Home Is Where You Make It
(It's 7:30 in the morning - day 12 of the trip. I've been up since 5:00 because I have yet to acclimate to the high pitch crows from the 10 roosters outside my window. Dr. Saravia, our economics professor, lets us know that we will be traveling to three different coffee plantations.
30 minutes later, the big blue bus comes roaring up to hotel Roland. All of us in the economics and Spanish groups grab our hiking bags and load up the bus. I sit at my normal spot - the far back, left corner of the bus. I stay with the routine. I take out the Bluetooth speaker, sync up my phone, and play the same first song - Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver.
"Country roads, take me home - to the place - I belong." The words ring in my ears as we trudge up the side of the Andes. I can't help but to think about my childhood.. The times with pops out in the front yard - throwing the ball.. The times where I'd come home from a practice and mom would have a hot meal waiting for me. This was home..
The first group must get off the bus. When I realize Arturo is the one that will lead the group, I decide to go with him. Sarah, my partner during the excursions, looks at me with disdain. She knows Arturo will probably take us on some ridiculously long hike to see a meager 25 coffee plants. After we get off, Arturo asks for one more group. Dr. Saravia, Andy, and Oscar agree to come with us.
We are 10 minutes into the uphill walk. Mosquitos swarm and our legs burn. Of course - I don't have my long sleeves on either. But, my mom is always a step ahead. I reach into my backpack, pull out the bug spray, and lather my arms. The mosquitos change course.
We continue climbing, avoiding mud puddles, limbs, and the beaming sun. We pass house after house, and I can't help but to think of the difficulties these people must encounter every time they want to go to the store. There is no way someone could drive on this battered road.
How do these people manage to survive? - Is home where you make it?
My mom comes in my room. She asks, "Shane, would you like breakfast?" I open my eyes for the first time in the last 9 hours. I immediately smell the bacon.
"Of course! I'll be there in a minute."
I get up. Open my wooden dresser. And put on clothes my mom bought for me just a month ago.
I walk into the kitchen. Pops is sitting there with an untouched plate of French toast and bacon, waiting for my arrival.
Mom has already made dish. I sit down - the steam rises.
Dad and I engage in our normal, deep conversations, discussing his favorite quotes that he thought of last night. "I'd trade a month of tomorrows for one yesterday." We sit and ponder its meaning, deciphering its significance within our own lives. Dad tells me he heard it in a song. I look it up. We sit together, father and son, listening to Willie Nelson sing: "I'd trade all of my tomorrows for just one yesterday. For what good is life without the one you love?"
We've been walking up the mountain for an hour now. We hear a machete clearing dead vegetation. Arturo tells us that the plantation is ran by a farmer and his son. We get to the gate. Arturo yells, "Hola. Buenos Dias!"
A young boy greets us. He's pouring sweat. His clothes are war-torn and beaten from the laborious work; it's 9:30 in the morning. He tells us that he will get his father.
A minute later, a man approaches. He's short, dripping sweat, and has a machete in his right hand. Arturo tells him about our project, letting him know that we would like to ask questions about his plantation. He obliges - as his son stands beside him.
"How many coffee plants do you have?"
"What other types of crops do you have?"
"Oranges and Jackfruit."
"Who works at your plantation?"
"My son and me."
"What types of fertilizer do you use?"
"I only use natural fertilizers. I use the waste from my animals and the pulp from the coffee cherries."
"Where do you sell your product?"
"I sell some at the local market, but most of the coffee is for my family's consumption."
"Would you sell the coffee in the U.S. if there was a market for it?"
"If there was a market for it, would you want people to know that the coffee came from your plantation?"
He smiles, blinks slowly, and puts his arm around his son: "Yes."
"Can we go throw the ball, Dad?"
"Sure. Let me help your mother with the dishes and put on my shoes."
I run out to the garage and get dad's white Reebok classics and his faded, tan ball glove. I sit the shoes by dad's chair at the kitchen table and put his mitt on the countertop. I get my glove and a ball from my room and head back to the den.
As I wait, I sit in Dad's chair. I toss the white, scuffed up ball to myself - over and over. I stare at it, hoping. A young boy, with nothing to worry about - with no obligations, dreaming about the days in which everyone hears his name over the loudspeaker at Yankee Stadium: "Now up to bat - number 7 - ..."
The boy picks up his machete and heads back out to field. He looks back as the tool hangs from his right hand. We make eye contact. He nods. I nod back - paying my respect for his hard-work.
The group and I head back out, in search of a new farm. As we walk by the back of the plantation, I see remnants of what was a soccer ball. It's brown, weathered, and deflated. I stare at it for just a moment, thinking - "Where do dreams die?"
We trudge onward, passing house after house. Arturo explains that none of these farms have any coffee because the only place people can sell is at the local markets.
30 minutes later we finally make it up the hill. We sit by the roadside, pouring sweat, waiting for the blue bus to pick us up. I can't help but to think of the farmer and his young son. I think back to my own childhood - when Dad and I would spend time together. I think back to the countless hours I put towards chasing my dream of playing professional ball because I never had to worry about food being on the table the next day - it was always there. I think about the soccer ball that I saw and the metaphorical messaged it portrayed.
I ponder: "What would my childhood have been without dreams?"
The blue bus arrives.
"Can you come to the baseball office?"
This isn't good. I see 20 years of hard work going down the drain. All I've ever wanted was to be a baseball player. Never once did my mother or father denounce my aspirations - never once did they point me in another direction even after my torn labrum - never once did they tell me I wasn't good enough.
I get to the coaches' offices at 11:50 - immediately after my Spanish class ended. I walk in. Sit down. All four coaches stare in my direction.
The head coach speaks up.
"Shane, this is one of the hardest things we've had to do. We will not have a spot for you in the spring."
I sit, staring at Coach Gibson. My dad's words of wisdom reverberate: "Always look a man in the eyes, Shane."
"Thank you for the opportunities, Coach."
I walk to my car in the upper parking lot. For the first time, life seems to be at a standstill. There is no where for me to go. I've lost my identity..
"Hey, Shane. How are you doing?"
"I'm fine. Nothing is wrong. It was going to end sooner or later."
"You know, Shane. Your mother and I will be proud of you no m..."
20 years flashes before my eyes. Dad and I throwing the ball out in front of our house - Dad hitting me pop-ups at the rec department - Dad and me driving to ball games all throughout middle and high school - Dad seeing me get at bats at Mercer my Freshman year.
I shed a tear. Dad does as well.
A dream died.
6 months later, Arturo and I sit next to each other on the big blue bus. We do our best to communicate, as my Spanish is still subpar. We sit and share stories. He tells me that he use to carry 100 pound coffee sacs over 5 miles a day. He tells me one of his famous jokes and has me look at his 65 year-old calves, which validate his story. We laugh and enjoy each other's company.
As we roll on, we come up to a young boy who appears to be walking to the schoolhouse, a few miles up the road. I tell Arturo that we should give him a ride. Arturo looks at me, then tells the bus driver to stop. We stop and allow the boy to hop aboard. He's extremely excited. 10 minutes later, the boy hops off the bus, as we pass the school.
"For 10 years, I walked to school every day. It was a 3-mile walk," Arturo says.
"I stopped going to school because I needed to make money. I started working in the mines and helping at local farms," he says.
I think back to the young boy and farmer I encountered earlier in the day. I begin seeing parallels between Arturo's childhood and the boy's.
I ask, "Does every farmer's son or daughter drop out of school early?"
"They don't have a choice."
I think about my home. I think about just how fortunate I am. I think about the dreams I was able to pursue as a kid. Then, I think about what I could potentially do to create value for the people of the Ecuador.
I immediately realize the answer to my lingering question: it's not about the manifestation itself, it's about the perception.
Where do dreams die? It's where others come alive.
Perhaps, that soccer ball wasn't flat after all. It was just waiting for air.