A Dose of Reality

By Anya Yurchyshyn
January 7, 2008
courtesy James Asudi
Poverty-tour guides explain the relatively new concept—and show how to find an excursion that's right for you.

While the critics of so-called "poverty tourism" say that it exploits people, turning neighborhoods into zoos, the tours' organizers argue that it can raise awareness about poverty, fight stereotypes, and bring money into areas that don't benefit from tourism.

"Fifty-five percent of people in Mumbai live in slums," says Chris Way, whose Reality Tours and Travel runs tours of the city's Dharavi district, one of India's biggest slums. "Through the tours you connect and realize that these people are the same as us."

Good intentions aren't always enough, however, and these excursions should be approached with sensitivity. Here are the questions you should ask an operator.

1. Does the tour organizer have ties to the community? Find out how long the operator has been running tours in the area and whether your guide is from there--these factors often determine the level of interaction you'll have with residents. You should also ask how much of the proceeds goes to people in the community. Some companies donate as much as 80 percent of their profits, while others give less. Krista Larson, an American tourist who visited the Soweto township outside Johannesburg, South Africa, says she chose Imbizo Tours because it's run by people who live in Soweto and it makes donations to local charities. You can research companies by talking with other travelers, at your hotel or online, about whether their tours were conducted respectfully. Search blogs or post a question in a travel forum--bootsnall.com and travelblog.org are good choices.

2. What should I expect to see? You may have an abstract idea of what extreme poverty entails, but when you're surrounded by it--not just the sights, but also the sounds and smells--it can be fairly overwhelming. Ask your guide what has tended to shock people before, so you can better prepare yourself. "Expect to jump over open sewage lines and heaps of rubbish, and to see crowded schools, with more than 50 kids in each room," says James Asudi of Victoria Safaris, which leads tours of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. People are often surprised to find a community that functions despite its hardships, says Marcelo Armstrong, who runs Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: "They don't think they'll see so much commerce and vibrancy."

3. Will I feel welcome? Responsible operators won't bring people to communities where they're not wanted. "My first concern was having the approval of the locals," says Armstrong. "People are very enthusiastic because of the opportunity to change the stigmas about favelas. They're happy that someone is interested in this little place that's forgotten by Brazilian society." Larson, the American tourist, also received a positive response from residents on her tour of Soweto. "The people we met seemed glad to have the tourists there," she says.

4. Will I be safe? The fact that crime is prevalent in many slums doesn't necessarily mean you'll be a victim. It certainly helps that you'll be in a group, and you should take the same kinds of precautions you would elsewhere, such as keeping your possessions close to you and not wearing expensive clothes or jewelry. Many tour companies don't employ security guards, saying the areas they visit are safe. Victoria Safaris hires plainclothes policemen to trail tourists in Kibera at a distance--mainly as a crime deterrent, but also to create jobs. In Rio's favelas, security is largely maintained by the drug dealers who control the neighborhoods. "The truth is that drug dealers make the peace," says Armstrong. "Peace means no robbery, and that law is very well respected."

5. Will I be able to interact with locals? The best way to avoid having the experience feel like you're at a zoo is to talk with people and try to form a personal connection. Many tours take you to community centers and schools, and some include visits to a church or a bar. For those who want to immerse themselves in the Kibera community, Victoria Safaris will arrange for an overnight stay. Vineyard Ministries, a Christian group in Mazatlán, Mexico, runs a free tour in which tourists bring sandwiches to people scavenging at a local garbage dump.

6. Should I bring my kids? A poverty tour can be an educational experience for children--if they're prepared for what they'll encounter. Jenny Housdon, who runs Nomvuyo's Tours in Cape Town, South Africa, says most kids adapt well to the surroundings and play with local kids, despite the language barrier. "Some of the local children can speak a bit of English and like to practice," Housdon says.

7. May I take pictures? Many tours prohibit photography to minimize the intrusion into residents' lives. If you're with an outfit that does allow pictures, always ask people's permission first. And think about buying a disposable camera instead of bringing a flashy $1,000 camera with a six-inch lens.

8. Are there things that I shouldn't do? Handouts are usually forbidden, whether they be money, trinkets, or sweets, because they create chaos and quickly establish the assumption that tourists equal gifts. You should also respect people's privacy, which means no peeking through windows or doors.

9. How can I help the people I meet? Contributions of clothing, toys, books, and other household items are often accepted before the tour, so you don't have to worry about carrying or distributing them. Some companies will hold the items you bring until after the tour, when you can personally donate them to the school or community organization of your choice.

10. Do I have to go with a tour group? Travelers who dislike organized tours might want to make an exception in this case. If you go on your own, not only will you be less safe, but you may find it hard to navigate in neighborhoods that aren't very well marked. And you'll miss out on learning about daily life if you're not with a knowledgeable guide--especially since most guidebooks tend to act as if these neighborhoods don't exist.

Mumbai, India

Johannesburg, South Africa

Nairobi, Kenya

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Mazatlán, Mexico

Cape Town, South Africa

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Bosnia for Ski Bums

Cab ride: $35 You can fly to Sarajevo International Airport, 15 miles northwest of Jahorina, from most major cities in Europe and the U.S. (from $700). The taxi ride to Jahorina is just under an hour. Cabbies often whip around the mountain's switchbacks, making for a nail-biting drive. Ski rentals: $15 per day Ski shops and hotels at the base of Jahorina rent skis and snowboards for around $15 per day. Ski Rental Peggy is a local favorite; the shop stocks such cool brands as Atomic and Blizzard, and there's a rustic café and bar next door (011-387/57-270-210, peggy-jahorina.ba). Apple treat: $3 Koliba, a restaurant with simple cowhide benches and waiters who take orders on PDAs, serves some of the best meals in Jahorina. Specialties include cevapi, ground beef and lamb croquettes in a pita, and tufahija, a stewed apple filled with lemon, nuts, and whipped cream (011-387/57-272-100, termaghotel.com). Ski lesson: $22 Jahorina first made it onto the map in 1984, when it hosted the women's Alpine events of the Sarajevo Olympics. Today, a one-day pass costs $22; a week is $124--that's only $37 more than a day at Aspen. Above the tree line, Jahorina has some intense runs: The moguls below the Ogorjelica lifts will work your knees. The slopes by the Poljice T-bar are great for beginners. At the nearby VLSKI ski school, instructors charge $22 for a one-hour lesson (011-387/65-998-616, vlski.com/eng). Ski lodge: $66 Slope-side accommodations cost about $100 per night. The Hotel Nebojsa has a large disco and a glassed-in winter garden (011-387/57-270-500, hotel-nebojsa.com, from $66). The rate at the chic Termag Hotel includes access to the hotel's outdoor skating rink and Turkish bath (011-387/57-272-100, termaghotel.com, from $144). Bosnian beer: $1 The road that weaves up the mountain is lined with small family-owned stores that sell German and Croatian chocolates, bottles of Bosnian Nektar beer for $1, and $3 round plastic sanke (sleds) for kids. The lights along the main run below the Poljice T-bar stay on most nights for sledding. Hot wine: $2 Skiers can warm up with Turkish coffee or mulled wine, spiced with cloves and cinnamon, at one of the cafés just below the Ogorjelica summit. From the deck of Zacarani dvori ("Enchanted Palaces"), the Bosnian foothills seem to stretch to the horizon (011-387/57-233-096).  

New Late-Night Spots in D.C.

It's 8 p.m. on a Friday, and a fashionable group of men and women is sitting around the pewter bar at Proof on Washington, D.C.'s G Street. "Do you cook?" asks a 30-something lawyer with shaggy black hair as she tilts a glass of red wine toward the guy next to her. "If my apartment had come without a kitchen," he replies with a grin, "I wouldn't have noticed." Everyone laughs knowingly. In the last few years, as more young professionals and empty nesters have bought homes in the nation's capital, D.C. has shifted from being a city of chilly Federal buildings to a place where cutting-edge restaurants, late-night cafés, and underground bars open more frequently than local politicians are busted for scandals. Brasserie Beck is one of several large, bistro-style restaurants that debuted last year. Designed to look like a train terminal, Beck runs about the length of a block, with train-station clocks set to different time zones. The 100-beer selection is equally impressive: There are nine on draft, such as Campus, a pilsner from Belgium that's exclusive to Beck. The menu--steamed mussels served with frites, duck almondine--was crafted by chef Robert Wiedmaier, who also opened Marcel's, the city's premier French restaurant. Central Michel Richard, started by the chef who made Citronelle one of the nation's top restaurants, has a playful interior, with leaning towers of plates stacked around the dining room. The bistro is often populated with D.C. celebrities--that is, lobbyists, lawmakers, and media types--who like to rev up an evening at the marble bar with a clementine mimosa. But the real draw is Richard's food, which comes with a more reasonable price tag than Citronelle's. Most of the dishes, from a "faux gras" terrine (made with chicken) to braised rabbit with spaetzle, don't top $20. Just north is the historic corridor of U Street. Classic pit stops like Ben's Chili Bowl, a diner that's been around since 1958, are wedged between old and new clubs that play host to jazz musicians. In the 1930s, Duke Ellington often performed on U Street, then called Black Broadway. Some of the fiercest Saturday-night sessions are held at HR-57, which takes its name from a 1987 congressional directive that called on Americans to preserve jazz. Right off U Street is Busboys and Poets, a bookstore that also has a café, a theater, a bar, and a restaurant that serves pizzas. At one end, hipsters browse for books near a photo collage of Martin Luther King Jr.; at the other, friends sip microbrews and watch a film about the Bush administration. Busboys and Poets is an homage to Langston Hughes, who rose to prominence in D.C. while working as a busboy. The area of Adams Morgan has been undergoing its own renaissance. It's still popular with the college crowd, but there are now a few nightspots that appeal to a more sophisticated clientele. Bourbon, on 18th Street, is the place for bourbon aficionados: The 140-plus pours include a 16-year-old Black Maple Hill bourbon from Kentucky with hints of brown sugar. One block west is another atypical retreat. Named after the Paris subway, Metropolitain is a subterranean bar (below a bistro named Napoleon) specializing in champagne and other sparkling wines. The decor is inspired by the 1970s, with gold-and-white wallpaper and cushiony leather couches--but there's no sitting around after 10 p.m., when DJs spin disco. Champagne also gets prime placement at Proof, where some 40 bottles of bubbly and wine are available in pours ranging from two to eight ounces. Portraits of George Washington and Hillary Clinton flash across flat-screens above the bar. Proof, like many things in the nation's capital, was inspired by the founding fathers. In this case, it's a nod to Benjamin Franklin, whom the bar quotes as saying, "Wine is proof that God loves us." Proof 775 G St. NW, 202/737-7663, proofdc.com, wine from $6.50 Brasserie Beck 1101 K St. NW, 202/408-1717, beckdc.com, beer from $7 Central Michel Richard 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202/626-0015, centralmichelrichard.com, "faux gras" terrine $14 Ben's Chili Bowl 1213 U St. NW, 202/667-0909, benschilibowl.com, chili $5 HR-57 1610 14th St. NW, 202/667-3700, hr57.org, cover from $8 Busboys and Poets 2021 14th St. NW, 202/387-7638, busboysandpoets.com, pizza from $8 Bourbon 2321 18th St. NW, 202/332-0800, bourbondc.com, from $5 Metropolitain 1847 Columbia Rd. NW, 202/299-9630, napoleondc.com, wine from $6