Looking for a sign

Location: Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico

The museum has some nice exhibits, but bad signage has always been one of my pet peeves (I cannot understand why airports like LAS give arriving passengers only vague hints as to where to find their luggage or the parking garage).

Once you enter into a chamber of this museum, there are no marked exits to get out, handy maps, or signs in any language saying this way to the next exhibit chamber. There are guards standing by the doors to verbally direct you, but this is of little help if your primary language is English or Mayan.

The museum is also an architectural curiosity.

It is oval with a lot of empty space in the interior and the outer structure is criss crossed with grey and bright green support beams. The architect says that it is modeled after a ceiba tree, but the locals say that it had structural problems and needed extra banding to give it strength. They call it the strapping tape building.

I like the locals interpretation.

Off the beaten path

Location: Kiuic, Yucatan, Mexico

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I find this to be one of the more charming of the Maya sites. You need special permission to visit, and there are only jungle trails between the structures. A number of the buildings have been partially restored, but the site becomes interesting precisely because the grounds have not been manicured.

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Coming across each building group in the jungle remains a delightful surprise, and gives each view a special sense of discovery.

Observing the Observatories

Location: Mayapan, Yucatan, Mexico

The ancient Maya had a pattern of building vast cities of stone with temples, ball courts, palaces, dwellings, observatories and monuments. The Maya would live there for a few hundred years, and them abandon them. The construction of these cities and ceremonial centers seems even more astounding when you realize that they only had stone tools to quarry and carve the rock, and no animals or carts to help them move the stones.

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Mayapan was the last Maya urban center in the Yucatan, and was abandoned just before the Spanish arrived. Some call Mayapan a reflection of Chichen Izta and point out the carvings are less ornate and the architecture is less sophisticated. But, Mayapan was at onetime a vast complex with over 3,500 buildings, and here the main buildings are close together, you can climb the pyramids, and there are much fewer crowds.

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I have been to Mayapan before, and have a huge archaeological field report on the site. My goal here was strictly photographic. Each visit is different. I shoot digital infrared and the differences between morning, noon, and evening can be dramatic. The clouds also play an important role.

Where are the Panama hats made?

Location: Becal, Campeche, Mexico

This afternoon we stopped by Becal, the place in Mexico where generations of the locals have been making quality Panama hats.

There is a special palm that grows here whose fibers excellent for hat making, but the air is too dry to weave the fibers without breaking them. Fortunately the rock here is relatively soft, so they do the weaving in underground caves.

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They still make excellent hats, but sadly, as in many areas, the local craftsmen are being undercut by the cheaper and less quality products form China.

Those of you who know my fondness for headgear will not be surprised to know that I did my part to help the local economy.

The cleaning of the bones

Location: Pomuch, Campeche, Mexico

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Today we visited the cemetery in Pomuch. Here whenever someone dies, they are buried for three years. After that they are dug up and have their bones cleaned. Then in time for Hanal Pixan, they are placed in a wooden crate with the top open. Each year they are given a new embroidered cloth for veneration.

This is their way of honoring the dead, and some say that a relative who is poorly taken care of can “become angry and wander lost through the streets.” For most people of my culture, skeletons are something that we want little to do with. We archaeologists treat them with respect, but here they are treated with reverence.

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The people here are Catholics, but the practice goes back to ancient Maya times where the skulls of the ancestors were often kept and venerated. Quite a few of the young folk have converted the Evangelical churches, where they are told to abandon such practices.

Some of the elders wonder who will look after their bones when they are gone.

The Journey Begins

Location: Merida, Yucatan, Mexico

Part of my job description as a new inkeeper in Santa Elena is to be an resource on the local customs and the sites in the vicinity. I therefore jumped at the chance to join an excursion to experience the local Day of the Dead ceremonies and some the local archaeological sites.

The Day of the Dead is a uniquely Mexican festival with roots in both the early Spanish and Mexican customs. It may look a bit like Halloween, but it is actuality more like Memorial Day. And here the dead are embraced rather than feared.

The Maya call it Hanal Pixan and each community has their own way of celebrating it.

The excursion was sponsored by the Institute of Maya Studies. We began our trip in Mereda at the Hotel El Castellano. I have not stayed at this hotel before, but I am familiar with the neighborhood. It is near the zocalo and has many interesting shops, sites, and restaurants. This is one of the few tall buildings in the Yucatan. I can look out from by balcony and see how most of the city is only two stories tall and the flat forested countryside seems to go on forever.

Discovering traditions

Location: Santa Elena, Yucatan, Mexico

I am going to be exploring the Day of the Dead ceremonies in Mexico.

Last night I looked at the shrines with food and candles for the dead in Santa Elena. I will be updating later about my discoveries.

Stay tuned

Easing back in slowly

Location: Ticul, Yucatan, Mexico

I have been away from Mexico for two and a half months and it is amazing how much I need a refresher course.

You do not flush toilet paper. Oh right, I remember. Topes (speed bumps) can sneak up an you have to take them veeerrrrry slowly. Ka-thump. Oh, where did that one come from?

I did remember where to find the market. The smells from the taco stands are tantalizing, and I am sure they are tasty, but can my system handle it?

Not today.

I am trying to remember the Spanish numbers. It doesn’t really matter. My brain can not figure out what they are saying anyway. Then my mind has to go over the conversion rates from pesos to dollars.

How much is 38 pesos? Does it matter? It’s not much, and I am going to be buying the watermelon anyway.

What color is the car I am driving, the maroon one. Right. I will open it with my keys.

It does not open.

Oh, this is not my car. I have no idea what the parking attendant is telling me in Spanish, but I am relatively sure it is not complimentary.

I do find my car, tip the attendant, and make my way back to Santa Elena.

At least the road is familiar. It is all falling into place.

Taking the dam tour

Location: Hoover Dam, Nevada

Looking at this monumental project and marveling at the engineering, the labor, the lives lost, the capital involved, and the political will to make this happen. Living part time in the Yucatan, I see parallels to the construction of the thousands of Maya pyramids, roads and temples.

People ask why the Maya stopped creating their big glorious projects.

I ask the same questions about our scaled down visions of today.

Closing a door

Location: San Francisco, California

Another pile of sand, or in this case bay fill.

I have had my loft in San Francisco for nineteen years. It has been my student lair, a working studio, my primary residence, a homey place to be when visiting the Bay Area, and place of hospitality for friends and family.

But as my interests are moving further away from San Francisco, it is time to bid it farewell. I look over at files of my artwork stored on three different types of extinct media and boldly toss them in the trash.

If I have not archived them by now, so be it.

Over the course of four days, and with the help of two friends, everything has been packed into a truck and ready for relocation.

How is it that I, an experienced packer always always underestimate the number of boxes I will need?

It was only on the last day, sitting on the floor of the now empty bedroom/office that the wave of memories crashed over me… choosing the wood finishes, tiles, flooring and lighting fixtures; my grad student projects at the San Francisco Academy of Art; quiet times with my first wife; reviewing the absurd California & San Francisco voting propositions; the politics of committee meetings; photo shoots in the next room; exploring the then-new phenomena of digital photography editing.

The memories tug at me. But even though the past has made me who I am, I have a new life now, and mad schemes for the future.

Yes, the sentiment is deep in this place, but I think the cash will be more practical