by Aubrey Belford
JAKARTA - Gridlocked traffic, filthy rivers, air that tastes of diesel - there is much that keeps Indonesia's capital Jakarta off the global tourist map.
But for broke filmmaker Ronny Poluan, there is plenty of interest amid the squalor of a city of up to 12 million people, where nearly half the population lives in slums jammed between shopping malls and luxury homes.
Poluan's "Jakarta Hidden Tours," running more or less regularly since 2008, take small paying groups of foreigners to the city's warrens, river banks and rail lines to meet those whom he calls "the real people".
Wizened 53-year-old Sana is one of them. Standing near a shack built on the edge of the tracks, she tells a group of half a dozen Australians about the local slum dweller's weekly dance with the authorities.
Friday to Sunday, Sana said, the rows of shacks that spread off into the horizon are home. But between Monday and Thursday, the authorities move in, dismantling the homes and sending locals to sleep in the open.
"If we don't hurry they take our things," she said.
It may not be pleasant to look at, but Poluan argues the tour is important for spreading understanding. And it is not the first of its kind.
"It creates more problems than it helps"
"Poverty tourism," as it is often disparagingly known, is a growing trend from the favelas of Brazil's Rio de Janeiro to the Soweto township in South Africa's Johannesburg.
Poluan said the Jakarta tours evolved independently out of informal introductions he had been giving to visiting foreign artists for more than a decade. He only recently found out about slum tours in other countries.
"After I gave one of the tours somebody mentioned these other tours, so I Googled and found out about Mumbai, the favelas, Soweto. I don't know if this is the same or different," he said.
Starting at 350,000 rupiah (S$49) a head for half a day, the tours are hardly cheap. And while Poluan says he takes around 50,000 rupiah ($7) for himself and a similar amount for his NGO, Interkultur, most goes to local people.
But this cash-in-hand approach has plenty of critics.
Wardah Hafidz, who heads Jakarta's Urban Poor Consortium advocacy group, says this is exactly the wrong approach.
"It creates more problems for us than it helps," Hafidz said.
"If you come with money then it's a complete language of money. It doesn't develop the understanding (among the poor) that they are powerful, that they can help themselves," she said.
"Worrying about the same things as us"
Poluan, and many of his guests, are convinced they are doing good just by being there.
Entering Jakarta's Galur slum, Poluan takes his tour group through deepening circles of privation.
At the outer edge, tourists drink Fanta in the stifling heat of the home of Rumidja, a pint-sized, 69-year-old grandmother who lives cramped alongside 14 other people.
She poses excitedly with the towering foreigners and complains of pains and lost sleep, and worries about how to pay for her granddaughter's education. She shows off photos of herself as a much fatter teenager.
It is this contact with the everyday, rather than unmitigated suffering, that impresses Australian tour guest Martin Roach, a 39-year-old who makes his living in share trading and poker tournaments.
"Many of the things she's worrying about are the same as us," he said.
But moving deeper into the slum, head-high mounds of rubbish appear with increasing frequency and spill into creeks and canals running beneath the shacks.
The tour group stops to peer into a series of cavernous rooms where slum dwellers make tofu by burning scrap wood under concrete vats.
In one room, a barefoot man climbs on a sack of tofu, squeezing it with his body weight. In another, cracks in the roof shed light on soot so thick it hangs off the roof beams in furry tendrils metres (yards) long.
By the time the group reaches the train tracks where Sana has her weekly conflict with the city, the mood darkens. Upset by what they see, some in the group kick off an impassioned debate with Poluan, arguing for the right to give money to anyone they come across in the slum.
"You can pass the other stuff as okay, it's reduced from our lifestyle (but) they're happy. The people on the railway lines, that's not okay," Larry Stringer, 54, said.
"What you're seeing is poverty, not people"
It may be unsettling at times, but coming face to face with the reality of poverty is an important step in getting rich Westerners to see the poor as equals, says Robert Finlayson, from Volunteering for International Development from Australia, who helps Poluan run the tours.
"Guilt is like pity, it stops you from seeing people as they actually are, as normal human beings," Finlayson said.
"What we wanted to do is say: 'What you're seeing is poverty, you're not actually seeing people. People are the same all over the world, whether they have a penis gourd on or a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain'."
While putting money in the pockets of locals helps, the real benefit of the tour is as a "front" to get visitors, many of them working as diplomats or in international organisations, involved in creating development programmes in the community.
One initiative already launched is a micro-credit scheme which has seen a handful of locals take out small loans of roughly US$20.
Down by the train tracks, the visits from outside are welcome. "We're lost, discarded people. Our lives are unsettled and ugly, like animals, moving from one place to another," said Samuel Yong Q, a 30-year-old rubbish scavenger.
"(The tours) are good. At least they're paying attention."
Around the corner, too, is a reminder that life goes on despite the privation.
As the group walks by one of the Friday-to-Sunday shacks, a man lies along its entire length, facing a TV and a karaoke machine.
Microphone in hand, he belts out a ballad as if nobody is watching.