The Most Important Choice

A few weeks ago I started my apprenticeship at an organic finca (farm) about 20 minutes outside of my community of El Juncal. Below are my first two experiences at my new job:

Experience 1: 
Due to my decision to stay up late the night before, I was running on six hours of sleep as I trudged towards the bus stop for my first day of work. Even though I arrived at the agreed upon 7:00 AM, my new coworker arrived to meet me there around 7:45 AM. By the time we got to the farm the hot Ecuadorian sun was already beating down from above. The minute I arrived, I was put right to work, handed a hoe-like tool, and instructed to start digging up weeds which had overgrown the orchard. Thirty minutes later, my shirt now drenched in sweat with bugs circling me like vultures around a carcass, thoughts crossed my mind of when we might be moving on to a new task.

Of the blisters forming on my hands, the one on my left thumb was the first to rip. I winced and repositioned my grip to relive the stinging pain. Twenty minutes later, my right thumb followed suit. I looked down at my throbbing (and now bright red) hands, feeling embarrassed at my lack of farm strength.

Two hours into my new job, my mouth becoming dry, I realized I had forgotten to bring filtered water with me. Since I was cautious about drinking untreated tap water, I knew that I might be pretty dehydrated by the time I got home. The only liquid I had that first day at the farm was that which I was able to suck out of a two slices of watermelon that I ate during our 10 minute break.

As we got back to work I began to realize my slowing pace with regards to the men working along side me. I hadn’t been able to figure out the most efficient way to lift weeds from the ground, and each time I overturned the dirt, I had to scramble to uncover the weeds before dragging them to the small piles being made along our path of destruction. I hoped my shortcomings were going unnoticed, but it seemed very unlikely.

My day concluded at about 12:00 PM after four hours of the same back-breaking, weed-clearing work. After walking the quarter mile back to the bus stop and waiting for another 20 minutes or so in the direct sun, inhaling dirt kicked up by passing vehicles, I caught a bus to head home. Upon arriving, after drinking three glasses of water, I headed straight to the bathroom to run water on my now raw hands. I had hoped that the cool sensation would calm them, but I was mistaken. As the water ran over the open blisters they stung like alcohol on an open wound, and finally my thumbs just started to feel numb. After a lunch of the daily soup, rice, and potatoes I collapsed on my bed for a 10 minute nap before I had to catch a bus into the city for Spanish class.

Experience 2:
 I rolled out of bed bright and early at 6:25 AM on Thursday morning, but it felt like it could have been 10:00 AM. I can’t explain why but I woke up feeling rested, alert, and ready to take on the day! I tied up my boots while going over some gratitudes in my head, before saying my new daily prayer of “let me be lived by it,” (from the Tao Te Ching). After a quick breakfast, I headed down to the bus stop, and before I knew it I was walking along a shady dirt path towards a gorgeous Ecuadorian farm, nestled in-between a group of towering Andes mountains.

As I got to work, I felt alive and I was able to experience a reality that so many in this world live day to day, but that the majority of US citizens will never have the opportunity to witness first-hand. As I lifted my hoe and drove it back into the ground, I remembered what my neighbor had told me the other day. These men working alongside me will work for five hours in the brutal Ecuadorian sun, doing an extremely difficult job for $10 a day. What they make after a day of sweating bullets, bent over in a field is only 50 cents more then I made for just an hour of work at Baskin Robbins back in the States!

A few hours in, as my muscles ached and my work started to slow, I was humbled once again. There were four of us in that orchard and I was the only one under the age of 60. I was also, no doubt, the only one who was slowing down. These men were tough. I would stop to rest for a moment, but these men were machines, determined and strong. More then that — these men were kind, as I would accidentally dig up a seedling or mistakenly burry the weeds they just dug up, in a pile of dirt and a cloud of dust, they did not get mad. They never rolled their eyes or told me I was doing it wrong. So when we stopped for the usual break and I sat there, the juice from a sweet slice of watermelon rolling down my chin, I felt blessed. I felt blessed to be in the presence of such role models. I felt blessed to be able to experience the first “real” hard day of work in my life.

This was quite the office that I was working in. Each time I looked up I saw rich green mountains in every direction, on a backdrop of clear blue skies. I realized it took the heat of the sun for me to appreciate the cool breezes that would drift through the valley every so often. Then just as fatigue finally consumed me, we reached the end of the field and we were done. As I thanked my boss and got ready to head home, he gave me the most satisfying and well-earned payment of my life — a quarter for the bus ride home and an entire watermelon.

All of the events in both of the “experiences” you just read about really happened to me, and both of these stories are 100% factually true. The thing is, I have only told you about my first day at the farm.

Alone, neither of these interpretations were how my day went, or at least how I felt it transpire. My day was somewhere in the middle, a mashup of both. I constantly swayed in and out of seeing the beauty in the tough parts, the lessons in the trials. So if I were to sit here and tell you my first day was magical, as I felt the sweat on my brow and a feeling of accomplishment in my gut, I would be lying to you, and even worse, to myself. The only way I can think to describe it is that this year is messy. When taken away from the comforts of home, tossed into a new culture, being forced many times to navigate with a map that seems to be upside down, life becomes amplified. There is nothing to shield me from extreme emotions and it becomes harder to escape harsh realities about myself and the world around me. So it’s not that everything I said in my whimsical “Experience 2” wasn’t felt on a deep level, because it was. But a part of me did fight back, craving self-pity for my lack of sleep, blistering hands, and aching back. I try so hard to live in that world of revelations, and complete acceptance for my situation, but slipping back, from time to time, into that “Experience 1” mindset is inevitable.

I know that I’m not the only one who gets these feelings, and they are most definitely not specific to one particular world demographic . The fact of the matter is that the struggle to stay positive and grateful in the face of adversity is part of the human condition. It is so easy to slip into a “poor me” mentality, but I can say with certainty that when we let ourselves go there, personal growth and improvement comes to a screeching halt. That being said, there is also a power we are all blessed with. It is a beautiful thing that for years my parents tried to remind me of as I rolled my eyes, trying to make it look like I believed a word they were saying. We have the power to choose how we react and how we interpret every event in our lives. This is tough. To fully activate this power, full responsibility must be taken. It means telling myself, this is nobody’s fault but my own, due to how I am choosing to see my situation. If the idea that no one can be blamed for anything in our lives isn’t unbelievably daunting and more then a little scary, I don’t know what is!

I have been playing with this thought for a few years, but I now know it to be a fact. Every minute of every day we have a choice. When we start to combine these choices they become the difference between a bad week and a good week, a tough year and a year of growth. The weeks will roll by, followed by months and years, but really all that is, is now, and right now we all have a choice to make– the most important choice.

I would like to dedicate this blog post to my parents, who have introduced me to so many incredibly powerful universal truths that I have come to hold as a foundation in my life. It might have taken me heading off to the other side of the equator to finally solidify them as I figured them out for myself, but I want to thank you for planting those seeds of wisdom in me from such a young age.

I love you both,