To preface this story, I’d like to say that there are very few people I’d trust to drag me through the Atlanta Airport, let alone unfamiliar territory in a place where I do not speak the language. However, I learned from my time in Ecuador that trust is not only an important quality to have on a team, but a necessity in life—for surely, I would not have had this incredible experience without it.
September 2022 would be my first time out of the country and only my second trip by plane. I didn’t even have a passport before this trip was planned, and I had no idea what to expect.
The morning is like any other; I arrive at the Roasting Facility and sit down at my desk to log a few productive hours of work before Max and I leave for the airport. I’ll be leaving my computer behind, so I’m very anxiously finalizing social media schedules, profit share announcements, a giveaway, shop deliveries, National Coffee Day arrangements, and holiday drink announcements. It sounds trivial, but if I accidentally announce something before the shop delivery actually happens—or if I don’t coordinate a discount or profit share correctly, I will for sure be hearing from customers and baristas…except I’ll be in the middle of Ecuador, unable to do anything about it. Planning and execution at this moment are everything.
11:30 Max and I hop in one of the Transit delivery vans and start making our way up to Atlanta. We, of course, go through the Chick-fil-A drive thru on the way. At this moment, my nerves are only just starting to appear, but by the time we get to airport security, I’ve gone almost completely silent. It’s not a difficult process, I know, but I’m completely clueless. And I hate feeling clueless. Nevertheless, I’m holding on to that trust. Max is not clueless. I'm okay.
15:52 The plane takes off. There's no backing out now.
21:30 Carter meets us at the Quito Airport and films our entrance to share with Shane. Carter’s flight back to the States is the same night that we arrive, and Shane is waiting for us in Zaruma. They’re both very excited that we’ve been able to make this trip happen. Up until this point, Shane and Carter are the only two Z Beans teammates to spend time in Ecuador with Arturo and the farmers. It’s not lost on me how important this moment is for them both—having made countless sacrifices over the years, putting in hundreds of hours to build a business and fulfill a mission, this is a sign that it's all paying off. Carter, Max, and I grab something quick to eat, and Carter makes sure that we are able to find our way to the hotel for the night. Once we say our goodbyes, the challenge begins.
Again, this may sound trivial. But this trip, especially the beginning portion, is a true testament to the amount of trust we all have in each other. To be in an unfamiliar place—confused and lost without anyone’s guidance in the moment—is no easy feat to overcome without some level of mental fortitude, a fact about ourselves that we often forget or take for granted. Max and I, as soon as Carter leaves our sight, are relying solely on each other and the text messages Max receives from Shane, who is 262 miles away.
04:00 Our alarms go off. We have a flight from Quito to Loja at 05:30, and we’ve only just discovered that Shane will not be meeting us at the airport when we land due to some unforeseen circumstance at the Processing Facility. My Spanish is nonexistent, and this early on in the trip, Max’s is rather shaky as well. I'm starting to think, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”
05:15 Sitting in the small airport, I reflect on my time at Z Beans. While I was still a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Crutchfield, doing only public relations and research for the company at this point, I remember a conversation I had with Shane one morning as we left the Innovation Center to go back to the Roasting Facility.
Shane is parked on the other end of the parking lot, and he yells over to me, “Hey, Mary Kathryn! You think you’d ever go to Ecuador?”
“Yeah, I think so!”
“It’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve only ever convinced Carter to come with me.”
Nearly two years later, and here I am—in Quito, Ecuador. I don't think I'll ever know what Shane saw in me that made him not just hire me, but then also trust me enough to take on so much responsibility so quickly. He knew that I could do this long before I did.
06:15 Watching the sun rise over the Andes Mountains from a bird’s eye view is incredible. Max and I take pictures of the sky and the mountains below. Our itinerary has obviously flown out the window, so we briefly discuss the fact that we have no clue what we will be doing for the day.
08:00 We’ve landed at a small airport in Loja where we’ve been told Arturo and Gerrardo, our trusted driver, will be waiting for us with Dr. Harshbarger. No such luck. We stand outside until Arturo finally finds us. He gives me a big hug and starts speaking...my mind goes completely blank, but thankfully, Arturo just laughs. We throw our things in the back of Gerrardo’s truck, make our introductions, and say hello to Doc, who acts as our translator for the time being.
I’m not sure how Max felt, but I was utterly confused the entire day. Fascinated, sure. But completely lost. I rarely knew where we were going or what was happening. I also quickly learned that the majority of traffic laws in Ecuador are more like suggestions or general guidelines than actual law. This, paired with the precariousness of mountainside roadways, makes for a very scary yet oddly safe journey.
To start the day, we stopped at a small restaurant that I’m not convinced was actually open; more likely, Arturo is just really good at making conversation with people. I was given eggs, bread with cheese, an unknown juice, and coffee. This is all after I thought I had expressed that I’d already eaten and wasn’t hungry. I was evidently incorrect, so I ate what I was given. After being back in the truck for a little while, I remember thinking, “Good thing I brought Dramamine.” Being well fed would be a common theme for the rest of the trip.
At this point, based on what Doc is able to glean from Arturo, Max and I are pretty sure we’re headed to meet Ramiro Pauta. Shane will still not be there, and this is starting to feel like a test by fire. Hopefully, we pass.
11:15 We find ourselves in Vilcabamba with Ramiro. It’s lunch time, so we stop at a small restaurant bustling with Germans, Americans, and Italians. Having eaten two breakfasts now, I was unable to eat my entire meal. Arturo made a joke that I must be on a diet, and I got a good kick out of that. After eating, we divided ourselves into two groups: Arturo, Gerrardo, Doc, and I in one truck; Max and Ramiro in the other. We’d be following them to Ramiro’s farm.
12:15 On the way there, both trucks pull over in front of a building in Malacatos that’s surrounded by what looks like hay. It turns out to be a small sugarcane processing facility. The workers there show us the process and allow us to try the processed sucrose that they are working to form into brown sugar blocks to be distributed. Sugarcane is one of this region’s leading exports, and it occurs to me that it's a far more laborious process than I ever realized to get to drink a Dr. Pepper.
12:45 After leaving the facility, we trek further and further along the mountainside. The roads are growing more narrow and are winding at shorter intervals making it difficult to keep up with Ramiro. Then, as luck would have it, a mule hauling sugarcane up the mountain stops in the road in front of us. Arturo tells Gerrardo to stop so that I can take a picture; he is quite the sufficient marketer. However, neither Arturo or Gerrardo actually know how to get to Ramiro’s farm, a fact I was acutely aware of. I watch as Ramiro’s truck disappears around the bend in a cloud of white dust. For the next ten minutes, we drove up and down the extremely windy mountain at an equally extreme velocity with Gerrardo stopping the truck every time we saw someone to ask for directions. Everyone knew Pauta, but no one knew what direction he lived in. Thankfully, Ramiro found us.
13:00 Pulling up to Ramiro’s farm, I didn’t know what to expect. My first thought was honestly, “Where even is the farm?” All I saw was a house and a chicken coop. To my chagrin as an asthmatic, everything we’d come to see would require a little more effort to get to. All of the coffee was on the slope of the mountain. It was truly a beautiful sight, though—the coffee was shaded by banana trees and surrounded by citrus trees of all sorts. We had the opportunity to try coffee cherries, mandarin oranges, pomegranate, and pink lemons. Ramiro explained to us the importance of the sugar content within the cherries and the ways in which the surrounding plants will affect the flavor of the coffee. Arturo complimented Ramiro on being one of the most innovative and skilled coffee farmers in Ecuador due to his knowledge of coffee and agriculture.
I quite literally had no idea what was being said for the majority of the visit, but it was an incredibly joyful experience to watch people speak so excitedly about something they were clearly very passionate about. One thing I did understand was when Arturo wanted me to take more pictures; he’d pose and nod to me or start pointing while making a gesture as if he were holding a camera. I get the feeling he was scolding me at times for not taking enough, but I found it humorous. I was too enraptured by the experience to think at all moments that I was, in fact, there for an actual purpose.
14:00 When it was time to leave, we once again split up to follow Ramiro back into town. About ten minutes into this journey, we pulled over again, this time at a small roadside stand. The sign read, “Jugo de Caña”—sugarcane juice. Ramiro was evidently adamant on giving us the full Malacatos experience. The juice was very good but incredibly sweet, and I couldn’t believe how easily Ramiro and Arturo were drinking entire glasses of it. I struggled with my one. The man running the stand made easy conversation with Arturo and Ramiro; Arturo told us that he was 100 years old—a fact I’m still not too sure of.
18:00 After driving for a while, night came, and the fog rolled in. I couldn’t see anything in front of us, and the roads were windier than ever. Sharp turns and steep drop-offs for two hours straight, and we're completely blind. I’m freaking out—holding on to the seat in front of me and literally praying to God that we weren’t about to take a nosedive off this mountain. It was during this time that I realized two things simultaneously: Arturo and Gerrardo are incredible, albeit terrifying, drivers; and, Max Burke can sleep through anything.
20:00 We finally arrive in Zaruma at Arturo’s home. We’d successfully conquered the day without mistake or injury, and Shane, having now appeared, began asking us how our day went as we ate dinner. Max and I laughed as he acknowledged how confused I must’ve felt the entire day. Having put most of his mental energy into trying to understand what everyone was saying to him, I didn’t often get a translation.
Instead, I found myself marveling throughout the day at how much like friends everyone seemed to be in Ecuador despite being complete strangers to each other. In the States, we’d call ourselves polite and sure, we’d make friendly conversation with people from time to time. But this was different. It was neither kind nor harsh. No simple pleasantries or looking for common interests then just moving on. They spoke as if they’d simply always known each other. And more than that, they included me in everything despite the fact that we couldn’t understand each other. Trust in people. Remarkable.