SULLIVAN’S ISLAND, S.C. – I touched a hurricane today.
Hurricane Earl’s deadly riptides have already claimed a surfer somewhere along the East Coast, according to an overheard conversation back in Ocean City.
A couple of fishermen were the only other souls at a beach in Sullivan’s Island today and while Melani and Trevor mined the bare beach for shells, I walked along the water’s edge and let the hurricane-tossed waves wash over my feet. The water was so warm and inviting, every splash a siren’s call.
CHARLESTON, S.C. – Boone Hall Plantation has a Canadian connection.
While the plantation was founded in 1681, the building we toured (as we did two years ago) is the fourth on that spot. The first two burned. The third fell into disrepair. What now stands was built by Canadian Ambassador Thomas Stone in 1935.
Rather than a simple farmhouse, he built a mansion, displaying his wealth in the cantilevered staircase in the foyer, the 11-foot mirror in the dining room and by building a hydroelectric plant to run electricity into his home. So unheard-of was this, Paramount sent a camera crew out to film it.
Stone was only able to enjoy his mansion for four years; he was called home at the beginning of the Second World War.
But wait, you’re saying: You seem to have some Ocean City anger, but I thought you liked tacky.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER, S.C. — I do like tacky. But I like a very specific kind of tacky. I loved – loved! – South of the Border.
This South Carolina tourist attraction spitting distance (literally, if you’re a skilled spitter) from North Carolina wants desperately to be Wall Drug of the East. And I want to be fair: Maybe it was, once. Maybe it was earlier this summer. But when we pulled into the sprawling complex, we had our choice of parking spaces.
Most importantly, this meant we could park in the shade. Two years ago, when I was waiting for my Charleston Gullah article to be published, the travel editor told me no one wants to holiday in the South in the summer. I shrugged, because I love the heat.
This Deep South heat is like nothing I’ve experienced. Getting out of the air-conditioned Joe (here, they call it an “economy truck” and “truck” has at least two syllables) is like stepping into Hades. The heat pushes against you like a succubus. It throbs against your temples. It slides up your back and under your hair, making your head heavy. Within 90 seconds, fatigue drains your will to breathe.
And so we were well pleased to be the only tourists at South of the Border, because we could park in the shade.
Its emptiness gives it a shabby feel, but many of the buildings were freshly painted. It was the dinosaurs and hippos and horses and Pedros (which I found off-putting and offensive) that suffered the most neglect. They were all chipped and peeling.
Against my better judgment (I have a fear of elevators), we paid a dollar each to ride to the top of the sombrero. There was no wind, nothing to break the heat. It was spectacularly quiet, so we jumped when the air cracked and vibrated. We couldn’t follow the sound – we had to train our eyes before the thunder to find the fighter jet that roared into the distance.
And that was it. An impromptu air show, an eerily quiet amusement park, a decaying arcade and a bumper sticker that says S.O.B.
In March 2008, Melani and I did something we hadn’t done since the summer of 1995: We took a vacation sans child.
Charleston, S.C., has everything I look for in a holiday: sun, beaches and a rich history. Of course, it has far too much history to absorb in one week and so we narrowed our focus to the Gullah-Geechee people.
The Gullah are descendents of slaves who arrived during the 1700s and 1800s in the Lowcountry and developed their own language and traditions, the foundations of which are in west African nations. They are known for their ironwork, basket-making, cuisine and language.
I spent some time talking with Alphonso Brown of Gullah Tours and Gullah interpreter Alada Shinault-Small, and the result is this Montreal Gazette article, which was published Feb. 6, 2010:
Sullivan’s Island, at the mouth of Charleston Harbour, is often called the Ellis Island of the South.
It is estimated that more than 40 per cent of the nearly 700,000 slaves brought by ship to the United States arrived at Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina between the early 1700s and 1860. Many were bought to work in the state’s Lowcountry, or coastal counties. Their experience growing rice in their native Africa would help the burgeoning production of Carolina gold.
Transported from coastal areas of west Africa – where countries such as Gambia, Angola and Sierra Leone now stand – they brought a rich culture, rich voices and art that endures today, celebrated by their descendants, the Gullah-Geechee people. The U.S. National Park Service in 2007 recognized a Gullah corridor stretching 1,000 kilometres from Wilmington, N.C., to Jackson, Fla., and from the Atlantic Ocean to about 50 kilometres inland.
At Boone Hall Plantation, 18 kilometres northeast of Charleston, Gullah interpreter Alada Shinault-Small speaks softly but with authority as she presents artifacts of a slave’s life: a squash, netted with beads, becomes an instrument, or it is carved into a bowl or scoop. She has indigo seeds and rice and raw cotton, which children, with their small hands, would be given the task of seeding. She opens a red-leather-bound Bible translated into Gullah.
Shinault-Small says the Creole-based language, heavily influenced by the vernacular of the coastal southern United States, Caribbean and west Africa, was developed by early slaves as a way to survive.
“These people were not allowed to learn to read and write and were ingenious enough, through their displacement and culture shock, to create a vehicle for oral expression,” she says.
Gullah-Geechee allowed themselves to be stigmatized or shamed by their “broken English” and customs, Shinault-Small says. People now might not even know they are speaking Gullah: the local patois is infused with Gullah words and other Southernisms.
“It has evolved – or devolved – with time and technology,” she explains. Shinault-Small is animated as she attributes the rejuvenation of the culture to a fresh appreciation of the history of black people. “In the spirit of inclusiveness, as contributions and involvement of African-Americans began to be taken more seriously, people began to celebrate and get rid of distortions of history. It is no longer ignored, deleted, distorted.”
Veteran storyteller Alphonso Brown, owner and operator of Gullah Tours, says that while the Gullah were ridiculed for their language, they learned English to fit in.
“Gullah was recognized as a language in 1939,” he says, “but no one told us. It was like we had a horse, but we’d rather have a tractor. Then you all keep messing up the language so bad, we don’t know what to do.”
Word for word, Gullah is a familiar language. Chicken is “poolet” and “hankuh” is a longing. Brown gives many more examples: If a girl’s granny says: “Where your frock tail goin’?” she can assume her skirt’s hemline is too high. If the granny accuses her of gossiping and the girl is sure she hasn’t, she might say: “I dinna crack my teet!”
The Gullah have also influenced Charleston’s architecture. Red roofs are said to offer God’s protection, and the city is filled with roofs a warm rust colour. Blue also is said to protect against evil, and Brown points out splashes on doorways or stairs, and says older ladies in the city can be seen wearing blue hats, especially on Sunday.
He notes the Circular Church – founded in 1681, burned and rebuilt in 1861 – has only soft edges “because the devil lives in corners.”
“People always ask me where they can see slave houses,” he goes on. “I say: You can see ’em everywhere. You gotta know where to look. The realtors don’t call them slave houses. They call them carriage houses.”
They are small homes between and behind the great columned houses of central Charleston. Their covered porches face southeast, away from the hottest glare of the sun. It is thought this design originated with the first black residents of the South.
“Who knows better about keeping outta the sun than them Africans?” Brown asks.
Some of the swankier, multimillion-dollar homes that overshadow the slave houses sport ornamental Simmons gates. Philip Simmons, who died in July at age 97, was an ironworker. His work can be seen at the Smithsonian. His gates – with their tight, close swirls and fish symbols representing Christ – are so finely crafted that one Charleston woman is said to have been loath to pass through hers. The snakes on it were too realistic.
As with Simmons’s gates, other functional items such as their fishing nets, quilts and baskets have come to be regarded as decorative art.
Gullah-Geechee baskets are based on a west African design, bound with local materials like sweetgrass and bulrushes. Artisans set up shop on street corners throughout Charleston, chatting with each other and sewing, their wares – from great wide baskets down to tiny wreaths with bright red bows – spread out around them.
The baskets are priced according to how many hours of work have gone into making them, Brown says. To get the best price, he advises buying in the evening, when the artisans are packing up to go home. The binding on the basket should be vertical and no part should sag when held with thumb and forefinger.
Brown recounts a cautionary tale told him by basketmaker Joseph Foreman: if a woman’s husband comes home late at night and he doesn’t have a good excuse, the story goes, she should pick up a basket and “hit him over the head, and if he don’t drop, you don’t got a good basket.”
IF YOU GO:
Charleston will honour African-Americans throughout February, Black History Month. Go to explorecharleston.com for a complete list of special events, including Sweetgrass Baskets: Hands-On History at the Charleston Museum.
Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tours takes visitors on a historical, hysterical ride through Charleston. Reservations are suggested. Details: gullahtours.com.
Boone Hall Plantation offers Gullah presentations and tours of the plantation house and slave quarters. Details: boonehallplantation.com.
The Old Slave Mart Museum, at 6 Chalmers St., is housed in a building where slaves were sold by auction. The museum’s focus is the interstate slave trade and the history of the building itself. Call 843-958-6467.
She-Crab soup, gator tails and grilled or fried catfish are just some of the traditional dishes at Gullah Cuisine. The small, homey restaurant is filled with Gullah art. Details: gullahcuisine.com.
Using public transit affords travellers a citizens’-eye view of Charleston and surrounding area. The CARTA system of large and small buses and trolleys is affordable ($1.50 to $2.50 a ride) and, with the Flex-route plan, travellers can arrange for pickup and dropoff at their hotels outside Charleston centre. Large city buses have bike racks on the front. Detailed schedules are available for every route, but buses often run late. Details: ridecarta.com.
GULLAH IS BASED ON ENGLISH WITH INFLUENCES FROM AFRICAN LANGUAGES
A strictly oral language until relatively recently, Gullah (pronounced GULL-uh) is spelled phonetically and there is some room for interpretation. Here are some examples of the language.
bad mout’ – a spell, a form of curse.
bauk’up – breaking, broken; “brukfoot man” is a man with a broken leg.
Chaa’stun – Charleston, also called Town.
crack ‘e teet – cracking his or her teeth, meaning opened their mouth to speak.
flabuh – flavour. “Da’ buckruh’ hogmeat flabuh me mout’ ‘tell uh done fuhgit uh hab sin fuhkill’um” can be translated as “That white man’s pork flavoured my mouth so that I forgot the sin I committed in killing the hog.”
hitch – hitch, also for marrying
‘miration – wonder, astonishment
Nyankee – Yankee
please kin – Please can, a redundancy, as: “please kin gimme”
shout – Frenzied outcries of a religious devotee; a plantation dancing festival frequently accompanied by beating sticks on the floor
From The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast,
While Melani and Trevor went to the Ripley’s Aquarium, Kendra and I got lost, found our way along (I swear to God) Iron Man Lane, and did some damage at the local thrift shops. Lunch was at Benjamin’s Seafood Calabash, where the buffet was about the size of our apartment. After loading up my plate, I went back to our table to find Trev making these noises:
“Meow *chew chew* Meow *chew chew*.” He looked up at me with one eyebrow raised. “Catfish. Meow meow! *chew chew*.” He then drank half a glass of water: “Drowned it. Oh no, wait – it’s a cat fish! Meow …” Strange child I have.
Melani and Trevor did the Ripley’s Museum, then we put both kids in the Ripley’s Mirror Maze. While Mel and Kendra went into the Ripley’s 4D theatre, Trev and I went over to the pizza joint for coffee. They only had instant, but I told the guy I’d take it anyway. Black.
“Just sugar?” “No, no sugar. Just straight up.” “Oh yeah, I hear ya,” he says.
It took forever for the water to boil. Maybe because we were watching it. When he finally brought it to me, he said: “You be careful now, that’s real hot.” “It’s okay,” I assured him. “I can take it hot.”
He looked me up and down in that way. “I hear ya, baby. I hear ya.”
Waiting for the two to come out of the theatre, I sat next to a man who had six brothers and three sisters. He and five of his brothers were military. “One couldn’t. He had curvature of the spine, you know, he was handicapped. He tried to sign up, but they wouldn’t let him.” My new friend had been in the navy his whole life, through the Second World War, through Korea and through Vietnam. He was on boats for all but seven years of his military career.
“Two of the boats I was in were bombed,” he said.
“And you kept going.”
“Yes, ma’am. My mother said that the day we entered the military, she put us in God’s hands. There was one time I came real close. I was in a Jeep driving from Marble Mountain toward Da Nang. Those Jeeps weren’t easy, mind, they bounced all over. I was driving along, coming up to a bridge, and I had my rifle right here on the seat beside me. I went over a bump and my rifle fell down. I just reached down to get it, and when I straightened back up, there was a bullet hole right here –” He points to the air right in front of his forehead.
“Someone was looking out for you,” I said.
“Oh yes, oh yes. I still think about it.” He’s not looking at me anymore, but somewhere in front of him, where the bullet came from. “I have a dreams about that, you know. I think about it.” After a pause: “All of us came back okay. My sister says: ‘One of us will have to bury the other nine.’ One of us will have to bury nine. Four of my brothers are gone – we buried one on Saturday. I hope I’m not the one who has to bury the nine.”
We brought walkie-talkies with us, so when Trevor ran ahead through the swampland toward the beach, I said into my talkie: “Boy, when an alligator starts gnawing its way up your leg, be sure to press the Talk button so we can hear every scream.” Cuz that’s how our family rolls.
We spent the day at the Huntingdon Beach State Park. Fantastic. Beautiful. And devoid of tourists, on account of how early in the season it is and how very chilly (it made it up to about 10 degrees in the sunshine this afternoon).
At the education centre, they have two baby alligators just hanging out, plus a petting tank with a stingray. The animator brought out a corn snake for the kids to touch and let them hold turtles. It was like having our own private tour; it made swamp education fun.
We saw two alligators in their natural habitat, a turtle or two and a mink ran across the causeway in front of our car. None of us are sunburned, but we’re rather sand-washed and all exhausted.