Oaxaca de Juarez –There are these long, skinny balloons that the kids love playing with.  Hundreds of colors are available, and two sizes: a normal size, and a jumbo size. You hit one side and it goes shooting up in the air and then it floats around and changes direction. Kids can be seen chasing after them in front of the Cathedral  with an enviable sense of innocent joy.

The Zocalo, which is simply the central square, is a gathering place for everyone in the city. During the hot afternoon hours people can be seen sitting, drinking a water, slouched over from the heat. It is surrounded by restaurants that are obviously catered to tourists, but no doubt frequented by locals as well. If you spend enough time there, you’ll hear a musician play the Lion King theme right in front of one such establishments.

Of course, Mexico City has a Zocalo. It is one of the biggest central squares I’ve ever seen in a city. Truly massive in scale, just like the rest of Distrito Federal. Oaxaca is smaller, much smaller. The central square is more manageable. More intimate. It may not be the only meeting place in this small city, but it is the most profound.

At night, it is full of people. Teenage couples come and walk around or watch the payaso (clown). The clown seems to have maintained its popularity among the youth here. A trend, I think, that wanes in the U.S. Groups of mostly teens stand around and laugh at the slapstick comedy. At least the art of clowning lives on somewhere. Check out these pictures from Mexico’s 13th Clown Congress from Time Magazine.

Old men sit and smoke. People bring their kids to play – they love the phallic balloons. Vendors walk around with fresh potato chips, ice cream, water, jewelry, candy, cigarettes, local crafts, miscellany. The young boys selling these things seem to play around with each other more than sell anything. They splash water and dirt, chasing one another around, jewelry jingling from their arms. The young girl vendors walk around solemnly, tired. Shoeshine stands are everywhere, and if you don’t feel like getting up, a boy will do it for you wherever you sit. Beggars ask for change.

I’ve never actually seen them, but fireworks are being set off all the time. They have to be louder than they are scenic, because they can be heard rumbling through the streets at all hours. Someone must enjoy them.

Old and young stay out late in the Zocalo. A live band plays for couples who are invited to dance. A young rock band plays in the same spot another night. Pairs of women, all dolled-up, trot around in high heels with apparently the sole intent of attracting the male gaze.

It’s the best place to go when in doubt. There is always something to watch or look at. You can watch the people that are people watching. In fact, it seems like most of the people there are there for the same purpose: to people watch. Sure, people have conversations, but they met in the central square. It’s the perfect place to start a conversation about anything. It reminds me of the Parisian café, where all the outdoor seats are turned towards the street. For, the most interesting is that which you don’t know all the details. You can make up a story, dwell in something’s obscurity, or mock a situation’s rudeness.

In the Zocalo, sitting and doing nothing is always doing something.

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