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The holiday market in Plaza El Otorongo, Cuenca, Ecuador
The holiday market in Plaza El Otorongo

The thing about dogs is they’re pitiably loyal. They exhibit a desperate eagerness to please that is best satisfied by serving their master. So when we encountered the employed terrier with its embarrassment demonstrated so obviously, the depth of its distress was clear.

Ecuadorians’ adoration of fairs and festivals is only surpassed by their devotion to Catholicism. Subscribing to the Catholic credo that there ain’t no party like a Jesús birthday party, these passions intersect in a three-month celebration around the Christmas holiday that exceeds the birthday week excesses of the most self-indulgent sorority girl. Cuenca is the heart of these festivities, upstaging the larger cities of Quito and Guayaquil to draw people from all across the Andes.

Intricate carvings on doors of a cathedral in Cuenca's Centro Histórico
Intricate carvings on doors of a cathedral in Cuenca’s Centro Histórico

Two weeks before Christmas Eve, the merrymaking amps up. The banks of Rio Tomebamba are invaded by Santas in an annual run. Amateur fireworks displays punctuate the evening skies. Each neighborhood holds a parade, and they are joined by additional processions from towns throughout the region.

These demonstrations culminate in the Pase del Niño Viajero, Passage of the Traveling Child, an eight-hour pageant on December 24th. The parade commemorates a sculpture of the Christ Child’s 1960’s Roman pilgrimage to be blessed by the Pope. The statue’s path curls along the colonial streets, leading 50,000 marchers, musicians, dancers, and street performers on a tour of the Centro Histórico. Elaborate floats and horses accompany the motorcade. Chicha, a potent, holiday cocktail, is doled out freely from stands along the route. Vendors hawk sweets. Pigs and chickens are roasted. Some 200,000 spectators gather to revel in the streets or watch from their balconies and rooftop perches.

Colonial architecture in the Centro Histórico, Cuenca, Ecuador
Colonial architecture in the Centro Histórico

The plazas of the Centro Histórico transform into bustling art markets, swollen with Cuencanos and tourists alike. Stalls sell clothing and crafts, toys and trinkets, and occassionally, sets of tailored-to-pets Santa hats with matching ugly sweaters.

The terrier had resigned himself to obediently modeling the ensemble, but there was no hint of proud servitude in his dour expression. Perhaps his conscience was weighed by the knowledge that he was a traitor to his species, that his complicity in the sale of these costumes would perpetuate a suffering to his kind that was to be played out in homes throughout the province.

Scientists insist dogs do not feel shame, that humans confuse their submissive response to scolding as guilt, but I could swear it winced when I took its picture.

Morose pup in ugly Christmas sweater, Cuenca, Ecuador
“You’re in the arms of the angel, may you find some comfort here.”

As your time in a place runs down, you find yourself trying to squeeze every last drop from it, as if it will disappear once you leave. This was true for us in Pittsburgh, where our final days were an increasingly exhausted whirl of goodbyes and celebratory drinks. Towards the end, it felt like we had been working double clopens for a week. Even when there is always something to celebrate, especially after a collective 15 years in a city, the spiritual and literal hangover is no joke.

Our relationship with Cuenca was not the hot and heavy frenzy of youthful romance with new and strange places. We are too particular and obliging to the tug of our emotions to try and assimilate entire cities with endless itineraries. Finding our own quiet happiness and being able to share, if only in small amounts, in the secrets of the city and the smiles of Cuencanos was more than enough.

Installation Art, Cuenca, Ecuador
Discovering beautiful secrets tucked into Cuenca’s hidden corners

Cuenca was, for the most part, two people finding definition for their collective lives and the course they wanted to chart. It was two writers, carving away at the marble of blank pages to reveal what was waiting within. Partners, blazing a trail from different directions and finding the serenity of a meadow as they stagger out from the woods to meet.

Revelers marching down Avenida General Escandón.
Ladies on horseback leading the revelers down Avenida General Escandón

The sound of the snare drums drew us to the window. A mass had assembled on Avenida General Escandón below. Young girls in ornate dresses sat atop horses fronting the parade. A cop held back traffic, and music started up as the procession resumed its march.

The band was charmingly disheveled. Children are prominently featured in the pageantry, and costumes are encouraged. Homemade approximations of Joseph and Mary abounded, but also Santas and cowboys. A man pulled a wagon containing a toddling Spiderman.

Indigenous Andeans wore their traditional finery. Modern Cuencanos rode in or even atop cars decorated with foil and cellophane. The exhibition was all-inclusive, transforming El Batán’s main artery into a haphazard patchwork. The crowd shielded themselves against the unyielding December sun with umbrellas as they snaked through the neighborhood’s winding streets.

We took our last trip to the Centro Histórico along Rio Tomebamba. The river had been strung with blue and green lights. The glowing images of frogs, fish, and ducks were the closest thing to inhabitants the tainted river had welcomed for some time.

Neon fish over biologically dead river, Cuenca, Ecuador
These fish weren’t neon before swimming in Rio Tomebamba’s toxic waters.

An art market had been set up in Plaza El Otorongo. Cheap plastic baubles, beaded jewelry, blow-up toys, and ornaments lined the tables and walls of the stalls. Carts selling cotton candy and ice cream bled into the streets. Families weaved through the maze, ushering wide-eyed, hopeful children.

Vendors on the streets of Av. 12 de Abril, Cuenca, Ecuador
Vendors spilling onto Avenida 12 de Abril

A giant tree of blue and white light had been erected at the market’s center. A revolving spectacle of circles and spirals twinkled dynamically above the makeshift Christmas village. Its towering presence was still visible over the rooftops as we made our way back to El Batán, the trailing notes of live music and the hum of the horde a fitting soundtrack to the swirling demonstration.

Writing is difficult work. When the mental labor was too much, we used our city wanderings and explorations as an escape valve, but exploring new territory can be equally exhausting. Towards the end of our stay in Cuenca, our ramblings were a panic in slow motion, a silly and fruitless exercise in optimizing adventure. We plunged deeper into the city, unearthing two mysteries for every one we solved. Now, as weeks turned into days and days into hours, Cuenca almost seemed spiteful in its embrace. Every mural seemed to read, “You could have had all of this and more if you had just loved me better.”

Faibal Mural, Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca is so Catholic even the murals give guilt trips.

Like a lover trying to make amends, we held the city close to us those final days. There was a degree of mourning to work through. It may be short work, but when you’re staring down the barrel of a miserable North Coast winter, it’s almost as sharp and icy as Lake Erie.

As we began to pack, we made sure to discard the things we no longer needed or had room for. Our projections of spite onto our temporary home soon also found their way into the garbage. Like San Diego, Pittsburgh, Hot Springs or any number of places we’ve fallen in love with, Cuenca won’t cease to exist when we leave. The city, along with all the joy it provided us, will be waiting for us when we return.

Christmas Tree, Cuenca, Ecuador
The flashing lights of Cuenca’s Christmas tree are visible over the city’s rooftops.


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