The Zocalo.

The Zocalo.

RAJESH NAIR · GIOVEDÌ 21 APRILE 2016

I want to share the experience of my stay at the Zocalo. I travel to places to see people and their culture upfront and I am typically not shy or afraid or intimidated to face it. While booking my hotel for my stay in Oaxaca, various reviews and feedbacks on travel websites warned travelers about avoiding hotels close to the Zocalo calling it notorious for loud noises that continued late into the night. Instead that only reinforced my eagerness to stay right in the heart of the Zocalo.

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The Zocalo is the central piazza of Oaxaca. Access to the main square is pedestrian and my shared taxi from the airport dropped me a few blocks away and the driver just pointed me in the direction of the Zocalo. I gathered my bags and marched towards the square. It was simply impossible to get lost as I could sense the intensity of life and sound increasing with every step I took forward. I checked into my hotel Marques del Valle and asked the receptionist for a room facing the square! I took the stairs instead of the elevator upto the level of my room, dropped my bags on the floor, opened the curtains and the windows and I was facing the Zocalo. This would be my home for the next 7 days!

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The main piazza or the Zocalo is situated right next to the massive cathedral of Oaxaca and lies under huge historic laurel trees dating back atleast a 100 years. Right in the center of the square is a raised gazebo with benches surrounding it. Around the Gazebo there are 4 fountains in each quarter if I recollect this detail well. The piazza was at all times kept neat and clean despite the fact that thousands visited it everyday. The big trees and their vast branches kept the Zocalo under its cool shade which allowed people to leisure and spend their day below it even during the hottest times of the day.

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During my week long stay I would come to think of the Zocalo like a canvas of a painting. I would wake up each morning and open the curtains of my hotel window and glance at an empty piazza with a few policemen doing their rounds. The Mexican national flag would already be hoisted by then with the first rays of sunlight hitting it. There was only one vendor who sold coffee and champurado on a mobile cart.

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I had several coffees and champurados from him during my stay. As the sun rose higher and the morning progressed you could feel the place getting alive and loud. It was like someone orchestrating it. The piazza attracted hundreds if not thousands of locals and visitors every hour during the day and by evening there was typically no place to sit or walk. What I love about such places is its simplicity and genuinity. Just trees, water fountains and benches were enough to bring people together and it catered to people of every age. Little kids learned to walk freely by grabbing the benches, old couples who walked hand in hand reflecting on their decades of life together, friends kept their daily appointments to spend a few minutes with each other to discuss politics, sports or just have a laugh. Businessmen stopped by the many shoe shine stands, sat down and grabbed a newspaper while their shoes got polished by skilled vendors.

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During my first evening at the Zocalo I saw a performance by the candelas or paper puppets just outside my hotel window. A band of about 10-12 musicians performed while 4 candelas danced around as the late sun began to set on the Zocalo. Candelas are a popular act and I learnt during my short stay that they are hired for all kinds of processions and even events like weddings and graduations. In this case they were celebrating the birthday of the Benito Juarez.

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And then there were also many musical acts throughout the day. The Zocalo attracted solo street artists who performed for the public on their saxophones or trumpets or percussions. Bigger bands set up under the laurel trees. One fine Wednesday late afternoon as I returned to my hotel after having walked the city on foot, I saw a band setting up to perform under the large laurel trees. I was told the Miercoles del Danzon took place every Wednesday. Infact as I looked around I saw many elegantly dressed couples sitting around waiting for their dance. I pulled a chair and sat along. Exactly as the clock tower on the Cathedral struck 6pm, the band began their performance and the couples stood up to dance till the sun had set and all they had was a few street lights.

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Everyone had their own reason to be at the Zocalo. There was something to do for everyone irrespective of how much they earned a month. There were vendors who sold $1 ice creams or bimbollos as well as sit down cafes and restaurants that catered to those who had a bit more money to spend. Everyone enjoyed a good time and everyone was very social. I spent many hours everyday loitering around at the Zocalo and it never took more than 10 mins before a conversation broke out with the person sitting next to me and I did not hesitate to converse back with my limited Spanish. Over the 7 days of my stay I would have a chance to see many musical and other entertainment acts and also feed my gastronomical senses with some delicious street food.

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By the 6th day of my stay I was literally starting to feel tired. I just could not keep up with the pace these Oaxacans set. They had so much energy and so many reasons to wake up each day and do so much with their lives and each other. Surely the Zocalo was the center piece to all of that.

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Now I am back home in my very modern urban dwelling. I am pretty sure life still goes on at its best at the Zocalo and here I am left with people staring at their many smart devices in public places. Not many even lifts their head to look at each other or even let that sunshine hit their face. Ahh I miss the Zocalo.

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