I left Nashville by Greyhound bus. I thought I was going to Charleston on the coast of South Carolina. After a stop at Wytheville I realised that we were going in the wrong direction. In fact I had bought a ticket to Charleston, West Virginia.
This was a really stupid mistake. I had not noticed that there are two Charlestons, and that both bus routes pass through Wytheville. Though I had checked the ticket, I had not noticed the tell-tale WV, identifying the state. Doh!
So when I arrived at the other Charleston, I had to buy another ticket to my intended destination. The girl at the ticket office was very kind, let me leave my backpack without fee and told me how to get around town.
I had a thirteen hour wait and there wasn’t much to see. I hung around in cafés and the mall and went to see “A Walk in the Woods” at the local cinema. Not a great film, but it filled in a couple of hours.
Another nighttime bus journey and I was actually where I wanted to be.
Charleston is charming, in many different ways. The first thing I noticed was the design of houses, typically with first floor verandas around the side, or balconies in front.
The official buildings can be very grand. This is the old Customs House, which is right by the old market, a popular hangout for tourists.
There are free trolley cars to get you around the city and they are used by the locals as well as sightseers.
They eat a lot of seafood and “grits” and other things which are not vegetarian, but people were very accommodating about my diet choice. (Grits is a kind of maize porridge, but I was warned it contained lard).
In fact, the people are what makes this place so pleasant. They say hello to you as you walk down the street, often with an unexpected compliment. They talked to me in the street cars and in the restaurants and thus introduced me to what they call Southern Hospitality, which feels completely genuine.
Charleston has a bit of a dark past. This was laid before me in the museum, which dealt with the War of Independence, the history of slavery and the city’s role in starting the Civil War.
There was a great deal I did not know about American history and I found the museum most instructive. I will not discuss all that here, but the exhibition continued into the more recent past, including the Roaring Twenties and onwards. This, for example, is Gershwin’s piano, as this is where he wrote “Porgy and Bess”.
I also visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the only property of its type which remains in the hands of its original family owners. Although Spring would be the best time to visit, because of the magnolias and azaleas, it still exuded a sense of the old South.
Charleston is an attractive and lively place, as I discovered while taking a “pub stroll” one evening. However, I also read about a shooting at Mother Emanuel church which took place on 17th June this year. Nine people were killed in a racist attack. I was shocked and appalled to realise how divided this nation still can be and I suggest you read some of the details of the case and its aftermath.
I wanted to move on to Savannah, a little further South. Yet I was once again having a problem. All available accommodation was very expensive and it was not easy to get in and out of by public transport. This was also true of New Orleans, which I had always intended to visit. Eventually I just bought a plane ticket directly there, which cost an arm and a leg as far as I was concerned. I managed to find a cheap but pleasant hostel, but on the shuttle from the airport people were descending at the Hyatt, the Sheraton and the Marriott, places which cost £150-200 a night.
I had a great time in New Orleans. I spent two nights in the NotSo Hostel, (say it out loud and you may understand the Southern accent). Then two more nights with a lovely family who were my Servas hosts.
My first night in the hostel I went out to the French Quarter with all the people in my dorm. We ended up in Frenchmen Street listening to some live jazz. This involved walking through Bourbon Street, which is seriously weird. You are allowed to walk around carrying alcoholic drinks as long as they are in plastic containers. They sell pre-mixed cocktails from large pump containers. Girls are apparently given bead necklaces for flashing their breasts, though many of them were not wearing much in the first place. It was a bit like Newcastle, with sweat.
The feel of “Nawlins”, is unique, however. People hang over the beautiful ornamental balconies. They relax on porch swings and rocking chairs. They ride the trams. Everyone talks to you, all the time.
Here are a few images from my time there.
I took a tour out in the swamp, something I was really looking forward to. The boat went out on the Pearl River and through the bayou. The weather was not the best, as it was chilly and overcast. Also I was a little upset that the guide of a supposedly “eco”tour fed the animals with hot dogs and marshmallows. Nevertheless, it was a dream come true.
My last evening there was one of the best. My host family took me out to a jazz bar under the stars, where the food was great and the live music even better. They were utterly congenial company and it was a sensational ending to my time in the Deep South.
The die was cast, however. Though I’ve had some fantastic times in the USA, seen some marvellous places and met some extraordinary people, I had bought my ticket back to the UK. I was tired of spending hours on the Internet trying to find a cheap enough place to stay that wasn’t a motel miles out from the city. I didn’t want to hire or buy a car on my own, because of the hassle and expense, but America is still the land where the car is king. I even found myself wishing I had lots of money – and isn’t that where the American Dream stems from?
All around the world I have found happiness in the most unlikely places and here has been no exception, but it sucks you in and entices you with the consumerism.
Many of the people I’ve met in the last two years have very little, but they are happy to share. They care about their friends and family. They know how to enjoy themselves but can stand in awe of the beauty of nature around them. They have been so enthusiastic about my adventure and have helped me in so many ways.
Tomorrow I will see some of my own family again. I’m so excited. But as I learnt on a mindfulness meditation in New Zealand, with every step, and in every place on this wondrous planet, I have arrived home.