This Week’s New York Times: Homestay in Guatemala and a Low Opinion for Slum Tourism
Whenever we travel, we don’t feel like writing about travel – ironic, no?
So, since we just got back from a nice road trip in Chile, we’ll leave you with the following two articles from this week’s New York Times:
Slum tourism has its advocates, who say it promotes social awareness. And it’s good money, which helps the local economy. But it’s not worth it. Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.
I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.
When I was 18, I founded an organization that provides education, health and economic services for Kibera residents. A documentary filmmaker from Greece was interviewing me about my work. As we made our way through the streets, we passed an old man defecating in public. The woman took out her video camera and said to her assistant, “Oh, look at that.”
For a moment I saw my home through her eyes: feces, rats, starvation, houses so close together that no one can breathe. I realized I didn’t want her to see it, didn’t want to give her the opportunity to judge my community for its poverty — a condition that few tourists, no matter how well intentioned, could ever understand.
2. The Frugal Traveler (yo, Kugel bro!) stays with a family in a tourist-friendly but not tourist-heavy lake town in Guatemala. Makes us want to head on over there ourselves! A snippet:
San Juan La Laguna is a captivating place to run such a program. Its 10,000 or so inhabitants are almost entirely Tz’utujil, one of the Mayan peoples who make up a significant part of the population of modern-day Guatemala. They maintain their own language, most still use traditional dress, and despite strong attendance at the Catholic and evangelical churches in town, many still depend on Mayan priests to give spiritual guidance and perform traditional ceremonies. The people are touchingly friendly to outsiders, and the streets are cleaner than those in just about any other town I’ve been through this summer.
And most importantly, unlike San Pedro and some other towns on the lake, it hasn’t been drastically reshaped by foreigners. The town has cultivated a gentle sort of tourism, fueled in part by the presence of nongovernmental organizations staffed by a mix of local residents, Guatemalans from the big city and foreigners.
Cooperatives have flourished. The fishermen have one and the coffee growers have another, for example, but the most noticeable are those of the traditional weavers. Among the results has been a return to the use of natural dyes, not the bright, synthetic colors you see on fabrics sold at touristy markets around the country. The shops run by the cooperatives have boutique-like feels, and you’re liable to be invited to the back to see women at work, either weaving or extracting dye from natural sources like willow bark or pomegranate seeds.
There is also a homegrown tourism organization called Rupalaj Kistalin, which organizes a ton of activities – a town tour, fishing tours, coffee- and corn-themed tours, and a hike up to the “Mayan nose” (the highest point of a face-shaped mountain overlooking the town), to name a few.
More on our own travels in the next couple of weeks!