Taking a tour on the poor

JP/Anissa S. Febrina

Proponents say it's eye-opening, opponents call it voyeurism. As the debate continues, one man is already taking the global trend of poverty tourism - or "poorism" - to Jakarta's kampungs.

"Please wear sturdy shoes or sandals and not your best clothes," runs the advice from Jakarta Hidden Tour, a program offered to those who would like to get a closer look at poverty in the capital. "You may find conditions in the communities less pleasant and comfortable than what is usual for you. Gentlemen, please refrain from wearing shorts and singlets. Ladies, please dress modestly."

This is not a regular tourist's cup of tea.

Two Australian participants readied themselves to roam the alleys of slums along the Ciliwung River for the morning tour. Dressed in casual clothes and sandals, they take nothing but a camera when they hop into a Kopaja - a public minibus - heading for Kampung Pulo.

"We will first meet the district head, visit some schools and then have a chat with the community," said Ronny Poluan, the tour guide of the day who also happens to be the founder of the program.

As they entered the narrow alleys of Kampung Pulo, the clich* greetings started to pop here and there.

"Hey, Mister!" "Mampir sebentar *drop by a minute*, Mister!"

Friendly smiles are exchanged with welcoming grins as two distant worlds meet. But is it all sugary and sweet?

Ronny took the participants to meet and discuss the problems of poverty with the local subdistrict head, elementary school principals in the area and head of the community health center.

"Around 30 percent of about 22,000 people here are poor. We would be very grateful if anyone can help in any way," said the vice subdistrict head to the expatriate guests while trying to silence his two cell phones on the desk.

The two guests eagerly asked for more details on the problems the poor community is facing, problems as basic as the need for clean water, ones they had never encountered in their own country.

At the Sanggar Ciliwung, hearing stories about how members of the local community organize themselves to compost waste and provide nonformal education for the children, the two tour participants appeared even more amazed.

In another tour through the kampungs of Luar Batang, three Australian women spent an hour as guests in the house of a family of four who have lived in the often-flooded area for 22 years.

"One highlight for me was seeing the young girls behaving just the same as my daughter who is the same age - handbags and high shoes ready to go shopping!" said Lani, one of the tour participants.

This is the kind of story you'd never get from regular tourism.

After each visit, Ronny's wife hands an envelope containing Rp 150,000 to all the "sources", the vice subdistrict head, the school principals, and the community health center doctor.

"A contribution from the tour to the community," Ronny's wife said.

JP/Anissa S. Febrina

The amount for the contribution is set aside from the money participants are charged. The price for an adventure tour where one pays for one's own transportation and meals begins at US$56 for two people to visit one of the sites: South Jakarta's Ciliwung, Central Jakarta's Galur or North Jakarta's Luar Batang.

It can go as high as $330 for a full day tour for four people, visiting all three sites.

A third of the fee goes to paying the guides, 17 percent goes to Ronny's NGO the Interkultur Foundation, 15 percent is given as donations to the families and community organizations they visit and the rest is used to cover tour participants' expenses.

"I was broke and had to find a way to make a living, one which could hopefully help others," the former documentary filmmaker said of why he started his rather unusual business earlier this year.

He actually started years ago by taking people, mostly foreign artists, to Jakarta's kampungs - for free, as a friend. One of the results of his tours was Leonard Helmrich's award-winning documentaries Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon, Ronny said.

"Then I figured, if I can connect the poor with those who might be able to help them, why not be a professional at it?" he said.

Yet a lot still needs to be done if Ronny wants to ensure that what he does is more helpful than harmful.

What Ronny is doing is actually nothing new.

More than a decade ago, Marcelo Armstrong founded Favela Tour, a company that takes tourists into Rio de Janeiro's favelas or slums. Tourists pay around $35 to take a close look at poverty and learn something about the South American community.

With favelas now as much a tourist commodity as the Brazilian samba, live-in services are sprouting there, offering more than just a couple of hours peeking at poverty.

The same can be seen in the Soweto of Johannesburg or Cape Town, along the meandering maze of Mumbai's Dharavi and even in the ghettos in New York City.

"Reality Tour", which visits Mumbai's largest slum, claims to be a unique tour and travel agency that tries to help "dispel the negative image that many people have about Dharavi".

What makes Ronny's work different from these others is the end effect it has for the poor.

While critics may lambast the concept of commodifying poverty for tourism, Favela Tour and the tour in Dharavi put the funds toward community activities.

The tour companies in Brazil and India manage a community school from the funds they raise from the tours, one thing that the Jakarta Hidden Tour is still far from achieving.

"It is something that does more harm to the poor if one is simply handing out envelopes," urban poor activist Sandyawan Sumardi said.

Sandyawan, who has worked for years with poor families in Ciliwung, argued that it was not a constructive way of helping the poor.

"This kind of activity needs to be managed more professionally and to be done very carefully so as not to end up harming the community mentally," he added.

But others believe the tour actually has the potential to become a bridge between two worlds.

"Many people have never seen what being poor is all about. And this is a way to introduce them to the real world," said Robert Finlayson, an adviser provided by the Volunteering for International Development from Australia (VIDA) to assist the Jakarta Hidden Tour.

VIDA is part of the Australian government's volunteer program.

Despite the debates, the participants, whose normal lives are worlds away from life in the slum, said that they enjoyed it. And perhaps they are the ones who will feel the benefit long term, even though the objects of their tourist activity feel it only for as long as the money in Ronny's envelopes lasts.

"It was very interesting. There are many ways to see Jakarta, but this tour allows you to go below the surface and meet with people on an equal level that you would not otherwise get to meet as a tourist," Lani said.

"It was refreshing to escape from all the shopping malls."

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