Friday, February 1, 2013

Charleston, South Carolina

• Charleston's Charms • 
•A Day in South Carolina • 

On the way home from Florida, Mom and I decided to drive through South Carolina and spend a day in the lovely city of Charleston.  I had always heard the tales of southern hospitality and grits, so I figured it was time to check it out.  Besides, it was more or less on the way home.  There's much more to do and see in Charleston than I initially realized, so we really packed our schedule tightly.  If I have the chance to go back someday, I would spend two or three days there.

August 9, 2012

Louise Jefferson
Basket Weaver Extraordinaire
Right away, when we arrived at the visitor center, we met Louise Jefferson, a basket weaver who had been weaving pieces of sweetgrass into incredible baskets since her childhood.  In her designs, the treads of grass twisted and turned, forming patterns of different colors.  Some baskets had matching lids, and others had curved, decorative handles.  On many baskets, she wove in a small bundle of dried flowers.  She told us that a medium sized basket took about a week to make.  Her baskets ranged in price from about $100 - $400, depending on their size and complexity.   If you're one of those people who cites basket weaving as a blow-off class, you should really think twice about saying that because the technique involved in making these looks pretty complicated.  Louise told us that basket making was an African tradition that came to Charleston on slave ships in the 1800s.  Back then, the baskets were used for practical purposes.  Today, the "basket ladies" continue to weave baskets in order to preserve the African tradition, and tourists purchase the baskets as high end souvenirs.  Many of the weavers have stands in the market and historic district where they display and sell their work.

Louise Jefferson's Sweetgrass Baskets
The Charleston City Market, which is of course on Market Street, is just past the Daughters of the Confederacy building, and is a total blast to explore if you like shopping.  On the way down Market Street, we passed a bunch of churches and a fire station, both of which added to the character of the city.


People at the market set up stands at which they sell their crafts, food, art, spices, shirts, stone-ground grits, tablecloths, and just about everything else you might want.  Mom and I bought a small bag of dried okra chips to munch on while browsing. After strolling around for a while, I decided to buy a pair of painted ceiling tiles to use as wall hangings.  I think the guy said they came from a building in Montana.

Carriage Tour
Leaving the market, we hopped on to a buggy ride, which is said to be one of the best ways to see Charleston.  In order to avoid crowding by buggies, the carriages have three separate routes. After you're in the carriage, the driver is told by a person in a little office, which route to take for the tour.  The selection is random, and the routes do not overlap (except the beginning and end), so you don't know ahead of time what you will see.  Our tour was through the historic district, where we saw beautiful, towering southern mansions decorated with brightly colored siding and surrounded by vibrant gardens.  These homes would sell for millions if they were on the market, but most of the owners seemed to hang onto them.  In my neighborhood, most of the homes are built from the same few designs.  In historic Charleston, all the homes were unique.

Historic Charleston
At the end of the tour, we walked a bit away from the market place-historic district area and headed over to see the Old Slave Mart Museum.  The museum presents a very clear explanation of roles different types of people played in the slave trade and how the process worked.  It is as objective as possible, somehow managing to put forth the cruelty of the many slave traders in a non-accusatory manner.  I found the objectivity of the exhibit particularly interesting because it seems like this could be a very emotional topic for some people.  On the other hand, perhaps the information was presented somewhat objectively and distantly because that's is more like the attitude that prevailed during the slave trading years.

Old Slave Mart Museum
The small museum walked visitors intensely through the treatment of slaves, even how slaves were primed before trading, and it explained how slaves could semi-control their destination based on their answers during the trading process.  I learned that before a slave was displayed on stage to be traded, they were fed extra so they would look healthier and they were sometimes painted so they would be shinier or a slightly different color.  For me, hearing that these people were painted for sale really underscored how poorly and inhumanely they were treated.

Additionally, the exhibit shares original testimonies from former slaves and tells the stories of families being torn apart by slave trading.  A plaque on the wall announced that many slaves, if they knew they would be traded, tried specifically to end up on plantations near the where their family members worked.  They were able to influence the decision of where they would be traded by answering questions correctly or incorrectly while on the trading stage.  In fact, the museum is built around the very platform where many slaves were traded.  Charleston was a hub for new arrivals of slaves and for trading.

Books at the Old Slave Mart Museum
I was surprised to see a chart at the museum that clearly defined how much a slave of each age group would cost.  It is uncomfortable to see a price tag on a person, but that's how it was done.  The most expensive would have been a male slave around twenty years old because of presumed ability for manual labor.  Young children were considered valuable because they were expected to grow to be productive.  In contrast, old people and babies were very cheap because they could not work as much; rather, they might need to be cared for.

Rainbow Row

Leaving the Old Slave Mart Museum, we felt glad to have learned more about the Charleston's history, but upset that that history included so many inhumane events and traditions.  We continued onto Rainbow Row, known as Catfish Row in the opera, Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin.  Rainbow Row is a row of tall apartments (condos?) that are painted in bright colors and overlook the coastline.  I'm curious about who lives there now.  The buildings look beautiful.  In Porgy and Bess; however, Catfish Row seems a little bit rundown.  (Wikipedia says Catfish Row is based on the real "Cabbage Row," but I'm pretty sure it's Rainbow Row.  Plus, the Catfish Row set very closely resembled what I saw at Rainbow Row earlier in the day.)
Rainbow Row
Strolling near the Charleston City Market
While wandering around and browsing the boutiques in the area, we saw an island just off the coast.  One charmingly nice person walking by (everyone is super friendly in Charleston) explained to us that the first shots of the Civil War had been fired there, and that we could tour it.  If we had had more time, we certainly would have enjoyed touring such a site.  Instead, we scarfed down a quick dinner at this cute, little Italian restaurant and scurried (in sweltering humidity) off to the opera house.  Previously, I had only seen Porgy and Bess performed on TV, so I was really excited to see it performed live.

Porgy and Bess
Earlier in the day, around the time when we had purchased tickets for the buggy ride, we saw an advertisement for performances of Porgy and Bess at the Dock Street Theatre by the Footlight Players.  Realizing how cool it would be to see the opera in the city in which it was set, we called to inquire about ticket availability, and purchased two tickets.  Since we weren't originally planning on seeing an opera that day, we were extremely under-dressed for the show.  Quite literally, we showed up in shorts and tank tops and sweat, courtesy of Charleston's August humidity.  How embarrassing.  Especially since some of the guests were in gowns.  The theater is really the only place I go without proper attire, but it's also one place where looking nice matters.  I am amused yet embarrassed to admit that I have been to the theater under-dressed numerous times.  The other times were at the Paris Opera Ballet at the Palais Garnier and the Prince Edward Theatre in London...oops.  I guess that's what happens when you're traveling and don't have nice clothes with you and still want to see shows.

Dock Street Theatre
Anyhow, Mom and and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance - the voices, the acting, the costumes, the set - it was all great.  I had not seen this opera before and was interested to find that it was pretty easy to understand the lyrics.  Sure they were in English, but still, opera distorts words so that I sometimes have a difficult time understanding.  I also enjoyed the plot, a story about the proceedings of daily life on Catfish Row.  To me, it seemed more about the different hardships and joys in life and less about a particular event.  In this way, the viewer gets a glimpse into the lifestyle of African Americans in Charleston in the early 1920s. 

After the show, our time in charming, drawling Charleston came to a close, and we set off driving in the dark mountains towards Asheville, North Carolina.  The day trip had been fantastically entertaining, historical, artsy, educational, tasty, and thought-provoking, and we resolved to return someday to experience more.  I am pleased to announce that Charleston definitely makes my top ten travel list!

Road Trip!

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