It’s funny how memories can be one of two ways: full of feeling and emotion, but lacking anything concrete, or tied to a specific place and time where you can remember every detail as if it were yesterday. Looking back on my wedding day, I feel a surge of happiness more than I remember the colors of the bridesmaid’s dresses or the flavor of the cake. On the other hand, there is a place where I live now in Xalapa, Veracruz, that is a physical location with the memories tied to it like a balloon to a restaurant chair. I’ve visited this place now so many times that I may know it better than the locals who were born and raised here. What’s more is, the various times I’ve visited I’ve been in very different places in my life. It is only now looking back that I can see it took all these visits and all these walks in life to help me see the true gem that is the Mueso Interactivo de Xalapa.
The first time I was engaged, exploring a brand new city with a fiancé who had embarked on this adventure playing professional basketball in Mexico. I know, it sounds crazy, and I was probably thinking the same thing when I stepped off the plane to visit him in his new home. It was a bit like a job interview with the town for me, because I realized there was a good chance I would be living there post-honeymoon. So when the soon-to-be husband had a day off, we took the chance to visit a museum we had passed on the street several times, with giant colored cubes out front signaling “MIX”.
From the outside, the Museo Interactivo de Xalapa looks like it could be a science and technology museum, an anthropology museum, or even a space exhibit. It’s not until you’re inside that you realize it’s all of those: it’s a children’s museum. There we were, feeling a bit awkward at our age and lack of sippy cups, but nonetheless we paid a measly 60 pesos (roughly $4.72 US) each and slid past the turnstiles into the unknown.
If you’ve ever been to a children’s museum, you know the highlights are always the interactive parts. With “interactive” in the name, MIX does not disappoint with science fair experiments, sensory explorations, and mind-boggling exhibits. Perhaps most memorable on our first visit was a bed of nails which you’re enthusiastically invited to lay on and be raised up in the air. The concept of the distribution of your own weight over hundreds of nails is something that only a laid-back country like Mexico would allow in a children’s museum. Imagine the lawsuits if something like this were allowed in the States. My poor fiancé gave it a go after watching his betrothed have a grand old time, but tensed up throughout the whole ordeal and ended up with a tiny red patchwork of pokes across his back. I remember the laughter, videotaping his poor injuries and thanking our lucky stars they weren’t bigger nails!
The second time I made my way to MIX, I had already made my way down the wedding aisle, my now husband and I were expecting our first child, and my family was coming to visit and conduct their own “job interview” on the city of Xalapa. Because a soon-to-be Nana needs to know the first grandchild of the family is going to be raised in a city with her stamp of approval! Since I am the eldest of six children I thought MIX would be a good place for the family to sightsee, with plenty of comfy benches for my pregnant behind to rest. This time I got to see the museum through the eyes of my English-speaking father, who is the inquisitive, do-it-yourself type. My Spanish was just good enough to translate the placards for him discussing the replica of an ancient Viking ship, and he, as usual, noticed the contemporary architecture in the main foyer and the huge slabs of marble that make up the floors. With my brothers and sisters off trying out the nail bed for themselves, my dad was being his standard self, noticing every detail most people just fly by.
My siblings are the crazy, loud types who never pass up an opportunity to make a scene. I remember they discovered the giant toy needle art frames, where you could literally create an impression of your entire body with the plastic pins. What started out as innocently stepping into the frame to laugh at the remnants of my sister’s nose quickly turned in to jumping onto the frame, going in sideways, eagerly exploring this life size version of a favorite childhood toy. We’re also not a family to back down from a competition, so the tranquil bubble making station evolved into a winner-takes-all battle for the biggest bubble. Looking back, MIX was one of many pieces to that trip that made my family feel at ease with myself and my unborn child living so far away from the Indiana cornfields where I grew up.
Fast forward to present day and there is a little doe-eyed, olive-skinned girl who almost certainly loves MIX more than my husband and I do. Our daughter is still too young to request a trip to the museum herself, but her expression when the building comes into view says it all. With her arrival, we’ve now discovered the “Peques” (“Littles” in Spanish) area of the grounds, specifically designed for children under two. It was an area we didn’t even know existed before, but now we make a beeline for the ball pit as soon as we pass through the front doors. Because of course even controlled nail bed experiments are not prime learning opportunities for a toddler!
The young children section of MIX has an outdoor playing area, water tables for uninhibited splashing, a Gymboree-style play area complete with ball pit, and giant musical pipes with mallets perfect for banging. All in all, it’s a childproof haven for toddlers who are used to hearing, “Don’t touch, don’t mess with that, and don’t push that over” all day long. And there’s a sense of relief as a parent when you’re in a zone where your child will be understood, valued, and accepted while they’re there. We’ve even brought along some classmates from school to explore this area for a play date from heaven. Here we were, Americans living in Mexico, and introducing a museum to parents who had lived there their whole lives! Thank goodness my Spanish has improved now to the point where I can chat with other moms about parental topics while our little ones run about.
MIX also has spaces for workshops, birthday parties, and learning activities. We haven’t explored this aspect of the museum yet, but it’s amazing to know that a place you think you know well can still have more to offer. Of course, as Cora grows her interests will change and she will be able to make friends, interact with the exhibits, and maybe even some day try the nail bed! Beyond just her experiences, perhaps if there is a sibling in my daughter’s future we will rediscover the museum all over again from the perspective of being a family of four.
I had a taste of this on my most recent visit when I took a friend and her three-month-old son. Since he inevitably slept for a good majority of the trip, we rediscovered the “big kid” areas and my daughter was actually able to enjoy a few of the exhibits herself. And with my friend’s stroller we were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of ramps throughout the museum to accommodate her and, of course, handicapped visitors as well. Her favorite part may have been the static electricity ball, with her long, black hair standing completely on end.
My friend’s son relaxed in the ball pit of the “Peques” area while my daughter tumbled, tossed, and bumbled her way around. I can just start to see her personality shining through when she sees a little girl her age she wants to play with. She’s got a friendly, inquisitive smile on, but her body language signifies she’s still just a bit shy to head over and start making friends. Even in the span of a few short months, her interaction with the museum has changed exponentially.
As I watched my friend try out the infamous nail bed, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a couple seemingly on a date to the museum. With a quick flash my mind returned full circle, to that first visit, the beginning of a new life so to speak. Maybe this couple would someday look back on their visit as the start of something grand. Or maybe not, you just never know. That’s the thing about MIX, there are always surprises around every corner.
P.S. This post was originally for my current grad school class. YES, I’m doing it! But yeah, that’s why it sounds stiff in some parts.