Note: Sorry this post is way behind. I would blame the lack of WiFi in the apartments, but in truth we’ve just always been up and going and I haven’t had much time to process my thoughts after jotting them down every night. More to come soon on my adventures this past week!
On Wednesday the 15th around noon, I hugged my parents goodbye and hit the road for Conway. Most of my packing was already done, as I had simply not unpacked in the two weeks I had been home from college. Hey, once in a while, laziness does pay. The drive wasn’t bad, probably because I bypassed most of Myrtle Beach, and the weather was sunny and gorgeous all the way – just the kind I’d been dreaming about for nearly this whole past semester. I arrived in Conway in the early afternoon, greeted by a few of my friends who were already getting settled in, as well as by even more heat and humidity than had I left in Wilmington (though after visiting the desert this spring, I’m not going to complain).
The apartments we’re housed in are clean, relatively new, and huge, especially compared to my dorm room in Blackwell this past year. (Shout-out to Jenny, our awesome Associate Director, for getting the maintenance people to fix my chirping smoke alarm, thus preserving my last few shreds of sanity!) I’m sharing a 2-bedroom apartment with Billy. The neighborhood is comically cookie-cutter–there are about two dozen completely symmetrical, exactly alike buildings scattered around a retention pond–but it’s pretty quiet, with sidewalks and trees on the periphery. My only real complaint so far is that WiFi is virtually unusable, so weak and intermittent is the signal. Hopefully this will be fixed soon. Overall, a pretty nice place to live.
Once everyone had arrived, we headed over to the Activities House for some pizza and a chat about living together, general business, and our schedule for the next couple of weeks. We also got to wish Jenny a happy BN birthday (a few days late, which is right on schedule for us), and to meet Conswella, our site coordinator for the summer. Afterward, several of us went to WalMart to get some household items for our apartments. When we returned, we watched He’s Just Not That Into You together, our first movie night of the summer. I was fighting a headache and drowsiness the entire time; I think moving in and disturbing the dust may have aggravated my allergies.
Thursday morning, we had another meeting about our plans for the summer. In the afternoon, we headed over to the county government center for the Horry County Historic Preservation Awards. It was a relatively brief ceremony honoring various agencies (and their people) in the community who work for historical preservation. The vast majority of these dealt with cemeteries, prompting me to reflect more on the importance of preserving life stories. Although a headstone can provide some important genealogical information (as well as Veteran status, which was consistently noted in the presentation), it can scarcely begin to tell of its referent’s major life experiences. Cemeteries are reminders that our time to tell our stories, much like our time to live them, is limited, adding to the sense of importance with which I view our documentation work here (particularly with regard to oral histories). Something else I noticed in the presentation was that what I know as the Civil War was always referred to as the Confederate War, perhaps indicating a different perspective on that unfortunate part of history than the one I’m used to. The ways we choose to entitle our histories can certainly speak to our construals of them. This is something I’ll have to bear in mind when doing research here.
Immediately after the ceremony, we followed Walter Hill to the old Burroughs School, which is where the Horry County Museum, where I’ll be working to create an exhibit on local Gullah heritage, is currently moving. Walter Hill, my supervisor, gave us a tour of the premises – we got to see the galleries in progress, the artifact storage room, and the auditorium. The museum showcases the history, prehistory and natural history of Horry County (which has historically been known as the “Independent Republic” for its isolation early in its existence as a County). Walter explained how this area, and much of the South in general (except for places like Charleston), has found historical preservation difficult. Buildings here, like the Burroughs School, historically have not been built with big money, high-quality materials or the intention of permanence. We’ve always been replacing them with newer, bigger, flashier buildings. Thankfully, this building will be an exception to that rule.
Walter also said something that jumped out at me as we all stood on the stage of the auditorium: “Most people don’t really know what a museum is.” He discussed how kids might come in thinking that a museum is a place about dinosaur fossils, or how adults might come in and expect to see artwork. In reality, he said, a museum can be a keeper of any number of different things. Walter’s first statement kept me thinking. What is the essence of a museum? I wondered to myself if museum is derived from the word muse. I later looked it up: my dictionary (i.e. Dictionary.com) lists the origin of the word as Latin for “place sacred to the Muses”. So perhaps, using one definition of “muse”, a museum can be defined as a place where people go to be inspired. I can only wonder how I’ll be inspired by what I find at the museum this summer, and I’m glad that Walter asked that simple question now so that I have a better idea of what my job is with the exhibit.
Upon finishing the tour of the museum, we had about an hour before we were due at the L.W. Paul Living History Farm (an arm of the Museum) for a reception of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. The timing couldn’t have been better – right as we arrive in Conway, the Commission gathers for a meeting here. In our free hour, some of us went back to the apartments while others, myself included, went to look for a cup of coffee. We found it at J&J Cafeteria, a charming restaurant established in 1955. I was immediately enamored by the character of the place – friendly waitstaff who encouraged us to “come make [our]selves at home,” authentic wall decorations with the themes of cars, farms and this wonderful town, and generations of diners enjoying each other’s company. It seems to be a favorite of the locals’, and I expect that it will be one of ours, too.
At 7, just as the sun was setting, we met at the Farm for a dinner of Pirlo (sp.?), a dish containing rice and meat that Walter had told us about, to welcome the commissioners. Several were there, including Ron Daise and Veronica Gerald, who was a pleasure to finally meet (she’s a professor at Coastal Carolina and one of our key contacts in the area). I also met Mayor Allys Lawson and Michael Leinwand (who will be my supervisor at the City Planning Department) and a bunch of other great folks. Dinner was good – teamed up with fellow vegetarian Chaarushi, and we made it through the line just fine since everything was self-serve. I had potato salad and cornbread for dinner, with banana pudding for dessert. The Pirlo and gumbo both looked really good, though. Sat at a picnic table outside with 4 other BNs, plus a guy from Conway (whose name regrettably escapes me at the moment) and Sylvia, a commissioner from my wonderful hometown of Wilmington who used to teach at Hanover and Hoggard but is now retired. After dinner we looked around the farm a little. I guess we could call tonight our first immersive Gullah experience.
When we got back to the apartments, I found that I had to take a shower before bed because I felt so sticky from the heat and humidity outside. It feels like we’ve been here so much longer than a day and a half already, and yet I know this summer will be over before I know it. I’m already in love with this place.
Friday morning, we attended the Commission meeting at Cherry Hill Baptist Church in Conway. Much of the morning consisted of the commissioners handling their more mundane business items, but after a few hours they announced that the Management Plan, a longtime work in progress, had been officially approved by the Secretary of the Interior–a huge milestone. Shortly thereafter, our group made a brief presentation about why we’re here and what we’re doing, explaining how each of our internships supported the main goals of the newly-approved Management Plan: Education, Preservation/Documentation and Economic Development. The few people who have been cold to the Corridor’s partnership with us seem to be thawing; a number of people who had serious objections have grown to embrace it. Commissioner Clark addressed our group, explaining how he had spoken extensively with another commissioner who had been adamantly opposed to our group partnering with the corridor and how she had come to be in full support of us. It all functioned as a good pep talk before we start our internships. It’s truly humbling to know there are already people here who believe in us so much.
We had lunch at the commission meeting–pirlo, gumbo, fried and baked chicken, green beans (with pork), cornbread and collards. Thus, it was one of the more difficult meals for me to negotiate so far; fortunately, my fellow vegetarian Chaarushi and I are still teaming up at meals like these, so at least I don’t have to awkwardly explain myself alone.
Following lunch, we came back to the apartments and had a final group meeting to share our perceptions of the community and the overall feel here up to this point. We discussed how the community is receiving us: the general consensus is that most of the people we’re getting to know are as happy as we are that we’re here, which is a huge blessing. Then we said farewell to Jenny and had some down time in the afternoon. I went grocery shopping with Quinn. Food is expensive! In the evening we all gathered in one of the upstairs rooms to start of something called “interviews” that Julianna is asking us all to do–basically, one person tells his or her entire life story, and then the rest of us can ask questions at the end. First up was Zack tonight; each of us will eventually get a turn. I think this will be a good way to get to know each other better, although it does have the potential to get exhausting (which has everything to do with the sheer length of time required to tell anyone’s life story). It will also be good practice for documenting community members’ oral histories.
On Saturday morning, we split into two groups of seven for a tour of Conway as seen from the Waccamaw River. I went on the 10:00 tour with Chaarushi, Suqi, Alyssa, Rifat, Billy and Kaighn. And our knowledgeable guide, Captain Jim, of course. It was a very relaxing ride on the 21-foot electric boat down the Waccamaw as well as onto Kingston Lake and into cypress-covered creeks and backwaters draped with spanish moss. Jim kept talking about all the snakes (including water moccasins) and alligators in the water and creeping around the trees; I leaned in a little further under the boat’s roof every time he mentioned them. We saw several magnificent old homes along the river, guarded by the soaring live oaks known locally as “Conway’s oldest citizens”.
Once the tour was over, we went on a self-guided walking tour of downtown. First we stopped at Dr. Veronica Gerald’s store, Ultimate Gullah, across the street from the Visitors’ Center and Kingston Presbyterian Church. Then we decided to look around in search of lunch. On the way to nowhere in particular, we stumbled upon the farmers’ market, which was still open but clearing out for the day. I bought some all natural, eco-friendly soap that has a really interesting design with several colorful planet-like spheres. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find this kind of hippie-ish product in a small town in South Carolina; sometimes I worry that I bring prejudices into places that are different from the one where I grew up, and it’s so nice when those are disproven as I get to actually know a place. Anyhow, buying the soap still made me feel bad for turning down the nice lady who was selling goat milk soap just across the market, even though goats just gross me out. But hey, I guess they call it a market for a reason. Continuing around Conway, we ate at the K.C. Deli (and give it our seal of approval). As we continued walking we noticed all the “sweaters” knitted onto the trees. All are brightly colored and add some flair to downtown; some have more elaborate decorations, like monkeys, flowers, ladybugs, birds’ nests, you name it. We even found some umbrella stands that had these sweaters, disproving our early hypothesis that they were intended to keep the trees warm. (Kidding. Kind of.) Suqi and I looked in a quiet small-town department store called Abrams, which has an extensive stock of Southern Tide, Barbie collectibles and Department 56 merchandise. I hope that the fact that this kind of place can still thrive in Conway is an indication of a healthy downtown commercial environment.
In the afternoon we came back to the apartments for a while. Some of us went to the Blue Crab Festival all the way out in Little River–I passed on that one. In the meantime, I went with Alyssa, Suqi and Chaarushi to Kroger for WiFi (internet still doesn’t work here in the apartments). I wrote home and started setting up the blog, and then Chaarushi and I walked around the store, which felt like it was about five degrees above freezing. We decided to make West African Ground Nut Stew–one of my favorite recipes that I got from my mom–and bought what I thought was all the necessary ingredients I didn’t have. After getting back to cook and a couple of extra trips to the store, I think we pulled it off pretty well. (For my part, I ate the heck out of it.) My hope is to make it as a group meal some time. Billy’s and my apartment was this afternoon’s hub of activity for dinner, puzzle assembly, Bananagrams and conversations. After things had settled down a bit I finally got to call home for a little while and update the folks. Then we went to a showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was fun, even though I’ve never seen Star Trek.
Sunday morning, we all went to church at St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist on the other side of Conway. This is where Conswella goes; she was there with her husband, Aaron, and their almost-two-year-old daughter. I had privately been having reservations about the BNs all going to church together; many in the group are not religious, and I don’t think there’s anyone who is Missionary Baptist. I feared that our attendance would therefore be somewhat spurious. A church is quite inherently sacred to its members, and the fact that today’s worship would hold varyingly lesser degrees of significance for each member of our group bothered me. I think church should be something we go to because we believe there is something spiritual to find there. I didn’t want us to go in as if we were there to study the people and their rituals like specimens, which would seem to me to desecrate that worship experience. In actuality, though, I was relieved to find that the church service wasn’t nearly so uncomfortable. Shortly beforehand, the job of explaining why we are here to the congregation was reassigned to me, and at the beginning of the service we all went to the front of the sanctuary and Tom and I spoke briefly (helped by Conswella). A few congregants spoke up and expressed gratitude that we are here; one woman recognized us from the commission meeting on Friday. When we sat down, the preacher began to speak, wearing an unequivocally joyful expression on his face. Surveying the congregation, he declared that it was how the Kingdom of Heaven would look– “all these different kinds of faces”. I was so glad to feel so welcome and accepted that I stopped questioning the authenticity of the experience.
After church, which was almost two hours, we went to a nearby fish place called Freshwater, a small place with a heart-stopping array of fried foods. Chaarushi and I got grilled cheeses. I heard Conswella’s husband mention that he is a vegetarian, which is pretty neat, and also means that Conswella probably knows how to negotiate vegetarian challenges here–definitely a plus. At the restaurant, we said farewell to Charlie, thus ending our orientation here. Now it’s time for the real deal.
The afternoon was pretty free. Tomorrow I start my internship at the City of Conway’s Planning Department. Orientation has gone really well, and I already feel like I’ve learned so much. So far, I’m having a great time!