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alabama sign

Well, I’ve already fallen behind the perfect “one year ago today” posts for the arm chair road trip. I can see now why it was impossible to post in real time during the trip; there was not one minute of extra time!

Days 16 was pretty much the low point of the trip — with one exception. After hitting the gym in the morning in Atlanta, we set out for Montgomery, Alabama.

This has never been high on my list to visit — or anywhere on my list — but Rosa Parks and the bus boycott are important events on the Civil Rights Trail, which I wanted Mtuseni to see on the trip given his experience in South Africa. And I did want to see the new National Museum for Peace and Justice, informally known as the Lynching Memorial, which is supposed to be a profound experience. I thought it would give Mtuseni a deep sense of the violence and repression of that era, with its parallels to apartheid.

I had read some things about Alabama, including recommendations to just drive through fast without stopping, but I brushed them off. It didn’t take long before I understood.

Five miles over the border I got off the highway to a small gas station and store surrounded by nothing. I parked to the side, not needing gas, and Mtuseni stayed in the car. When I returned, an old guy in his 70s was standing near the car. He glared at me and then at Mtuseni, back and forth, his grizzled face dripping with disdain. His message was clear.

I could feel waves of hatred directed at us. Mtuseni contentedly munched his umpteenth bag of salt and vinegar chips, thankfully unaware of the scene unfolding few away from him in the blazing sun.

I was unnerved. And pissed. I felt like a protective papa bear; nobody was going to openly exhibit such prejudice toward my sweet kid. I narrowed my eyes to slits and returned his glare. For a second was I ready to say, “You wanna go, old man?” But then I thought, “This is the Deep South. He probably has a shotgun in the back. Just get in the car.” He kept glaring at us as I drove away, not shaken but a little shocked. And disgusted..   

When I was in South Africa, Mtuseni had to point out to me the disapproving looks we got from old, white Afrikaaners. I had’t noticed. They were more subtle in their bigotry, maybe because they’re the minority. But not that old southern cracker. He showed off his prejudice — and ignorance — proudly. 

At our hotel outside Montgomery, I talked for a while to the young Black girl working the front desk. Telling her about the incident, she didn’t flinch. She said it’s common, and told me about White guests who won’t touch the pen she hands them to sign the register, or who won’t look her in the eye. I was floored. Welcome to Alabama, where it’s still 1949. I won’t return.

And on top of that, she told me the lynching museum was closed the next day. That was really the main reason we were there, and I doubted we could kill time for an extra day to see it. 

But there was one bright spot: It was Mtuseni’s birthday! We’d never been able to celebrate it together before. We headed into “downtown” Montgomery — which is basically a few mid-size office structures, some government buildings, and about 50,000 empty parking spaces. Even Mtuseni, who’s generally impressed with everyplace in America, said, “It’s dry here.”  

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riverfront sign

Nice sign. We didn’t venture down there. It looked desolate and creepy.

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We skipped the riverfront, despite being a couple blocks away. From the map, it clearly was no Savannah or Charleston. We scouted out the few restaurants and found a decent-looking Italian place, full of what seemed to be government office workers.

Mtuseni had a good meal, including his first time eating shrimp. The servers brought over his birthday dessert and sang “Happy Birthday” shortly after his entree was delivered. (Really, how hard is it to time that? The place wasn’t even busy.) But Mtuseni was happy. Birthdays aren’t generally big celebrations at home; there’s no money. His smile on his 27th birthday on a trip across America salvaged a pretty crappy day. 

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mtu bday

Our first birthday together…. 27! But he’ll always be my little yellow polo shirt boy with the book bag, my first glimpse of him in 2009.

auburn street

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Day 15 was our last day in Atlanta. After picking up Mtuseni from church, we headed to the birthplace and resting place of Martin Luther King, Jr. — the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.

Not far from the shiny towers of downtown, the tree-lined street has humble, well-kept wood frame houses with porches and picket fences. It seemed a little crazy to just park on the street like we were going to pop in to someone’s house for coffee and cobbler — when we were visiting the home of a renowned leader. But it’s the same at JFK’s birthplace in Brookline. Actually, the street reminds me of Brookline a little.  

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king plaque

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Martin Luther King Juniors birthplace house in Atlanta

MLK’s birthplace. Who could have imagined the life this sweet little house would produce.

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The house offered timed tours but neither of us was that interested; it’s basically an old house. But we did browse the gift shop on the first floor and picked up some souvenirs on the way back. 

Just about a block down the street is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Sr. and his son had preached. I could imagine the family just walking from home to the church, waving and chatting with people sitting on their porches along the way. 

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Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia

Ebenezer Baptist, the original church where MLK — and his father before him — preached.

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Ebenezer Baptist Church neon sign in Atlanta Georgia

I love old neon signs. This one is pure and simple — don’t need more for a church!

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A block down from the church is the museum and the newer Ebenezer Baptist. The museum is well done with artifacts and timelines. It’s amazing how much impact MLK had at such a young age.

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Martin Luther King Junior National Historical Park sign

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Mtuseni was engrossed in the civil rights history exhibits. He has a unique perspective with South Africa’s experience of apartheid — there are similarities and differences in both situations. Yet there’s still so much work to be done in South Africa. I’ve come to realize through my years with Mtuseni how deep the scars of apartheid run. 

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timeline

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Wagon that carried Martin Luther King Junior's coffin.

The wagon that carried MLK’s coffin during services.

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Tomb of Martin Luther King Junior and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta, Georgia

The tomb of Martin and Coretta is in a long reflecting pool painted bright blue. It’s garish and distracting; a quieter, neutral color would be more fitting and respectful.

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The contemporary Ebenezer Church was closed for services. Looking through the photos of this day recently, I saw that Mtuseni had taken photos inside the church. I asked how he was able to do that — and when. He said that he went inside after the service ended, and I was probably looking for a bathroom. Haha… that sounds about right!

After the museum we headed back to my friend’s house to just hang and eat takeout. It was nice to relax and avoid hotels (and those damn waffle machines!) We were recharged and ready for the next stage of our swing through the South…. music and history!

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stadium trio

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After two weeks on the road, we got a respite from hotels for a few days, staying with a friend in Atlanta. It was nice to have some home-cooked meals. Wait… did Annie cook? No. Hahaha. But it was nice to hang out with an old friend and “lil’ sis” again after many years. (Yet we forgot to get a photo of us — biggest regret of the trip!)

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Biltong Bar in Atlanta

Calling biltong “beef jerky” doesn’t do it justice. Biltong Bar is great!

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The first morning Mtuseni and I went into swanky Buckhead to pick up his new glasses — and stumbled on a biltong place! I’m not a huge meat fan, and American beef jerky is like old shoe leather. But biltong — South African beef jerky — is thick and meaty and succulent. I first tried it on my trip to SA in 2012 and have been craving it since.

We sat at the bar and got a biltong platter with chutneys. Mtuseni was in heaven — and raved about how biltong is so much better than jerky (though he always eats jerky when he’s in the US.) Cool vibe, great decor, enticing menu — we need a Biltong Bar in Boston! 

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biltong in

Another taste of South African home in America — biltong and chutney!

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Mtuseni found a kindred spirit in Atlanta in my friend’s son: another soccer fanatic! They figured out we could get tickets to an Atlanta United game — so suddenly we were on a MARTA train to the stadium.

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ballers

These guys are both pretty deft with handling a soccer ball. I’ve got video to prove it!

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The atmosphere outside was lively. Mtuseni and Nolan would have happily kicked a soccer ball around all night! The stadium was a sellout… and the facility is impressive with the retractable roof. 

Once the match started the guys were all in; I surfed my phone. I don’t get soccer. The ball bounces around the field like pinball — and everyone goes crazy if it even approaches the goal. But any pro sporting event is a pretty cool production, and Mtuseni was thrilled.

Oh, and Atlanta won. 

stadium pair

sav visit ctr

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Lovely Savannah marked the twelfth day of our road trip. We parked at the main visitor center and despite the heat, which we’d become somewhat immune to, decided to walk to the river rather than take a shuttle. I wanted to explore the elegant old neighborhoods and small, landscaped squares the city is known for. It felt like Beacon Hill in Boston, with less brick and more visual variety. The horticulture nerd in me was excited to see Spanish moss in the trees. It’s so fascinating … and felt like we were really in the South!

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savannah manse

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Fountain and trees with Spanish moss in Savannah square

One of the many little squares in Old Town Savannah… perfect shady oases from the heat.

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Looking over our map, I was thrilled to discover Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home! I’m not a big fan of fiction — or at least, contemporary fiction — but her work is classic, and I reread her collection from time to time. Unfortunately the house wasn’t open till later — and we didn’t have time to return. But I peeked in the windows and imagined her there, observing and developing tales to tell for later years. 

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flannery porch

Never thought I’d go all fan-boy for a fiction writer, but it was a happy surprise to discover Flannery O’Conner’s home.

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flannery house full

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We walked to River Street and explored the old port buildings there. The calliope on the docked riverboat played endlessly. If I had taken a cruise on that thing with nonstop music, I would have jumped off and swum back to shore after 20 minutes! I think calliope music is better conceptually than in reality. 

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Georgia Queen riverboat docked in Savannah, Georgia

These things — like children — are better seen than heard! Calliope music does not put me in a Zen state.

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river street

Beautiful old dock buildings along River Street (and thankfully not too many cheesy T-shirt and souvenir shops!)

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We had a fun time with Mona, who told us all about the masonry in the riverside hotel where she works. (Mtuseni was just looking for a bathroom, but we got a great story — and some laughs.) She’s a dead ringer for an old friend of mine from the 80s — in both looks and personality! She and I agreed it would be a blast to hang out and drink beers some night, but we were vagabonds, moving on to our next destination before dusk.

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mona

Thanks to Mona we know all about the masonry work in this dockside hotel. That smile totally captures her personality!

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We had lunch at the bar at The Cotton Exchange, where Mtuseni was brave enough to order alligator. He said it was good and did indeed, as everyone says, taste like chicken. I passed, thinking it might have the chewy texture of lobster, which I hate. Instead I opted for fried green tomatoes. I’ve made them twice at home and didn’t see what all the fuss is about. Same thing in Savannah. Pretty blah. Three strikes and no more fried green tomatoes for me!

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gator

Mtuseni’s lunch of fried alligator. He said that it does, indeed, taste like chicken.

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The bartender was incessantly chatty and refilled our drinks again and again. When I mentioned the Southern penchant for sweet tea, he gave us a taste of how sweet it really is. He poured about a tablespoon in my tumbler of unsweetened tea — and it was too sweet! I can see how that seemingly innocent hot-weather drink plays a role in the high rates of health issues in the South. 

When we left, Mtuseni said he had a hard time understanding the bartender because he was slurring his words so badly that he must have been drunk. I laughed. He wasn’t drunk; he just had a strong Southern drawl. I told Mtuseni he’d better get used to that accent as we headed deeper into the South!

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cotton exchange

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After lunch we went to check out the First African Baptist Church, which had been built by slaves and where a young Martin Luther King, Jr. had done some preaching. Unfortunately they only had paid tours. We’d just missed the start and couldn’t hang out for the next one. But I used my considerable charm — and Mtuseni’s connection to Africa — to get a free, private, “forbidden” mini-tour from Tracy.

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tracy church

With Tracy, our accommodating guide for our “secret” tour of the First African Baptist Church.

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She took us upstairs and let us see the main chapel (no photos allowed!) and described various points of interest. She explained how the church was built under cover of darkness, and how Dr. King tried out some of his famous speeches and sermons there. I was so grateful to her for giving Mtuseni a real sense of connection to the church.   

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outside baptist church

Outside the First African Baptist Church

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After the church we headed off to a cool little market district for a bit. The sun was blazing and the air was sticky. Twelve days of record-breaking heat was taking its toll. We got back to the car and said farewell to Savannah — but I will definitely go back to explore that historical, artsy, hip little Southern gem. And maybe have a cocktail or two with Mona.