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Slum Tourism: Learning or Leering

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that the impetus for my visit was the film.
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Slum tourism is hardly a new concept. On a visit to New York in 1842, Charles Dickens visited the infamous Five Points slum, which he characterized as a place where "poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife."

Two developments are now making this type of experience more accessible to large numbers of travelers: the rising popularity of experiential travel and the airline facilitated influx of tourists into developing countries where economic stratification are very noticeable. Mass market slum tourism seems like the almost inevitable child of these two parents.

I visited the Dharavi slum in Mumbai a few years ago during a trip to India to attend a friend's wedding. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that the impetus for my visit was the film Slumdog Millionaire, which was about to win the Best Picture Oscar. Although I knew that this Hollywood vision of Dharavi could not capture the complexities of life in Asia's largest slum, the film's scenes of life in the slum impacted me.

Seeking a deeper understanding, I read Suketu Mehta's excellent Maximum City, which further piqued my interest in the living conditions of the 5 million Mumbaikar living in shanty towns. Finding a tour to Dharavi was as easy as googling the phrase "Mumbai slum tours." For just 1,000 Rupees (US$22.50), Reality Tours and Travel offered a half-day tour.

On the day of my tour, I packed onto one of the city's famously crowded commuter trains with five fellow travelers. Our guide briefed us on the rules for our visit: We were to stay together and we were strictly prohibited from taking pictures out of respect for the residents. I was pleased to learn that the tour offered much more than stops at the sites where a few Slumdog Millionaire scenes were filmed on location. Rather, we learned that much of the slum's economy revolves around recycling basic materials picked off the streets by armies of trash pickers. In essence, the slum is a highly entrepreneurial micro-economy where residents forge a series of tight economic arrangements in order to provide for themselves and their families.

That is not to say that the living in Dharavi doesn't come with significant hardships. The workers in a welding shop lacked basic safety equipment. We encountered residents with serious untreated medical conditions and a visit to the residential zone was rife with the strong odor of human waste flowing through an open sewer system. Our guide did not seek to sensationalize these unpleasant realities, but instead explained that this was the reality of life in a slum.

It was not the tour itself, but the behavior and reactions of my fellow visitors that created uncomfortable moments that crossed the line into voyeurism. A pair of Australian women whose husbands worked as expat executives in Mumbai could hardly control their reactions to the sights and odors they encountered. Their running commentary would have been somewhat amusing were it not wildly insensitive. Worse, a journalist from Hong Kong continually whipped out a notebook, eventually drawing the ire of a resident who nearly engaged our group in a physical altercation.

As I left Dharavi en route to the air conditioned comfort of my room at the Taj, it was impossible not to acknowledge the vast gulf between where I would be sleeping that night and the shanties I'd just seen. I suppose that every member of the group that had gone to Dharavi had to choose whether to learn from the experience or digest it as little more than a real-life reality show that could be switched off at the end of the day.