Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chique Poverty

Poverty is not the normal place you would expect to find the well to do. But today thanks largely to a socially minded young man named Marcelo Armstrong who took a few tourists into Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest favela, or shantytown, you find people from all walks of life slumming it.

From rap music in the United States, to the development of favela tourism or barrio tourism in Latin America and Asia one finds that being poor, while it has innumerable hardships, is becoming cool. Of course while one must be excessively poor to get a visit from Bono or Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt, the middle class can now revel in their relative affluence, despite their growing minority status. Favela tourism is often called by its critics an form of exploitative practice; but is it?

Many times shanty tourism brings much needed money into the barrio and into the life of the people who need it the most: the poor. When entrepreneurial minded, poverty stricken people become self-taught artists and musicians it can be a cultural tourism boon. Often these formerly poor rise out of poverty through contact with those who are not poor. In much the same way that uber stars Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie can adopt a Cambodian child, in some way similar those among the well to do can visit those less fortunate and bring the the hard cash they need to pay bills.

Aside from the inherent dangers involved in this meeting for both the poor and relatively rich, such a meeting is not all together a bad thing, but is it moral? When morality raises its head within the markets, one is tempted to side with the critics of favela tourism, but at the same time, it must be recognized that it is not too different from John the Savage in Brave New World. And one can only hope that the tragedy of realizing you are part of tourism for the "select" class will not end with the same tragedy for the poor who are unique and sometimes wonderful individual people.

Armenia in particular suffers from a large burden of childhood poverty that no one except Armenians and UNICEF seem to care about. Not even Cher.

Of course, movies like Trainspotting and Sid and Nancy have always reveled in the all-or-nothing lifestyle of the "poor" artist drug-addict.

Poverty, in some well-to-do circles, has become as chique as Gucci handbag in the 1980's. What to make of it, is another matter. One can only await the arrival of Chinese tourists to gawk at all of us "quaint, traditional, poor American people." At that point I can get hard cash from the farang. Maybe at some point being poor and white will be good enough to get your kids adopted by Madonna, Bono or Agenlina Jolie just like Ireland in the 19th century.

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