Alex Gillespie analyzes the relationships between tourists in Ladakh and the Ladakhi people on the basis of trust.
Tourists visit Ladakh to hike in the mountains, visit remote villages, see Buddhist monasteries, and engage with what they hope will be traditional Ladakhi people. They often are more concerned with the genuine nature of the people they encounter than they are with the prices of services and goods they purchase.
They are especially attracted by the quality of the yak bone statues, pashmina shawls, ancient thangka (religious paintings), carpets, and jewelry they find in the souvenir shops of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Many of the items for sale in those shops are mass produced imitations, a situation which the tourists are aware of. While they want to purchase real items, they view the shopkeepers suspiciously.
The author befriended a couple of the shopkeepers, who allowed him to hang out in their stores and observe the tourists react to their goods. He found that, at the same time the tourists were sizing up the shopkeepers, the merchants were evaluating them. The shopkeepers tried to estimate how much the tourists wanted to buy the wares they were examining, while the tourists tried to not reveal how much they really wanted items.
But even more critical for the merchants than estimating the eagerness of the tourists was earning their trust. One shopkeeper told the author, “the main thing is to get trust first; once we get trust, then we get profit (p.137).” Ladakhi shopkeepers have a variety of strategies for building trust. One is to sit out on the street and offer very low prices, but to begin hiking them once the tourists come in. Another is to have guides, on a commission basis, bring in their tourists with the story that the shopkeeper is a relative of some sort.
The store owners may also offer tea, which helps define the tourist as a friend and promote a reciprocal spirit with good feelings. The tourists, however, often see through this strategy as an attempt to promote indebtedness, so it is normally not too successful. The shopkeepers also use special tricks to build trust. A common one is to pull a purported pashmina scarf through a ring, which really proves nothing even though the demonstration supposedly shows the quality of the item. The shopkeeper may also take a chip out of the bottom of a yak bone statue and burn it. That way, the tourist can smell the supposed odor from the burning ember and gain trust.
The author argues that the point of these tests is not really objective reality. Instead, they are designed to promote the belief that the object, and the seller of that object, can be trusted. In a parallel manner, Gillespie maintains, it does not matter whether a community is dealing with genuine coins and printed money or counterfeits; the critical issue is whether everyone handling the coins and bills trusts that they are genuine. If they do, the coins and bills will retain their value as they are handed on from one person to the next.
While shopkeepers may feel gleeful when they are able to dupe tourists into buying trinkets that are really of little value, the visitors are aware that they have minimal knowledge about objects when they enter these shops. So they use other stratagems to figure out whether or not to trust the store owners. The first thing they have to do is to shed their biases about fixed prices. A question such as, “what is the price of this object” is irrelevant. The more appropriate question, from the point of view of the shopkeeper, is “what are you willing to pay for this item?” Price is determined by bargaining.
An important judgment that tourists make of the shopkeepers, particularly the males, is whether they appear to be modern or traditional. Tourists often feel that traditional Ladakhis are more authentic, and thus can be trusted to be honest. Many visitors refer to young, male shopkeepers, who dress in western clothing, with bright, skin-tight, T-shirts and wraparound sunglasses, as “lizardmen.” They appear to be shifty and quick, people who are not to be trusted. They will cheat visitors and sell them fakes.
In contrast, many tourists, especially women, feel much more comfortable dealing with female shopkeepers, particularly ones who dress in traditional clothing. An image of smiling, honest, happy Ladakhi women replaces one of lying, manipulative, lizardmen. The women are not so pushy as the men, the visitors feel. Gillespie argues that it is not so much a male-female dichotomy, as a traditional versus modern issue. Women in Ladakh are often under pressure to dress in traditional clothing when they visit public spaces.
Tourists tend to react differently to modern and traditional Ladakhi people. They may bargain very hard with people such as the lizardmen that they see as modern, sometimes quarreling over a few rupees—trivial amounts in their own currency. Yet they idealize traditionally-dressed shopkeepers, whom they treat gently and politely, with respect for their supposedly honest, spiritual ways.
The author concludes that it is not, for the tourists, an absolute value of trusting the Ladakhi people as a whole, but rather a specific decision—whether or not to trust one individual versus another. Which person is lying, which one is telling the truth? It appears as if the dress and manner of the particular shopkeeper establishes his or her trustworthiness. The author does not provide his own perceptions of how really trustworthy the shopkeepers—men or women—may in fact be. That’s beside the point.
Gillespie, Alex. 2008. “In the Other We Trust: Buying Souvenirs in Ladakh, North India.” In Trust and Distrust: Sociocultural Perspectives, edited by Ivana Marková and Alex Gillespie, p.131-152. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing