Saturday, March 16, 2013

Charmed - a travel journal (Part 3)

Day 3. Wonderful sunshine again. We made time for breakfast before meeting a tour guide at one of the squares for an architectural walking tour of Savannah. The guide was a SCAD graduate and was able to translate complex architectural concepts into layman’s terms. He showed us old drawings of how the city was originally planned and how it would have looked like when General Oglethorpe founded the city in 1733. The guide organized it in such a way that the tour followed the architectural styles on a timeline from the early colonial days to the current period, all replete with historical facts. It was fascinating. Not that I remember much of the architectural terms or details now and neither could I tell a colonial from a gothic revival, but it drew my attention to how anything old can tell a story all by its own, if you know how to read it.

When the tour ended right at the square by the Telfair museum, we decided to breeze through the art galleries. A collection of Italian renaissance art from the Uffizi gallery in Florence was housed in the Jepson Center, a modern LEED-certified structure that was all glass, natural light and sunshine (the tour guide had earlier pointed out that the LEED certification of this building didn't mean much if you considered the air-conditioning bills and the environmental cost of material sourced from far away). I wonder if good intentions count. Back to the art... browsing through these renaissance paintings it seemed to me that, ancient art, regardless of where they were from, were very symbolic and religious. Onto the modern art section - there was a series of high-tech displays by Hye Yeon Nam, a digital media artist from South Korea. It all seemed abstract at first, but her supplementary notes next to the displays explained what her intentions were. And it helped that I could relate to her theme - an immigrant’s experience and the feeling of displacement in a foreign place, culture and people.

The museum also housed the ‘bird girl’ from The Book. A graceful piece of art surrounded by a feeling of melancholy. It made it even more so when N commented on what was meant to be by someone’s tomb is now in a museum. For something a little less thought provoking, we mocked past a myriad of chairs in the chair museum. Other than some really old chairs from a different era, most of them looked less functional and more of a statement of art, which is probably why they were there. There was also a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures in a gallery with a two storey high ceiling. The most notable for me was a huge nineteenth century diptych called ‘A Parable’ by an Italian artist, Cesare Laurenti. It didn’t take N and me very long to figure out where in the bridge of life we found ourselves at the moment.

We had a 30 minute wait for a table at Soho South Cafe for lunch. The place was busy and looked funky and artsy. It was in a converted garage or maybe a carriage house. There was art for sale at the waiting area. Paintings of all shapes and sizes hung throughout the space. I was drawn to couple of beautiful paintings of a peacock that seemed somewhat out of place. The walls were all brightly colored and sprightly. It took a long time for the food to arrive, but the middle-eastern eggplant sandwich with olive tapenade was good and worth the wait. Reminiscing our younger days over the course of the meal, we realized we had just enough time to find a taxi ride to the Bonaventure Cemetery.

We had about half an hour to walk around the grounds of the cemetery. A very unfair amount of time to cover 60 acres of land and history. But we had to make the most of it and were glad that the taxi driver dropped us off at a section right by the Savannah river. Inadvertently we found ourselves by all the famous tombstones we came to see. It was Conrad Aiken’s for me. We didn’t sip Madeira watching the river from his perch, but I did nudge E to recite a few lines from his poem 'All lovely things' - 
All lovely things will have an ending, 
All lovely things will fade and die, 
And youth, that's now so bravely spending, 
Will beg a penny by and by...’ 
Nearby, there was a small group of older folks singing Johnny Mercer’s songs at his grave. A wonderful sight. We walked around, took a few pictures, admired the sculptures, gazed at the gnarly oaks, read the epitaphs and listened to the silence.

Back in downtown, we stopped for mass at the cathedral of St.John the Baptist. The interior was ornate and grand. The beauty of the stained glass windows, the blues, beige and gold walls and celestial art on the ceilings inspired awe and reverence for those architects, even if it did little to kindle any spirituality in me. N walked up to the front while the rest of us settled down discreetly as back-benchers. We went through the motions quietly. The Hymnal was beautiful, something I had always associated to a more austere setting. But I could close my eyes and pretend I was in a monastery and feel the urge to be still and meditate. It was all going well, when during a moment of utter silence, my phone rudely and loudly (helped by those wonderfully high vaulted ceilings) announced to the congregated pious that it was oh so running out of charge. I bent my head in shame and avoided any looks that came my way.

We stepped out from the cathedral onto one of the squares. It’s been a while since I spent any time in a setting that demanded reverence in movement and thought. It felt good to be out under the trees and the sky. We shared our impressions of the cathedral, the churches, the various denominations and the colorful priests and pastors we knew. All that talk of religion made us hungry - for some ice cream. There was a long line outside Leopold’s ice cream shop but we were determined to wait our turn to savour the wonderful flavours it promised. I was happy to find a delicious vegan treat.

Fully satiated and after a brief rest at the hotel we walked to Club One to watch Lady Chablis. I was a bit ambivalent about the show at the beginning - curious to see Lady Chablis in person after reading The Book and watching the movie but at the same time wondering if her ‘south of the respectable border’ kind of humour might be a bit much for my sensibilities. Oh what the heck. I had company and so I braced myself to take it all in stride. So what if the performers were drag queens, they were human beings after all. Although I must say, it was a relief that we found our places all the way at the back of the studio. No spotlights here for sure - except maybe for one scary moment when I involuntarily felt myself cringe closer to N’s side to avoid the lights and more importantly ‘Jasmine’.

Lady Chablis was as E described, 'classy'. It was her birthday show. She looked great for a 60 year old and didn’t seem to have changed much from when the movie was out a couple of decades ago. 
She was funny but not too racy. and the audience wasn't rowdy. They were a reassuring mix of young, old and in-between (in age and other sorts). I hoped that the other performers were as comfortable being there as Lady Chablis was. Except for a couple of them, everyone else seemed to be. We made our escape right after Lady Chablis’ final act. Stepping outside, we hovered around one of the performers who was on a break. To my pleasant surprise, I felt comfortable enough around her and although I wouldn’t know what to say, I felt like I was around a human being who deserved as much respect as anyone else.

Retiring to the hotel after that show felt lame, so we stopped at the Moon River brewing company one last time for a late dinner. Tired but reluctant to end the day the, we lingered over our meal as long as we could. By the time we were done, it was well past midnight but the streets were still pulsing alive in party mode - signs of a wild St.Patrick’s day weekend to come. An eclectic day and every minute of it was fun, but it was time to return to the hotel and catch some sleep.

Day 4. It is time to fly back. Another day of sunshine. We take our time with breakfast. And we start making plans for next year’s trip, looking up places to go. We are hopeful and happy that we will travel together again.

I have come to believe that how we travel is how we live our lives. That would explain my absorption with travel books, travel blogs and travelogues. I am constantly looking for insights from travelers that would clue me into being a better traveler and thus live a better life. The kind of travel I admire the most is a backpackers journey. To me, it is daunting to travel to a foreign place without the comfort and convenience of a cushy hotel and a tour package. It is exploring in its strictest sense. To gauge the pulse of the place with just a backpack takes gumption and requires the art of living in the moment. The two qualities I so woefully lack. S
ince I have never traveled alone, my perception of the journey, the place and the people depends so much on my travelling companions. Our trip to Savannah was by no means a backpacking journey, actually far from it. But I definitely tasted the feeling of being in the moment. And I did not even realize it until the journey was done.

Here is to friends, to books and to travel.

Charmed - a travel journal (Part 2)

Day two. Sunny day but a bit chilly. And a bit of a rough start for me as we didn’t have time for breakfast before we hopped on a trolley tour of Savannah. My foggy mind was slowly waking up to the sights and sounds of the city. But when Forrest Gump showed up unexpectedly at one of our stops with a box of chocolates, looking for Lieutenant Taylor, I perked up. The tour guide pointed out the landmarks and the layout of the city around 21 squares. He also was my first introduction to the southern drawl. The easy pace of the place reflected in his manner of speech. What he narrated in 90 minutes I could have rattled off in 15 minutes flat. But wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, now would it?

Once the tour ended, we didn’t waste any time looking for a place to eat. 'B Matthews' was another one of those popular, well-recommended restaurants. Busy and a bit hip, the food was excellent. They had vegan friendly items on the menu and for once, it was nice to have a choice. Their black eyed pea cake sandwich tasted good and was filling. That and three cups of coffee and a nice long chat revived me.

After lunch, we took a tour of the ‘Owens-Thomas House’. It's an old Regency style mansion built in the early nineteenth century by an English whiz-kid architect, William Jay, for one of the wealthy residents of Savannah. The docent walked us through the house and explained the history, the structure, the architecture and interesting tidbits about the many residents of the house interspersed by reminders to not lean in or touch anything. Photography was not allowed inside the building, so we had to take it all in and rely on our memory to reminisce. What impressed me most was the huge rainwater cisterns built into the building that provided water for the indoor plumbing. This was about two hundred years ago. Wow!!  The Greek symbols, the eye-pleasing symmetry, faux finishes (none of us could understand why), the large dining room with amber colored glass skylights and the beautiful shades of green, beige and pink in the women’s parlour were the highlights of the house. But the most we talked about after the tour was the ‘haint paint’ in the slave quarters - a shade of blue paint to ward off evil spirits.

Strolling around the many squares, we stepped into SCAD’s art store to browse. The paintings, handmade jewelry and knick-knacks were all a little too abstract and daring, not to mention expensive, for our inartistic eyes. So we walked out the store empty handed. G was on a quest to capture every interesting door we came across for a collage she is working on. Almost every house had them - doors of course, but interesting ones at that. We admired the houses, the iron gates and railings and small gardens in quaint little enclosed alleyways. Walking by the famous Mercer-Williams house, we could picture some of the events that happened there from The Book but none of us felt compelled to take a tour of the interiors. We were content to just walk around and observe everything that caught our eye.

Working our way to Forsyth Park we couldn’t help but appreciate the sunshine and the mild weather. The fountain at the park was spouting off water that was colored green in preparation for the city’s famous St.Patrick’s day celebrations the following weekend. The wide path leading up to the fountain was lined with live oaks and flowering bushes. Azaleas were in bloom everywhere. We did some people-watching from a park bench for a while - tourists clicking pictures, a couple doing yoga in the park, a newly married couple still in their wedding garb and a bunch of scallywags (as E called them) lounging around.

Time for our evening cuppa. We landed at a one-of-a-kind store called ‘The Salt’ that sourced tea from all over the world and sold an unusual product, Himalayan salt. The store owner was doing the rounds answering questions about the tea and the Himalayan-salt cutting boards. An ingenious idea for a cutting board! Talk about an eco-friendly product. I made a mental note to buy myself one in the near future. All quenched and feeling a wee-bit educated about the million flavours of tea, salt and spices, we meandered our way back to our hotel.

E had booked a table for us at 'The Olde Pink House' to celebrate N’s birthday. The restaurant was in an old Georgian mansion with a pink stucco exterior (hence the name) and tables set in rooms and in multiple floors, all still intact. Each room was done in a different color. We were seated in the purple room. A huge portrait of the ex-Lady of the house, Mrs.Habersham, was mounted on one of the walls, her eyes staring down at us. Despite the elegance, the place had somewhat of an eerie air to it. Maybe the spooky feeling came from listening to all those stories about the haunted bathrooms in the mansion. But it was easy to distract ourselves by indulging on the menu.

The birthday girl chose Malbec for a birthday toast. I had a delicious arugula salad with pecans, walnuts and strawberries with sweet potatoes and grilled mushrooms with balsamic sauce. G’s flounder warranted a mini ‘how-to’ from the waitress. E gave her pan seared salmon ‘the best salmon I had ever had’ award. And N chose a chicken dish. Dessert was rightfully decadent. My cup of fresh, succulent, hand-picked (or so it seemed) berries, wasn’t decadent but I devoured it nevertheless and washed it all down with some excellent coffee.

We rushed to the Savannah theatre just in time to watch ‘Jukebox journey’. The show was a nostalgic musical journey from the 1940s through the 60s. It was not a packed theatre but the audience was engaged and visibly enjoyed the music. Most of the songs were familiar but I could not place some of them. Despite that, I couldn't resist joining the audience in cheering and clapping to the music. It was very entertaining to watch these talented musicians perform on stage. There was a little skit in the show where this young, shy and nerdy couple seated in a restaurant are looking over the menu. The girl, with humongous glasses and a goofy snorty laugh says she is going to have the ‘filet mignon’ pronouncing every letter in those words. The guy, wearing glasses mended with white tape right smack on the bridge of his nose, corrects her, leaving out the ‘t’ in 'filet' but still pronouncing every letter in ‘mignon’. And so the girl, with a dismissive wave of her hand smiles and exclaims ‘Oawhh.. Spanish!’ It served as fodder for humour during our subsequent meals:-) 

When the show ended, we took our time walking back through the lighted squares stopping for a brief pow-wow at Tomochichi’s grave. Focus lights shining on the monument reached up to the trees and made them seem surreal. If only the trees could talk... 

We stopped for a nightcap at the Moon River Brewing company, a haunted (or so the guide books said) micro brewery that was right across from our hotel. The coriander flavored beer was good but an utter waste on me - would they find it ridiculous if I asked for the beer in a shot glass, you know just so I can sample it? I didn't find out. It was some time before we called it a day. And when everyone was in deep slumber and it was all dark and quiet, I was wired and spooked out from all those ghostly stories I'd heard through the course of the day. Now why didn’t they think of using haint paint on these walls?

Charmed - a travel journal (Part 1)

As any bookworm would attest to, books have the magic of transporting us to different worlds. This time though it transpired to be a bit more actual than imaginary. It started with my friend E’s recommendation that I read John Berendt’s  ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ (from here on referred to as ‘The Book’). She had skimmed past Savannah, GA during one of her travels and wanted to explore the city and the book happened to piqued her interest even more. She started hatching a plan for a girls-only trip to Savannah.

By the time our cozy group of four had read the book, we were all curious and eager to visit the place and see for ourselves what the book so beautifully described. A non-judgemental narrative about an actual murder trial that took place in the 1980s in downtown Savannah and the colorful characters who lived there at that time. To spin the happenings of a community and weave the characters and their lives as if it were a work of fiction I felt, required great talent. It captured what I understand to be the essence of Savannah - charming, friendly, intriguing, colorful and loaded with history. And so it came about - a trip to Savannah with friends E,G and N.  

And now, a little about my travelling companions:
E : Our trip planner. An energetic, thoughtful person and a travel buff who is my inspiration to get off my rear end and do instead of just dream. In preparation for our journey, she hosted a classy southern style dinner and a movie (based on The Book) at her place a couple of weeks before the trip. She took the time to research and draft a general itinerary.
G : Our funny bone. Her art commentary during museum visits is sidesplitting and will make you appear like a giggly teenager to museum guards. She has an uncanny knack for observing people and their quirks or should I say, spotting quirky people. And don’t let her cute gelasin fool you, I have heard she can have you in a headlock before you can say Jack Robinson.
N: Our navigator. She traveled the world since she was a student, actually experiencing the places in person when I was barely learning about them in books. Her calm and reassuring presence along with her efficient iPhone steered us well and saved us from getting lost whenever I read the map wrong or did not find the sun strategically positioned to orient me.  

It was getting closer to our vacation and though I was very excited about it, I could not shake off the feeling of guilt I had about taking time off from work and family for the trip with friends. But everyone at home was fine with me being away for four days and so I decided I will enjoy myself, learn a thing or two from my travel savvy friends and soak in some Savannah culture.

Day one. Our journey to Savannah was painless even with a two hour delay due to a ‘hydraulic leak’ when switching planes after a layover. Sounded ominous but mattered little as we were asked to hop on a hydraulically sealed one:-) The airport angst I usually feel when traveling was nearly non-existent. Must be the company.

It was still sunny when we landed in Savannah. The airport’s taxi stand with its brick facade, palm trees and a fountain framed with colorful pansies was a refreshing sight to our foliage starved Ohio eyes. A graceful sculpture of an angel in the centre holding a globe with tiny airplanes orbiting around it seemed fitting. Our taxi driver doubled as an introductory guide to Savannah, talking a mile-a-minute about the place, The Book and the people. Except me, everyone else knew how to engage a local in conversation. I was in awe. Note to adult self - it’s okay to talk to strangers. Soon after we dropped our bags in the hotel, we were out the door all fired up to explore the city and scout for a good restaurant for dinner.

The first thing that captured my attention were the trees that lined the streets - live oaks with spanish moss (which as one tour guide put it, is neither spanish nor moss) hanging on them. To actually see these trees with big gnarly branches that lent Savannah so much of its character in The Book was like going back in time. N navigated us to ‘Vic’s on the river’, a restaurant suggested by a local writer whom E had reached out to for recommendations. We spent the 40 minute wait for our table by strolling down the cobbled ballast stone ramps to the riverwalk nearby. R
emnants of a bustling port city now refurbished to house elegant riverfront restaurants, shops and hotels. Didn’t realize until after our city tour the next day that we had walked through old facilities were cotton was loaded, unloaded and graded. What was obvious to us though were the riverboats gliding down the Savannah river, the Talmadge bridge and the lights from Hutchinson Island, from across the river.

We spent about three hours enjoying the food, the ambiance and our open, honest and sometimes hilarious conversations. Even the loud stomping from a wedding party upstairs added to the atmosphere of fun elegance, if there indeed is such a thing. In the soft lights and candlelit tables, every dish on the menu looked appetizing. E, our connoisseur, chose the wine, a cabernet sauvignon that we didn’t have to pay a month’s salary for. Fried green tomatoes with goat cheese and tomato chutney seemed to be a southern staple and a must-try. Hmmm... now what’s this haricot vert? Sounds french. When the waitress explained that it was a fancy word for thin green beans, we decided to skip it, french allure notwithstanding. 

The seafood was fresh off of Savannah’s waters, except of course G’s salmon. It found it’s way to her plate all the way from Chile, if I remember right. My cooked salad greens with fingerling sweet potatoes tasted delicious. E and N’s delectable grouper left no room for dessert, however tempting the choices were. I, on the other hand was glad I did not have a choice. I can always make room for dessert. While we lingered over dinner, the crowd thinned towards closing time. The noise level died down and we could now actually hear the live music well enough to appreciate it. The dinner set the tone for our trip - great camaraderie in a wonderful southern setting.