Ah, the South! My travels in this region have been limited, but I like what I've seen. At times, it feels like you're in an entirely different country. Southerners speak slower, have a distinct accent and even their own words! For instance, they say "fixin" instead of "to do", and use the term "ya'll" to refer to more than one person. After eating some Southern grub (food), you may hear the question - "Ya'll fixin to come back?" It's a way to determine whether you liked the food and customer service. Seems fitting because Southerners are extremely hospitable. They really care that you're well fed, happy and feel at home. There's a unique spirit here that you can't find in other parts of America, and I felt it most strongly in Memphis, Tennessee's largest city. I can't say Memphis is beautiful, in fact parts of the city are very dirty and run down. However, the city has played an important role in both America's history and culture, serving as the home base for the civil rights movement, the blues and a wonderful trolley system. Let's take a closer look...
1. Memphis sits right on the Mississippi River, making it an integral part of America's trade history. Because the city is located in a flood-free zone, many cotton plantations developed here in the early 1800's.
2. When you hear the word "plantation", slavery immediately comes to mind and Memphis has a shameful past in this regard. The city was home to one of America's largest slave markets, with over one million slaves transported to the region to work in hot cotton fields. At one point, Memphis was the world's top cotton producer/trader but I believe China has surpassed it. The city even established the Memphis Cotton Exchange in 1874 to regulate cotton trading and pricing, but it was closed in 1978 in favor of computer trading. The Exchange still acts as the rule-making body for international cotton trading and arbitrator for trade disputes.
3. In summer, it's possible to take a ride down the Mississippi River in a real steamboat. In December, no activity as all boats are docked. I never understand why all water activities are shut down in winter? I'd gladly hop on a boat even in chilly temperatures.
4. View by the river front. Of course, Tennessee was part of the Confederacy and Confederate flags still proudly wave here. The State with the most Civil War battles? My home State of Virginia, with a big battlefield right in my home town of Manassas. Some day I'll write about it. Tennessee comes in second place.
5. In addition to trade on the Mississippi River, the rails played an important role in Memphis history. In the late 1850's, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was completed. It was the first railroad in the U.S. to link the Mississippi River with the Atlantic Ocean. It's still active today, operating under the name Southern Railway.
6. During my visit, I saw no trains - only beautiful trolleys! About twenty years ago, Memphis began purchasing old trams from other parts of the world and restoring them. Today, they're shiny, clean and a joy for tourists to board.
7. You see the trolleys everywhere in the city, riding alongside cars and walking pedestrians.
8. Stations are conveniently located throughout the city. In the morning, we had to wait about twenty minutes for a trolley to arrive.
9. Cute signs at each station.
10. By mid-afternoon, the frequency increased and multiple trolleys were riding varying routes at the same time. One right after the other, so wait time was minimal.
11. I don't know how many trolleys are in the system, but on the reduced weekend schedule it felt like we kept seeing the same ones throughout the day. There are three separate lines, carrying about 1.5 million passengers per year through the city.
12. Price each time you board is $1 USD, self-paid through a machine. It's necessary to have exact change, and this is annoying. However, you can walk inside the station and pay with debit or credit card, then scan a boarding pass upon entrance.
13. Inside, everything is neat and clean. Nice, shiny wooden benches on which to sit. Not very comfortable for the butt, but they are heated! Cool surprise to have toasty buns during the ride. If you visit America during the Christmas season, be prepared for a lot of holiday decorations. Even the trolleys are filled with garland and ribbons.
14. Hold on tight! Actually, the ride was usually smooth.
15. My favorite trolley, very festive with the sparkly Christmas wreath. You can notice the trees are still green and colorful. In general, the South has a mild climate but this year all parts of America experienced a brutal winter with lower than average temperatures and a lot of snowfall.
16. Vintage looking equipment, but the trolleys run on modern technology.
17. A wide-variety of people ride the trolleys. Families, older people and solo riders. All trolleys are required to be handicap accessible under American law, with mechanical platforms to raise wheel-chair bound passengers. Here - proof that not all Americans smile! :)
18. Young boy, solo rider.
19. Curious child.
20. This driver we saw more than any other. By mid-afternoon, he was waving at us each time we passed.
21. Nice, friendly man though you can't tell by this photo.
22. This passenger saw my camera and asked to be photographed. He requested that I forward him the photo, and inform him upon publication of this story. He also sends warm greetings to all Russians!
23. View from the trolley. Americans like to build mock pyramid structures. If you've been to Las Vegas, perhaps you've seen or stayed at the Luxor? Memphis also has its own pyramid, which currently is empty. At one time, it hosted sporting and entertainment events.
24. After riding all the trolleys on all routes, it was time to bid adieu to the warm wooden benches and explore the city by foot.
25. View of downtown. You can see there's nothing extraordinary about it. Parts of the city are grey and dirty. By size, Memphis is quite small and you can navigate the main parts easily in one day.
26. Even in run down areas, usually there's some vibrant sign or splash of color to brighten an otherwise depressive scene. I think it's very important for the psyche.
27. Local sandwich shop, confused by the season. Typically scarecrows are an autumn decoration, and this photo was taken in December.
28. Some modern buildings in the city. I especially like the architecture of this one.
29. Jeweled building!
30. I've mentioned it before - America is a dog nation! Not cat. Most cities will have numerous dog parks where residents can walk pets, with free disposable bags to pick up poop and keep the area clean. Here's Memphis' version, with a big dog statue at the entrance.
31. Many families out for a stroll on Saturday afternoon.
32. Why do some foreigners think Americans eat only hamburgers and fast food? It's not true! Fresh vegetables available from a local convenience store on Main Street. Soon, I'll start a series of reports about American restaurants so you can see what we actually eat on a regular basis.
33. Local clothing, hat and shoe shop for men.
34. Stylish local. If you're scared of black people, or believe all blacks are gun toting criminals, you better avoid Memphis. The majority of the population is African-American (over 65%), and sadly civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated here on the morning of April 4, 1968 while in town to support a strike by African-American sanitation workers who were protesting unequal pay. Maybe you know the U2 song "Pride," where Bono sings - "Early morning, April 4, shots ring out in the Memphis sky...free at last, they took your life. They could not take your pride." The song was written in King's honor.
35. These decorative flags hang throughout the city, with various scenes. But here's my favorite - lady singer.
36. Speaking of music, you probably know that Memphis was the home of Elvis Presley. I didn't get a chance to visit Graceland. Hopefully next time because I've been a big Elvis fan since childhood. A great statue of him sits in city center.
37. The heart of Memphis and the music scene is world famous Beale Street, which is known as the birthplace of the blues. Legendary blues artist B.B. King got his start on this very street, lined with hundreds of bars and live-music venues.
38. In 1966, Beale Street was declared a National Historic Landmark and in 1977, it was officially declared the Home of the Blues by an Act of U.S. Congress.
39. On weekends, the street is blocked off and open only to pedestrian traffic. Pay close attention to the sign. No reptiles allowed! :)
40. Tons of restaurants and bars from which to choose. You can listen to any type of live music here - jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, country, gospel...
41. The shops on Beale Street sell all kinds of strange souvenirs. Instead of a piggy bank, you can buy a boob bank. God bless America!
42. Many refurbished and new musical instruments for sale.
43. Continuation of the boob theme...
44. Beale Street - also home to my smiley bear twin!!
45. It's even possible to be serenaded here, with payment of a small donation of course! This guy sang me a song. Something about how his "dog loves my pussycat..." Hmm..sexual harassment? :)) Then he proceeded to tell me he's a distant relative of Michael Jackson. Probably had one too many whiskeys on Beale Street before he picked up the guitar. But a charming drunk!
46. More songs have been produced and recorded about the city of Memphis than any other city in the world. You can see the complete list of songs here. Perhaps you recognize some of them? My favorite is "Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn. Take a look at the video and listen to the lyrics. The most touching line - "when you haven't got a prayer...boy, you've got a prayer in Memphis." I'm not a believer but I feel it in this city. A spirit - an inner spark that can only be ignited in the South.
Special thanks to my travel partner for another memorable American journey!
Other Stories from Tennessee:
God's Tree House: Crossville, Tennessee
Portraits of Americans: Tennessee