Great (Coffee) Expectations — in Quito, Ecuador

Throughout high school, I never touched a drop of alcohol because I lived in fear that addiction was like a man in a dark trench coat, stalking me, waiting for me to get off the well-lit sidewalk and step into an alley. I had seen that alley.

Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi

My high school friends can attest: I did not touch a drop of alcohol in high school, just like Gifty from Transcendent Kingdom. And like Gifty, I knew what that alley looked like.

Because my dad was in it.

Like many children growing up with addiction in the home, I really didn’t understand it. I would get so angry at my dad for what I interpreted as “choosing” alcohol over his family. When I became a mouthy teenager, I would tell him just that. He’d shrug.

And speaking of mouthy teenagers, one of them, one day, slouched in the back of one of my English classes, listened as I (then an adult and the teacher) told my students about how I was a teetotaler. I didn’t touch alcohol. I’d never been drunk. This teenager — his name was John — shouts (shouts!), “WHAT A LOSER!” The class, myself included, burst into laughter. I couldn’t believe this kid! It took a hot minute to calm the class down after that. John reminded me a lot of my high school guy friends. They were always making fun of me, always trying to get me to drink. But I loved them. And I loved John, too. He is a great human with a good heart. And if not-drinking makes me a loser in the eyes of teenagers, I’m A-OK with that. Makes me chuckle just writing it. Sweet teenagers.

Sweet teenagers that certainly didn’t know my dad and his proclivity for alcohol.

My mom, though, didn’t touch the stuff. Her beverage of choice?

Coffee — cream, no sugar.

When I was 27, I lost my mom; at 34, my dad. Naturally, I find myself trying to stay connected with my parents in whatever ways I can.

So I drink.

Two cups a day — cream, no sugar. I still don’t touch the alcohol. My dad drank coffee every morning, too, without fail, so I do feel connected to both of my parents through my making-coffee-every-morning ritual. I have fond and bittersweet memories of drinking coffee with both my mom and my dad. My mom — on her balcony in Sunnyvale, CA. My dad — out in his front yard on old camping chairs. My mom — when she was sick and staying in our guest room in Florida. I’d bring our steaming cups into her room and sit next to her as she sipped in bed. My dad — when he was in the hospice unit at the Palo Alto VA Hospital. One day a week, his floor would get the Keurig machine, and I’d take a couple of mugs I had grabbed from his house and fill them with the finest K-cup coffee. We’d sit together and look out his window at the mountains.

So it’s coffee for me, and now I live in the coffee belt here in Quito. I know my parents would be thrilled. But when I first got here, I was dismayed to learn that Ecuadorians don’t tend to drink much coffee, and the coffee they do drink is (it’s difficult even to utter…) instant coffee.

Whaaaaat? I was not expecting that. We have access to world-renowned, award-winning coffee here. Search “Ecuador” on, and nearly 40 results come back with coffees scoring 90 points or above. And yet it’s fairly common in a restaurant to be brought hot water or milk with a little container of instant coffee, instant barley drink (cebado en polvo, I’m told to make your coffee “fuerte“), and sugar.

I had great expectations of cute little local coffee shops run by Quito hipsters or families who’ve been in the coffee business for generations lining the streets here. That is not the case.

Enter my friend Dion. Dion is a human who appreciates coffee. And he lives in Quito! He buys from a local coffee farmer in Playa Rica, roasts at the Perla Negra Farm, and bags it up in his own home here in the city (conveniently, he lives only a couple blocks away from me). His “Dos Hemisferios” single-origin coffee scores over 80, which makes it a specialty coffee (which simply translates to a great cuppa).

And a great cuppa is what I’m after. More good news is that since moving here, I have found some cute coffee shops with delicious coffee. Last week, two friends took me to Cafe Traviesa in Cumbaya for my birthday. Just today, my family and I were walking through a (ritzier) part of the city we hadn’t been before, and I saw quite a few cute coffee shops (Kofi Time, Cafe Europa, Pulcinella, Magic Bean — all on Avenida Repulica de El Salvador). Things are looking up.

Now I just need to learn how to order. The last time I tried to order a coffee with cream (what I would normally call half and half), I got coffee . . . with whipped cream on top. Whoops. The boys got to enjoy that.

I’ve learned that if you want to drink like the locals, it’ll most likely be instant and maybe with some barley powder. But just go to a different part of the city, and you’ll find your cute coffee shops. All is not lost.

So maybe I am a coffee-drinking loser, but I sure do love my life. And now that I have great coffee at home (thanks, Dion) and am finding more and more coffee shops that serve good quality drip coffee and espresso (read: not hot milk with a jar of instant granules), life is even better. Call it an addiction if you will, but I love my two cups of coffee a day.

And if some sketchy, trench-coat-wearing dude appears and starts beckoning me to the coffee alley, I’d probably go.

At Dion’s house, preparing for our cupping of three different coffees: Dos Hemisferios, Perla Negra, and Sidra Washed Coffee. The highest scoring was Washed, but my favorite was Dion’s coffee Dos Hemisferios.
I’d never done a real cupping before, so it was a fun, new experience!
Dion bags his coffee right in his living room!

My birthday outing! Thanks, Cameron and Laura, for indulging my coffee inclinations and taking me to Cafe Traviesa. And a free birthday brownie? YES.

All’s Not Well in Paradise. And That’s OK.

It was necessary, and the necessary was always possible.

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Listen 8:23

It was a rough week. Necessary, but rough.

School was in full grind: Steve working all hours of the day; the boys logging on and off and on and off and on and off Zoom; me washing so many dishes.

I got a mango rash all over the right side of my face. Apparently, mangos have urushiol oil in them, the same oil in poison oak and ivy.

Trivial things, yes. But as you know (because you are a human), it’s those trivial things that add up to make you want to bang your (red, puffy, itchy) face into a wall.

These necessary kinds of weeks happen to the best of us. And dealing with them is tough. Because more than likely, the things happening to us are a result of choices we’ve made, which makes the dealing with the emotions part of it a little trickier.

Steve chose to go back to teaching. (Granted, he didn’t know it would be in the midst of a pandemic.) We chose for the boys to go to school, and that means virtual right now. We chose to live without a dishwasher. And my rash? I’ve known I’m allergic to mango since a trip to Costa Rica in 1997. And yet I wasn’t careful about washing my hands after handling mangos. My fault. Lesson learned. Well, I guess we’ll see in another 23 years.

So here’s the catch: We get mad at these stupid little things happening in our lives that are caused completely by us, or we get mad at these stupid little things happening in our lives that are completely outside of our sphere of control. Either way, are we justified in getting angry or sad or tired or or or?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that it was a rough week. I got angry. I was sad at times. Tired. And when I start thinking about these emotions and why I’m having them I start thinking that surely I can’t be justified in feeling these things because my complaints are rather trivial and mostly a result of my own choices and there are so many people out there dealing with legitimate hardship and I better just slap a smile on my face and START A GRATITUDE JOURNAL BECAUSE THAT WILL FIX EVERYTHING.

But you know what? I believe in a God that gives grace. And I think that same God would want us to give ourselves some grace. Grace to allow ourselves to feel justified in our pain. So as I sit in my rocking chair out on my porch molding a frozen bag of peas into my right eye socket, cheek bone, and chin, I think about how emotions — even the negative ones — are a necessary part of life.

And I also think of the things in my life that are not trivial. The things that hit harder than a “rough week.” Losing my beautiful, best-friend mom over ten years ago. She never got to meet her grandkids. It hangs on me like a shroud. Losing my fiercely loyal dad four years ago. He met and spent time with my first two boys and loved them unconditionally. The boys are already forgetting him.

They say that high altitude living practically sucks the moisture out of your body. So I try to drink lots of water here in Quito, where I live at over 9,000 feet.

But what happens when it feels like your very vital essence is being sucked out of you?

[No one-size-fits-all answer here.]

There are a few things that help me:

  • getting outside, walking, being in nature
  • reading a fantastic book
  • baking bread
  • cleaning the kitchen (yes, yes, I get it: the kitchen is both a source of pain AND of therapy — maybe there’s something to that combo)

And sometimes doing all of those things doesn’t scrub through to the bright, shiny happiness.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Why?

Because life is necessary. And while I don’t believe that we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” (poor Gatsby), I do know that the past is absolutely a part of our lives. It should be acknowledged. Dealt with if necessary. Learned from.

Acknowledging and dealing with and learning from our past — these might not be necessary for life, but they sure are helpful in living an authentic life and having authentic relationships.

Life is necessary. And because it’s necessary, it’s possible. Maybe not happy all the time.

And that’s ok.


Tasting the Earth
James Oppenheim

In a dark hour, tasting the Earth.

As I lay on my couch in the muffled night, and the rain lashed at my window,
And my forsaken heart would give me no rest, no pause and no peace,
Though I turned my face far from the wailing of my bereavement…
Then I said: I will eat of this sorrow to its last shred,
I will take it unto me utterly,
I will see if I be not strong enough to contain it…
What do I fear? Discomfort?
How can it hurt me, this bitterness?

The miracle, then!
Turning toward it, and giving up to it,
I found it deeper than my own self…
O dark great mother-globe so close beneath me…
It was she with her inexhaustable grief,
Ages of blood-drenched jungles, and the smoking of craters, and the roar of tempests,
And moan of the forsaken seas,
It was she with the hills beginning to walk in the shapes of the dark-hearted animals,
It was she risen, dashing away tears and praying to dumb skies, in the pomp-crumbling tragedy of man…
It was she, container of all griefs, and the buried dust of broken hearts,
Cry of the christs and the lovers and the child-stripped mothers,
And ambition gone down to defeat, and the battle overborne,
And the dreams that have no waking…

My heart became her ancient heart:
On the food of the strong I fed, on dark strange life itself:
Wisdom-giving and sombre with the unremitting love of ages…

There was dank soil in my mouth,
And bitter sea on my lips,
In a dark hour, tasting the Earth.

A Quito rainbow. Look closely, and you can see it’s a double.