It was 7:30 in the morning– day 12 of the trip. I’d been up since 5:00 because I had yet to acclimate to the high pitch crows from the 10 roosters outside my window. Dr. Saravia, our economics professor, let us know that we would be traveling to three different coffee plantations.
Thirty minutes later, the big blue bus came roaring up to Hotel Roland. All of us in the economics and Spanish groups grabbed our hiking bags and loaded up the bus. I sat at my normal spot in the far back, left corner. I stayed with the routine. I took out my Bluetooth speaker, synced up my phone, and played the same first song– “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver.
“Country roads, take me home to the place, I belong…”
The words rang in my ears as we trudged up the side of the Andes. I couldn’t help but think about my childhood– the times with Pops out in the front yard throwing the ball, the times where I’d come home from practice and Mom would have a hot meal waiting for me. That was home.
The first group got off the bus. When I realized Arturo was leading the group, I decided to go with him. Sarah, my partner during the excursions, looked at me with disdain. She knew Arturo would probably take us on some ridiculously long hike to see a meager 25 coffee plants. After we got off, Arturo asked for one more group. Dr. Saravia, Andy, and Oscar agree to come with us.
We were 10 minutes into the uphill walk. Mosquitos swarmed and our legs burned. Of course, I didn’t have my long sleeves on either. But, my mom was always a step ahead. I reached into my backpack, pulled out the bug spray, and lathered my arms. The mosquitos changed course.
We continued climbing, avoiding mud puddles, limbs, and the beaming sun. We passed house after house, and I couldn’t help but think of the difficulties those people must encounter every time they want to go to the store. There was no way someone could drive on that battered road.
How do these people manage to survive? Is home where you make it?
My mom comes into 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 my 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’d been walking up the mountain for an hour now. We heard a machete clearing dead vegetation. Arturo told us that the plantation was run by a farmer and his son. We got to the gate, and Arturo yelled, “Hola. Buenos Dias!”
A young boy greeted us. He was pouring sweat. His clothes were war-torn and beaten from the laborious work. It’s 9:30 in the morning. He told us that he would get his father.
A minute later, a short man approached dripping sweat and with a machete in his right hand. Arturo told him about our project, letting him know that we would like to ask questions about his plantation. He obliged as his son stood 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 smiled. Blinking slowly and putting an arm around his son, he said, “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, 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 picked up his machete and headed back to the field. He looked back as the tool hung from his right hand. We make eye contact. He nodded and I nodded back, paying my respect for his hard work.
The group and I headed back out in search of a new farm. As we walked by the back of the plantation, I saw remnants of what was a soccer ball. It was brown, weathered, and deflated. I stared at it for just a moment, thinking, “Where do dreams die?”
We trudgde onward, passing house after house. Arturo explained that none of these farms have any coffee because the only place people can sell is at the local markets.
Thirty minutes later, we finally made it up the hill. We sat by the roadside pouring sweat and waiting for the blue bus to pick us up. I couldn’t help but think of the farmer and his young son. I thoght back to my own childhood when Dad and I would spend time together. I thought 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 thoght about that soccer ball and its metaphorical message.
“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 nowhere 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…”
Twenty years flash 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.
Six months later, Arturo and I sat next to each other on the big blue bus. We did our best to communicate, as my Spanish was still subpar. We sat and shared stories. He told me that he use to carry 100-pound coffee sacks over 5 miles a day. He told me one of his famous jokes and had me look at his 65-year-old calves, which validate his story. We laughed and enjoyed each other’s company.
As we rolled on, we came to a young boy who appeared to be walking to the schoolhouse a few miles up the road. I told Arturo that we should give him a ride. Arturo looked at me then told the bus driver to stop. We stopped and allowed the boy to hop aboard. He was extremely excited. Ten minutes later, the boy hopped off the bus as we passed the school.
“For ten years, I walked to school every day. It was a 3-mile walk,” Arturo said.
“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 thought back to the young boy and farmer I encountered earlier in the day. I began seeing parallels between Arturo’s childhood and the boy’s.
I asked, “Does every farmer’s son or daughter drop out of school early?”
“They don’t have a choice.”
I thought about my home. I thought about just how fortunate I was. I thought about the dreams I was able to pursue as a kid. Then I thought about what I could potentially do to create value for the people of Ecuador.
I immediately realized 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.
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