In the ancient Indian poem, six blind men approach an elephant from all directions and seek to describe it by touching different parts. Not surprisingly, they come away with six different answers: an elephant is like a wall, a spear, a snake, and more. The tale has been used to illustrate myriad mortal foibles over the centuries, especially the inability or refusal to see the big picture in subjects like religion or politics.
The elephant’s opinion of this experience has not been reported. Nor is it known whether any of the men realized they were collectively fondling an animal the size of a small barn.
The concept also seems to work in other applications. In four years in Ecuador—a small country that I know you’re getting tired of hearing about—I have now lived in three places as different from one another as spears and snakes. The unexpected effect is to make it seem much bigger than it is.
I first settled in the scenic mountain town of Cotacachi, known for handcrafted leather and a few hundred resident expats, some of them sealed in walled communities. Tour buses disgorge Americans and Europeans, and Ecuadorians from the capital, to shop for leather jackets, purses, boots, and even custom saddles (horse not included). It’s a nice town with nice people, and I spent two and a half years there.
But in search of something a little less influenced by invasive species like me, I moved just a few miles to the village of Peguche, an industrious town of clicking looms, defined by Kichwa culture and music and bound together by the business of producing woven fabric. In fifteen months of living directly on the town square, I experienced the whole range of seasonal celebrations and family events with people who were unfailingly warm and welcoming.
And then, through sheer happenstance triggered by a casual comment from a friend, I recently fell into the irresistible allure of a 17th century hacienda. It’s something like the American pioneers who left perfectly good cities to strike out across the prairies in search of a bright new future, although I just had peace and quiet in mind.
The haciendas of Latin America were the spoils of colonization, vast landed estates granted to high officials by the Spanish Crown. One of the first was given to the conqueror Cortés in 1529 and comprised what is now the Mexican state of Morales—an expanse of nearly 1900 square miles. Here in South America, haciendas were often established or financed by Jesuits, producing cattle, sugar cane and other crops with indigenous labor under a system called encomiendas. It was posited as a way to “protect” native populations, but in reality was barely a step above slavery.
Land reform that peaked in the mid-20th century led to redistribution of enormous Latin estates. That movement, combined with an assortment of economic events, broke up the expanses of terrain on the South American continent, in many cases leaving the original residences to become attractive resorts.
But while the landed gentry were gone after 500 years, the land was still there and still producing. In this area of high Andean valleys—once within the northern reaches of the Inca Empire—an elevation of around 2000 meters delivered the best climate for agriculture, and that describes the one where I now have a place to live. Temperatures are mild and the weather a little drier than it is nearby, but a complex and far-reaching system of irrigation channels takes care of that, powered only by gravity.
The fields on all sides are dotted with cattle and planted in alfalfa, potatoes, and sugar cane, and tomatoes grown in greenhouses. It makes a gorgeous and peaceful place to live for someone so inclined. And it’s obviously not for everyone, or the former haciendas would be overrun. Some people want to be close to shopping. Some of us dream of a quiet spot to write.
Wherever one lives in Ecuador, nonetheless, it’s a base from which to explore. The country is only about the size of Burkina Faso—an impoverished, flat, landlocked, tropical West African republic. But the diversity of Ecuador’s geography and climate make it feel gigantic.
You can spend a weekend deep in the steamy Amazon jungle, and the next on a cold, windswept mountain páramo far above the tree line. There are big cities, and flame-throwing volcanos, and historic gold-mining towns. Spectacular waterfalls and hot springs are beyond counting.
And if it’s agriculture you want, look for timber, coffee, bananas, cocoa, rice, and cassava, in addition to sugar cane, potatoes, and shrimp. It’s like traveling through the regions of an entire continent, and not just a small country. On the sweltering Pacific coast, there are even groves of tagua trees, producing a nut that can be carved just like ivory without harming a single tusk. It’s sometimes called “vegetable ivory.”
One out of six mythical blind men might mistake it for an elephant.