Puerto Rico IV: Big News

She’s so fantastic. Super amazing.

Reading this week:

  • On the Missionary Trail by Tom Hiney
  • Simone by Eduardo Lalo
  • River of the Gods by Candice Millard

On our third day in Puerto Rico, we did wake up bright and early. Or earlyish anyways. During the trip we wanted to visit El Yunque National Forest, but pro tip for those that want to visit you need to get passes in advance and the correct time to do that is 30 days before you want to go, which is when the passes become available. A limited number are available the day before so we had to be ready and on our phones to snap up passes when they became available. We were ready and we did indeed snap up those passes.

By this point in our time in Puerto Rico we had managed to get a variety of Puerto Rican food for lunch, dinner, and even brunch, but we had not yet tackled the most important meal of the day. So for breakfast, on the suggestion of my super amazing girlfriend, we set out for a very cool old-fashioned diner named Mallorca where we got mallorcas, which are a Puerto Rican pastry that is apparently equally happy to be served with powdered sugar as it is to be served with ham, cheese, and powdered sugar. I opted for the straight powdered sugar version while my super amazing girlfriend got her mallorca with cheese and said she liked it.

Fueled, we were off for our next adventure, which was Castillo San Cristobal. I know a guy named Cristobal, so it was nice to finally check out his digs. Castillo San Cristobal is the other big fort in San Juan, the other one being El Morro which of course I covered last week. Our guidebook warned that if you visited both in the same day they might start to run together, what with them being two parts of the same interlocking city defense system, so we hadn’t done that.

While conceptually the two forts are pretty similar, we liked the vibe at Castillo San Cristobal a lot better. I think what it was is that it is more in the city. El Morro, as the name suggests, is out on a pointy point of land and it feels more like maybe you are out at sea or something. But Castillo San Cristobal is nestled firmly within Old San Juan, so as you look out you see the city and people and all that and it feels like you are in the midst of the hustle and bustle. But yeah like El Morro it has cannons and passages and I think we spent the largest chunk of our time hounding fellow tourists to take our picture. The single coolest part was probably in a dungeon-like area, where they had centuries-old graffiti of Spanish galleons, which is cool, but which had been drawn by “a Spanish captain held here to await execution for mutiny,” which is grim.

Leaving the Castille, we head back to our room to cool off and rehydrate and this was the most exciting part of the day, because my super amazing girlfriend found out she had finally been placed on the register for the foreign service!!!! This doesn’t mean she’ll be able to join the foreign service necessarily but it is a huge step and I am proud of her and she is the coolest person ever!!!!!!

To celebrate we got the hell out of San Juan. That’s not true, we had planned to leave anyways. My super amazing girlfriend had wanted to visit a rum distillery, and so we went to Ron del Barrilito in Bayamón. By visiting we actually missed the mark on the whole distillery thing, because they aren’t one, but oh well. To get over there we took the ferry, which cost an astoundingly cheap 50 cents and provided some fun views of the harbor if you weren’t too worried about leaving on a regular schedule. Ron del Barrilito is a Puerto Rican rum brand founded by an engineer with a fondness for port. What they do is take raw distillate, flavor it with dried fruit and the like according to their secret recipe, and then age it. We had a fantastic tour. We were the only two on it and our guide was a true Barrilito believer (he had a tattoo). We walked the grounds a little bit, looking at the outside of the house and the old windmill, then were brought into the bottling line and where the mix the distillate and everything, and then shown the aging warehouses which were of course filled with barrels. We learned some about the mixing process which I think is super impressive. A cocktail of your choice comes with the tour and it was great.

In the middle is the “Freedom Barrel,” which was barreled in 1952 and Ron del Barrilito says they’ll open up in the town square for everyone to drink when Puerto Rico gains its independence.

After enjoying the cocktail we head back to the ferry which we found out would not be leaving for like two hours. So we explored the waterfront there which was nice and watched two huge cruise ships pull into port. When we returned to Old San Juan we found it fairly packed but managed to find a quiet place for dinner, an experience only marred by the fact that a mango fell out of a tree and hit my super amazing girlfriend’s shoulder which really hurt her. Based on how delicious mangos are we both put aside any plots for revenge but this won’t be forgotten, mangoes. Also at some point we went to go see the tomb of Juan Ponce de León, again not thinking too deep about his legacy. All in all it was a fantastic day and we were left excited for our fourth day in Puerto Rico, which would see us break out of the confines of San Juan entirely.

The mortal remains of Juan.

Puerto Rico III: Mas Museos

Sun-kissed.

Reading this week:

  • Beautiful Swimmers by William W. Warner

Look I’m sorry to have cut you off on that cliffhanger last week. Normally it’s easiest to keep each day of a trip like ours to a blog post, but we’re only halfway through our second day. You see, my super amazing girlfriend and I, if you can’t already tell from my many many blog posts, are Museum People. We go to museums. We kept meaning to hit up a beach in Puerto Rico, and we brought our bathing suits and everything, but we kept going to museums because that is what we like to do. We are extremely worldly and when I am just fantastically rich I am going to donate to so many museums just so I can finally get invited to a gala or two. This means this blog post got split up because man we went to a lot of museums that day.

But we didn’t only go to museums! For example, after we saw all there was to see at the Museo de las Americas, my super amazing girlfriend got a piragua as a tribute to In the Heights. We relaxed in the Plaza del Quinto Centenario and watched the crowds go by and one specific guy try to master some BMX tricks. He was very good and this was very nice.

Refreshed, we went to the Museo de San Juan. We really didn’t mean to go to this many museums this day (though I don’t know why I am apologizing) but we just kept getting through them. This was a nice museum, not least for the air conditioning, though it was more courtyard than museum. Still! A very nice courtyard. The most embarrassing part of our experience here is that we got into the foyer of the first exhibit and didn’t realize there was a second door, so we thought it was just a very small exhibit. After we went to the second exhibit we figured it out and saw the rest of the first. These two exhibits were some art displaying the history of tourism in Puerto Rico, and the second was a lot of silver displaying the history of religion in Puerto Rico.

Having finished Museum #3 and ready for more, we exited, looked out over the horizon, and set our sights on the final major destination of the day: El Morro. Properly Castillo San Felipe del Morro, it is a big ole’ fort that protects the entrance to San Juan harbor. In my journal I described it as “super-duper impressive.” You approach over that big field where people fly kites and where the Dutch apparently invaded that one time, over a very long road. You cross over the moat and before you know it, you’re in!

The thing I find most impressive about these sorts of old forts is that we just kept using them. One of the last things we did was descend down into the original tower of the fort, which is now fully encapsulated in one of the defensive walls. But there is a handy sign saying those bricks were laid 500 years ago and it feels like it. The fort I suppose isn’t actually that massive compared to like, the Hoover Dam or something, but the walls are massive and thick and standing at the bottom of one you see how it got the reputation of being (according to the National Park Service site) unconquerable. It’s got stairways and warrens to help soldiers get all over the fort and with its commanding presence over the harbor I would not be enthusiastic about going up against it. But despite it being at that point 400 years old I like how during WWI and WWII the Americans just moved in and set up new guns and kept on going. Though again with those walls you see why!

Heading down into the tower.

From atop the fort there are fantastic views of the sea and the museum displays are very good about explaining the centuries-long history of the fort and its strategic importance to the Spanish and then the Americans. With big ramps and all the different passageways like I said it is a very fun place to explore, though we got Very Hot and needed to make sure to rehydrate. Satisfied we had gotten an insight into coastal defense, we eventually left and then wandered around finding souvenirs and then dinner (a task that was hindered by most restaurants being extremely loud despite this being a Sunday night), and well fed we returned to the room for the night.

Puerto Rico II: Museos

Reading this week:

  • Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel

Our second day and full first day in Puerto Rico dawned bright and early, except it didn’t because it was delightfully dark in our room and we were on vacation. Our first destination of the day was Casa Blanca, where we arrived shortly after it had opened.

Casa Blanca is one of if not the oldest structure on the island (and is therefore one of the oldest structures still standing in the US) and was originally built as a house for Ponce de León, whose legacy we never quite saw deeply considered on the island. It kept being used for various things over the next few centuries, and eventually we got to visit it. It was a really nice museum! It wasn’t large, but admission was only $5, so not a shabby way to spend some time.

We were still getting used to the immense beauty of Puerto Rico at this point so one of the best features of Casa Blanca was its viewpoint on said beauty, which was excellent. The displays in the house itself were mostly concerned with the construction and physical history of the building, with many many “windows” into the actual brick and masonry that the building is constructed of. These windows list the various approximate dates that these building materials were placed there. One thing I was surprised at here and would continue to be surprised at was just how out in the open everything was, in that they had centuries-old artifacts just chillin’ exposed to the ocean air. My instinct is to put them under glass but I suppose if they survived a few centuries already they would survive a few centuries more.

I really enjoyed the architecture of Casa Blanca with its openness and handy-looking kitchen, but the best part (besides the stray cat curled up beneath a bench) was probably the courtyard. It was this gorgeous tree-lined space with a fountain in the middle providing a cool oasis and all that right in the heart of Old San Juan and it was great. We gotta get one of those for our place.

As the title of this blog post suggests after this museum we continued to go to more museums. The next step was the Museo de las Americas. When going there we were thwarted by several things. The first was our inability to find the front door for a bit. There was some construction and confusing signs in my defense. The next was that we were very confused why there was no one at the entrance, which we eventually figured out was because the museum was still closed. So we had a lovely brunch at a place on the ground floor and when the museum opened we dove in.

The Museo de las Americas covers a lot of topics, from the African influences on the island to contemporary art movements. When we went they had a section on a contemporary art group, “Agua, Sol y Sereno.” That group puts on a variety of performances, involving sometimes these large masks and other caricatures, many of which were on display at the museum. One performance they would put on was a commentary on the food situation in Puerto Rico, where despite the lushness of the island much of the food was imported. I was just thinking to myself that I would have liked to see that one when we discovered that they were putting on a performance at the museum in like, 15 minutes. So we got to see that! It was very good, and I think we got the gist of it largely thanks to the museum displays. However afterwards there was a discussion portion which we could not understand (it was in Spanish, you see) but were too embarrassed to leave because there was no easy way out. It was my super amazing girlfriend that was brave enough to rescue us and get out of there. Still, quite an experience!

My one other comment on the Museo de las Americas is that they and in fact many of the museums we went to were very good about contextualizing what they were putting on display. I mentioned their African exhibit and what they are doing there is going back to African traditions that were imported by enslaved persons in order to show the roots of different aspects of Puerto Rican culture. It was very good and it was far from the last place that really worked to show the sources of traditions and other cultural aspects and how Puerto Rico has transformed them to produce the culture of today. It was really great!

Puerto Rico I: Arrival in San Juan

Reading this week:

  • The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré

Almost but not quite a year into our jobs, my super amazing girlfriend and I decided to take a vacation. We took that vacation to Puerto Rico and it was a blast. We had decided to go to Puerto Rico because we wanted to go somewhere exotic and foreign, but going someplace actually foreign was too much of a logistical hurdle. So, in the long tradition of exoticizing anyone with a different accent, we settled on Puerto Rico.

I am extremely harsh on us in that paragraph and this comes from guilt from seeing references to TikTok videos saying that people should stop visiting Puerto Rico. I have a lot of different thoughts on that topic and a deep interest in the United States’ territories, having lived in Guam for two years. In that vein I was very interested in visiting Puerto Rico to get a better glimpse into how the United States is treating the place and what the situation really is on the ground. Without pontificating too much based on a one week vacation, in the end I was surprised at how different Puerto Rico was. I had expected it to be a lot like Guam (which the US also took over in the Spanish-American War) but it felt much different than I expected. But first of course we had to get there.

Traveling to Puerto Rico went perfectly smoothly, and we arrived at right about lunchtime and immediately caught a ride into Old San Juan where we were going to spend a few days. Burdened with our luggage and needing to kill some time before we could check into our room, we stumbled around until we found a magnificent lunch place that I regretted not being able to rediscover the rest of our time there. While in grad school, only a whopping one year ago, I took two years of Spanish classes which were almost entirely wasted on me. I relate that to say that I didn’t know what it was that I was ordering off the menu, much to the surprise of my super amazing girlfriend, but like all the food we had in Puerto Rico it was delicious and filling. We had a couple of beers to kill some more time and basked in the literal warmth of Puerto Rico and the metaphorical warmth of being in a new and exciting place where we were bound to have memorable adventures.

When enough time had passed we head into the heart of Old San Juan to check into our room and then turned around again to see what we could see. This was great. Old San Juan is not a large place and takes like 15 minutes to walk from end to end. On this first walk we admired the park filled with pigeons, various old chapels/churches/cathedrals, and did some touristy photos in and amongst the colorful streets. The most gorgeous part was when we hit the north side of town and got our first look at El Morro, and the massive field in front where people were flying kites in the late evening. As we walked around a cargo ship drove right by El Morro and into the harbor, which of course I was gaga for.

Heading southward, we were then delighted to find all the street cats. We eventually made our way down to the Parque de Los Gatos, though man that park is an absolutely minefield for cat poop. Despite that the views of the harbor were beautiful and we took a bunch of selfies, as one does. We then headed down through the San Juan gate and strolled along the waterfront, taking many more selfies along the way. We proceeded to a pre-dinner Sangria at a tapas place before settling into a bar to get some grouper and fried plantains for dinner. On a short post-dinner walk (to aid in the digestion of course) we poked around even more of Old San Juan, and I admired people’s windows where there was no glass but only wooden bars, making an intimate connection between the street and their living room. Then it was back to our room to chill for the night and prepare for a big day two.

White House of the Confederacy

The last major thing we did as part of our Richmond extravaganza was visit the apocryphally-named “White House of the Confederacy.” This was of course the house that Jefferson Davis lived in while he was the President of the Confederacy. It was apparently a very prominent house back in its days with expansive views, but today it is awkwardly in the middle of a hospital. The above picture is actually the back of the house, which is the fancy-looking side because that’s where garden parties would have been held.

Look if I was nervous to visit the American Civil War Museum lest I be bombarded with lost cause narratives, I was even more worried about visiting this place, but I shouldn’t have been. The house is actually owned and operated by the Museum (though it requires separate admission) and so they are pretty invested in telling a true and useful story.

This part isn’t super important to the narrative, but the big metal thing in the picture above is a section of the propeller shaft of the CSS Virginia (aka Merrimac) and I like boats and boat history so that was interesting for me. Anyways!

Pictured above is our faithful guide. The tour groups were small and at the house it was currently a one-man operation. He greeted us at the gift shop, rang up people’s purchases, and when it was time for the tour led us all out and locked up the gift shop until the next group came along. He was a very nice man and very passionate about the house. The house actually contains a good amount of furniture actually used by the Davis family while they lived there, a result of careful cataloguing in the modern day of zealous Confederacy-collecting by the Daughters of the Confederacy as they went about establishing that Lost Cause. The tour didn’t discuss too much of the actual house details that I recall. Some interesting bits about built-in closets but that was it.

Before the tour my super amazing girlfriend had pondered why Jefferson Davis didn’t seem quite so famous as Lee when it comes to Confederate symbols. I think what we learned on the tour is that was because no one really liked him. Seemed like he got the job of Confederate President because no one trusted anyone who actually wanted it, so he wound up with it. According to the tour he put his entire self into it, for better or worse for both his health and the Confederacy. The single biggest impression from the tour, thanks again to our tour guide, was that the most interesting character in the house was Jefferson’s wife Varina, who clearly had her own passions, desires, and friends, which did not appear to include much in the way of support for the Confederate cause. Maybe this is its own form of hagiography but she seems interesting nonetheless.

Going through my pictures of the house it doesn’t seem like I took many at all. I walked away thinking that our guide did an excellent job and while he had a passion for the house that wasn’t out of a passion for the southern cause. I think he must have an interesting job because I would go out on a limb to assume the “White House of the Confederacy” appeals to a lot of types trying to promote or at least not hurt that Lost Cause narrative. I think the most forthright comment he got out of our group was someone who was pontificating on door-based house taxes (which our guide said didn’t exist and weren’t a factor), but I wonder about some of the groups that come through. But then again maybe I am stereotyping! At any rate, like I say at the end of most of these things, I think the house is worth a look around. History happened there. That’s worth knowing about, even if that history isn’t all that good.

American Civil War Museum

Reading this week:

  • Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James

Look, loyal reader(s), I feel kinda bad. I feel like whenever I talk about an art museum, as I did just last week, I leave on a total downer about the injustices of the world. There are many injustices, and none should be glossed over, but still, I feel bad about leaving you on a downer. This week I shall try to do better with a subject that will lift all of us up: civil war.

As previewed in my Richmond post, one of the things my super amazing girlfriend and I did was visit the American Civil War Museum. I was worried. I was wary. I didn’t know what kind of museum we would find. Back when I lived in Charleston I visited Fort Sumter and look the museum didn’t go out of its way to paint slavery as all that unpleasant nor did it point out while The Citadel is very proud of the fact they fired the first shots in the Civil War (on the wrong side, to be clear) they really shouldn’t be. Jeez I hate The Citadel (look at that “War Between the States” bs). So being a Civil War Museum in the capital of the Confederacy, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

Lee’s boots and sword belt.

All that to say the American Civil War Museum was really good! I have a few quibbles. They bother to go into the whole “Lee couldn’t decide which side to fight on” thing, which as I have discussed here I think is absolutely a ludicrous way to frame a betrayal of your country in order to uphold the institution of slavery. There was also a concerning placard mentioning that Black soldiers fought on both sides of the war, but pleasingly they have a much more nuanced blog post about the issue. Though honestly it seems like the bedrock and raison d’etre of the ACWM is to house some really old food:

Of all the things in the museum this is the thing that stuck out to me the most, just the astonishingly high amount of old food on display. In the above photo, clockwise from top left we have: a piece of hardtack provided to Pvt. Thomas Penn (CS) upon his release from Point Lookout prison camp in 1865, a piece of bread given to a Confederate soldier when discharged from Fort Delaware in 1865 (along with bread plate wielded by Emily H. Booton), coffee beans (and sack) exchanged for tobacco by Lt. Joseph R. Taylor (CS) in 1863, and biscuits left over from the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. I suppose at some point you can’t get rid of this stuff and it makes you wonder how many old chunks of food they have not on display. How much of the museum’s budget is spent on climate control to keep this stuff from disintegrating? I mean probably not a big part but makes you think.

But back to the museum being good (besides as a sort of historical larder). They had a range of interesting (again, non-food) artifacts on display, like the pocket telegraph unit and telegraph wire above. Given the carnage and senseless bloodshed of the Civil War it is easy to forget how modern the whole affair was (I don’t know why carnage and senseless bloodshed makes that easy, now that I type that out). They also had on display a chunk of a balloon used for spotting over enemy lines. They tell a really good overall narrative of the Civil War and make sure to highlight plenty of the horrors and depravations it entailed. The path they had you wind through the exhibits wasn’t miles long so there was only so much of the story they could tell, but still it was pretty good. I appreciated that at the very end of the narrative portion of the museum they close out with the sign that reads “Did slavery end?” just to make sure you don’t walk out of there with the Civil War tied in a pretty little bow.

However, I thought the best part of the museum was actually upstairs. I think they’re temporary exhibits, but they had two very interesting sections on the war’s effect on U.S. money and monetary policy, and another section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy. The stuff on money was interesting because it is another avenue to explain how the Civil War impacts us even today (besides, like, the obvious). The section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy was even more important I think because it really puts a light on their ideology. For all the talk of them more or less just wanting to be left alone to treat Black people as something other than human, turns out they also wanted other people to betray the natural rights of those of African descent as well. It details how they searched for allies in Brazil and Spain and wanted to expand slavery back into Mexico and other Caribbean countries, and actively too. Tell you what man, good thing the right side one. And too bad we haven’t been more forceful in remembering that.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

As I coyly mentioned last week in my post on Richmond, we did some big things in and amongst the little things we did. One of those big things was visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which was quite an experience!

Having alighted from the train and had our fill of Chinese food, my super amazing girlfriend and I proceeded directly to the museum. She has the habit of looking things up beforehand, so maybe she wasn’t impressed, but I was extremely impressed by the size of the museum and the breadth of the museum’s collection. Not that the state of Virginia, of which we are both at this point proud(ish) citizens, isn’t impressive or anything, but who woulda thunk that Virginia would have put together such a gigantic art museum? The art ranged from contemporary to ancient, and from lifelike portraits to impressionist to beyond. For dedicated art lovers I recommend several trips; much like my experience at the Yale University Art Gallery the collection is so wide-ranging that it becomes overwhelming to one’s aesthetic sense.

One thing I especially liked about the museum is that it very much felt like a community space. Admission is free for everyone (though there are certain exhibits that have a separate admission) and there is wifi, so there were people clearly just hanging out and doing work or whatever while absorbing all the culture. The picture above is of the courtyard/sculpture garden space they have right outside the museum, and the photo fails to portray how many people there were just milling about enjoying the space. There were families with little kids, skateboarders practicing their tricks, and at least one man eating out of a bucket of fried chicken while his girlfriend looked a little bored (not me, to be clear, with the chicken).

Having wandered in without plan or indeed a map, the first wing we perused was some more contemporary art. The one contemporary piece of artwork I am going to show you as a representative sample is the above Horseman by Cynthia Carlson from 1974 (maybe half a century ago isn’t so contemporary). My photo doesn’t do it justice but the paint in this piece of artwork is thick like frosting, literally applied with cake-decorating tools as a comment on “women’s work.”

Other notable artworks were some modern-day masters, such Sisters (Susan and Toni) by Barkley Hendricks (VMFA frustratingly doesn’t appear to have an online catalog of their collections) and a sculpture of Paul Mellon’s head that looked like I imagine it would if place on a spike; he got this treatment due to donating a lot of money, it appears. Besides these galleries we also saw a collection of works by the Fabergé workshop, including several eggs, works on paper that meant, in this case, gorgeous Japanese woodblock paintings, and a huge hall of Egyptian art, including the obligatory dead guy the morals of which we won’t go into because we got other things to talk about.

Again, since I don’t read things, it was my girlfriend that informed me that the VFMA is known for its very large collection of African art. The picture above captures one small portion of a very large gallery arranged largely by geographic location of the arts’ origin. The gallery is kind of hidden in the back of the museum and it took us a bit to find it, but it is certainly worth a look. I won’t discuss the artificial distinction between “Egyptian” and “African” art, but within the African art section they had a range of religious and ceremonial objects and even things like iron currency.

However man this museum seems like, five years behind the curve when it comes to restitution and deep thinking about African art. If they didn’t seem like such sincere and nice people I would think they were courting controversy. For example, the sign they have by the door of the African art wing proudly proclaims that they are actively trying to acquire “rare works from antiquity,” which, I know what they mean, but man maybe read the room guys. In the above photo on the left is a statue of Maximilien Balot, who was killed in response to the cruel treatment perpetrated by the Belgian colonial administration. The statue was likely created as a way to immobilize his spirit. I don’t know if the controversy had erupted at the time, and I took the picture just because I hadn’t run into anything exactly like it before, but man it is a whole thing. And then, of course, they proudly display their de rigueur Benin bronze, even at a time when we are firmly on the side of restitution. After I visited the National Museum of African Art and wrote about it, next thing you know the Smithsonian is working to return their Benin bronzes, so maybe I can make some changes here too. The plaque next to the VFMA’s doesn’t even mention why this bronze no longer decorates the royal court in Benin City.

Overall the VFMA is a very nice museum and well worth a visit. It is a wonderful community space and I am very glad people are able to access all the culture and history it collects. I know I like to complain about these things but you gather enough of another people’s culture under a roof and you are going to run into problems of equity and historical wrongs that require contemporary solutions. But man you should make sure you are making an effort towards righting those historical wrongs before saying you want to buy more of them.

Richmond

Last weekend, both as I write this and per the inaccurate time of publication, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Richmond. There were several reasons we went to Richmond. I think first and foremost because my super amazing girlfriend read an article about going there by train from DC. The second is that we are both a fan of train travel, so having read about the train thing we of course had to give it a try. The third is the fact that we are both now proud Virginians, so it made sense to see the seat of our government and contemplate yelling at the anti-mask brigade there.

It was a lovely train ride! The most harrowing part was getting to the train via DC’s other train system, the metro, which I love but is suffering from a lack of preventative maintenance right now, the poor thing. But we made it and I read while Krista read and then also knit. Unfortunately the train to Richmond doesn’t deposit you in Richmond but outside of Richmond, and it being lunchtime we hunted for nourishment in the cold and wind-swept plains of the Staples Mills strip malls. We found a Chinese place with quick and reasonably priced fare and, having prepared ourselves both body and soul, caught a ride into the beating heart of Richmond.

Small-W wontons.

During our time in Richmond we did several big things, which I shall detail in the coming weeks as part of my ongoing efforts to milk my life experiences for content. Truly I am the first person to ever do this so please be patient on this journey of discovery together. In this blog post I shall detail some of the smaller things we did in and amongst the big things.

Big-W Wonton

Perhaps the best of these small things was visiting Chop Suey books. Having really hit it out of the park in Charlottesville it is now Our Thing to go to book stores and yarn stores when we go travelling. Unfortunately Richmond has a dearth of yarn stores, which might honestly be the root cause of some of this state’s political troubles, and only a slightly more accessible selection of used book stores. Chop Suey was the only one we wound up at, but quality made up for numbers. The most significant discovery here was made when my super amazing girlfriend reported to me that there was a fake cat on the chair in the children’s section. I went to investigate and marveled at the realistic paws on the fake cat, and then was even more impressed with the realistic simulated breathing, and then utterly floored when the cat moved its head and turned out to be real. The cat was named Wonton and from all accounts completes his myriad duties as a bookstore cat, i.e. napping in various locations, with aplomb.

From the bookstore we proceeded to our hotel, which was fancy enough that the wifi was not free but had a fairly expansive view of the river. Inspired, we got a closer view of the river by proceeding to walk eastbound down the canal along the aptly named canal walk. Richmond has made the walk along the canal very nice, and although it was a bit chilly as we explored (not Richmond’s fault) that meant we had it largely to ourselves. We walked along it for several locks and we both enjoyed spotting various pieces of infrastructure along the way. If you’re a fan of infrastructure they have plenty to see, from flood control walls to train trestles to draw bridges, not including of course the canal itself. A lovely dinner capped off the night and we returned to our hotel to be energized for the following day.

Infrastructurrrrrrrrrrre

We used that energy the following day to once again explore the canal. This time we proceeded westbound, on our way to (not the ruin the surprise) the American Civil War Museum. As picturesque as the eastern portion of the canal is, the western portion tops it for sure. This is not least because there are a lot more pictures, painted on the walls of various former structures. It also deposits you at a bridge you can take across the river, which is a wonderful thing in and of itself but also provides impressive and informative views of the whole area. Once a historian friend of mine told himself off for saying that one location had any more history than another, but in this case you can see a lot of the history in this location via various old bits of (you guessed it) infrastructure. Plus it was sunny and just generally a nice place to be. There were also monuments.

After doing a few more big things, and also there were elaborate waffles at one point, and secret sandwiches at another, we head back out from town, caught our train in the nick of time, and deposited ourselves at the food of the mysterious temple to George Washington that is perhaps Alexandria’s most famous landmark, we walked home to our cat who we assured ourselves missed us very much. We had certainly missed her but it is sometimes nice to get away from the kids and see a new little corner of the world. I suspect we’ll be back to Richmond at some point; there were bookstores we didn’t get to see.

Savannah Part 2

Reading this week:

  • I Saw Congo by E.R. Moon

The first place we went to on our second full day in Savannah was the Pin Point Heritage Museum. The Pin Point Museum was fantastic and I’m gonna say it is a gold standard for cultural heritage museums. It is housed in the former A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory, which was for many years the major employer of the Pin Point community. The community of Pin Point was founded by freedmen after the Civil War, and became part of the Gullah/Geechee culture in the coastal region. One of the big claims to fame of Pin Point is being the original home of Justice Clarence Thomas.

The museum was founded and run in a close cooperation with the actual community. Our guide was Herman “Hanif” Haynes, who grew up and lives in the community and told us about his mother and grandmother working in the factory. He brought us through the story of the founding of the community and where the people came from. Then we learned about the fishing culture of the community and the history of the factory. They have a fantastic documentary to watch, and displays talking about how through its exports Pin Point was connected to the surrounding area. I’m going to say the museum is an absolute must-see if you are in Savannah. I always enjoy boats and crabs and the like but what really made the museum great is how it worked to serve the community it was based in.

Heading back into town, the next place we went was the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. I really liked this museum mostly because it is filled with ship models and that’s great! The museum focuses on the maritime history of Savannah. It’s housed in the William Scarborough house, who made his money as a maritime trader, and besides ship models in general it houses specifically a huge number of models of ships named Savannah, including one of my favorite ships ever the NSS Savannah, pictured above. That sucker was nuclear powered, and although all ships are beautiful, and nuclear-powered ships especially so, the NSS Savannah was meant to be beautiful and I think they pulled it off. Though, on that note, I noticed this time around the model features a tiny Confederate battle flag, which unfortunately does a lot to mar its appearance.

Knowing my boat obsession, my super amazing girlfriend gamely looked at all the models with me. The house itself is pretty neat too. Although it’s one of the historic houses of Savannah, and there are many, it’s not really presented as a house because it’s gone through so many changes throughout the years. One of those changes was serving as a school for Black children. It was, as a sign in the stairway notes, very inadequate, but it existed and at least that was something until Brown vs. Board of Education. After this museum we were pooped, and headed back to the hotel for the night.

Our third and final full day in Savannah was all about the Telfair Museums. This is a group of three museums and we bought the pass to go to all three. There are various different museum groupings in Savannah and I wonder what kind of inter-museum politickings there are. At any rate, we started off at the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters. This used to just be the Owens-Thomas House, but a little bit ago they decided they needed to Do Better and made sure to incorporate the history of the enslaved persons that lived there. Overall I think the museum did a pretty good job at this, though my one criticism is that they were a bit self-congratulatory about it. Maybe it’s necessary to hype it up to get other museums to follow their lead, but it’s really sort of the bare minimum for a space like this. The above picture is the slave quarters themselves.

The rest of the tour is a fairly standard house tour, and this was the first house tour we went on to like, see the house instead of learn about the people or see a bunch of ship models. I guess the house tour was pretty standard overall, but in the basement they have preserved and put on display more of the infrastructure than usual. They have the ice well and cisterns on display, along with a shower room. They also have on display the kitchen, and put a lot of effort into further documenting the lives of enslaved persons here because it is in the basement that a lot of them would worked. This makes it a lot more interesting than the average house tour and I do recommend going.

After the house we went to lunch, and then after lunch we went to the Telfair Academy. We didn’t get a lot of time here because of how late our lunch reservation was, but it was a great museum and apparently one of the oldest in the United States. The above picture is of their very very large octagon room, full of both large pictures and tiny little ones. My super amazing girlfriend particularly admired a picture of a lady with a goldfish bowl, and since the gift shop conveniently had a print for sale I went ahead and bought it. Although I liked that one a lot as well, the below picture was one of my favorites because it displayed what is nearly my ideal future lifestyle:

Titled “Le déjeuner sous les bois,” the one thing it is lacking lifestyle-wise is of course my super-amazing girlfriend.

Upstairs in the museum they suddenly veered into fossils and some of the more old-timey stuff they had. By “old-timey” here I meant the sorts of things popular in old-timey museums, i.e. random collections of interesting things, which I think would make for excellent modern museums, but there are disagreements on this point. They also have some more sculptures upstairs, and although last week I accused my super amazing girlfriend of plotting to steal a spinning wheel, I too am a fan of textiles, specifically old ones, which I mention because they had a small collection that I found cool:

Also, the below statue was outside, but I took a picture specifically to make a joke about sandwiches:

After the Telfair Academy, we did run over to duck into the Jepson Center, but only got a few minutes in there because our day was running out. We were pretty pooped already, but decided to take one last walk along the waterfront to admire the sights. This was a Friday, and by this time the revelers were coming out in full force. It’s a very nice thing to look out over the river and just enjoy being in the place you with absolutely fantastic company. We had a great time in Savannah and hope to be back soon.

Savannah Part 1

Please enjoy the most stereotypical picture of Savannah!

While on our Florida vacation my super amazing girlfriend and I decided to take a vacation from that vacation and headed up to Savannah, GA. We wanted to get as much travel in as possible, see the sights, and explore exciting new cultures (new for her, because she’s from New England. I, raised a Marylander, am technically from the South). It was, overall, a lovely time!

To start, I want to say is that Savannah is first and foremost a city comprised of historical markers. This is how it seemed to me anyways. As we walked around the city I started taking a picture of every one we passed, and this still only represents a small selection because I never dragged us too far out of the way to take a picture. My impression is that most of the signs were put up in the 50s and 60s, so I had to ponder who was trying to shape what narrative. There were also a number of signs put up more recently. Still, it seemed to me at some point the city decided it was now Historical (as an aside, the city was founded a lot later than I thought, only dating to 1733) and went about documenting it.

Picture taken by my super amazing girlfriend.

The very first thing we did in Savannah was stop by the Savannah Seafood Shack to tuck into a lowcountry boil. We ate a lot of good food in Savannah, with other highlights including Treylor Park for their PB&J wings and The Pirate’s House so we could mark off an Atlas Obscura sight (I dragged us to a lot of Atlas Obscura sights this trip, though my super amazing girlfriend has started tracking her sights as well!). I used to live in Charleston, SC, and my only regret during my time there is that I couldn’t go to more phenomenal brunch places, so tucking back into some southern cuisine was a particular treat. On the way back from Savannah we also stopped by a Cracker Barrel so we could really round out the list of stuff-I-have-talked-up-during-our-relationship, but I was a bit disappointed they didn’t have fried chicken gizzards on the menu.

But now into the metaphorical meat of the trip, instead of the literal. Having tucked ourselves into bed after tucking into that lowcountry boil, our first major destination the next day was the Bonaventure Cemetery. The reason you visit the Bonaventure Cemetery is for the vibes. This destination was suggested by my super amazing girlfriend but I am anyways a fan of walking around old cemeteries. This cemetery wasn’t all that old, being only from I think the 1850s or so, but giant oak trees and plenty of Spanish moss made it clear it wasn’t exactly new either. The site was also previously a plantation, and had some revolutionary war history attached to it.

Since the cemetery is a major tourist site for Savannah, it’s got a whole list of popular graves to see, like that of Gracie Watson above. Again, I dragged us around looking for the ones on Atlas Obscura. I’m trying to think of what I liked about the place without just repeating the vibes line I used in the last paragraph, but no yeah the cemetery is in a beautiful location (though, as a former plantation, with a dark history), with a “bluff” overlooking the river and nestled within trees providing shade. And maybe the best part is just walking around with someone you love, thinking about beauty and other philosophical thoughts. After we were done with that, we went to lunch.

A portrait of Juliette Gordon Low
My super amazing girlfriend plotting to steal Juliette Gordon Low’s spinning wheel to add to her collection.

We began the afternoon of our first full day in Savannah at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace Museum. She founded the Girl Scouts, and the museum is now run by the organization. This was a pretty quick tour, but well done. Most of the museums we went to were having you do self-guided tours due to COVID of course. They typically had you scan a QR code on your phone which brought you to an audio tour you could walk yourself through with. The tour walked you through the house and focused on what inspired Juliette Gordon Low there to found the girl scouts. Besides her uplifting story of wanting to inspire girls of every race and class to better things, I also admired some very nice crown molding and some of her art collection.

After the museum, we wandered off through Savannah, looking at sights including Forsyth Park pictured at the top. We admired more signs, more graves, and a collection of hats before getting a drink at a rooftop bar and tucking into dinner. Afterwards we head back to our hotel, and in my notes about the day I wrote down “lovely showers.” I used to judge events by how nice the shower would feel afterwards. After a day of hiking around Savannah and getting to know the city those showers felt very nice, giving the day quite a high rank indeed.