History travel

The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh’s most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery — and misery.
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The exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then –- though without any contagious aspects –- the Real Mary King’s Close provides amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar –- and it’s been preserved in an authentic environment and historically accurate depiction that defies most “commercial” historical reproductions.
It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) –- past room after room, each with its own story to tell –- a projection of people who lived in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder, the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past.
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The inhabitants — ranging from those gracing a grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last section was finally interred — are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.
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Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction as much as does the narrative. Only “practicals” –- original methods of lighting the dwellings –- are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.

The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants –- no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.

Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence,” his body awaiting “collection.”

His wife, Janet, and three sons suffer from varying stages of the deadly malady. The Doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more “reality” than even today’s cable TV has prepared me for. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.

And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close -– much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood –- and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.

With more than two dozen stops along the tour path — each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history –- I became intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
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Mary King herself, of course, who moved here with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. You’ll get to meet her personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell!

While listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor –- the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of Allison’s memorable life.

Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre –- all authenticated by original documentation –- abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.

Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops.”

One of the most important — and saddest — among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which eight-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her –- and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.

Key chains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. ”What a sad story,” laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.
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There was a lot of life lived within these buildings –- and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique walks –- literally — through history I’ve yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of Historic Edinburgh.

The Real Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 15-minute intervals. Price is adults, $23; children 5-15, $13; seniors and students, $20. For more information, please contact: VisitBritain at 1-877/899-8391 or visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.

Picture this: From 1948 to 1999, the U.S. Department of Navy bombed the hell out of its own country. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration — but here’s what happened. From the early 1940’s, the U.S. military used a good part of Vieques, Puerto Rico, a small island off the coast, as a training ground for ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground bombing, and Marine amphibious landings. Up until April 1999, about 120 days a year were devoted to integrated land-sea-air live-fire exercises (i.e., exercises with explosive ammunition) by U.S. aircraft carrier and amphibious-ready groups preparing to deploy overseas. Although residents had strongly objected for decades, it was not until a Puerto Rican security guard was accidentally killed by an errant bomb in April 1999 that the opposition began in earnest, garnering support from the mainland, including political leaders and celebrities from around the world. As of May 2003 all military operations were suspended, leaving the island isolated and decimated, but ironically with much of its undeveloped natural beauty outside the military compounds intact. And therein lies the rub. Now picture this: From bomb site to beach resort — and therein lies the story. While the Navy has been busy these past 10 years cleaning up the parts of the island it destroyed, the rest of the island is gearing up — albeit slowly — to join the rest of Puerto Rico as a Caribbean tourist destination. . The massive clean-up involves getting rid of unexploded ordinances, metal and scrap debris and chemicals in the soil. As one safety notice advises: If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up! Not your usual anti-litter admonition.

Okay, the island still has no traffic light, no movie theater, no American fast-food restaurants (thankfully), and no nightlife. Still, there are now seven more car rental companies than during the Navy occupation (when there was one) as well as a couple of dive operations, horseback riding stables, sailing options and several tour companies. And did I mention a W Hotel? That’s got to mean something. But although the 157-room property is a tourist magnet, the next closest property in size is the 30-room Brik Hotel, which hasn’t yet opened. The rest are guesthouses. The island is not exactly leap-frogging into tourism territory.
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But Vieques is not without its unique attractions, two of which are its wild horses, descendants of those brought over by the Spaniard Conquistadors in the 1500’s, and its Bioluminescent Bay, the most glowing — literally — of the five bio-bays that exist in the world. Caveats to come.
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First, the horses. They have the run of the island and the hour’s drive from one end of the island to the other can take a lot longer depending upon how many you run into — using the term loosely… We even watched a pool boy at the upscale W chase a horse apparently to deter him from taking a dip in the resort pool. We followed close behind only to find him snacking on the property lawn, posing long enough for us to take his picture. As I turned around, I almost bumped into a sign reading, “Caution: Wild Horses Poop.” And indeed, he had.
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And, oh yes, the bio-bay. First some background. The unfortunately aptly named Mosquito Bay, considered the brightest bio-bay in the world, is home to half-plant, half-animal organisms, at a rate of 720,000 per gallon, that emit flashes of bluish/green light when agitated, preferably under a moonless night when the effect is most dramatic. And dramatic it is — as the entire bay explodes beneath you in a fireworks display you’ve never seen before. But not for us. Because of some ill-will of nature, blamed at the time on excessive rain and cool temperatures (for Puerto Rico), the bay was mostly dark.

Still, just the stars alone were worth the trip — almost. With two people to a kayak, the darkness all pervasive, the quiet almost surreal, I felt like I was floating in a private, other-worldly lagoon, hampered only by the knowledge I was experiencing only the slightest remnants of what should have been an amazing Technicolor adventure. Putting my hand in the water released a flurry of gold sparkles, reminiscent of an abundance of Fourth of July sparklers beneath my fingers, as though a vast array of shooting stars from the sky fell into the water — and this was just a fraction of what it should be when a blue-green haze dominates the water and the fish swimming around trigger a reaction that brings the entire bay alive. My disappointment at having missed such a spectacle made me feel like a little kid deprived of a toy I desperately wanted.
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I came to Vieques with a preconceived notion that because of all the destruction that occurred, the resurrection of Vieques as a tourist destination would revolve around conservation, sustainability and decreased environmental impact. Not so — or at least, not yet. Ironically, although tourism has indeed increased, there does not seem to be any island-wide plan to deal with it in any coordinated “green” fashion.

There are less than 10,000 people on Vieques — and seemingly, everyone knows everyone else. Locals have a fierce pride in their island and a universal disappointment that so much has been planned or promised and so little has been done. You can see the wistfulness in their eyes as they talk about what the island so desperately needs in terms of education, health care provisions, infrastructure, environmental protections and tourism services.

And in truth, they are also in conflict over how much development they want. More and more foreigners — which is how they allude to Americans, despite their shared U.S. citizenship — are invading their quiet, undeveloped, pristine locale with its sparkling, isolated beaches opening restaurants and other tourist establishments, and they are unsure what the future will bring –- and whether it will be positive. Vieques may or may not be on the verge of a tourist boom, and it’s questionable exactly whom all this new development will actually benefit.
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Everyone on Vieques has a story and everyone who comes there knows someone else who either had their own story or knows someone else who did. You don’t come to Vieques by accident. With Caribbean island tourism not yet a reality, the question most often asked by one visitor to the next? “What brought YOU to Vieques?” And the answer is almost always a friend, a relative, a colleague; it is never advertising or travel agent. And while tour companies, diving operations and sailing options have doubled in the last five years, infrastructure has lagged. Although many of the main roads are easily traversable, there are some leading to recommended beaches that boast car-eating potholes ahead and jeep-attacking tree branches on all sides, and are so bumpy that none of my limbs and internal organs ended up in the same place they started out in. At some point this will change.

Vieques is a visual delight, a portrait in green and blue — and many shades of brown if you count the horses — and you have to — they’re everywhere. It is undisturbed by development — but that will not always be so. Go now while it is still unspoiled (by anything other than the Navy…) and before it becomes just another over-developed Caribbean island, possibly losing the unique character that is so very much Viequesian. For information about visiting Vieques, call (800) 866-7827 or log onto seepuertorico.com/en/destinations/culebra-and-vieques.

Few people would think that Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have much in common but they would be wrong. Both are part of the small but unique Gullah community, primarily residing in South Carolina and Georgia whose roots extend from Wilmington, North Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida, descendants of slaves from the early 18th century who share a common language, culture, history and food. Michelle celebrated that heritage at the 2012 inauguration; Justice Thomas credits it for much of his silence on the Court. And Congress recently has taken steps to put the Gullah (also known as Geechee) culture back on the map.

First, some background. In the 1700’s, rice plantations flourished along the coastal areas and barrier islands stretching from North Carolina to Florida. Because they required specific skills, slaves were brought to these coastal areas from similar environments in Africa where rice had been grown successfully for centuries. In many cases, the Africans’ knowledge of rice cultivation far exceeded that of their masters. Because the work required a wide variety of skills that only the Africans possessed, they were often accorded more responsibility and autonomy than their cotton-picking counterparts.

They came with their own language, beliefs and customs –- and because they were so isolated in coastal regions that were not connected to the mainland until the 1950’s, their Gullah culture flourished and proliferated among the many Africans who came to settle there and still endures today. The Gullah people developed a separate Creole language and distinct culture patterns that included more of their African traditions than African-American populations in other parts of the United States. A recent visit to Myrtle Beach brought me in direct contact with the culture, its descendants and its current connection to the Nation’s capital.

Meet Veronica Gerald, owner of the Ultimate Gullah Shop whose great-great-great grandmother was kidnapped from Siera Leone at age 9 and spent her whole life at Brookgreen Plantation, as did her descendants. Brookgreen Plantation, one of the largest and most prosperous in South Carolina during the 18th century, was built by Gullah slaves.
It was combined with three other plantations to form Brookgreen Gardens in 1930 and is now a showcase of art, gardens and nature — with the largest display of American representational sculpture in the world. Fox, deer and birds add their voices to the wide expanse of nature trails, tree-lined vistas and bronze, marble and stone edifices. But once upon a time, it was the Gullah voices that echoed from these fields and dominated the landscape.
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And Brookgreen is only one of many places where the Gullah voices have been drowned out by modern conveniences. Visiting a golf course constructed on a former plantation site that includes an early slave cemetery, Veronica observed: “My grandfather is buried on the 10th hole.” She also noted that Gullah cemeteries are always built near water (and apparently water hazards…) so that the spirits can float back to Africa.
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Such tales are one of the many delights of a Gullah Tour that Veronica conducts, tracing their history from slavery through modern day. A stop at her Ultimate Gullah shop brings you in contact with all kinds of Gullah wares including crafts, foods, jewelry and books.
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My favorite? The De Nyew Testament, the Bible totally written in Gullah. I would have been hard-pressed if I had to translate even one page into English.
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Gullah is very much its own language — and initially those who spoke it were looked down upon as illiterate. It has been said that one of the reasons Clarence Thomas maintains his much-reported silence on the Supreme Court is that he’s always been a bit self-conscious about the way he speaks.

In a December 14, 2000 New York Times article, Thomas told his story this way: “When I was 16, I was sitting as the only black kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of a dialect…called Geechee. Some people call it Gullah, and people praise it now. But they used to make fun of us back then. It’s not standard English. And it just got to be, I didn’t ask questions in college or law school… For all those reasons, and a few others, I just think that it’s more in my nature to listen…. The only reason I could see for asking the questions is to let people know I’ve got something to ask. That’s not a legitimate reason in the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Now meet Ron Daise, Vice President of Creative Education at Brookgreen Gardens, where he conducts weekly Gullah-oriented programs. He also is chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. In 2004, the Gullah culture was placed on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2006, the Commission was created by Congress to recognize the contributions of the Gullah people and preserve Gullah historical sites as well as their folklore, arts, crafts, music and, of course, their language.
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Ron tells of one evening in April 2013 when he was watching American Idol, and one of the season’s top two finalists, Candice Glover (later the season 12 winner), was asked to reveal something no one knew about her. When she responded that she spoke a second language called Gullah-Geechee, Ron claims he stood up in his living room and cheered!

Time to meet Bunny Rodrigues, a story-quilt maker and former owner of the Gullah Ooman Museum in Pawley’s Island along the Myrtle Beach Strand who spearheaded the creation of a large 90”x70” quilt dedicated to re-telling Michelle Robinson Obama’s family history from slave quarters to White House. On a January 2008 visit to her maternal ancestors’ hometown in Georgetown, just south of Myrtle Beach proper, Michelle became immersed in a history being visually retold that she was not all that familiar with.
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The bottom left panel in the quilt shows a slave cabin reflecting where Michelle’s great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, had been born into slavery about 1850. Other panels depict her great-great grandmother working as a slave, her great-grandfather Fraser Robinson, Sr. who learned how to read and write because he lived with a white family, on up through Michelle’s marriage to Barack and their ascension to the White House, a stark contrast to the slave cabin’s origin.

Fraser’s philosophy of education got passed down to his son who graduated high school and went to Chicago to find work: that was Michele’s grandfather –- and the rest is current history. In the center is a life-size Michelle sporting a cap and gown, with Princeton and Harvard delineated in large letters above. “I wanted to emphasize her education,” claims Bunny, “and have that be an inspiration, that you can have ancestors in a slave cabin and end up at Harvard.”
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Although Bunny did the story line and cut out every piece, over 40 people were involved in putting the quilt together, from threading needles to making coffee to taking pictures. People eager to do something, anything, to touch a piece of history, which, indeed, is has become. From January 11 to September 31, 2009, the quilt hung in the Washington, DC Historical Society -– but by the second inauguration, it made it to the big time: it rode in a Gullah-Geechee Corridor Commission float in the 2013 inaugural parade.

Now the Gullah language – and its heritage — is about to be rediscovered over 300 years later. As their Gullah heritage is celebrated by Michelle and others and the Gullah-Geechee Corridor Commission gains in importance, an emphasis on Gullah culture is enjoying increased notoriety from North Carolina to Florida, with the Myrtle Beach Strand, where Gullah connections are being newly discovered across the area, one of its most important hubs. So y’all come on down -– meet with descendents of slaves, take home some sweet grass baskets, feast on hoppin’ John and no doubt you’ll “Hunnuh come’yuh ta hab a gud time.”