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Anneli Rufus Headshot

Today's Hottest Tourist Attraction? Slum Dwellers

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From Brazil's favelas to Nairobi's refuse heaps to the Mumbai dump seen in Slumdog Millionaire, landscapes of seething deprivation where the destitute dwell on detritus are now prime destinations for enterprising tour operators banking on a 21st-century confluence of glad-it's-not-me gloating, genuine sympathy, and whatever it was that made our ancestors clamor to watch public hangings and circus freaks. Granted, most of these companies claim that they're running slum tours to "raise awareness." Some even give part of their proceeds to the poor. A few frame their slum tours as job-training for the trash-pickers. Calling its guided stroll around the New Delhi Railway Station, where some 2,500 homeless children scavenge for food, a "salute to the spirit of survival," the charitable Salaam Balak Trust asserts: "Nobody knows Delhi's streets better than the young people who are fully trained as guides. These spirited youngsters will take you on a tour while sharing with you the journey of their lives.... It's a unique way of engaging people in the lives of children in distress. The walk also provides an opportunity for the young people to improve their communication and speaking skills."

Hmm, it's hard to argue with that. Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Reality Tours & Travel offers not one but four "Dharavi Slum Tours," ranging from two and a half hours (US$10) to nine hours ($135). Featured in Slumdog, this part of town has severe sanitation issues and about one toilet per every 1,400 residents. "We think that Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia, is one of the most interesting places to see in Mumbai," reads a company promo. "A few visitors such as Prince Charles and Bill Clinton have been to Dharavi, and it is by no means dangerous ... but the beauty of Dharavi lies not on the main roads but in the small hidden alleys ... where goats roam freely and where children play with carefree abandon."

"We do not believe that we should be showing places affecting the poorer members of society and profit from it," the company's web site concedes, explaining that "80% of profits after tax from these slum tours are donated to local NGOs" and an education center.

Kenya-based Victoria Safaris calls its fare "pro-poor tourism." Wow. Just ... wow. "The most important factor is not the type of company or the type of tourism," reads a promo, "but that poor people receive an increase in the net benefits from tourism." How, exactly? "Visitors who come and see these slums are sure to contribute to the upgrading of the African slums." And: "Victoria Safaris has come up with this new noble idea of Kenya Slum Tourism as a means of creating awareness of  the plight of the poor in Kenya to both foreign and domestic tourists with an intention of wiping out the slums in Africa and Kenya." A sample itinerary reads: "Lunch is taken at a hotel in the industrial Area. In the afternoon, proceed to Kiambiu slum next to the Kenya Air Force base in Eastleigh, here you will meet the slum dwellers ... and the community leaders who will brief you on the daily chores of this slum. Return to your hotel for dinner and overnight." Here's another: "After Lunch proceed to the Korokocho slum where you will be amazed with the number of the roaming children in the slum ... then proceed to the Nairobi city refuse dumping site in Dandora where you will see the biggest heap of refuse in Africa which acts as a source of food and as well as income to the poor who scavenge there everyday. Return to your hotel for dinner and overnight."

I'm a scavenger. I define scavenging as any legal means of acquiring things for free or without paying full-price. I don't scavenge out of dire necessity, as do those folks whom tourists now pay to see. But it's not just a game for me. It's a seriously useful lifestyle in an expensive world where the vast majority of writers -- including my husband and myself -- earn so little that, were they to see the figures, most of our former college classmates would puzzle over how we make ends meet. Thrift shops and yard sales and swapping is how, and the occasional Versace suit plucked from a trash bin. (That happened last Friday, it was right on top of the bin, and it was exactly my size.)

Society has scorned scavengers for over 2,000 years. (Surely you didn't miss that portion of Leviticus.) And now society -- at least a curious sector of it with money to spare -- stares bemusedly at scavengers. These attitudes are about to get overhauled, as we are at a point in history when many of the formerly just-making-it and the formerly middle-class are becoming hungry and homeless -- as evinced by this San Francisco Chronicle story about social services being swamped in tony Marin County, whose median household income ($85,892) is California's highest. For them, as for any of us who need to save cash as the economy nosedives, scavenging will become ever more of a reality and a necessity. When you spot an ex-CEO across the aisle at Goodwill, it won't be exotic anymore.