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Published: September 20th 2010
Welcome to America....
... fresh from the cargo ship into the Wholefoods Market
(photo by Michael Murray)
So now, after gliding over the ocean for two weeks, I am in the United States of America. It’s a strange, almost surreal feeling. And I have to admit that part of me doesn’t even want to be here. I am half-tempted to stay on board of MSC Ilona and go all the way to the Bahamas and Mexico with my lovely Filipino crew. If it wasn’t for my study place in New Mexico, the reason I came here for in the first place...
When I climb down the wobbly gangway at Charleston harbour, it is extremely hot and humid. Again my hands get messy with black machine oil. A feeling of nostalgia comes over me when I remember scrambling up the same gangway a mere two weeks ago. Just opposite our ship is the tiny Seaman’s Mission and I arrange a lift with the somewhat stressed Chaplain to the harbour gate at 1pm. He is busy driving seafarers to town and back all day, and worries how he is going to get it all done. But before I leave, he suddenly opens his arms out wide and pulls me into a warm bear hug. Surprised, I look up at
the tall, grey-haired man who had been so reserved mere moments ago. ‘We give hugs here!’ he tells me with a smile. ‘Great!’ I reply, ‘I needed one!’
I clamber into his Mission van with some of our crew, and off we go. The Chaplain drops me at the gate, where I say goodbye to the crew and wait for my local Couchsurfing host to pick me up. Couchsurfing () is a fab initiative in which travellers and aspiring travellers offer each other a free place to stay in their homes. A few weeks ago, I connected in this way with Michael Murray, a Charleston resident, who kindly offered to host me during my first few days in the USA. It feels really nice to have a local person to meet up with, especially since I’m going to live over here for a while.
Michael picks me up from the gate. I like him immediately. He’s a blonde and blue-eyed musician with a van-full of equipment and an adorable dog called Rosie. I like him even more when he suggests that we visit a Wholefoods Supermarket to stock up on food before we go back to his house.
Now this totally throws me and my stereotypical expectations of America. Instead of McDonald’s and Walmart, here’s a huge store filled with fresh organic fruit, vegetables and any type of organic, vegan, vegetarian yummy foods you could ever desire. I’m thrilled. What an introduction to Charleston and my new life in the USA!
It gets better. Michael lives in the historic downtown part of Charleston, the place ‘where everybody wants to live’, apparently. I soon see why. Charleston, one of the earliest English colonial towns, is simply one of the most magnificent places I have ever seen, full of fine, old-style Georgian buildings with lavish porches, ornate windows, neat gardens and wrought-iron lanterns at the gates. Horses and carts filled with tourist go through the stylish streets here - it’s pretty impressive. Of course, most of the wealth has a history of slavery: Charleston was the major point of entry for Africans brought to America in the eighteenth century. Approximately three out of four enslaved Africans came to America through this port city. Charleston is also known as the Holy City because of it's many churches, and for the fact that it was one of the few cities in
the original thirteen colonies to provide religious tolerance, albeit restricted to non-catholics.
Michael’s beautiful, spacious house is tucked away in a romantic little square, a stone’s throw from the Battery park and the water front. Downtown, the wide shopping streets of Charleston are lined with museums, antiques, art shops and little boutiques, plus countless bars and food places. Apart from churches, there are also parks and graveyards. A funny thing that contrasts with this grandeur is the smell of urine that periodically wafts into my nose as I walk along the pretty streets: apparently that’s from the horses.
The next day is Saturday, and Michael takes me to a great Farmer’s Market full of local fruit, vegetables and other food treats, and then to lunch at a wonderful place called Alluette’s Cafe (). It’s a small, quirky place run by the lovely Alluette, and though not strictly vegetarian (their main thing is that they don’t serve pig’s meat because of a Bible verse), they are vegetarian- and vegan friendly, and place emphasis on organic and natural foods. Alluette prepares all her food freshly with love and care. I can really taste it: I eat the most delicious vegan
black bean burger ever, served with fresh salad and hand-made chips (or fries, as they call them here).The burger is served on crispy pitta bread, and looks as good as it tastes. African art is on display throughout the cafe, mixed with alternative health books and herbal teas. It’s a great place to come and chat, hang out, and eat. If you are in Charleston, make sure you visit.
It’s here that Michael suggests that we go to a Snake Handling Service at Pentecostal Church the next day. ‘Snake Handling Service?!’ I enthuse. ‘Wow!’ I’ve seen a documentary about this once - a particular strand of Pentecostal Christians, primarily from the South, handle live rattlesnakes during their lengthy services as a proof of their faith. According to a Bible verse (yes, they are big here!), a true believer will not be bitten by the snake, though in reality people have died during these services. Unfortunately, we don’t get to go to the service, as the nearest one to Charleston has closed down and the next one is about six hours drive away. We’re both gutted!
Instead, we visit Angel Oak (), an ancient tree (believed to be in
A shag in America means something different than in England, apparently....
... it's a dance and they even have 'Adult Shag Nights'
(photo by Michael Murray)
excess of 1500 years old!). She is an incredible 65ft tall and 25ft wide. It’s a very magical place. Angel Oak’s large sweeping, leaf-covered branches hang gracefully from her immense trunk like tentacles of the Medusa’s head. I want to climb into them and let myself be held by those mighty arms. This would be a great place to come to at night, when all is quiet, for meditation and ritual. We sit near her for some time and have a picnic.
After that, we visit Folly Beach (the ‘other side’ of the Atlantic Ocean) and bathe in the warm waves at sunset. It’s almost too beautiful to be believed, with the sun drenching the sea in golden and orange colours, and the silvery New Moon and stars appearing synchronously. Tall waves arise from time to time and crash against us, and more than once make me fall over. I feel the strong presence of Yemaja, Goddess of the Ocean, and send my blessings and prayers across her waters to MSC Ilona and my friends back home. We dry off in the warm night air by walking for miles through the sand and talking about life and travel.
On Monday, my last day in Charleston, I meet two kindred spirits. Scotti is a local intuitive medium and a friend of my Priest of Avalon brother Steve from England, and he has hooked us up. She and her business partner Dakota () pick me up in a black convertible and we have lunch together. They’re both very interesting women who have just teamed up to open a holistic healing place together, and both very kindly introduce me to friends in Chicago (where I’m going soon ) as well as in New Mexico and Arizona. I’m sad that I don’t get to spend more time with Scotti and Dakota, as they also practice kirtan and fire ceremonies and other fascinating things..... next time!
That evening, I go and watch Michael play the piano at the swanky Charleston Place Hotel. He’s great and plays a fantastic Charleston, the famous 1920’s dance that originated here (my obsession since I came to this town - I even ask Alluette’s colleague to dance it for me!). And after that, we go to a weekly musicians’ night, where Michael and a group of friends jam together on guitar, harmonica, contrabass, drums and ukulele. It’s
Two Charleston Goddesses....
... and their convertible broomstick
great to see so many talented musicians play together, and a fantastic way to say goodbye to Charleston. Though I didn’t see a vast amount of it, Charleston seems a vibrant, versatile place I’d love to visit again sometime.
Michael, who is also planning to go off and travel the world soon, has been an excellent and most gracious host. Thanks so much, Michael, you’ve made my entry into the USA very smooth and enjoyable. And one thing I particularly like about you is that you walk on the left side of the road to risk getting hit by a car first - and that you open car doors for women! Wonderful - keep it up!
I'm off to Washington D.C. next on the Amtrak train.... more about that experience in my next article!
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