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A View from the Roof—Think Twice Before Throwing Away Your Money

-By Gary Phillips-a-view-from-the-roof

A few years back, I saw a movie called, “The Gods Must be Crazy.”  A Coke bottle dropping from an airplane onto an African Bushman community wreaked havoc with their culture.

So what do you think can happen when a swarm of North Americans swoop down on a small village in the Andes to create new lives for themselves?  Granted, Cotacachi is more modern and advanced than the Bushmen village, yet there are 43 indigenous communities in the canton of Cotacachi, many of which are quite remote and behind the times in terms of the subtleties of Western civilization.

Likewise the community of Cotacachi itself is a unique little village with a strong culture of its own.  So the idea of cultural integration and adaptation becomes an important topic for people considering a move to this beautiful community.

When Linda and I arrived here three years ago, there were only a handful of gringos living in Cotacachi full time, plus some who came part of the year.  Today, Jack Moss told me that the mailing list for Cotacachi expat residents is between 75 and 85 addresses.  Many of those addresses are for two people.

What happens in a traditional culture like this when a proportionally large group of people with different ideas and customs move in?  Actually, it is quite easy to see—one need only look to Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica to see the recurring trend.

We visited Boquete, Panama in 2002. This tiny village, smaller than Cotacachi at the time, had only one bank and tons of natural beauty.  Foreigners swarmed in, developments were thrown up, land and house prices sky-rocketed.  I was told recently that there are now seven banks, most catering to the expanding expat community.

The local population of Boquete has been all but consumed by expats.  Prices have risen so high and so fast that now the expats are leaving for cheaper accommodations. We have heard that in many places in Costa Rica, the locals have an extreme dislike for the expats.

A key area for potential problems is expats overpaying for goods, services and property.   It may seem like such a small thing: “They’re so poor.  We are rich. I just want to help,” goes the often-heard refrain.

Then out comes the five dollar bill for a tip for a two dollar cab ride. The cleaning lady who is used to getting $1 per hour suddenly receives double or triple the wage, because the gringita “just wants to help.”

A property that normally would sell for $2 per square meter suddenly has an offer for $5 per square meter, “because it’s so cheap compared to prices back home.”

I recall the story from a visitor who gave a local indigenous woman selling strawberries on the street $10 for a pound of $1 strawberries, “because she looked like she could use it.”

Many North Americans are kind and generous.  We are known world-wide for our charitable contributions.

What we often don’t realize is the downside, which is our attachment to feeling good when we give.  The downside is paying attention to only that good feeling we get from our giving and not to the consequences of our good deeds.  If we aren’t paying attention to both sides of the equation, we aren’t acting from a place of balance.

What kind of Coke bottles are we dropping from the sky?  And what are the consequences?

First, the locals begin to see us as walking targets for over-pricing.  Restaurants who have many expat visitors suddenly raise their prices by 40%:  the $6 chateaubriand that we wrote about two years ago now costs $9.50.

The cleaning lady who is getting $2.50 per hour with a $5 tip or more tells her peers what the crazy gringo lady is paying.  Others want more money, too, not only from their gringo customers, but from their Ecuadorian customers as well.

The gringo lady finds that every time she walks down the street, someone is hitting her up for money. Why not?  She’s rich!  Look at what she’s paying her cleaning lady!

Then the resentment starts because local families have a harder time hiring a good cleaning lady.  Now she only wants to work for the gringos at higher wages.

The Ecuadorian land purchaser finds he can’t afford the land anymore because the prices are going up. Who’s to blame?  Those damned gringos!

The school you so generously gave school supplies to is happy, but their neighbor schools are jealous.  Don’t be surprised next year when you receive a dozen politely worded written invitations delivered to your door from a dozen school teachers requesting assistance saying, “Why not, you gave to the other school?”

Is there a solution?  Of course.  The solution is to take the time to learn the culture and try to fit in.

If the culture says you bargain when shopping, or when buying land, don’t give in to your shyness or lack of local experience.  Jump in and try your hand.  It’s a cultural game.  If you don’t play it, you are looked upon as a mark, and not a very smart one at that.  And it reflects on every gringo visitor or resident.

Don’t succumb to the North American tendency to think that we are the “do-gooders of the world” and it’s our personal responsibility to save every poor person we see.

If you really want to help, find appropriate ways to give within the established system.  As the Bible says, give in such a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Here in Cotacachi, UNORCAC, the local indigenous organization, has been effectively funneling charitable funds into the communities for years.  They know where best to channel the contributions and how best to do that.

One of the ways we like best is to donate to UNORCAC’s high school scholarship fund. Two hundred dollars annually will fund a student for a full year of high school.

Today, only 30% of 6th graders go to high school, because they don’t have the $300 dollars it takes to attend each year.   Your $200 will be matched by the parents’ $100, and the student is on his way.

If you want to donate, write to us.  We will make sure your donation gets to the right place.

But there are many other ways to contribute.  Do you know a way to get used computers down here? If you do, arrange it and give them to UNORCAC.  They will see that they get to where they are needed without disrupting the cultural context.

Want to teach English to students?  This is one of the greatest hungers for students and their parents.  They know that if they can speak English, their opportunities increase dramatically. Talk to UNORCAC.  They will make the arrangements.

Interested in history? The local museum could really use some expert advice on how to conduct fund raisers.  They want to have musical programs and invite locals to participate as a way to raise badly-needed money for repairs.  But they don’t really know how to do it.  Jump in!  Right now, their only source of funding is admissions to the museum.

One expat here, Debbie, has a group of young children who gather with her weekly in a field near her condo.  They sit on the grass, laugh, play and have an impromptu English class.  Both students and teacher get an equal reward.  And the cultural relationship grows.

Throwing money at a perceived problem has never been a solution and never will be.  We can create Cotacachi into the kind of community that we all want to live in–a community where the cultures live in harmony–where those with resources share them in such a way that those without resources can benefit without negative cultural effects being felt too strongly.

It takes trial and error, careful observation and some letting go of our ideas of what needs to be done.  An open mind will lead to a more graceful integration into the local culture.  Sharing is good, but ego gratification by handing out dollars doesn’t work at all.

And that’s today’s View from the Roof.

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35 Comments

  1. I lived in Loja from 1997 to 2002. I completely, totally & utterly agree with Gary! The worst thing that we can possibly do is to change this wonderful place called Ecuador which we have found & love so much BECAUSE of the way that it is!
    I managed to live there over 5 yrs. I didn’t over pay for anything. In fact, if someone tried to overcharge me for something I didn’t feed into it & pay it even though I could have. Not because I didn’t want to help. I did want to but I found others ways of doing it. I didn’t want to be seen as a “mark” by the locals. Instead I wanted to be accepted & respected in the community which I was. Even today I still have many good friends who I remain in touch with & continue to visit. I found other constructive ways to help such as Gary mentioned like teaching English for free to locals. I taught people in the area a lot about computers. I gave them practical advice for their businesses & careers. It is surprising just how helpful the experience of someone from the United States can be to people in a 3rd world country. And I don’t mean that in a way as though I am talking down to or about them. They are wonderful people. Helpful, honest, kind, considerate, caring, giving, welcoming & they are very hard working. Yet we come from a very progressive economy with a lot of buying & selling. They come from a simpler time & place so often the obvious escapes them. Our mentality is different & often just our ideas are helpful to them.
    As Gary was saying foreigners can do a LOT of damage to a place. This sadly has become true in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. Over the course of the 5 yrs. that I lived in Ecuador I would often take a day trip to Vilcabamba. There have always been SOME Americans & Europeans living there and it had never caused any problem because the number wasn’t very large nor were those who were living there actively doing anything to change the place. They loved it the way it was & left it that way.
    Since I came back to the states in 2002 to care for my aging mother who has lost her eyesight I have continued to return to Ecuador every year for a 2 month visit. On subsequent trips in 2003, 2004 & 2005 I would take day trips to Vilcabamba & it continued to remain virtually unchanged. I didn’t go there 2006-2008. When I visited there again in July 2009 I was totally appalled. We were on the road driving toward the town when all of a sudden my eyes grew wide & my mouth dropped open. What did I see in this tiny Andean pueblo? Gated communities of condominiums no less. I shook my head in sorrow as my eyes swam with tears. I knew without a doubt that it was Americans who had destroyed this place which had stood unchanged for 500 years. In only a matter of FOUR YEARS they had totally destroyed it.
    And why? They came here & saw the place. They thought that it was beautiful & they loved it. They thought that they would like to come here & live.
    Now I do understand that Gringos are accustomed to having a lot of creature comforts that locals are not used to having but, by the same token if they are going to decide to move to a 3rd world country part of that change is going to mean having to give up some of the things that they are used to having. Not bringing every single solitary thing from the states here & trying to duplicate their lives state side in the tiny Ecuadorian pueblo of Vilcabamba. That just isn’t feasible. Not without destroying the thing you loved so much that drew you here in the first place!
    I spent 5 yrs. in Loja with no heating, no air conditioning, no clothes dryer. In fact, at that time almost no one had a washing machine so, neither did I. I had a laundry lady like most other folks who charged $1 to wash a dozen pieces of clothing. I didn’t have cable or internet the same as the locals didn’t AT THAT TIME. Now in Loja many people do have cable. Internet in private homes in still fairly rare. While I was there I strived to live like everyone else. Even though I could have afforded to live on a much higher economic level. It is part of fitting in & becoming a member of the community. I am not saying that I lived exactly like the locals. I did have certain “creature comforts” that I just couldn’t give up – like Cremora. Had to have my coffee with cremora. But it wasn’t a big deal. It was available at a store down town where they sell imported things. And it hardly affected the community my using cremora.
    Getting back to Vilcabamba. It is/was a very small village or pueblo thus the influx of Gringos had a drastic effect on the place. It is ruined. The central park looks like a 3 ring circus now. All the signs are in English & they’re selling tee shirts that say things like “I have been to Vilcabamba the Valley of Longevity”.
    Now had the Gringos gone to a larger place like Cuenca as JoAna mentioned they wouldn’t have done as much damage nor, would it have been as obvious. Loja is a fairly large city with a population of about 160,000. I have watched it grow and, to be honest it makes me sad to see the malls & movie theaters & KFC coming to town. Still as JoAna says being a larger place the changes seem more gradual & are absorbed because it is a larger city with a bigger population some of whom are more comfortable financially.
    We as Americans (& the Europeans too) need to be very, very careful. We find these places & we love them BECAUSE of how they are. We need to be sure that we don’t destroy them to make them more like where we come from because then they will no longer be the places that we love. So what will we do then but move on & find another place that we love & destroy that too.
    I myself plan on eventually returning to the south of Ecuador to live. But as I watch Loja grow & change (through no fault of mine) I think to myself that I will probably choose some place in the areas surrounding Loja to live instead of Loja itself because this is one Gringa who DOESN”T want Ecuador to change EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love it for its quaintness & charm and yes for a bit of the ruggedness of life there. True sometimes things are a little harder or slower but that is part of the charm. Patty

  2. Sometimes we tend to forget that we are a ‘guest’ in a foreign country … and in a community with a rich cultural heritage of its own. Excessiveness of any kind by North Americans is to be frowned upon, as it only widens the cultural divide and creates negative feelings toward the gringos. It is important that we learn about the community and people in which we live.

  3. Gary is right on target. Even during our Peace Corps training in the 1960’s, we were emphatically told not to do exactly what Gary is concerned about. Our trainers made clear the negative fallout from overtipping, overpaying, and even giving more to beggars than the norm. Yes, it was hard to resist giving five dollars or more to a begging child, but we understood why it was disruptive to the culture in the long run. It could be the Coke bottle that set it off

    Jo Ana is correct that we in Cuenca are not as conspicuous — yet. My wife and I run a business which puts us in contact with gringo newcomers daily. Unfortunately, many are here only for “cheap living” and show no interest in the culture. Some show an elitist attitude toward locals.

    A frequent question we are asked is “Where do all the expats live?”, and they are surprised by our answer, that we are different in Cuenca because we do not congregate. There is already talk of walled communities for gringos outside the city. I fear we are headed the way of Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama, where gringos are compared to locusts destroying the crops.

    Gary is correct that all it takes is learning the culture and integrating. We who integrate and have at least as many local friends as expat friends (and at least try to speak Spanish) are welcome. We don’t want our situation ruined through the ignorance or elitism of others.

  4. Richard Johnson says:

    Gary, your general premise is so true, but your Boquete facts seemed to be written by someone who has not been there since 2002. Facts that are not facts at all.

    I bought my house in Boquete in 2003. I can name three banks that had been in town for years. There may have been more; I was not counting. There may be seven today or more, but the money that caused the additional banks mainly came from Panamanian developers and businesses that were getting wealthy from the building boom.

    The Boquete district (canton) now is home to about one thousand foreigners from Europe and North America mostly. There are 20,000 or so Panamanians in the district. Who is overrunning?

    Do those facts seem to indicate that Boquete is consumed by expats?

    You write from rumor. You should know better than that.

    Our closest city, David, which compares to your Ibarra, has a population of about 130,000 it is said. It is growing much more rapidly than Boquete. There are very few expats in David. What could cause such growth?

    Fact is the country of Panama is a growth engine right now and it is not coming from expats from North America. Much of it is coming from expats from central and south america.

    It is true that real estate prices in Panama have increased since 2002. Then building costs were 40 to 45 dollars a sq. ft. Today they may be 60 dollars, but the construction finishing is in a league above anything I have seen in Cotacachi. Its a banana and orange situation.

    I have been visiting Cotacachi now for two months. Except for real estate many prices here are higher than in Boquete. Panama has the free zone which brings in products from around the world and the country gladly distributes them to its citizens and residents.

    The wine I drink in Boquete is eight dollars a bottle. Here I found it for $38.

    Would you please give me your source of information about prices in Boquete. I would like to communicate with that person.

    The internet is a terrible place to get factual information, isn’t it?

  5. A great article, a real eye opener. My Lady and I have just moved to Bahia, and I find myself not negotiating the prices for produce, seafood, everyday items. The prices are so low, it seems petty to argue a low price lower. We live in a condo across from the high school and look down on their soccer field. I have been thinking about donating funds for bleachers, paint and other improvements. Your article makes me pause and reconsider how we interact with this community.

    We are looking for property to buy, and do not know how to differentiate between a price to a local and a gringo price. $5.00 a square meter seems a decent price, but I would hate to find a local’s price would be half of that. This is such a beautiful country, and the people so wonderful. The last thing we want to do is have a negative impact on the community we live in or any community. Thank you for educating us, and keep up the good work.

    Jack & Tracy

    • The best thing to do is to befriend locals, then talk to them about land prices among other things. Don’t rush into a deal. Also, get to know Gary Swenson in Bahia. He is in the real estate business. Any good gringo real estate agent will be trying to keep local prices down, because they recognize that if prices go up dramatically, everyone loses.

      When we go to a market, we kind of hang around a fruit and vegetable stand and watch what the locals pay. Another trick is instead of asking how much things cost, we just say, “I want $.50 worth of tomatoes.” (or carrots, etc). If I pick out a half dozen tomatoes, and say how much, they will say $.50. But if I say give me $.50 of tomatoes, they will fill my bag, just like they do with the locals. It’s a psychological thing.

  6. I agree that about 1000 well-intentioned Gringos in Boquete have created a challenge for the locals and themselves. They are a small portion of the population, but they have changed the economic and social landscape there, perhaps for years, and unfortunately not for the better.

    Cotacachi is not Boquete at this point but whenever a lot of “haves” move into a “havenot” small community, changes are going to occur. It’s not possible to stop the changes or to regulate them and I think expecting Cotacachi to stay the same with an influx of foreigners moving in is unrealistic. We can choose to honor their culture and follow the “when in Rome” rule I live by, but to see others do without is painful and some of us Gringos will not be able to resist giving to those in need.

    I wish you would consider the possibility that many give to help others, not to massage their own egos. Altruism does exist and for many kind-hearted souls to see others suffer hurts the heart and not the head (where the ego probably resides).

    A happy alternative for those who hope to live in a place that isn’t changing is Cuenca. In a city the size of Cuenca, huge numbers of Gringos are integrating more easily because their numbers are still relatively small in relation to the total population and because Cuenca is a university town where many of the Ecuadorians are well off in their own right. I think Cuenca will successfully avoid the challenges facing Cotacachi these days. We’ll see.

  7. Michael C. Frank says:

    Wow, interesting piece. We always enjoy reading your BLOG, One of the points you make interests my wife and I greatly. My wife & I are planning on visiting Ecuador on October of 2010 and staying for a month. Our plan is to get processes moving so that we can retire to Ecuador about a year after that. You mentioned teaching English through UNORCAC, we are both teachers, my degree is in History/Education and my wife’s is in Early Childhood Education, and we would like to teach english, or other subjects when we are living in Ecuador. Can you tell us how to get in tough with UNORCAC so that we can contact them and get any information they have about teaching English? Your help will be greatly appreciated.

    • That’s great. It is amazing how hungry people, especially the indigenous, are for giving their children the opportunity to learn English. When you get to Cotacachi, look us up and we will put you in contact with the people you need to know. Or you can write to Kenji, the local peace corps volunteer, at . But his tour is finished in April.

  8. Sue Mendelson says:

    Thank you Gary for this extremely educational post.
    I will remember this when I return to my home in Volcan, Chiriqui Panama.
    From Feb. 15 to March 4, I will be visiting Ecuador for the first time and Cotacachi is on my list of communities to visit.
    Any chance I might get to meet you and Linda?

    Kindest Regards

    • We would be happy to meet you. Look us up at our office, Eagle and Condor Internacional, on Calle Bolivar, 1/2 block from the main church.

  9. Lee Campbell says:

    Gary,
    This (A View From The Roof) article is excellent. It should be required reading for all expats. Having lived in numeroust countries, I have seen first hand how the expats can ruin a good thing for the locals as well as the other expats, all because of ignorance and the “I can save the world” attitude.

    Thanks again for the good article.

  10. Excellent thoughtful article. Our impact is tremendous changing the social hierarchy and values. Walk softly and thoughtfully. Our effect is more negative and much deeper than we realize.