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How Visiting Northern India’s Slums Changed My Perception of Slum Tourism

When I was travelling through Northern India, I was presented with some opportunities to visit the slums of Jaipur and Pushkar. I’d gone on an official slum tour before, when I visited South Africa, but this time I decided that I wanted to contribute some time to volunteering in these slums.

Slum tourism refers to organised excursions that take tourists to these areas, usually in the form of a guided tour. However, instead of choosing a commercialised guided tour, I explored the notion of slum tourism by seeking out smaller NGOs that operated the same way, but without the exchange of money. Instead, I contributed some time helping out in these slums.

The concept of slum tourism is growing to be an increasingly common way of sightseeing for those who are looking for an ‘authentic’ lifestyle experience beyond usual tourist excursions. Most companies that run these tours have a positive mission statement. Despite this, there are still controversial opinions surrounding the concept.

Playing with shadows in Jaipur’s science park with kids from Jaipur’s slums

The Differing Views of Slum Tourism

There are many debates that revolve around the ethical implications of slum tourism, and understandably so. A standard slum tour usually involves a walking tour that offers a glance at the neighborhood’s houses and community centers. Often, you are also able to meet and talk to members of the community.

Some view this as a form of exploitation, as you are basically entering somebody else’s neighborhood without consent. On the other hand, it can be argued that this is an effective way of tackling the issue of poverty as these tours create an awareness towards lives of the underprivileged, a harsh reality that not many people acknowledge. Furthermore, slum tours encourages the exposure to different cultures, for both the visitor and the members of these communities.

Visiting the Slums of Jaipur

My first taste of Northern India’s slums was in Jaipur, where I met a girl at my hostel who was in the process of forming her own NGO. Jade was inspired to do this from meeting the daughter of a rickshaw driver she rode with regularly. His daughter was partially deaf and needed money for an ear surgery.

Upon visiting these slums, she was overwhelmed by the amount of gifted children there who could not afford to go to school, and her project quickly expanded to include raising money for these children. I spent a day with Jade in Jaipur’s slums.

I was shocked when I first got to the slums. These people were dwelling in in areas so dilapidated I could hardly tell which buildings were liveable, and which weren’t. Piles of rubbish lay in every corner and there was an unexplainable smell that came from the trash and cow manure in the air. Houses comprised of makeshift shacks that barely had a door, though nights were chilly. When we were going through these slums we had to cover the open spaces of the rickshaw so no attention would be drawn to ourselves.

We managed to bring a few children to a science park, eight of us crammed in the tiny rickshaw. This was their first time playing in green grass, out of the dirty surroundings of their slums. They were initially shy to converse with me, as they rarely met anyone new but after a few hours, their initial shyness of meeting a new person was replaced with affection and laughter. Their high energy reflected their uncontrollable excitement, and when they kissed me on the cheek goodbye, I was a little sad knowing that I would probably never see them again.

In the process of teaching them, I was being taught by them as well. They were a living lesson that anybody is able to love, as they were all so happy despite the circumstances that they were living in, and so appreciative of even the littlest things that we would do for them.

The author learning how to make chapatti from one of the girls in Pushkar’s slums

Poor But Happy In Pushkar

My second brush with the slums took a different turn in Pushkar. One morning in Pushkar, I was approached by a beggar who asked if I would buy some milk for her baby. As many gypsies who roam around these streets, I would usually ignore these requests, but for some reason, this morning, I bought her baby some milk. In return, the girl offered to decorate my hand with some henna and so we ventured to the closest local chai shop, where I got to know her better.

Her name was Anita, and she was 20 years old with 2 children. One was a six-year-old son and the other was the year-old baby that she held in her arms. She got married at 16, though after they were married, her husband abused her. After putting up with the abuse for three years, she finally managed to get a divorce (which is difficult to do in Indian culture), and as a result, her husband burnt all her belongings to the ground.

Anita spoke good English, and had a talent for making jewellery. When I asked her why she didn’t try to sell some of her jewellery in the markets, she said that she was not allowed, because she had to take care of her children. Her mother was terminally ill, and she shared a tent with a few other women in the Thar Desert. During the day, these women would beg on the streets, asking for money to help them feed their children.

Over the next few days, I had the opportunity of visiting the area that she was staying in, and their hospitality was incomparable. She was squatting at a friend’s house, and every evening they insisted that I came and had dinner with them even though they had a bare minimum of food. They gave me a traditional Rajasthani outfit to wear when I came to visit their area so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself, taught me how to make chapatti and took me sightseeing around Pushkar.

I bought her a new tent to live in, and she became so much more than just a person I helped. She became a friend, and the time I spent in her community showed me the true extent of Indian hospitality. I was immediately treated like a part of their family, and they were always willing to give even though they barely had anything for themselves, pouring chai into my cup the second it ran out and filling my plate up with dahl when I insisted that I was full.

Anita and her friend, carrying Anita’s baby up the mountain we hiked on

Can Slum Tourism Be A Positive Experience?

Though I opted not to go with an official tour, at all times I was accompanied by people who were familiar with the area, that I established a trusting relationship with prior to the visits. There are usually many NGO’s working directly with the communities of these slums that don’t ask for money or anything in return.

The two experiences that I had in the slums of Jaipur and Pushkar were rewarding and valuable reminders that happiness is what you make of it. After getting over the initial shock factor of the way these communities lived, I learnt how to exist and interact within them. The most rewarding aspect of all was knowing that I managed to influence their lives in a positive way. This is why I think that it’s important to actually make a connection with these communities instead of just visiting for a few short hours.

To ensure that an organization is trustworthy in terms of safety and who the profits go to, make sure to contact them prior to agreeing to anything. The NGO that I assisted in Jaipur was called I Heart All Human Kind, and I knew that I could trust Jade, the founder, as she showed me all the work she was doing and knew her way around the city well. In Pushkar, on top of helping out independently, Anita introduced me to a project called the One Love Project, aimed at teaching English to Pushkar’s slum children. Most reputable NGO’s have websites that describe exactly what they are doing, how you can help and what it all entails. If you have any worries or questions, you are able to contact them directly.

This video is a depiction of the day I spent with Jade and the children she is helping for her foundation, I Heart All Human Kind.

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