I first got in touch with PETE (Providing Education To Everyone) India way back before my departure. While researching different work exchange and volunteer opportunities in India, I stumbled across PETE, a small not-for-profit organization that runs walking tours in Kathputli Colony, Delhi. PETE employs local residents to lead the walking tours, and then uses the earnings to run a primary school, kindergarten, and a vocational school for women.
Initially, I wasn’t sure how I felt about taking a walking tour of an Indian slum. I had avoided them in Brazil as the whole idea of slum tourism seemed far too voyeuristic and neo-colonialist. However, PETE seemed different.
There seemed to be a real focus on funneling all the profits back into the community. I also admired how the tours are totally run by people that live in the community, and who have an honest desire to share their stories and way of life with visitors from around the world — and who seriously benefit from steady and safe employment. Finally, I loved how small PETE seemed.
In my experience, the smaller an organization -> the more closely linked it is to the community -> the less corrupt it will be -> the more good work it will provide.
And PETE seemed tiny and very sincere.
My first contact person was Karma Yogi Shiva, a sweetheart of a man who puts everything he has (and then some) into this organization. When I sent my first email out last summer, I mentioned that I’d be interested in volunteering with PETE when I arrived in India in October. PETE accepts volunteers from around the world who contribute in a variety of way: doing admin stuff, creating photography/videography projects, teaching English in the schools, etc. So I told Shiva, sign me up, I’ll be there soon!
Except I’m bad at promises and good at spontaneity and ended up in Nepal, Thailand, and Burma before finally arriving in India… at which point I started a 3 month internship with an NGO in Delhi. I even went on another slum walking tour in Mumbai in the meantime.
It wasn’t until the end of February that I finally made a visit to PETE, at which point I was already really sick and there was no time left for me to volunteer. However, I still wanted to learn about and support the organization, so I decided to take their slum walking tour.
I met Shiva at the head office, located in the back room of a small apartment in the neighborhood just outside of the slum. I was late (per usual) and feeling slightly ashamed about all of my false promises up until that point.
But I had nothing to worry about.
Shiva greeted me with open arms and said that he was never concerned, that he knew we’d meet some day.
Gotta love those hippy dippy do-good spirits )
My guide was a woman in her early 40s who told me about how she was married as a teenager, how her husband is an alcoholic who doesn’t work, how she is the sole breadwinner of the family, and how everyday she must argue with him about why her 16 year-old daughter should finish school rather than immediately be married off, as tradition expects and her husband desires.
She wasn’t looking for sympathy or a hand out. One of the many things I love about Indian culture is its bluntness. She was simply sharing her story, presenting the hard facts of her life.
And maybe doing a little bit of the humble brag (as should should be) because damn was she an impressive lady.
There are 11 different languages spoken in the slum, as people from all over the country come to the city to find jobs. India is incredibly diverse; each state has its own unique culture, food, and, often times, language. Our tour guide could speak 6(!!) of those languages.
The slum felt like a mini India as it was clearly divided by the different states represented there. For example, as we walked through the area where people from the state of Rajasthan reside, the homes were painted in bright colors and heavily ornamented, characteristics typical of that culture.
Below is an image taken in the South Indian section, which was clearly the poorest.
When I went on the slum walking tour in Mumbai, the guides were very firm about not allowing photography, which I found totally understandable.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the reason I was so hesitant to endorse slum tourism is because I didn’t want to simultaneously endorse voyeurism. And a camera would only make the experience even more voyeuristic.
However, Shiva had mentioned that one way to help PETE is through video and photography documentation. So, at the last moment, I decided to bring my camera along. Just in case.
And I’m SO glad I did.
These kids were absolute HAMS for the camera. The second I pulled it out of my bag, I had a hundred little hands yanking on my jacket, asking for “1 more photo please!!!!”
None of these children own cameras, had probably never taken a picture, but they clearly understood its function. And they were beyond intrigued.
Some would approach me, and bashfully ask for a picture. A few of the older kids pretended like they didn’t care, but would purposely position themselves in the background of a photo and then eagerly ask to see it.
And then there were the kids who jumped in front of me, screamed “YO YO HONEY SINGH!!!!”, and struck a pose. Those kids were my favorite.
The response to my presence in the slum was overwhelmingly positive. Much more so than I expected. The kids, as noted, were all very excited to see me. There were some men in the beginning who were far too eager to shake my hand, but otherwise, I felt very comfortable throughout my time there. Most of the other adults greeted me with either mild curiosity or total indifference. A few asked if I would take their photo as well.
There was one woman who saw me taking a photo (not of her, but of a little boy) and yelled at me in a language I didn’t understand. I immediately put the camera down, but she was clearly upset about my being there. I hated to see her displeasure as the last thing I wanted to do was make people feel uncomfortable in their own community. However, the other residents in the area seemed embarrassed about her reaction as they confronted her, and ushered me on.
My interest in photography and photojournalism has been rapidly increasing. I am especially keen on photojournalism projects that focus on human rights issues. However, I worry that photography that is too invasive, too personal, becomes a human rights violation in itself. How does one reconcile with that? Do you always ask before you take someone’s photo? But, in my opinion, the best images are those that are unplanned and not posed.
If anyone has answers to these questions, I’d love to hear them.
The tour was around 2.5 hours. We visited both schools and saw the location for the vocational program. Only the kindergarten school was in session at the time of the tour, and oh em geeee were those kiddos adorable. They greeted us with a loud “GOOD MORNING!” and then a few cutesy songs in English. While we (and I keep saying we — I was joined by a girl from South Korea on the tour) sat and watched the performance, a woman who works as the cook for the school served us a heaping plate of hot food. Of which I apologetically ate nothing as this was during my e. coli epidemic, and so, this food that cannot afford to be wasted, was. I said it a million times that day, but I’ll say it again: I’m so sorry!!!
Also, I should note that when I say school or home, I’m not talking about the types of schools or homes we’re familiar with in the U.S. Each school was just one tiny room, crammed with a few essentials. The students all sat on the floor, and the teacher had a small desk in the corner. The homes in the slum were also limited to usually just one, barren room. The cooking, cleaning, and laundry all happened just outside the front door as there was no space inside. No house had its own bathroom either. Rather, there were 2 public restrooms located in the slum to be shared by the entire community (thousands of families). Though I was told that those bathroom were so gross, that most people didn’t bother to use them, further contributing to the issue of improper sanitation in the slum.
So what are my final thoughts on slum tourism? Well, they’re still mixed. I think you really need to do your research beforehand and make sure that your visit will do more good than harm. Sometimes that can be hard to judge, so assess the organization that provides the tours and analyze both their work and their motives. Are they doing this because slum tourism is a hot, new, and relatively untouched market? Or because they have a genuine interest in providing jobs to slum residents and putting profits back into that community?
I am really glad I took the tour with PETE, though disappointed I didn’t volunteer with them. They are in the process of opening their Nirvane Community, a self-sufficient school/community center that will operate in the remote mountains just north of Rishkesh (maybe 6 hours from Delhi). In exchange for free room and board (and yoga!) volunteers will dedicate their time in assisting the hired, professionally trained Indian teachers. Sounds like a sweet deal to me.