A family of five, surviving on a dollar a day, cram into a house no bigger than the average North American bathroom. Outside, a river of sewage and garbage flows. Behind the house, the railway bears deafening trains that shake the houses every hour as they rattle by. This is reality of the Jakarta slums, and here I am as a tourist. All the troubles I believe I have go right down the drain. And yet, despite living in such poverty, the people of the slum graciously invite me in to their homes, expecting nothing in return.
What is Slum Tourism?
With an ever growing demand for something new in the tourism industry, things like “Slum Tourism” have been born into existence. Seeing a slum can be incredibly rewarding, and very heartbreaking, all at the same time. Slum tourism, however, is not always viewed in a positive manner.
Essentially, you are paying a company to take you in and show you people who are suffering. You see people who cannot afford education, clean water, and even food. How you look at this is up to you. Before you judge this branch of tourism, you should understand the pioneers of this kind of travel first.
I have now traveled with two companies to two different slums. The first was Darvaj Slum in the Indian city of Mumbai. More recently, I visited the Jakarta Slum, Ciliwung. Both companies that I toured with provide their services to help the slums, usually giving more than half their proceeds to help people there.
The downside of these tours is that the companies don’t get to decide on the tourists that take these tours. Tourists visiting slums can often act as though they are someone visiting a zoo. They come in, take their photos, then head off to show everyone at home how poor these people are.
My last slum tour gave me into a whole different perspective of this. All because of an inspiring man named Ronnie!
Jakarta Hidden Tours
Jakarta hidden tours offer tours throughout Jakarta’s many slums. The founder and only guide of this company is named Ronnie. Ronnie an Indonesia native and was an artist for many years. While visiting the slums, completely changed his career and became a charity worker for the slums.
Ronnie’s company ‘Jakarta Hidden Tours” donates fifty percent of all the money earned from the tours to where it is needed the most. It can be used for school supplies, English lessons clean water and much more. The other fifty percent is just barely enough to cover the costs of running the company.
When Jakarta Hidden Tours began to get popular, Ronnie was attacked by the media portraying him as just trying to make money from the poor. They even went so far as to say “Why doesn’t Ronnie show the rich people too?” They claimed that he does not care about the well-being of the Indonesian people.
I spent much time with Ronnie on his tour. Ronnie, in my opinion, is a very inspiring person. Despite all the hate directed towards him and struggles of his crusade, he pushes on! If you are at all interested in visiting the slums in Jakarta, message Ronnie at www.jakartahiddentours.blogspot.com
The Secret Meeting Point
12 noon: I was given a “secret meeting ”point at a back street café in Jakarta’s Kota District. Finding it was not easy, as the café is not one that is frequented by many tourists. After asking a few locals for help, I was finally directed there.
A man with a long, white ponytail approached me, shook my hand, and introduced himself and his amazing wife. This was Ronnie, the famed slum activist. After our brief introduction, I asked what is with the “secret meeting” spot. Ronnie explained that he used to meet in more well-known areas, but his struggle with the Indonesian politics and media led him to be more cautious about his tours, in order to avoid problems.
I asked Ronnie how many tourists he gets. He told me that he has bookings almost every day, but he is selective about who he takes. This is because he does not want his tours to turn into an official, full-blown tour company. Ronnie wishes to keep it small, help the people, and follow the right path. Another reason for his selectivity is that he knows that not all tourists are here for the same reasons.
In a world of constant selfies, Facebook and Instagram updates, many tourist can turn something like Slum Tourism into that sad zoo-like image the media has tried to portray. This kind of tourism is not for everybody, and Ronnie, being the person he is, will fight to keep this a charity company and not a commercial one.
The Ciliwung Slum Tour
From Jakarta’s historic Kota district, Ronnie led us east into the Ciliwung Slums. Coming to a dark corridor in between repair shops and storage units, Ronnie pointed and said “Here is where it begins, down the long black corridor. There are many secrets in here just like Harry Potter!”
Walking down the corridor, we noticed small living spaces, all about 5 feet by 5 feet, crammed in here one after another. On average five people live to each one of these small spaces. Many of the occupants were small children, all living in this unsanitary and dark place.
We emerged from the black corridor up onto the train tracks. The tracks were surrounded by more houses.
“The train comes every thirty minutes, shaking the ground!” Ronnie exclaimed
From the train tracks, we walked to the Ciliwung River. The Indonesian government claims to have cleaned up this river and proclaims that it will become a great tourist spot. However, the reality is that the river is a muck of running sewage, islands of garbage, and trickles of green, algae-filled water. The smell is extreme, but all the people here live beside this horrible place.
After mingling with many smiling locals, all of whom could speak some basic English and welcomed us with incredible hospitality, we were off to another area. This time, we visited underneath the highway bridge across from the Ciliwung. Here, families live on grass mats that are covered in dust. They get by, by selling used tools they either find in the dumps or buy from other slums.
Kota’s Old Port and Slum
Part two of Ronnie’s tour brought us into a slum nearby to Kota’s Old Port. The Port itself has not changed in hundreds of years. Massive wooden cargo ships spit out black smoke and water as men haul wooden crates off and onto these behemoths. It’s a great site in itself; walking the port, just taking it all in. For a few dollars, you can hire a local to take you around the ships in a small boat. We had done this earlier, but with Ronnie, we started across from the port in the slum. We crossed the channel of floating garbage on a handmade, poorly put together ferry that crosses the waters by being pulled with a rope. On the island slum, Ronnie rented us a small boat and we explored the whole port area. Tagging along with us were seven or eight small local children from the slum.
After the tour, we returned to the island slum and entered a local home. The home was constructed out of a tarp and some poorly put together wooden boards. It was home to a family of seven. Here they told us about life in the slum and had the children sing for us. We also had quite a few laughs about exchanging noses, because our noses were apparently more preferable than the Indonesian variety.
Ronnie told us more about how the slum was slowly being destroyed by the government, they were reclaiming the land and sending the residents to a faraway district. This family and the remaining ones were fighting to stay, as the new district was too far for them to commute for finding a job.
Final Thoughts on Slum Tourism
Visiting the slums is heartbreaking. You see the harsh reality of the third world. Many people travel to Indonesia for its white beaches, incredible diving, and culture. But, unfortunately, many travelers simply ignore the fact that Indonesia has some of the world’s worst poverty.
My final thoughts for this kind of tourism is that I believe it’s a great idea. It helps the people, and travelers get to see an unseen part of Indonesia that is more real than any of its temples and beaches. This is what traveling is truly about. Sitting down with the locals and learning from them is an experience that will stick with you long after you leave this place.
Location: Jakarta, Indonesia
Tour Company: www.jakartahiddentours.blogspot.com
Currency: Indonesian Rupiah
Language: Bahasa Indonesian