eyes away from the screen.

Some of the displays at the museum at the Wyatt Archaeological Museum

The caption says "Crystalline Capsules around the Sulfur Balls-- From Gommorrah"

As it turned out, the video was actually most of the museum. Once we were finished, there was only another small room to look at. We walked around looking at a model of how the pyramids were made, trying not to mutter the snide comments we were dying to make too loudly (scholars have been theorizing for hundreds of years, but this guy just so happened to get it right)

How the pyramids were built

There were several other objects presented as evidence-- a cast of a chariot wheel from the bottom of the Gulf of Aqaba, a piece of petrified wood said to be from Noah's Ark, crystallized sulfur from the fiery rain God brought upon Gomorrah. I found it all very silly. Let me clarify, although my religious beliefs are generally pretty secular it wasn't the Christian undertones that the Wyatt Institute was built upon that bothered me. It was really the enormous leaps of logic that got my goat. As Emma and I discussed after we returned to the car, finding a chariot wheel in the ocean in a place where chariots were very common for a long time does not an Exodus make. Neither do some rock formations in the Negev desert automatically scream "mythic center of sin and hedonism." I appreciate that Wyatt and his followers found some pretty interesting artifacts, as just-plain-artifacts go. But as for applying those artifacts to bolster a history based on religious events, well, I wasn't buying it quite yet. Doesn't make the museum any less fascinating, though! In fact, that anthropologist in me finds it all the more intriguing.

It was my turn to drive through Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama. It was early afternoon and both of my compatriots were asleep. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole trip, drivingwise. The afternoon sun slanted on the highway, and I twiddled the radio to find something to listen to. What I found was some sort of rural radio Craigslist. People were calling in saying things like "I have four chickens to sell, and I'd like to buy a sack of grain." The announcer would give a number for interested parties to call, and sometimes a few minutes later would say that the lot had been sold. While I was listening to this program, I suddenly realized we were driving over a vast swamp, the kind I've never seen before, miles of water thick with weeds and mangroves, the way I imagine a bayou looks. There was something divine about driving on this vast bridge over a swamp in Alabama, listening to the farmers drawl about their chickens and corn in the slanting light. A perfect moment.

We arrived in Birmingham shortly afterward. Emma had spent a little time there after Hurricane Katrina, doing clean up, and she had such positive impressions that she pushed hard for us to go back. Specifically, we came to see the Civil Rights Institute, which was highly recommended, and to explore the Birmingham Museum of Art.

As we disembarked from our car, we were greeted by a tall, gangly black man in over-alls, who introduced himself to us as "Bond, James Bond." After this quirky greeting we were a little wary of him, but his brand of crazy seemed to be fairly benign. He correctly deduced that we were tourists (the Massachusetts license plate might have given us away) and started giving us a brief history of civil rights in Alabama, pointing to the memorial park across the street -- which we would visit later -- and speaking in a fairly poignant way about how the city has progressed in his time living there.

We spent almost two and a half hours exploring the Institute, which is one of the best museums I've ever visited. The exhibits were thorough and informative, but they also retained interesting interactive elements including life-size models, video, and fine art, and they never let you forget the intense humanity behind all of the words. I was alternately moved, saddened, and infuriated--all emotions I would hope to feel when learning about civil rights history.

One of the most interesting parts of the Institute visit for me was the opportunity to see, for the first time in my life, black people teaching other black people about their history. As a white upper-middle class suburban kid, that was just not part of my experience growing up. But we were at the Institute in the middle of the week, and the only other visitors were local kids on field trips. Their teacher guided them kindly from exhibit to exhibit and I tried not to be too obtrusive as I traveled through the museum, looking with them, and to some extent at them. Their eyes were as round as they took it all in, and I heard one little boy ask his teacher, "Does that mean that my dad and uncle were a part of this? Does that mean they were treated this way?" His voice wavered. It was a powerful, deeply sad moment.

The Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham

We spent more time than expected at the Institute, but had time to briefly explore the Museum of Art before it closed. I opted to wander the museum's lovely Asian collection (mostly ancient Thai and Japanese; no photography allowed) before dropping in on a rotating modern art exhibit on the first floor. There, I found myself entranced and disturbed by a video piece depicting the artist and her partner immersing themselves in water repeatedly, the bubbles and ripples playing endlessly over their faces, shot from below the surface. As the video progressed, the images blurred gradually, almost unnoticeably, until a gray mass not recognizable as a face and the buzz of white noise filled the screen. I was joined by a man about my age as I watched. He introduced himself as a student at a local community college, and we watched the video together in silence.

Inside (and outside) the Birmingham Museum of Art

By late afternoon we made our way to the memorial park across from the Civil Rights Institute. This park was set up in memory of four little girls who were killed in a famous bombing of a church across the street during the Civil Rights era. It is part sculpture garden, part memorial and is very affecting, featuring images of violence and wrongdoing from throughout the struggle. In one corner, a metal cast of the high-powered hoses used on marchers confronts the viewer. In another, the visitor walks a claustrophobic, frightening path through a sculpture out of whose walls slavering dogs jump. It is a very visceral memorial, balanced out by four pool/waterfalls in the middle of the park, representing the four little girls at peace. There, a sculpture of Martin Luther King rises over a plaque reading "place of revolution and reconciliation." After experiencing the symbolic pain of the civil rights era, the park reminds visitors of its ultimate goal.

Images from the memorial park

Replicas of the high-power hoses
The inscription reads, "I ain't afraid to go to jail"

Before we left Birmingham, there was one more stop to make: Mrs. B's Kitchen, a legendary soul food restaurant. For not very much money at all, we were each able to buy a multi-course soul food feast of ribs, spaghetti and meatballs, black-eyed peas, candied yams, and the best banana pudding I have ever had (and I don't even really like banana pudding.) All of us ate like it was our last meal, left the restaurant hearing our seams creaking, and it was totally worth it.

It was my turn to drive as we headed east from Birmingham to Atlanta. We passed the to-scale model of the Statue of Liberty, and as we got on the highway, "Sweet Home Alabama" by Thin Lizzy came on the radio. We got really excited, turned the radio way up, and then shortly after were ashamed of ourselves for singing along loudly and turned it back down. It was a silly moment.

Around twilight we drove through Anniston, Alabama, home of the world's largest office chair as of 1983.) We managed to find it after a few false starts.

Sadly unfocused pictures of the world's largest office chair, as of 1983, in Anniston, Alabama

From Anniston it was a straight shot through the evening to Atlanta, where we stayed with John's parents. It was very late when we arrived, so John introduced us to the dual delights of Steak & Shake (which is a late-night joint serving its name) and Korean karaoke-- a great way to end a long, lovely day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Preparation Tidbits, part 1

I have spent the last few months preparing for my upcoming year-long trip in numerous ways, all of which will hopefully be discussed on this blog in the next month or so. Even though I'm still not quite finished with my southern road trip (two entries left!), I felt the following factoid marked a good place to start blogging in the present, rather than the past:

This past weekend I went with my father to MicroCenter, and we purchased an HP Mini Netbook, an adorable 60 GB mini-computer. It is my graduation present and I will be taking it with me on my trip. I'm expecting it to be a combination picture repository, entertainment center, travel agent, long distance phone, and word processor. I will be saving pictures, listening to music, scheduling flights, finding couch surfing or SERVAS hosts, and writing in a journal/writing essays and articles/here on this very blog.

Here is where I show the world exactly how nerdy I am: I have named my new netbook Passepartout, which is pronounced Pahs-partoo. Passepartout is the name of Phileas Fogg's manservant in "Around the World in 80 Days" by Jules Verne. I am feeling pretty pleased with myself.