Sixteen years ago, somewhere in the jungles of Ecuador, something happened that changed my life. I was nine years old, bookish, chubby, fond of Star Wars, and—if my memory is correct, which it probably isn’t—recently bespectacled. (I wasn’t born wearing glasses, you know.) The thing that happened on that day shaped my destiny in ways I could not have imagined.
On that day, I tasted coffee for the first time.
In the brightly-colored blur that is the life of Adam Stück, such concrete details as dates are elusive. It’s hard enough for me to trace most memories to a particular year, let alone a specific month. In this case, however, one fact allows me to place the day I discovered coffee in April, May, or June of 1999. My life-changing experience happened around the time Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was in theaters. I am certain of this.
I had just turned nine, and was eager to seem as grown-up as possible. My joy and excitement at receiving eyeglasses was tremendous; wearing glasses seemed like a huge step toward the sophistication of adulthood. (It turned out to be a huge step toward a world that isn’t blurry.) Yes, I wanted to be a grownup, and nothing seemed more grown-up than coffee.
However, some faint intuition told me coffee wasn’t suitable for children. It was an adult drink, like whiskey or vodka, and therefore beyond my reach. I had only ever seen adults drink coffee. Whenever it was served to adults, kids were offered milk or juice instead. The message was clear: Coffee ain’t for kiddos.
I was mistaken, of course. My parents would surely have let me try it. However, convinced coffee was exclusively a grown-up drink, I was too timid to ask.
The day before that fateful morning, my dad and I (and maybe my younger bro; I don’t remember) piled into our dusty Trooper and drove from our home in Santo Domingo de los Colorados to a place my dad called “Charlie’s camp,” a campground surrounded by jungle. Charlie’s camp surely had a proper name, but I don’t remember ever hearing it; I can only assume a man named Charlie either owned or managed the place.
My memories of Charlie’s camp are few. There was a river nearby with muddy banks studded with rocks. I recall fences with rusting barbed wire, and remember munching a bag of Star Wars-shaped sweet crackers. My recollections of Charlie’s camp are faint, but one stands out clearly after all these years.
After spending the night, we ate breakfast with the camp crew. It was a campesino (rural) meal of pancitos (bread rolls) and boiled eggs. Black coffee was the only drink available. With nothing else to drink, I realized I might be able to persuade my dad to let me try a cup, even though coffee was clearly and obviously not a drink suitable for minors.
Much to my surprise, my dad raised no objections, and I was finally free to try the stuff that had tantalized me for so long. I filled my cup, lifted it to my lips… and very quickly set it down again.
Coffee was disgusting.
At any rate, that’s what I thought at the time. I was a foolish, ignorant child.
Faced with the prospect of drinking an entire cup of bitter coffee, I did what any sensible child would do—shoveled in plenty of sugar. I took another sip. The taste was much improved, and I felt like a proper grown-up.
The rest is sweet, sweet history. I started drinking coffee regularly in high school, and it gradually replaced tea as my beverage of choice. In college, I began drinking my coffee with milk instead of sugar for health reasons. My daily intake had increased so much that a proportional increase in my sugar intake would probably have caused my heart to explode.