Cotacachi / Cotacachi / Cotacachi Indigenous / Ecuador Culture / Ecuador Lifestyle / Living in Ecuador

Life in Ecuador: A Clash of Cultures

Life in Ecuador is such a contrast to life in the United States.  Take sheep and sheep herding, for instance.

The sheep in both countries are pretty much the same.  White, black or brown.  Voracious feeders.

But sheep herders are very different here. In Ecuador they are often barefoot, brown and wrinkled, wearing blankets on their heads.  They carry a stick and sit on the ground all day, watching their animals eat everything in sight.

While it’s fairly easy to make a North American sheep herder understand that you are unhappy with his &#*@ sheep eating up your trees, it’s really, really hard to get the word across to an old indigenous lady who is used to grazing her sheep wherever she wants to, regardless of fences, walls, rivers, gates or tall gringos. And who doesn’t have a clue as to what you are trying to tell her.

Gary and I are definitely involved in a border war, a boundary issue, an animal dispute, a cultural clash.

Our days usually start out well.  Notice how calm and expansive Gary looks as he surveys our little kingdom.  This is before he turns around . . .
and notices a herd, or rather, a horde of sheep racing ravenously toward our newly planted trees. Our nemesis, the ancient indigenous sheep lady from the village next to us, is once again encouraging her woolly wards to help themselves to our generous bounty of green leafy edibles.

Gary attempts to communicate with her.  He waits until she is comfortably seated and seems open to his approach.  He comes into her space slowly, smiling and friendly.

He’s demonstrating effective communication skills. Expressing himself in more than one sensory area will increase the odds that she understands what he is saying.  So he tells her the problem and also shows her one of our new trees.

Then he clearly demonstrates that we are planting trees, (as if she hasn’t noticed).  She is paying attention and seems to understand.  So far so good.

After telling her that the sheep are eating our trees, he even shows her, so there is no mistaking the problem.  Here’s Gary cleverly pantomiming a sheep eating one of our trees.

In an endeavor to be perfectly clear, he next points to the endangered trees, waving his arm to show his alarm and telling her that she must remove her sheep from our fields. Her serious and contemplative expression seems to indicate that she is listening with empathy and considering the wisdom of his words.

Now Gary waits to see how his communication has been received, another step right out of the manual for correct communication.

The woman gestures to him, smiling slightly as she speaks in a language neither of us understands.  But when Gary hears her speak in what could possibly be Quichua or possibly a language from some other planet, he brilliantly realizes that the communication may not have been fully understood.

He tries again, this time with even more gestures, munching of leaves and exaggerated frowns of disapproval.

He is rewarded with another tiny smile.  But is she smiling because she gets it?  Because she’s in agreement?  Or is she smiling because she thinks Gary is loco and she only wants to seem to agree so he won’t do her any bodily harm?

For all we know, she may have interpreted his gestures as saying that he wanted her to eat the trees or that he wanted the sheep to keep eating the trees.  We couldn’t know for sure.

His words have no effect on her as far as her getting up and shooing her animals away from our avocado trees.  Running out of ideas, Gary is the only one who goes away.

Being clueless myself as how to make her understand, my only suggestion is that next time, Gary should “baaa” like a sheep so she knows for sure that he is imitating a sheep eating the tree and not a human eating a tree, which would confuse anyone observing this behavior, not just an old indigenous lady.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out how she responded to Gary’s lengthy communication.  She returned to our land the next day.

We must be much smarter than she is because we had no difficulty understanding exactly what she wanted.

Her message was loud and clear.  She didn’t muddy the issue with strange gesticulations or props.  She just sat there as serene as a Buddha as her sheep did what sheep do so well.

Gary and I had to once again concede that she is much better at communicating her wants than we are.  And also much better at fulfilling them.

We are now contemplating a much more direct approach.  Does anyone have a taser or a stun gun we can use?  For the sheep, not the old lady.  Geesh, we wouldn’t even consider using it on her.  At least, not yet. . .

NOTE: This post was originally printed Nov. 14, 2012.  We returned to Ecuador from the States on Feb. 3, 2012.  When we visited the land for the first time on our return, the neighbor was grazing about half a dozen cows on our property.  I haven’t yet inspected the trees that he was supposed to be guarding.  I have my fingers crossed. –Gary



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  2. WE have the same problem up here in Wash state, except I think our neighbor understands english. Like Teresa said, she wears a very large bowie knife on one hip and .45 on the other hip. However she hasn’t shot anyone in ten years so I think I’m still pretty safe. Her goats ate my new fruit trees. I complained. She said, hey it’s open range. I said my ranch is fenced. It’s private property. Hopefully my two new Anatolian Shepherds will eat well this winter. I’m going to provide them with best goat meat I can afford.


  3. Hilarious story and photos!!!!!!! Loved this. But, here is the kicker….
    THIS IS EXACTLY OUR NEIGHBOR IN RURAL PACIFIC NW. With her its goats but destroyed our fruit trees. She just nodded and kept quiet. Happened a lot of times, breaking our fences down even, or crawling under to eat anything in sight!

    Our neighbor even looks like this woman!!!!!!! I’m not kidding. Picture this old gal with two gray braids hanging down parted in the middle. Same calm expression. Only she wears old jeans and a bowie knife on her hip.

    THAT’S WHY THIS IS SO FUNNY TO US. We live in the U.S. and have the same problem with this woman’s American twin. HILARIOUS.

    Nothing we could do about it except repair the fences and buy a couple of HERDING DOGS.

    Problem solved. :)

    • Hi Michael and Teresa,

      It’s so funny, but not that funny, that you, too, have a lady with animals who trespasses and won’t respect your wishes. Maybe together we can find a common solution.

      Once we move out there, I think a good sheep dog is a good idea, perhaps one that likes the taste of sheep, if things don’t get handled. Let me know how your Anatolian Shepherds turn out.

      At least our lady doesn’t have a bowie knife and a 45 pistol! But then I don’t really know what she might be concealing under her skirt, do I? Could be hiding a machete!

      Yesterday, her dog tried to bite me. I fended it off with a board. It was a chihuahua mix. Does that make it a Mexican stand-off?

  4. Two possibilities come to mind. 1) install electric or other fencing around the trees, even if temporary until they take hold. 2) get a sheep dog and train him to keep sheep away from trees (may be cheaper than fencing).

  5. Mark A. Raborn says:

    Taser….BBQ…too funny! I’m sure it’s not “funny” to you guys, but it is a very entertaining article. Good luck with the sheep-lady.

  6. Have you thought of putting little fences around the trees? We have to surround our trees with ‘hardware cloth’ (really fine mesh wire) to keep the deer from eating them…and that’s in NY state

  7. You guys are lucky to live in such a beautiful place! I feel your frustration over the sheep thing but from a perspective a couple thousand miles away you may be getting a bit too heated over some trees. She looked like a nice lady and perhaps you guys could become friends.

  8. A Possible option…for such a difficult position…..If you put some kind of wire fence around the little trees so the sheep can’t eat them and they are protected until big enough to survive, then the sheep can keep all your weeds cut down, and sheep leavings are a great fertiliser for a natural organic environment…then the old lady that has been grazing her sheep there forever will be able to continue doing so and you will have free weed control and free fertiliser….It is possible that the village has been grazing in that location for hundreds of years….they don’t always understand fences….Blessings and Peaceful Solutions to you all!

    • Thanks Rob,

      We’ve planted over 150 trees now and to fence each one would be time consuming and expensive for us. Your idea is great and would be doable if we wanted sheep on our land, but we don’t. We allow a neighbor from the nearby village to stake his cows every day. They are restrained, give us organic fertilizer and don’t eat the trees, so that works for us.

      This land has been unfenced for years and locals respect the growing of crops and don’t bother them, but we aren’t growing anything right now, in anticipation of building homes. We’ve already staked out the lots, so plowing or rows would require re-surveying and staking.

      Tthe trespassing is a recent thing, since we’ve owned the land for more than 3 years and not fenced it. Now that we have fenced it, we must find a way to peacefully but firmly keep the unwanted animals out.

      Thanks for all the good comments and suggestions about how to co-exist with the sheep lady. We really appreciate your help.

  9. Here’s an idea, next project on the property. A brilliant BBQ! Then get a lamb from the butcher and cooker up. Oh and make sure to invite the lil’ lady over for some good eatin’. Just saying, never know where it may take things but, I’m sure it’ll be an adventure!!

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