Each visit above was part of a tour, an increasingly popular and controversial genre of travel known as Poverty Tourism. Each visit left a profound impact, and each had me wondering whether I was at the forefront of an important new travel trend, or a mutually exploitative human zoo. It is estimated that over 830 million people live in urban slums, most below the breadline, in appalling conditions. I’m going to guestimate that international leisure tourists make up zero percent of that population. An encounter between the two groups is unprecedented and certainly unusual, but is it beneficial?
La Chureca is the name of Managua’s city garbage dump, a burning post-apocalyptic nightmare covered in shapeless grey muck. Over 175 families live here, surviving on as little as $1-$2 a day, by turning in plastic for recycling, or salvaging goods of value. Malnutrition is rife, sanitation non-existent, and many kids are hooked on glue. NGO’s are working with the families to improve the situation. Nica Hope helps take children out the dump, to put them in school, teach them skills, and show them a way out. Deanna Ford, an American who founded Nica Hope takes me into La Chureca to show me exactly what she’s up against. The air is acrid, and the flow of garbage trucks constant. On the ground, I walk amongst plastics, bones, rotting food, candy wrappers, broken syringes. Children caked in dirt are barefoot, but two boys play with marbles, like boys anywhere. Deanna takes groups here in the hope they will donate to her cause, sponsor a child, and learn about the realities of this urban slum. “I am aware of tour companies bringing groups in, where they stay in the car, take photos and leave,” she tells me. The human zoo helps nobody, and exploits everyone. Watching Deanna play with the kids, showing them respect, and selflessly doing anything she can to help, I realize that even amongst all this trash, she embodies the most valuable treasure of all: compassion and hope.
Poverty tours run the gamut of taste and function, depending on the company or organization, the people you’re with, and the place you’re visiting. While some may challenge the ethical value of visiting a foreign slum, there’s no doubt it sheds a fascinating insight on a shocking component of urban reality. In the end, anything that brings people together, across the widest of income or cultural gaps, can only be a good thing.