Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Headin' South!

Vacation—and just in time! I was going Ca-RAZY!!! at work. Whenever that happens, I NEED to take a few days off or I'll explode. So I hopped the train from Durham. It was the Carolinian, so of course it was running late, and having to stop at the NC State Fair for so long didn't help the schedule any. Had a layover in Wilson, NC, which has a very nice historic downtown block, but around the RR station, it's crap. The Amtrak people recommended the only restaurant in the area, which was across the street and supposedly Jamaican. It was one of those "we're keeping troubled kids off the streets" deals, and I asked the owner what his favorite dish was. "Brown soup," he said. That didn't sound encouraging, but I ordered it. I mean, if it was his favorite...

Ugh. Awful. Bits of chicken bone. Bits of stone-hard rice. Wonky dark flavor. Still, it used up time and eventually the Palmetto arrived (just a few minutes late) to whisk us off to Charleston. Now, when you get on a train, the conductor asks where you're going. Thus I don't know why, five minutes into the ride, two high school (? very young) girls behind me start flipping out. They're on the wrong train. They should be headed to Raleigh. Panic! Shriek! They call their teacher to relay their dilemma. They'll have to get off in Fayetteville, and then what will they do? I tell them to calm down; it's not that bad. In six months it'll be an amusing story.

The conductor finally determines that for a short bit the Palmetto and Carolinian's routes are the same; the girls can get off in Selma and catch the south-bound Carolinian from there. "Like, I'm nevair telling Mom," one girl declares, to have her pal echo it. Do kids really talk like that still? Whatevs. My question is: why do they have the Palmetto and Carolinian assigned numbers that are 10 apart from each other? It's the 79 and the 89 train. Easy to mix up, especially when they arrive (theoretically) 30 minutes from each other.

Got to Charleston at 7:30 or so, shared a taxi to the airport and Enterprise with 2 others. Enterprise hooked me up with my first GPS, and the lady at the desk programmed it for me. Took it out to the car, and the guy there deleted her program, then programmed it. And did it again. And again. I took off into the night—I hate driving at night—and learned to follow the GPS' orders. At one point it seemed to me from previous Mapquesting that I should be near the hotel. The GPS told me to take a right, another right, and another right, all on top of each other. Okay. But where was the hotel? I drove and drove. The city dropped off behind me. Had the color of the roads on the screen changed? I couldn't recall; I was exhausted.

I was on my way to Savannah, not a hotel in Charleston on the Savannah Highway. Finally spotted a convenience store in the middle of nowhere and got directions. Whew! Got to the hotel. I think it was at the end of the triple right thing, but when you overshot your destination, the stupid GPS shut up instead of saying something like, "recalibrating." During the trip I overshot a few more times and it wasn't until I had made some guess-turns and gotten back ahead of the destination that the GPS lady deigned to speak.

But I hadn't figured this out until about a day later, during which I'd called up Enterprise and complained about the programming kid in the parking lot. Hope he didn't get into trouble.

Charleston! It stinks! No, literally. It smells like a sewer. It might be because it was still getting over some serious floods, or not. If you can't smell the sewer, you're smelling camellias (ugh!), which were everywhere, or else you're smelling some seriously good-smelling food. You're always smelling something.

Took a carriage ride and our guide told us that Charleston has the world's largest historic area outside of Rome. This makes for a HOA from Hell, he said. There was one church whose steeple had been blown off during the Civil War. By 2000 they'd managed to come up with money for a new one and applied for a building permit. It was approved in 2006.

Went on a walking tour (in addition to walking for hours and hours on my own) as well as a harbor cruise. Ft. Sumter becomes a lot more interesting story when you see that the fort was THERE. It's just one storey now, but was three back during the "Late Unpleasantness," as they call it. There was another fort just over THERE, and one over THERE, and it was all not that far from the edge of town. It's all so close to each other. Must have been a darned spectacular battle. A wonder that no one was killed until the celebration afterward, when one of the cannons set a pile of ammo ablaze and killed a soldier.

The cruise director and I discussed ocean rise and how Charleston is ignoring it. He said that there's been a foot rise over the past century, and of course the process is about to speed up. Charleston—and all too many other places—will be in Big Trouble.

As for the walking tour, I noticed that the guide only mentioned slaves 4 quick times. Once she mentioned that a certain house had "servants." Yeah, right. But she did go into the big earthquake and pointed out the special supports that houses that went through that now have. One of the tours took pains to state that even though Charleston was one of the four largest US cities back then (9 out of the 10 richest men lived there), SC was only second in slaves. Rhode Island was the primary place for slaves to land, due to the New England rum industry.

There are interesting Historic Houses that would be worth setting aside an entire day to tour, but I didn't. Charleston's downtown is filled with restaurants, shoe stores, clothing stores, and such. It's the second most popular place in the US (next to Vegas) to buy a wedding dress. If you're into shopping, I'd definitely recommend the place. Traffic downtown is fairly awful due to all the horse carriages, but it's nothing next to Savannah. I did notice that there were more skateboarders doing their thing in public streets there than Savannah. I wanted to run over a few just to teach 'em a lesson. For their own good, you know.

Touring was taking up a LOT more time than I'd planned. I'd bought four tickets at the Visitors' Center, and was thinking about ditching the final one, to Magnolia Plantation, in order to take the Gullah Tour, which people were raving about. Unfortunately, the guy who does that one didn't bother to tell me that it's best to get reservations for it, so when I decided to stay in Charleston for a few extra hours to take the tour, it was full already. Darn!

Instead I set the GPS for the Magnolia Plantation, which said it had a good slave tour available. The plantation was located a ways out of town. Back in the day, it took over a day to get there unless you went by river. The river was a tidal one, so not only did its depth differ by 6 feet depending on time of day, but every six hours it changed direction. And yes, alligators can survive in brackish water.

We got in a nice wilderness tour, since after the plantation switched from growing rice, the owners were concerned with making their acreage a showcase of flora and fauna, while alligators, turtles and ducks took over the swamps that evolved from what had been rice paddies. Every few feet along the lane there'd be a cheesy Halloween display with dummies set up with scary masks and such. It seemed to me that at night it might be quite the fright for kids. The tour director assured me that that's what they had set up: night rides through the woods.

"We hire high school kids to jump out, too," she said.

"But I thought you said the alligators were active at night."

"You couldn't pay me to be here at night."

Glad I didn't have to drive along some of those roads. The swamps are covered with duck weed, something I once got for my own fish pond. ("Fish love it! They'll eat it all up!" Nope, it quickly covered the pond and the fish ignored it.) In the noon sunshine, the flat, green-topped swamps looked artificially made… like roads. I could see that someone could easily think they were on asphalt and turn into one. Shudder.

They filmed the swampy parts of Swamp Thing at the plantation. And it turns out that they have only four slave cabins still there, reflecting different eras, but the guide did a great job of giving the story of the slaves and what happened after the Civil War. I asked if any slaves had lived in the Big House, and she said that the owner's wife was from Baltimore. She'd grown up hearing horror stories of what slave nannies did to their white charges, so no Blacks were allowed inside the house around the kids. Instead they hired a 14-year-old Irish girl, who stayed with the family until the end of her long life.

Otoh, several large Black families who were freed because of the War stayed on. Today, many of the employees are descendants of them, and the guy in charge of the grounds is one as well.

One of the plantation owner's granddaughters had numerous nice paintings in the house, which reminded me that I should be painting more as well, especially since I had better access to good materials than she had.

Savannah is just under 2 hours south of Charleston, and is laid out around a bunch of ordered park squares. It's easy to get lost. I certainly did, wandering around with seventeen maps sticking out of my purse. An overcast didn't help my sense of direction. I kept walking south when I should have walked north. Thank heaven for friendly passers-by!

The mansions are more spectacular in Savannah, imho, and certainly worthy of a few days of exploration. I only went into the Juliette Gordon Low mansion because I could barely remember visiting there back in 1965 or so, when my North Dakota-stationed family travelled to Florida to check out some swamp land my parents had just bought. (Don't worry; they got their money back. Eventually. It took Washington Air Force big wigs to convince the company that it was in their best interests to do so.) I still had my daisy pin that Girl Scouts can buy when they visit the house. Juliette "Daisy" Low was the founder of the Girl Scouts, you know, right? The current pin is about half the size of the pin I have.

The tour was given by an EXTREMELY enthusiastic young woman who was about to graduate with her law degree. She had cerebral palsy, and said that the Scouts were the only place she'd found where she'd been completely accepted as herself. Her loyalties to the organization couldn't have been more clear or inspiring. She told us some risqué stories (to her; I didn't think they were racy at all) about how Daisy had grown up in the house, how her mother had been great friends with (spit) General Sherman (Savannah was the one major city he DIDN'T burn), how her parents' parents had been against their marriage because the father's side wanted him to marry British royalty, and the mother's side wanted her to marry someone who'd had to work for his gazillions. Oh, and how Daisy was just about to finalize a divorce from her philandering husband when he died and saved her the scandal.

The place also had a large, laminated version of a comic book I'd had back when I was a kid that told the story of Daisy. "See?" I told the tour director. "It says that a piece of rice got lodged in her ear from her wedding reception, and she was deaf. How does losing the hearing in one ear make you deaf in both?" The guide told me that Daisy had long had problems with her ears that resulted in hearing loss, and that when that rice thrown at her wedding had been extricated by a doctor, he'd punctured her eardrum, causing an infection that made things worse.

I was wowed by Daisy's art, both painting and sculpture!

Actor playing a free woman who was a successful dressmaker.
Took a trolley ride in which it seemed everything worth seeing was on the right, and I was seated on the left. The guy kept telling us to look up at steeples, and there were indeed windows toward the top of the bus, but they were just slits. Perhaps horse carriage is the best way to see the city. Then again, those carriages don't have costumed actors stepping on board at certain points, giving their take on Savannah's history and chewing the scenery something awful.

There was also a free bus, but sometimes it didn't announce what the next possible stop was, and they have a window covering that makes it quite difficult to see where you are, in case that might help the bewildered tourist. The best way is to find someone who's going to the same stop you are and get off when they do.

In addition to all these rides that keep Savannah traffic at a crawl, there's also a pedal bus. The guy on that told me that though one person can work it, it's quite difficult. They take a minimum of six pedaling passengers. I saw one group sedately maneuvering through the streets—the guy said they can go up to 11 mph, though they usually go about 2. Saw one bachelor party wobbling their way down the street, and watched as one bachelorette party took their seats after hitting a bar. They were all schnozzled, and the pedal bus is set up so that a guy can serve drinks from the central portion of it, while their drinks are secured in a trough. When everyone leaves, one guy remains to steer while the other guy hooks the bus up to a truck and it gets towed back home.

SCAD, the Savannah College of Art & Design, is everywhere. At times it seems as if it owns half the city. However, there were art students everywhere, and at one meal I overheard the people at the next table discussing fonts. Saw a plein air arteest at work next to one fancy house.

I tried the Gryphon, a fancy-fancy tea room that let me sit outside so I could watch the Saturday crowd. It was "Wag-a-Ween," and the vast number of pedestrians all seemed to have costumed dogs in tow. The dogs visit participating shops and get doggie treats. How cute! (Proceeds went to local animal shelters.) I got to drink some lovely tea and had crustless cucumber sandwiches and a little green salad and—don't tell—a bit of ice cream. Went down to the corner tea merchant and bought my very first loose-leaf tea and infuser so I can be every bit as classy back home. Even if you don't like tea, check out the place. Inside, they have a huge stained glass rotunda with a glorious chandelier hanging from its center! The instrumental Addams Family theme played softly in the background.

This dog would NOT stand still for his picture!

The tours all made note of the movies shot in downtown Savannah, including Midnight in the Garden of Whatever It Was, Forrest Gump (what was the purpose of that movie, anyway?) and others.

I went to the Jepson Center for "Monet and American Impressionism," a marvelous exhibition that included Monet's "Oat Field," which I think is credited as the very first impressionistic painting EVAIR. This was stuff so cool I even cracked open my wallet to buy the show book. And a cute little magnetic Monet doll for the fridge.

Savannah was shoulder-to-shoulder tourists, especially along the riverfront. There the traffic was bumper-to-bumper and stopped more than at a crawl. Even the pedestrians often had to stand still just because of everyone there. There seemed to be lots more restaurants than Charleston had (though Charleston had a LOT), and watch out for the cheesy tourist souvenir shops down by the river.

I tried out some of the art shops at City Market, and had a lovely, long talk with Sandra Edgar Davis, the owner of the Signature Gallery. She was so inspiring! Her shop displays local artists, and her own work is bright and humorous. She told me about Savannah's mysterious and wonderful Red Cat. At a nearby gallery, I watched an artist do some knife painting, then saw that he had more work displayed a few doors down. He seems to be doing a booming business, but the stuff he does seems to be all the same thing: tree branches with smooshies between the limbs. Occasionally he'll put a local statue landmark in front of the trees, but do that in flat brushwork while the trees are done with knife work, so it looks discombobulated.

All ships in the harbor, and all that, I guess. More power to him.

I also checked out the Blick megastore because I'd been told it was so very, very much more than Raleigh's own Jerry's Artarama. It was nice. Wider aisles, neater displays. Higher prices. I was impressed by their collection of 200ml paint tubes, and asked where they kept their alkyds. I've been thinking about getting those in larger tubes to make me loosen up more, but Jerry's doesn't carry them.

"Alkyds?" the clerk blankly asked. She'd never heard of it. She didn't really think the medium existed. So much for Blick.

Got a takeout salad for dinner, convinced a McDonalds that no, they really did make breakfasts all day now, and so got a breakfast biscuit, returned the rental car, caught the shuttle back to the hotel, and packed for the return trip. The next morning I heated up the biscuit, and by golly the hotel let me take the shuttle to Amtrak. (The night before, they said I'd likely have to get a cab. $$!!)

At Amtrak they gave us 15 minute warning to get our tickets before the window closed for a while, so I dashed to the ladies' room before the train would come. I heard the speakers say, "Wah wah wah," and I ambled out again… to an empty lobby. There was the train! Run, run, run! Turns out it waited until the proper departure time, so I could have walked, but still—!

At Wilson the Carolinian was "only" running an hour late. Got home safe & sound, but I haven't checked yet how much damage I did to the Mastercard.

I think I'd like to take some Homes tours in Savannah/Charleston, but other than that I think I saw everything that needed to be seen. Definitely worth a trip to those who haven't been. Have you?

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