Generally speaking, travelers tend to eschew slums in their urban itineraries. But Robert Neuwirth—a journalist who spent two years living in four squatter communities in Brazil, Kenya, India, and Turkey—considers these shanty towns vibrant neighborhoods worthy of exploration. After all, one in six people on the planet are considered squatters (that’s one billion people), an astounding number expected to triple by the year 2050. His adventures led an influential book on the topic, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World, as well as a blog, Squatter City. IT’s Katie Knorovsky caught up with him recently to get his take on the rise of “poorism”—so-called “reality tours” that offer excursions through urban slums.
What role, if any, should squatter communities play in a responsible traveler’s itinerary?
That’s a difficult question. There’s a phenomenon that goes on in Rio’s Rocinha—normally the [tours] come through the community I lived in. They come through as if on safari—they come in literally on Jeeps. The people in the community are OK with it, but to me as an outsider it was sort of weird. It smacked of "look at the wild animals in their habitat." There was kind of an element of unreality to it. But I do think it’s really important for travelers to understand that these communities exist and that the cities they go through are not just fancy bars and hotels. The desire [to learn about these communities] is really important.
So what would be a better way to learn about squatter communities?
You don’t really understand a community by driving through on a Jeep. If you go to Rio, you should be aware that in many cases the guy serving you breakfast at the hotel probably lives in a favela. If you start asking him questions, you might even get an invitation. That’s a more honest way to go into these areas, and the bulk of the money [for these types of tours] goes to the tour operator.
Or, just walk in, which takes a certain type of person. You have to be clear on where you’re going, and I guess you have to be a calm and confident person who knows what’s going on around them and doesn’t get fazed easily. I’m from New York, and I remember New York from the 70s and 80s. Crime was rampant. You developed this sixth sense—when I walk I can tell who’s walking behind me. But I don’t want to overplay the danger in these communities; 99.9 percent of the time they’re not dangerous at all.
How do the locals in these communities react when you walk through their neighborhood, and is it obvious you’re an outsider?
You can’t predict it. I’m a white guy with a shaved head, but many people would drive up and ask me directions. It’s weird, but I don’t understand it. They don’t immediately assume you’re an outsider. Be yourself; don’t try to dress like a Rio Cariocas kid if you’re not one; don’t try to become an African if you’re in Africa—it won’t work.
If you want to walk into Dharavi in Mumbai, you can. Kibera in Nairobi can be dangerous after dark (indeed, all of Nairobi is dangerous after dark); I wouldn’t go too far off the beaten track; I wouldn’t pretend you’re not going to be noticed. If you’re white, [people assume] you’re either a missionary or a donor. In Kibera, many people thought I was initially a priest; kids will follow you around shouting, hitting you up for money.
And how do you react to kids asking for money?
You don’t give. If you give to one, you have to give to all. Most of the time when kids say, “How are you?”—kids learn that phrase from their teachers at school—I would say, “Fine, how are you?” and repeated that a hundred times every day. But that’s what I did. You have to recognize that it’s not hostile behavior. It’s a subject of intense interest—total curiosity.
You talk about how safe these communities are for responsible outsiders. Does the same hold true for a woman?
A woman faces a whole different layer of presumptions. In certain ways, a woman may get a bit more respect—exaggerated respect. I can’t say for sure. If my girlfriend had been the one doing what I did, she would have had a completely different experience. Generally in the developing world, men socialize with men and women socialize with women. I was able to get a tiny bit of the women’s culture.
It wouldn’t be impossible [for a woman], but a different experience. As for tourism, the best way to see real bona fide regular things is to move around with a local.
How can travelers find locals who are willing to show them around?
It’s the six degrees of separation thing. Ask around. Over time, it really is six different e-mails or phone calls and you find someone. That was always my experience, that I was able to find someone. And that is the most effective way to truly get to know and see real life in any non-Western community.
Recently, your blog covered how governments in Mumbai and Istanbul have decided to demolish millions of squatter homes to make way for high rises. What impact does government-imposed redevelopment have on a city’s cultural richness?
These communities are very tightly knit neighborhoods. It’s like what happened in the U.S. when we ripped out neighborhoods and put up housing projects. We removed this sort of life on the street, when everyone sat out on the street and the kids played in the street because someone was there to watch over you. But when you live on the 27th floor of a high-rise, you can’t see your kids on the street. That level of street culture is broken.
Much of the commercial culture is broken. When they plan for these communities, instead of a jumbled mixed-use development, it’s all residential. What it does is you know longer have a store owner on your block; you no longer have the businesses that kept the neighborhood interesting. In that regard, it really breaks those community ties. It fosters a much more individual, private world. And that will, culturally, be a loss.
When you travel for leisure, how does your informed perspective affect your travel itineraries?
Perhaps I gravitate toward this naturally, but I’m always trying to find the off-the-beaten track. I don’t love just being in the same places that everyone else goes to. When I went to Miami, I went to South Beach, even stayed in a hotel there, but in between we rented bicycles, went to the Cuban neighborhoods, and rode around trying to see what the city was all about. It’s really important—bicycling, walking, taking the bus—these are good ways to know a city. Sitting in the back of a taxi, you have a tendency to let the taxi driver figure out where to go. That doesn’t clue you in to how a city works.
Photo: Chika Okafor