Slum tourism or poverty tourism? Enlightening or Exploitive?

In a previous post (Slumdog Stereotyping) I spoke of the rise of slum tourism in India. Worldwide, slum tourism is rapidly growing in popularity, with tourists wanting to witness first hand what real life looks like for the poorest communities.

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Similar tours have been operating in Cape Town and Rio for a number of years. Reality Tours and Travel, runs a tour through Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum- and asserts that 80% of their profits go back to the community. Tour groups are limited to five and photography is forbidden whilst on the tour.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.01.36 pmProponents of  slum tourism argue that tours help dispel negative stereotypes about slums and show a positive side of the “‘enterprise, humour and non- stop activity“of Dharavi. On the other hand, critics of  poverty tourism, as they have dubbed it,  claim it is exploitive and  accuse tourism industries of capitalising  on suffering and turning poverty into entertainment. 

 Tourism in many developing countries is the most “viable and sustainable economic development option.” So, is it appropriate for wealthy tourists to visit slums as an entertaining tourist activity? Or do slum tours  dispel negative stereotypes and show another side of poverty?

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.01.17 pmTo be honest, I’m not sure who’s side I’m on, or, if I’m even on a side. Is it better to go to India, stay in a fancy hotel and only see poverty through your bus window on the way to the Taj Mahal? Ignoring the poverty or not participating in  this form of tourism won’t make it go away. Or, is there much to learn about poverty from joining a slum tour? Many tourism companies employ residents from within the slum and encourage tourists to buy goods from the local shops, which directly benefits residents.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.01.09 pmThis is a complex and contentious issue and regardless of your opinion, we can all agree that slum tourism should be transparent and not for profit.

Slumdog Stereotyping?

Films featuring India, especially those produced in the West, depict India as a chaotic, poverty stricken country where cows freely roam the streets- think Slumdog Millionaire and the recent Avengers film. The fixation and glorification of poverty by Hollywood has left many travellers and outsiders with a perception of the real India as a chaotic overcrowded slum.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 2.08.58 pmHowever, despite the poverty porn that floods our cinema screens,  there is a lot more to India, and to the slums for that matter.  Reality Tours and Travel, a tourist organisation operating in Mumbai,  is attempting to  challenge and “dispelling negative stereotypes of slum life”  and show a different side India, by providing walking tours around Dharavi, a mini city within Mumbai, to give outsiders a glimpse of the bustling neighbourhood.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 5.36.30 pmTourists are surprised by what they see on these tours. Although Dharavi is categorised as a slum – it is home to over one million people  who are squeezed into less than three square kilometres-, there are hospitals, major streets, businesses and schools and it is an industrial centre that generates over $650 million a year!

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 5.45.56 pmEven if you do not agree with the idea of a slum tour- some argue that slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment- it does to an extent break down stereotypes. India does have slums yes, but stereotyping India as one big slum, which it so often seems to be portrayed in films, is inaccurate and creates a negative image in many travellers minds. It only sells one part of India! Additionally, it presents India in some what of a hopeless light. These preconceived ideas of India may lead to people feeling like they never want to travel to India because it is “far to poor”.

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Cover up

India has a modest culture and how you dress profoundly effects how people respond to you. It is not appropriate or safe to travel around India the way many of us do in the West. Women who dress and act modestly are highly regarded within Indian culture, compared to those that disobey the cultural norms. Furthermore, they are safer from being victims to sexual harassment.

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When travelling in cosmopolitan cities such as Delhi or Mumbai people are more open to Western styles of dress. However, when visiting crowded places, markets, temples or smaller towns it is advisable to dress more conservatively. This will avoid attracting unwanted attentions and reduce the possibility of offending anyone.

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Eve-teasing is a euphemism which is used throughout South Asia for public harassment of women by men. Eve refers to the first women according to Biblical scripture. Instances of eve-teasing occur more frequently when women, especially foreign women, are traveling alone at night. Travelling in groups after dark is sensible.

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Legs are a part of the body which are often kept covered in India and when they are on display they receive a lot of attention, so to avoid receiving unwanted attention cover up. Basic standards of modest within India require you to cover your, knees, upper arms , shoulders, cleavage and midriff. It is acceptable for your midriff to be on display but ONLY when wearing a sari.

If men do harass you, don’t give them the time of day. Don’t look at them, smile, shake your head or acknowledge them in any way! Don’t give them any reason to pursue talking to you.

So why not don some traditional Indian clothing when in India to not only avoid attracting unwanted attention and offending anyone but also you will be much more comfortable. Indian clothing is much more suited to the hot weather and many Indians love it when you wear their traditional dress and it demonstrates your interest in their culture!

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A big fat Indian wedding!

With 1.252 billion people calling India home and 780 different languages spoken, India is a diverse country in every sense of the word. This diversity spans across culture, clothing, food, traditions and customs. Given this vast diversity, a typical traditional wedding ceremony does not exist and subsequently there is no typical Indian wedding menu! Nevertheless we can get a taste of the cultural extravaganza that is a Hindu wedding!

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A Hindu wedding (also known as Vivah Sanskar) marks the start of the most important stage of life as it is the beginning of establishing a new family unit. Traditional wedding ceremonies can last up to four days.  The actual wedding ceremony is traditionally meant to take place outdoors under a canopy, called a man dap. Nowdays, weddings are commonly held at the home of the bride or at a hall, in which case a man dap is constructed indoors.

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Food plays an important role in Indian culture, particularly in Indian weddings. Hindu weddings do not have a specific set menu, but, particular foods will be served depending on the region in which the bride and groom hail from. However, there are a number of dishes that make frequent appearances.

One dish that repeatedly gets invited to the party is Paan. Pann, is a sweet treat made from varying combinations of the following ingredients- depending on personal preference- and all rolled in a chilled betel leaf:

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  • sweetened coconut
  • rose petal jam
  • lime
  • cardamon
  • roasted fennel seeds
  • nutmeg
  • anise seeds
  • licorice
  • almonds
  • cashews
  • pistachios

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Pann is a traditional  after meal refreshment that is commonly served at the end of ceremonies- especially weddings.  It  symbolises hospitality, aids in digestion and freshens the mouth  following a heavy meal (which is always the case at an an Indian wedding). Pann is usually placed near the exit of the wedding  venue or next to the food service area so guest can refresh their taste buds. There are varying opinions of whether Pann should be swallowed after chewing or spat out after one has finished enjoying the aromatic flavours!

One thing is for sure, when attending an Indian wedding- and travelling through India in general- one is advised to wear loose stretchy clothing, sans belt , and finish the night with a tasty palate cleansing Pann!!

Bindi’s: A hipster’s accessory or a cultural symbol?

A recent trend has emerged from the summer festival scene, bejewelled forehead adornment (Vanessa Hudgens we are looking at you). For a festival goer hipster,  a bindi, when worn with brightly coloured fringed clothing and a floral headband is the epitome of festival chic.

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However, these bindi clad celebrities and hipster’s are generating a considerable amount of controversy, with some arguing that their donning of this cultural symbol is a form of cultural appropriation. So, if the bindi is much more than a fashion accessory then what does it symbolise?

The bindi is one of the most recongisable items in Hinduism. It is worn between the eyebrows which is the  location of the sixth charkra and third eye, a place of concentration, intuition and intelligence. In some parts of India the bindi is only worn by married Hindu women and is a symbol of female energy.  Traditionally bindi’s are a  mark made with paste from  coloured, sandalwood, sindoor or turmeric and applied to the forehead by a skilled finger. Furthermore,  bindis are sometimes applied for religious ceremonies as a means of  “invoking religious feelings, concentration and focus” 

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Different Hindu cultures wear the bindi at different stages of life and some cultures remain traditional in their approach to wearing the bindi. Whilst others, particularly in the South of India females of all ages are at liberty to to choose to wear one.

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Bollywood cinema has played a large role in changing the significance and meaning of the bindi and bringing this cultural symbol to the world stage. The new adhesive bejewelled bindis, which can be bought all around the world, are clearly designed for their aesthetic look as opposed to adhering to religious and cultural standards.

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Regardless of wether the bindi is being worn for religious and cultural purpose or as a fashion accessory by a hipster, one thing is for sure, and thats that everyone knows the bindi is an Indian symbol.  When travelling around India, or anywhere, think about the cultural and religious signifance of the symbols you see. There is always something more than meets the eye!