Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Slummin' Around

The Times ran a great article by Eric Weiner the other day on slum tourism (Thanks GR!). Crazy stuff. Or is it? I can't help but agree with David Fennell, that it's straight-up voyeurism. I'd love to get into the minds of the people who are taking the tours, just to see what they want to get out of the experience: photos and stories, I bet. Or am I being too cynical?

Anyway, for me it brings up the issue how people travel today. Particularly, how fast they travel. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to tour a favela in Rio, you'd probably have to hang out and get to know someone. That could take weeks! Good god, where the hell is all that time gonna come from? You'd have to gain someone's respect and trust (and you'd have to trust them), and then maybe they'd take you into a favela (and maybe you'd be comfortable going). He might even introduce you to people. Maybe you'd even hang out for a while. More weeks! You might even get to know some folks. And then the photos - it seems - would be honest. Not stolen.

But tours are fast. Convenient. They can be arranged on the spot. No confidence necessary (just sign here). No need for hanging around to really get to know the people and the place.

It's kind of like traveling to the Amazon in Ecuador. Fifteen, maybe twenty years ago, if you wanted to head into the rain forest, you could go to a little town at the edge of the jungle - somewhere like Misahualli, say - and you'd start asking around and people would point you to Jaime's house and then you'd go knock on the door. But Jaime wouldn't be there, so you'd have to wait a day or two for him to get back from wherever it was he went. When he finally did make it back, you'd set up a price and a day and finally off you'd go. (Thirty years ago - who knows how long you'd have to hang out to make it work. Weeks!!)

Starting ten or so years ago, more and more people started doing this, and then tour companies sprouted up (and later proliferated), and all the local guides got snatched up by the companies. Today if you head to the same town, you won't find a guide that knows a liana from a lemon ant. The guides are either with a group in the forest or they're in Quito. Now, you have to go through a tour group.

A few diehards still do it the old fashioned way, but they wait. And wait. And wait.

For most people, its' in and out. Four days in the rain forest. Five days in the rain forest. A weekend in the rain forest. On a tour that they set up from home or from Quito. There's no lingering around some frontier town waiting for some guy to turn up, waiting to meet someone that can guide you into woods. That takes too long. So people just sign up and head in with the group. And the tour leader wants to keep things safe (liability is an issue, of course), so they go to specific lodges, perhaps their own (which has the added benefit of keeping the money in the business), and they bring their own food from outside the jungle (which means food isn't purchased on site), and the tourist ends up being a little bubble roaming through the forest in a protective skin, neither really getting into the forest nor letting the forest inside. In this scenario, there's little or no contribution.

OK, there are some great outfitters out there. There really are. But something's been lost. Or has it? I don't know, I'm ranting . Tourism is weird. And often so fucked up.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many days to see people that have maybe never seen a white person? And would I return?
Happy Birthday Burro Viejo!

11:11 PM  

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