If the long ride from Richmond to the St. Stephen Motel in South Carolina showed us what the current South is all about (or at least aspects of it), Charleston and Savannah showed us what the old South was about.
Covered in gorgeous colonial homes and elaborate old cemeteries, these two cities are both breathtakingly beautiful and also morally ambiguous. They are at once odes to a glorious ante-bellum past and places that have no way to explain away the realities that underlay that culture—slavery.
Plaques all around the city discuss the wealthy owners of these homes, but only allude to the many slaves responsible for maintaining them. The signs present the realities of the pre-war past as fact, but use no subjective language to actually describe it. In Charleston, for example, we visited the Old Slave Mart, a museum explaining the domestic slave trade that once took place in that building in Charleston. The exhibit presented the fact that white people bought black people from “traders” to work as slaves in their fields or homes—a process that involved the inspecting and auctioning of human beings—but they never quite relate this experience to the beautiful homes that the people on horse-and-buggy tours of historic Charleston were taking pictures of right outside.
|The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC.|
|An old home in Savannah, GA.|
America is currently, supposedly, a united country, but the question of what we are celebrating and who, exactly, we are commemorating is still very much unclear.
While Charleston and Savannah were both cities grappling with the past, however, our accommodations for those nights were anything but traditional. In Charleston, we stayed at the Not-So-Hostel—true to its name, an alternative hostel that offers travelers a space to camp in the backyard for ten dollars, but still use the house's amenities. In Savannah, we tried “couch surfing” for the first time with a spunky girl from Kansas who amazed us with her welcome of complete strangers. Other than the two large dogs we had to compete with for space in the living room, it was a great experience that we are definitely hoping to try again.
|The kitchen in the Not-So-Hostel (Charleston)|
|Ricky with Petunia, one of our neighbors while couchsurfing.|
“In my country,” said VJ, a native of Goa, India, “We have rules, but they are not followed. Here, everybody stands in line and does what they are told.”
His impressions of America as a law-abiding, docile place might be true to some extent, but it came as a particularly interesting revelation in light of a weeks-worth of learning about the extreme violence that resulted from a country that was anything but well-behaved.
Another teacher from Ghana mentioned that he expected Americans to be snobbish, but they were in fact quite nice. (I wanted to point him to New York or LA in order to provide counter-examples, but I decided against it.)
The point is, though, that while I may ask these questions to foreigners expecting to get some kind of single-sentence response, I myself don’t know where to begin on my impressions of America. America is a highly complex country that cannot be adequately described or explained in one or two sentences. In just the East Coast leg of our trip (the first week out of sixteen), Ricky and I have encountered several types of Americans, most of whom have little in common with one another. We have moved from cars with Obama bumper stickers to motels with “marriage=man + woman” signs; from “Go Green” license plates to gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and storefronts with signs ensuring customers that they’re “American-owned.”
We have encountered several Americans, and more precisely, several Americas. And it’s only just the beginning. We have several more Americas to seek and discover.