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St. Helena Island: the Gullah heartland

In the United States, when we hear the word creole, it probably brings to mind the Louisiana creole culture, with its mix of French of African influences. In fact, my experience has been that most Americans associate the word creole as referring to a derivative of French language and culture. However, that’s not actually the case. Creole languages and cultures are derived from the mixing of several different root languages and cultures, not just French.

In fact, right here in the United States, there is another very old creole culture that is quite distinct from the Franco-Creole of Louisiana. The Gullah culture and language of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, sometimes known as Geechee, is found primarily in the sea islands and along the coastal region. It is an Anglo-Creole with its own rich history and heritage. It has more in common with the creole cultures of the English-speaking Caribbean (such as Jamaica) and with the Krio culture of Sierra Leone in Africa. For instance, words found in Jamaican Patois, such as oonu, as a plural of “you”, or nyam, meaning eat, can also be found in the Gullah language.

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St. Helena Island, in South Carolina, is often considered the heartland of the Gullah people. At one time, the Gullah culture was prevalent along the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina all the way south to Jacksonville, Florida. Over time, the discernible presence of the Gullah culture has diminished through assimilation with the broader American culture, particularly as the region has become less isolated, both physically speaking, as well as through advancements in mass communication. Still, the Gullah people hang on and St. Helena Island has become a center for the preservation of their heritage.

St. Helena Island is a mostly rural area, but the small, unincorporated town of Frogmore is the commercial center of the community. Here you will find shops, such as Frogmore’s Lowcountry Store and the Red Piano Too Art Gallery. You will find a handful of restaurants in Frogmore, some of which specialize in Lowcountry and Gullah dishes. Local cuisine features familiar fare to fans of Southern cooking, along with traditional Gullah recipes and, of course, seafood is plentiful.  Gullah Grub and the Foolish Frog are popular options and, if you’re headed out to Hunting Island State Park, you can drop by the roadside classic, Shrimp Shack.

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The ancestors of the Gullah people were brought to this region as slaves to work on the rice plantations. During the American Civil War, once Union troops had occupied this region, the slaves were given their freedom. It was not long before efforts were made for the education of the newly freed slaves and the Penn School was established near Frogmore by an abolitionist missionary from Pennsylvania, Laura Matilda Towne. This school remained in operation until 1948, but afterward remained open as the Penn Center.

The Penn Center is, perhaps, the most important attraction today on St. Helena Island. It represents a significant historical and cultural landmark, not only for the Gullah and other African-Americans, but for everyone. The Penn Center continues to offer educational resources, provides conference and meeting spaces, maintains a museum and an art gallery. The grounds are beautiful and peaceful and, in times past, has attracted the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent time here during the formative stages of his Civil Rights career.

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Other locations to see around St. Helena Island are the ruins of various churches and plantations, including the Chapel of Ease, Fort Fremont and the Riverside Plantation. There are numerous other similar sites in the area, for those who wish to get outdoors and do some exploring.

From the coastal cuisine, to the local historical legacy, to the rich heritage of the Gullah people, St. Helena Island is a unique destination, offering a laid-back and off the beaten path vibe that you simply won’t find at a more typical beach vacation destination. Whether this is your primary destination, or as a day trip from elsewhere on the coast, it’s worth the effort to get here, to unwind and even to step back in time just a bit.

You can see more photos from St. Helena Island, nearby Hunting Island and the city of Beaufort by visiting our Facebook gallery.

When in Rome…speak Italian 

There’s an old cliche about American travelers expecting everyone to speak English to them when traveling abroad. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but let’s face it, if you travel very widely, you don’t have to be American to quickly fall behind the language curve.

I’m going to guess that a relatively small percentage of travelers are equally conversant in English, Arabic, Swahili and Cantonese. I’ll make a confession up front. I’m not. On the other hand, I think it’s simply good manners to arm yourself with some basic language knowledge when visiting a country where your own language is not dominant.

When I’m visiting another country, I like to get the basics down. What are those basics, though? Well, for me, I think it’s essential to be able to greet someone in their own language. So, a simple “hello” and “goodbye” in the local language are mandatory. I also try to nail down other polite formalities, such as “please”, “thank you” and “excuse” me. After a couple of times of being the bungling foreigner, I also added “sorry” to my list.

Obviously, the more you learn of your host country’s language, the easier it will be to navigate their culture, but just getting some basics down is almost always appreciated by the locals. Just like in my own hometown, strangers are more likely to be helpful when you extend a little courtesy.

Luckily, in the digital age, it’s never been easier to access language learning resources. Whether you are trying to achieve fluency, or just memorize those polite basics, the information you need is just a few mouse clicks away. Really, it may be as close as an app on your phone.

I find Duolingo to be one of the handier ways to introduce a new language and to brush up on the basics of grammar and vocabulary. It’s free, effective and, although you can use their regular website, they are probably better known for their handy phone app. Several weeks before going out of the country, I like to start running through the lessons for my target language. Although it may not make me magically fluent in time for my trip, it certainly boosts my comfort and confidence levels.

If you really want to get serious about a new language, truly becoming conversationally fluent, there is eventually one other thing you’re going to have to do. That one other thing is the most important thing. You need to speak with someone in that language and, preferably, that someone will be a native speaker. Those first few times can be a little intimidating, but languages are meant to be spoken. You’ve got to do it.

A great resource for learning a new language is the website italki.com. Through italki, you can find professional teachers, community tutors, or informal “language partners”, all of whom can help you learn, or improve, a new language.

Basically, on italki, you find someone that speaks and/or teaches the language you want to learn and then you set an appointment to “meet” on Skype. So, you get to have one on one lessons and conversations with native speakers, face to face, via video chatting. Some languages are more prevalent than others, but you’d have to be learning something pretty obscure to not find someone to help you.

Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. The professional teachers on italki.com hold relevant certifications and have experience in language teaching. Yet, the costs are often a great value. A decent hourly wage for some countries may seem like a bargain for many Americans. It’s worth noting, too, that the Community Tutors charge less, because they do not have professional credentials, but I would recommend perusing their profiles, as well. I’ve had mixed results with Community Tutors, but some of the best teachers I’ve found were, in fact, Community Tutors.

Language is the primary conveyor of culture and the more you can delve into the local culture while traveling, the richer your travel experience is likely to be. Daunting though it may seem, learning a new language (even just a little) is more achievable than you might think. So, go ahead. Give it a try. When you’re in Rome, speak Italian.

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