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. Gary:

    It’s been my experience that the indigenous peoples of Central and South America have difficulty grasping and understanding the concept of “fee simple absolute” property ownership. Property Rights throughout Latin American history have always been reserved for the privileged few. This is more than a clash of culture…’s a clash of values as well. Additionally, while your approach at conflict resolution appears to be rational and reasonable, it can never be given the centuries of exploitation at the hands of “pale faces”. I have no reason to doubt your veracity and honorable intentions in resolving this matter. However, my advice to you as both attorney and human rights activist is to put up the wall and be kind and generous in your daily interactions.

    • Probably the best advice in all of the comments on this blog. Our experience here so far says that people understand walls.


  2. How is the “ancient indigenous woman” doing, aside from being “barefoot, brown and wrinkled” and wearing a blanket on her head?

    Have you been able to protect your trees from the sheep and your neighbor’s cows?

    Have you two found a peaceful means of communication yet?

    Thank you.

  3. My way of explanation, let me add that I have lived in Ecuador, I have witnessed the racism toward indigenous people, and heard the well-educated and church-going populace slander, bully and denigrate them. As much as I love Ecuador’s landscapes, its gorgeous volcanoes, and the wonderful people I met there, I shall be ever saddened to witness the mistreatment of the indigenous people by the upwardly mobile mestizo.
    Thank you.

  4. This tale of the goat-herding woman is just an example of how a disagreement between cultures without a common understanding of how one lives (and lets live) on this earth, can cause great upset, economic harm, and police/military action directed toward the less educated and ethnically unaccepted group. Whether this is the first or the fortieth incident with the goats is not important. What is important is that we all recognize she is living the life that she is able to live and that all her forefathers were able to live with no options to do otherwise. You and I, on the other hand, have options to live anywhere in the world that strikes our fancy, live well, and live long. If things take a turn for the worse, get on the next plane and head for home-sweet-home. We are rich beyond description and beyond her understanding, compared to her.
    Thank you.

  5. What nerve you have. You come down to another country and then like good “ugly Americans”, you try to change the whole country and culture. Just like
    Native Americans here, who had no concept of “owning land”, this old lady
    certainly doesn’t understand that either. No wonder there is such underlying
    “hatred”. If you think they love you because they work for you as their slaves
    and brag how “cheap” their labor is, think again.

    All I can say is, “Good grief, Charlie Brown”. And again, you have some nerve.

    • Sandy, I think you need to get your history straight. More than 500 years ago, the Inca’s conquered this land and made the people into tenant farmers, providing food and clothing for the head Inca and Inca royalty and their families, much like the feudal system in Europe where the farmers were essentially slaves.

      The indigenous had no right of free movement as everything was regulated by the Inca. In fact, the indigenous ancestors of the people who now populate Otavalo, were moved here by the Inca from Bolivia, as a method of pacifying and controlling the population.

      Then the Spanish came, defeated the Inca, and set up a hacienda system that basically divided up all of the land among the aristocratic Spanish. The land was again farmed by serfs and slaves, mostly the indigenous. The hacienda owners and their sons propagated freely with indigenous women to create a group of people known as Mestizo, or mixed bloods, which now represents most of the non-indigenous population of Ecuador.

      The father of our former employee Blanca (indigenous) was given by his mother to Hacienda Ocampo when he was 5 years old. In Blanca’s own words, “he was a slave.” This was common practice. In his 50’s, (around 1964) an agrarian reform movement was implemented, and the hacienda system began to be broken down. At this point in his life, Blanca’s father became a land owner. Blanca’s father died just a year or so ago in his 90s. But even though he owned land, he and the other indigenous of Ecuador were not granted the right to vote in elections until 1978.

      So the land that Linda and I own outside of Cotacachi has not been in indigenous hands for more than 500 years, prior to the Spanish and the Inca, and before that I don’t know. The fact is, that the land that you are living on in Illinois was “owned” by the indigenous as little as 200 years ago. The indigenous ceded it to the U.S. government in a treaty in 1814, and it was then opened to settlement by ancestors of the current population. I expect, like virtually all treaties signed by the U.S. government at the time, that it was broken, and you are very likely living on land that could be morally contested by the indigenous population (if there are any left).

      Your statement that we are trying to change the whole country and the culture is actually true. We are business people. We are working to change the economic situation here in Ecuador. We bring jobs, opportunity, and money into the Cotacachi area. Many of the indigenous still live on a subsistence level. The men who find jobs mostly find them in construction. Before the gringos came to Cotacachi, most of the men would travel to Quito, Ambato or the coast to find work for the week, returning home to spend a short weekend with their families before returning to their jobs, where they lived in hovels to save money. Now, that is not necessary for many as they work on new construction in Cotacachi, both for expats and locals who have more money.

      What we are not trying to change, in fact, what we strongly want to perpetuate and support, is the rich indigenous social culture, the close family ties, natural medicine and the shamanic practices that lie beneath their Catholic religion. And we will rail against the gringos who come here with the attitude that these “poor lost souls” somehow need our benevolent help, who overpay and overtip and think themselves superior because they come from a country that knows what is right and how to do things better. ha!

      It pains me to see a country where the only 30% of the indigenous go on to higher education because their parents can’t afford to pay the $300 annually that it takes to send a sixth grader on to high school. That is why we have worked closely with the local indigenous organization to raise money for student scholarships. Yes, I will try to change that part of the culture, just as community leaders are also attempting to change it.

      Like any country, trespassing on private land is illegal, and especially so here in Ecuador. Every one knows it. We would be completely within our rights to get the police and have the indigenous woman chased off. But of course, we are not going to do that. One way or another, a reasonable solution will be found. In the meantime, we are co-existing and all of us are learning.

      By the way, you have some nerve to think that you, from the grand and glorious United States, know what is “right” here in Ecuador.
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. grace martinez says:

    Gary, your mention of Brigadoon made me laugh, I hope that does not happen to Cotacachi. I wish you luck and hope you solve the problem with intruders. Do you think that the old lady is probably deaf?
    I will keep reading your progress and just enjoy the photos and comments.

    We will stay in NYC where we have lived for many years and, with all the dangers and problems the city could be faced with, this is where my heart is and will always be.

    P.S. I am glad to know that you love the old lady.


  7. Seems to me that sheep herders were not very popular in the Wild West in the USA either.
    However you need to evaluate your motivation for going to Ecuador in the first place. Was it because you liked the way you found it, or did you want change it, into the place you left? Some how I think it is the latter.

    • Some of our readers have a certain romantic notion about how the indigenous are free to roam with their livestock where ever they want. That is not quite the truth. The land we purchased was part of what was once a very large hacienda that included most of Cotacachi.

      There is a very good possibility that this old woman was once a slave on this hacienda, and she most assuredly would not have been permitted to graze her livestock, if she had any, where ever she wanted. Private property rights in Ecuador are the same as in most any country. Trespassing is illegal. Many properties have large and impenetrable fences, many made of prickly lantana and other prickly shrubs that keep people and animals out.

      In fact, I suspect that her grazing her sheep on our land would definitely have not been allowed on the property before we bought it. We know the land owner, who is the descendent of generations of his ancestors, whom most of the indigenous in the area would not consider crossing. They know that we gringos are much easier marks than the hacienda owners.

  8. grace martinez says:

    Today I read all your writings and replies with ‘solutions’ and feel that if we ever considered retiring in Cotacachi, we realize we will not. The pristine and beautiful area is being damaged, cement and ‘modernization is not what retirees want. It was wonderful to think that Cotacachi was something ideal to spend our golden years.

    With all due respect Gary and Linda. Humans claim to own the land when in fact the earth does not belong to anyone, would appreciate if we all learn to live in peace and respect people’s ancestral culture. It may be that this old lady really does not understand what your gestures are trying to convey.

    For people giving advice as to what to use to get rid of sheep, come on, have a heart, they are the innocent bystanders in this petty and selfish drama. Gary, I am sure you are a man of means with your business in Ecuador, would it not be nice to put a fence so that the sheep and the old lady stay out of your trees?

    Buying her sheep? This is all she probably owns to be able to survive so, please put yourself in her place because in so doing, you will understand.

    • Hi Grace,

      Thank you for your comments, and thank all of you for your comments. Many people who come to Ecuador come here with the idea that they are going to find some kind of romantic never land like Brigadoon where they can wile away their retirement years in peace. But after a few months, the reality of living in a foreign culture sets in, and the realization of the old saying, “where ever you go, there you are.” For most people, whatever baggage they have created in the home place, eventually follows them here.

      For sure, the old woman is a reflection of our fears, our grasping, and our desire to have things different than they are. Life puts challenges in place for us to grow. How we will grow through this challenge is unknown to us now. But I expect, if my past life experience has any relevance, as Linda and I will move through the feelings we have about this situation, and it will resolve itself.

      The old woman and her goats are actors on my stage of life, presenting me with heaps of opportunities to grow, just as we are actors on her stage of life. There is no difference between her and us. It is the human condition. How many times does a person step onto your stage, play a bit part, show you the areas where you need to grow, then exit.

      The prayer that says, “God give me the courage to change the things I can, accept the things I can’t, and grant me the wisdom to know the differents,” (somewhat paraphrased)

      We love this little old woman. And we have engaged in a silent dance for now that is enjoyable as we watch how we let the universe pull our strings. I expect this will be resolved at some point to the satisfaction of all of us. Our only job it to maintain our humor, and take the steps where the music leads us.

  9. Because we operate a Rottweiler Rescue & Sanctuary, along with more than our fair share of goats, horses, llamas, chickens, cats etc we have the daily opportunity to learn from these creatures. We look for solutions that enable the animals to make the choice that we want them to, humans are not always so accommodating.

    Your sheep herding neighbor’s great grandmother foraged where she wanted, her grandmother did, her mother did and her great grandchildren will continue the tradition. Gary may as well speak English or Swahili to her, she doesn’t understand and may not be receptive to the concept of a foreigner changing what is culturally accepted.

    Reverse the roles, what if a person speaking & gesticulating in a foreign language were trying to get you to do something, it would appear interesting, frightening & be certainly futile. No doubt her dialect is widely spoken locally.

    The gentle woman needs to benefit by NOT coming to your property or her sheep need to learn to avoid it. It’s clear this situation requires a different approach, as she returns day after day. The reason she returns is because her sheep need to eat. She will take them where she has always taken them.

    There are several possible options, first finding a suitable translator to speak her language. She may be landless and not have another place to graze, you could buy her sheep, keep them to range clear areas you need cleared, or donate them to someone who needs them.

    You can create an environment that is inhospitable for sheep. If you can get cattle guards locally and place them in the ground where the sheep approach they will not cross over them. She will go elsewhere. If that is too much effort or not possible depending on your terrain, then welded wire fencing, laid on the ground is equally offensive to hoofed animals. They don’t like stepping on the wire.

    Another remedy is a non toxic, all natural spray that will revolt the sheep, they taste once, remember it and avoid the area even when it’s not sprayed. Sheep & goats are used to graze vineyards and are taught to avoid the plants. They taste the mixture once and never graze the trees, vines, etc. Here is an article that may provide a solution for training aversion using Lithium chloride, as is done for training goats & sheep to work in vineyards.

    Your guest will notice that her sheep no longer like your place, she may not understand why.

    Since what you’re doing hasn’t been effective, might you have better results if you start thinking like a sweet indigenous woman or a sheep?

    Are you within your legal rights to “evict” her? Even in the US, if someone has openly and notoriously used a portion of your property for a certain period of time, they have gained the legal right to do so.

    There is a solution which will require a little effort.. Lithium chloride and your invitation for her sheep to dine on it.



  10. Yup, I know that gig, we have the same kinds of problems in the country here near Cuenca at the retreat center. We’re trying to solve the problem with fences, but they cut the wire, so now we’re goign to have to put something stronger up. They don’t seem to understand boundaries.