Slum tours are a strange concept to fully grasp–the term is somewhat of an oxymoron itself. On Saturday afternoon I “toured” the slums of east Jakarta with seven others from the group, as a few of us are writing articles about economic development in the city. This particular tour has been the topic of much debate and controversy in the local press. While many view a tour through a slum to be distinctly disrespectful of the privacy of the slum-dwellers or say that it projects Jakarta in a bad light to foreigners, those leading the tour stand for exposing the truth, albeit ugly, to the world. The (rather steep) fees for our tour would be used by the organizers for their development work in the slums, so to call it simply a tour would perhaps be selling it short. We started off as many tourists would–after a big breakfast, and with an open mind.
Among the group there were varied reactions to the tour. Having recently been on a slum tour through Dharavi, Mumbai, I found myself with a constant point of comparison in my mind. In Mumbai, the tour guide was a boy who had grown up in the slum himself and had gone on to join the slum tour group. He had shown us his old school in Dharavi and walked us from one end of the slum to the other,explaining that it was a buzzing economic hub. Photography was prohibited.
On Saturday however, we were taken into the slum by guides who had no such affiliation with it. They were individuals who had set up, in a rather haphazard manner, a classroom for children of the slum in addition to this tour. The car ride to the slum was full of conversation with the chattier of the guides, perhaps due to our questions, about the different swanky malls in Jakarta. Our car dropped us off at a specific point and waited as we walked around. I started to feel uneasy and a bit unwelcome. A combination of our cameras (photography was allowed and encouraged on this tour) and plastic water bottles made us look like quintessential tourists. The language barrier between us and the slum-dwellers, the company of the tour guides who didn’t know the people whose houses we were walking by, and the fact that our car was waiting for us in a nearby alley to take us to the next stop point of the tour, instead of walking, all made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why I didn’t feel this unease after Dharavi in December. Many factors about it were different, I suppose. There was much less of a language barrier (I am from Mumbai), no cameras, no cars. But more importantly, I think, the focus of the tour was slightly different. While in Mumbai it was more focused on the economic industries of Dharavi, in Jakarta it felt as though the guides were trying hard to create in us the sense of pathos that a slum is supposed to evoke. They constantly asked us for our opinions, but these efforts had the opposite effect on me. This was probably my last slum tour.