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There’s absolutely nowhere we’d rather be than with our families during the holidays.  One of the hardest times to be away from home for us is the week between Christmas and New Years.  No matter how much fun we’re having, no matter how much of a rhythm we have found on the road, being homesick during this time cannot be avoided.  It struck us especially hard last holiday season and this year we were intent on doing everything we could to minimize the depression that results from the knowledge of all the home cooked meals, parties and quality family time we’d be missing out on.  The underlying theme of how we would approach the holidays this time around was not to try to avoid but to embrace.  We would replicate traditions where we could, we would reach out to family as often as possible, and most importantly, we would celebrate.

The first part of Mission Embrace the Holidays was choosing a city to settle down and call home for a few days.  We chose Cuenca, Ecuador, which as a major metropolis of 333,000 people, ended up being the perfect place to spend the holidays.  Cuenca is home to Ecuador’s largest Christmas celebration which culminates with a parade called Pase del Nino Viajero.  This marathon of a parade begins at nine in the morning on Christmas Eve and continues well on into the afternoon.  As if a perfect metaphor for the difference between Christmas in the states versus Christmas in Latin America, the final float that would be occupied by Santa in NYC’s Macy’s day parade is dedicated to Jesus in Cuenca.  The parade climaxes as the tiny baby Jesus doll makes his way to the Cathedral de la Inmaculada for religious services.  The whole city is in full celebration mode during which we found trucks full of bread, bananas and chicha, a fermented maize drink, parked throughout the city handing out freebies.  We saw people of all ages consuming this alcoholic beverage, even young kids.  Why can’t kids have fun too?  Their brains can continue developing after Christmas.

The second part of Mission Embrace the Holidays was to ensure we had plenty of good home cooked meals to look forward to.  This was a key component that was missing from our first holiday abroad as we found ourselves battling one of our earlier cases of food poisoning.  Because Christmas Eve last year included a trip to the emergency room, we had the bar set exceptionally low.  This year we feasted on vegetable casseroles, gravy made from scratch, giant rigatonis and a roast chicken with stuffing.  Every night in Cuenca we sat down to a giant feast that, though they could not compete with the meals we would be having if we were back at home, worked to sufficiently distract us from said meals.

It took us a while on the road before realizing the power of skype.  Initially we found ourselves battling spotty internet and family and friends not familiar with skype.  We have since ironed out some of the kinks and discovered that subscription services through skype are well worth the money.  For $5 a month we have 400 minutes that can be used to call any cell phone in the states.  This makes on the fly calls much more convenient for everyone as no coordinating efforts need to be made.  We spent as much time as possible talking with both friends and family which proved to be the most therapeutic activity in dealing with homesickness.

Between calls with family, city festivities and our giant feasts we filled our time in Cuenca with Christmas music, games, classic Christmas movies and plenty of booze.  I’m sure some imagine this is life as usual for us but it is not.  We took a break from our blogging, researching, car maintenance, and driving south to celebrate the holidays.  Instead of dreading them as we had the year before we looked forward to all the fun we had planned.  We didn’t ignore the fact that our families were celebrating together and instead took advantage by telling them all at once just how much we missed them.

A pit stop on the way to Cuenca, Volcan Chimbarazo
Wild vicunas, a member camelid family kept us comopany
They're brothers and sisters of the llama and alpaca.
We found a dirt road that lead us to our spot for the night
We decided to take a less direct route to Cuenca that led through Cajas National Park.
The sun was setting as we drove down from the pass.  The pictures don't quite do it justice.  It was an amazing drive.
We quickly set up camp to prep dinner at an overlook with the dwindling light.
Within a 10 min walk of our hostel was the municipal market.
Outside vendors were set up peddling everything christmas.
Inside was festive too.  It was hard to ignore Christmas was right around the corner.
A very clean meat section of the market.  Still something Jill prefers to avoid.
Cuy by the pound.  Not quite a Christmas goose.
Plenty of variety to choose from for our feasts.
Make music, not war.
Ecuador is a major exporter of flowers and has a booming rose industry.
The high elevation, volcanic soil and year round temperate climate make it ideal.

Playing music with a baby on board.
We did plenty of wandering around the city.
The Plaza de Armas had a great collection of trees.
A good amount of variety that when lit up at night was pretty spectacular.
In fact the whole city glowed at night.
This government building was beautiful.  The whole thing was marble.
Another angle
It's a good thing we stocked up since everything was closed the Sunday before the big day.
Wandering the quiet streets.
Looking down the street from our hotel to the river nearby.
The big day.  The crowds started amassing early.
The chicha truck handing out freebies.
There was a mad fight to the front of the line.  People everywhere love freebies.
That's my arm fighting for a spot.  Jill was elbowed out of the way by a 90 year old woman.
The spoils of victory.
This wasn't a bad spot to watch the parade from.
It got a bit crowded.
The big thing was dressing up children.
Papa Noel
Little angel
Aside from three kings, Santa and angels there was traditional garb as well.
This falls into the who knows category

These kids had had a long day

Little Sanchez
Animals were dress up as well
Animals of all sizes
The animals were loaded up with offerings.  See the chicken?
A whole roast pig with a convenient place to put a flag.

A dude and his sheep
One can build an appetite wandering around all day.
You can't eat meat on stick without following it up with a beer.  It's a rule
This dude insisted on posing for the camera
We would walk down the block to the rivers edge for happy hour.
As if we needed proof
Sunset skateboarding
There was some cool artwork  across the river
Walking home to our feast
Making every attempt to be festive.
Missing all 7 fish but italian none the less.
Our humble Christmas tree.  On par with my dad's Christmas cactus.
Merry Christmas!