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



  1. Has this issue been resolved, to some extent? With the indigena and her sheep? Seems like a good example of people, at least on one side, working on differences in a positive way, slowly, with respect and some thought.

    I read this real estate Pro Ecuador column occasionally. I have not been to Cotachachi and I will not buy any property in Ecuador . Do not want to buy at all. Culture-conflicts happen all over the world and these folks Linda/Gary probably don’t share all of my values. However, their blog sets up some interesting, thought provoking issues and the photos are wonderful! We need to keep a sense of humor about this as well!

    Let’s keep debating and educating one another!

    • Hi Susan,

      Yes, I have enjoyed all of the comments on this post. It is certainly a learning experience for all of us who choose to tune in. We just returned from the states for after a couple of months, and I don’t really know yet what is happening out there. In the next couple of days we will venture out and see how many of the several hundred trees we planted are still viable.

  2. I farmed in Hawaii for 20 years and had a farm of avocado and coffee with some citrus, banana. I also was the biggest hair sheep farmer and provided stock to other farmers for weed control in coffee, Avo. As long as the sheep are provided with salt and minerals they didn’t bother the trees, but yes, you have to use a fence /guard around the trees or field until they outgrow the sheep or gets the trees tall enough.

    The problem was peoples pet dogs and neighbors wild dogs killing the sheep , and I had a sheep dog and donkey for protection. the thing to remember that when your dog kills a neighbors sheep this can and does start a war. Dogs died, sheep died, people fought became enemies.

    It’s instincts of our ancient past. Forget putting dogs on some person’s sheep flock unless you love ugly conflicts, to see the killing of peoples dogs to save there flock, I have been there, warning, these situations release primal instincts in people.

  3. Hi Gary, I think you are acting white men act all over the world. They can not make it in their country ,so they go to some New Land. They expect every one to act like them talk like them. This world belongs to all creature. You are just passing through. If you really believe what you proclaim, you will learn the ladies language and invite her to share a meal with you. You are right now acting totally like a white man who landed on the Plymoth rock .Janakaimal

  4. Option 1. She almost certainly is not the only human around who speaks that language. Find a bilingual to communicate. In particular, find someone who is a “jefe” in her view.

    Option 2. She almost certainly understands more Spanish than you think she does and that she lets on. Therefore, tell her in no uncertain terms that she must stay off your land or you will call “las autoridades.”

    If that doesn’t work, it is very simple. Call/pay the cops.

    Option 3. Buy her sheep and sell them.

    Good luck!

    • Hi Jorge,

      Thanks to you and all the people who responded to this post. Many are missing the idea that the woman is a bit befuddled in her mind. We have talked to the leader of her small village, our good friend, 72 year old Mariano. He has tried to talk to her, obviously in her own language, but he says she “doesn’t understand,” meaning that her facilities are not all there. The cops would laugh at us, anyway, I wouldn’t think of that. We need good neighbors. I have faith that somehow we will work it out.

  5. ‘Pave Paradise, Put up a Parking lot’
    Well Gary have you staked out where the new golf course will be yet? I’m not going to get in a war of words, but I will mention that I have changed the title to my superb youtube presentation to ‘Cotocachi Ecuador, only a dream?’ because that is what it is becoming. I’m not trying to ‘make a living’ off Ecuador.

  6. Linda & Gary

    If I remember correctly from my childhood, an electric fence will have vary limited effect o the sheep. (the wool is a good insulator) If the wire touches the face, nose or ears the sheep would get s shock. The fence would be a deterrent to the locals (especially a weed-burner)

    Good luck!

  7. The woman obviously thinks she has the right to allow her sheep to enter your land and graze, though she´s probably beginning to recognize that you think that you have some right to restrict her from doing so.

    Find someone who speaks her language to explain to her in no uncertain terms that you now own the land, but in recognition of her prior use of it to graze her sheep, and because you want to be a good neighbor you´re prepared to buy her out – for say $100, which ought to be enough from her perspective. Make it clear that this is it, and the day after you pay her off put up a fence that she can´t let the sheep through without a pair of bolt cutters.

  8. I agree with Dean’s comments. Its always GREED! The Gary Scott types always trying to get “into as many businesses as possible” in order to make an extra lousy dollar. Either leave Cotacachi and its culture as it has been for centuries instead of “creating the so called American Dream” in foreign lands.I could bet the same American Dream that the two of you are trying to scape from. That is the reason you are in Cotacachi. You cannot stand the crime, taxes and government regulations in the States, yet; you want to imposse such conditions on the indigenous people there. If you are sincere about being “Pro-Ecuador, build a school, a home for the elderly, such as the sheepherder.But DO NOT FENCE THEM OUT!

    • Hi Jim and Dean,

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with you. It’s not always about greed. Most of the time, it’s about just trying to make a living. And if you want to leave Cotacachi and its culture as it has been for centuries, then you would go back about 60 years ago and way beyond when most of the indigenous in this part of the world were slaves on haciendas, did not have private property, and were highly discriminated against.

      I don’t think you or the indigenous would want to go back to that kind of culture. And before the Spanish, the indigenous were dominated by and worked for the Incas. So I think you can give up your utopian myth that somehow the Indigenous lived in some kind peaceful paradise before the gringos came.

      Regarding private property, it is just as much a fact of life here in Ecuador as it is in most anywhere in the world. Most Ecuadorians have high fences up to keep people off of their land. The Ecuadorian constitution give immigrant residents all the rights of Ecuadorian citizens, and as a land owner, I have the right to say who can and who cannot come on my land. In fact, I don’t know of anywhere in the world where this is not the case, except perhaps in Cuba and maybe North Korea. And even Cuba is now giving people private property rights.

      Jim, I guarantee you that you have more homeless and down trodden people around you where ever you live in the U.S. than we have here in Ecuador. Have you built any schools, or homes for the elderly where you live? This sheep woman has a house, she has at least 10 head of sheep, probably a few chickens and even a pig or two. She has a garden where she grows corn and other things to eat. She is better off than a lot of homeless people in the U.S. In fact, if she lived in the U.S. she would most likely be in a nursing home drugged out of her mind.

      There are many other places around where she can graze her sheep, without bringing them on our land and letting them eat our trees. By our standards, the indigenous appear poor. By their standards, they are living as they have for generations and many have a kind of abundance that we can’t even imagine.

      Regarding Dean’s comments above, you should all know that Dean calls himself “Ecuador Dean,” and he goes around Ecuador making videos and slide shows promoting places in Ecuador. One of his you tube videos is called, “Cotacachi, A Dream Come True.” I’ve noticed that many self-righteous gringos think that it’s only those who come after them that are the problem. Dean, if you really believe what you are saying, then I think you should take your videos off the net and go home. Because you certainly are a part of the problem as you define it. Or are you, in your eyes, “the one good gringo in Ecuador?”

      Change is a fact of life, whether here, the U.S. or anywhere for that matter. I have been here five years. The changes we’ve seen are enormous, and not because of the expat population, but because they have a president who has a lot of money (oil money and tax money) and he is spending it on creating an infrastructure that is bringing Ecuador into the 21st century. He’s providing jobs, low interest home loans, small monthly stipends to the poor, and free medical services to those who can’t afford to pay for it. The money he is spreading around is bringing cell phones, flat screen TVs, cable and internet, and much, much more.

      I saw a mall in San Luis outside of Quito last week that is as large as any mall I’ve seen in the U.S. The parking lots were jammed with cars. I was astonished. That huge mall is not being carried by the handful of gringos living in the area. All the good and bad of consumerism is hitting Ecuador as it is in most South American countries. This mall is the largest mall in Ecuador, and I was told that one is under construction in Guayaquil that will be twice the size of San Luis.

      Stand on any street corner and watch the number of new $30k to $40k cars driving by and you will be astonished. There are at least 15 building projects (houses, stores, apartments, etc) going on in Cotacachi right now that are not being purchased by expats. There’s a new five story bank, a new Tia supermarket, and new housing and shops going up everywhere. Yes, land prices are going up, but it is primarily the locals and out of the area Ecuadorians who are mostly driving the prices, not the 200 or so expats living in the area.

      I can show you a new development in Ibarra of 24 houses at a cost of $135k each. The Ecuadorian developer built and finished all of the houses on spec before he even began to sell them. And I doubt any of them will be sold to expats. I visited a development in Quito last week that had about 15 units in the range of $125k to $175k. The project will be finished in about two months, and there is only one unit remaining.

      Ecuador is changing, and in my eyes, the people are doing quite well, thank you. The expats who are coming are bringing a different dynamic to the country, but it is just a part of the creative mix. Who is to say if it is good or bad? Certainly Jim, you and Dean can have your opinions, but they are only that. Opinions are a dime a dozen, and frankly, I wouldn’t give you that much for yours–no offense intended–it’s just my opinion.

      I guess you could say that this is today’s view from the roof. haha

      Thanks everyone for writing and commenting on Linda’s blog.

  9. I knew things like this would develop sooner or later. If you two were really ‘Pro-Ecuador’ you would leave it as it was. People like you two, Gary Scott, International Living and a few others in the country trying to profit from advising and advertising for the type of gringos that really don’t belong in Ecuador in the first place. Sure a few temporary construction jobs and other servitude level employment will be created but the trade off of higher land and real estate prices will greatly affect the local culture. They are already starting to be changed by this influx of a culture acustom to living in condos and gated communities.

  10. Linda & Gary,
    Since y’all are fast becoming Gentlewomen/Gentlemen Farmers, maybe you should consider a sheep dog. I suggest an Australlian Shepard. That way it could herd the range critters back into her area and protect your trees. I still like the BBQ but, I’m trying to become a “kinder, gentler person” in retirement.