Over the past several days, a New York Times op-ed Kennedy Odede ’12 wrote last summer about slum tourism has been repeatedly cycling through my mind (and my conversations with friends, because apparently I am a walking, talking advertisement for Wesleyan). That’s because the program I’m studying with in India took us to see Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, as part of our five-day visit to Mumbai.

Odede’s horrifying description of a white woman photographing a man defecating was emblazoned in my memory vividly enough to prevent me from taking my camera out of my bag (which is why there are no photos to accompany this column). But refraining from taking pictures didn’t make me feel like less of a tourist. I’m not sure what I was expecting our visit to Dharavi to be like, but I was completely unprepared for what we experienced. Our two shiny yellow buses honked their way through the narrow streets of the slum and pulled over to let us out. We descended the stairs and were quickly whisked away into one of the nagars, or neighborhoods, of Dharavi. The program directors, encouraging us to take photos, hurried us through alleys as the residents of the nagar stared at us from their doorways. I pulled my hands to my chest and said ‘namaskar’ to each person I passed, as if with this simple greeting I could apologize for intruding in their home, for treating their life as if it were a spectacle, for being the very tourist I had hoped not to be.

Just as quickly as we had entered the nagar, we were shuffled back onto the bus. In the tribal villages we visited a few weeks ago, we had been encouraged to explore the alleyways and talk to the residents, whilst accompanied by a Marathi translator. We spoke to people who had lived and worked in the village for decades and played games with the children who giggled as they followed us around. But in Dharavi, we were given no opportunity to interact—we were only able to observe, as if the sights could allow us to experience life in a slum.

We got off the bus again and were marched off to a recycling plant in the middle of Dharavi, to see one of the slum’s main industries. Again, I offered my “namaskars” to the people I passed, but I was often met with glaring silence. My friend Christie started to cry. She embarrassedly tried to wipe away her tears, but everyone felt the same way. Cameras had been put back in bags, curious smiles had turned to shame, and we whispered our mortification to one another as we glanced around us at the laborers cleaning oil barrels and cutting up old shoes: “This feels so wrong.”

As we sat on the bus, being driven to our final stop on the tour, I talked to Christie.

“I just thought coming with an academic group would be different,” she said. “I thought it wouldn’t just be a tour of a slum. I don’t know what else it could have been, but I just thought it would be different.”

I felt the same way—if we were there to learn, to understand India’s development, how could we just trek through and leave? Is simply seeing ever enough to understand?

Our final stop was at an NGO started by a Dharavi resident. He was a retired teacher who had decided to take the slum’s pitiable education system into his own hands and start a school. He spoke to us about how the government ought to develop Dharavi, how the government ought to repair the country’s education system, and how, in its current state, it was failing at both. Someone asked him the question that had been weighing on all of our minds: What did he think when groups of American students came to see the slum? He loved it, he said, because change is in our hands.

As we left Dharavi in our fancy tour bus, we talked about what he meant. What can we, as privileged white kids who have never experienced anything remotely similar to living in a slum, possibly do to help? How can we turn this experience that left us all feeling guilty and hollow into something beneficial? By learning, my friend Kelsey suggested. Of course we, as upper-middle class American college students, are in a position of power, she said. Of course it was wrong to treat a slum as a form of entertainment. But we can take away from this the motivation to use our privilege well—to know the communities we strive to help, to listen, to truly care. We can learn not to be what we were in the eyes of the Dharavi residents.

And who knows; maybe that’s not enough. Certainly, it doesn’t make up for the knot I get in my stomach thinking about trudging through the nagar. But for now, this is all I can take away from Dharavi: the desire, both literally and figuratively, to never be a slum tourist again.

In-Continents Abroad is a weekly column rotating between the experiences of  Molly Deutsch-Feldman ’12, Adam Rashkoff ’13 and Katherine Yagle ’12.

Comments are closed