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A Day at the Museum

One of the things that has continually frustrated me - one of the few flies in the ointment about living in this corner of the world - is the lack of museums.


Yes, there are lots of Mayan ruins. But only the ones that have a Disneyland-type atmosphere to them, where you have to run a gauntlet of people hard selling you "traditional" wood carvings of masks with the Chicago Bulls logo on the forehead or of two foot tall statue of the alien fighting the predator, have any sort of decent signage. And you usually can't read any of it because there are too many people in line to take a selfie in front of the... whatever before they move on without reading a word.


Then there are some more off-the-beaten-path ruins... but no one pours money into good signage in most of them. Because there's no one there to not read it.


For the VERY long cultural history of the Yucatan, Quintana Roo is not what you would call a cultural capital.


I strongly suspect that if you could teleport any of the major museums from any city anywhere on the planet here... within about two months of operating at a complete loss and having only the occasional visitor walk in to sit down and look at their phone to take advantage of the air conditioning, they'd have to completely sell the collection before being knocked down so that more condos and smoke shops could be built.


So we got used to the lack of museums. Which wasn't easy. Considering that for as long as I can remember, even as a little kid, one of my favorite ways to spend an entire day was just wandering around some museum or another. Didn't matter: art, cultural history, natural history, local history, industrial museums, libraries, historic homes, private collections... whatever. I'm usually delighted.


During our first visit to Merida both Nelly and I were thrilled to discover the little handful of museums there. There is the Museum of the Mayan World, which is very new and very impressive. It's a good ~4 hour museum. But most of the museums there are on the small side.


Still a breath of fresh air, so to speak. But on the small side.


It's been about 6 years since we've been in New York. 6 years of tempering expectations, or simply growing accustomed to life without proper, museum binge-days. 6 years of letting our minds just shape themselves around "that's just how life is."


Then we went to Mexico City.


That shit was like drinking from the firehose.


The first museum we visited was the Templo Mayor. At first glance it looked like a little entry gallery in front of the ruins of one of the most important religious pyramids of Tenochtitlan. Then we walked around the ruins. Ruins we could do. We were used to ruins. When I sighted another little exhibit gallery I called out to Nelly, "Look, there may be some more interesting stuff in here."


Neither one of us was prepared.


We had resigned ourselves to a museum-free life. And here we were, standing in front of an Aztec sculpture laid into the floor that was far, far too big to even see from this angle. You can only really see it properly from the 7th or 8th floor - every one of which is completely packed with some of the most wonderfully curated materials and exhibitry on the history of the Mexica.


We were dumbfounded. Spent about 5 hours there. Had to leave because we were hungry, long before seeing the entire place.


Then we found the Anthropological Museum. We've been there three times now. Spent many hours each time. Still haven't seen the whole place.


This is certainly one of the reasons we enjoy Mexico City as much as we do. Because after a bunch of visits we've still barely even scratched the surface of the world-class museums there.


And then we come back here. Where there aren't any; but we know our life isn't completely museum-free anymore.


Which is what made today's chance discovery all the more exciting.


We went out along the Coba Road to get a new chair for one of the guest houses. The last of the older style we're fond of broke and we wanted to get a newer, sort of adirondack-style one for our guests to enjoy their outdoor space. Then we decided to just drive around for a while. Because what the hell?


I happened to spot, out of the corner of my eye, a dragon-head design that was common in meso-american cultures. Kukulkan among the Maya, a regional analogue of the Aztec Quezalcoatl, a serpent deity. There was just one, sorta "standard-sized" laying on the ground by the entry-way of a little stall.


But it looked like the little, hole-in-the-wall might actually be casting them or carving them, possibly even selling them. I adore the sculpture, but lack either the finances to try and find an authentic, pre-columbian one, or the super-cool, Thomas Crowne Affair wherewithal to steal a 400lbs statue undetected out of a museum for my very own.


So I've made my peace with maybe getting a replica one day.


We pulled over and, again... were in no way prepared for what awaited us.


I suspect he took an interest in us, pegging us for not your standard gringos out for some arbitrarily chosen "local flair" when I pointed to a couple of meter long tiles with raised, very simple designs of lines or a few dots and said to Nelly, "Look! Mayan numbers!"


"What?" Nelly said, "Why do you know that?"


"I dunno. I was reading about Mayan numbers. That's the number 7. That one is just a 4," I turned to the artist who was watching with reserved interest, "Do you have a number 20? That's when they get really interesting."


His reserved interest pretty quickly turned into effusiveness bubblier than a bottle of champagne taking a bubble bath.


We stood and talked to the artist for almost two hours. He told us all about while he studied ceramics and always liked working with his hands, his father had been a scientist and an historian. That he, too, spent most of his youth happily exploring the museums as his dad taught him all about pre-columbian Mexican history.


Talked about geography. And biology. And agriculture. And vulcanology. Ancient trade. And geology.


"You can't really know ceramics unless you understand how the rocks form," he explained as he showed us his favorite dyes to try to match the original looks and colors and textures of the Mayan and Olmec and Mexica sculptures he created such lovingly detailed replicas of. Some appearing weathered and aged, as if stripped from ruins long-lost in the jungle; others appearing as pristine and painted as if they were in a functioning temple.


He showed us the bag of chips of mother and pearl and jade he is going jigsaw-puzzle together the facade for a replica of an ancient death mask.


He pulled out book after well-thumbed book to show us the statue that he modelled this or that after, or where he first read about this or that ancient ritual or architecture.


It was like spending an afternoon in a private museum with the general curator, the lead archivist, the head of restoration, and the original artist all in one. There were also lots of dogs and cats. And his buddy who, from time to time, would chime in with another interesting tidbit or another.


So... it turns out there is a museum here. A startlingly comprehensive one. In a stall about the size of our garage on the Coba Road. And in one dude's head.


As we were getting ready to leave we started to talk about all the development in the area happening. Especially as, he had said, he's been living in the same little palapa hut a few doors down for decades. We suggested that, at least, it must be good for business... so many people looking to decorate their new, fancy-pants homes.


"Nah," he said lighting a cigarette, "I don't like it when they come in here, I'd rather just work. They're not really interested in this stuff. They don't even know what it is."


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