The List

Slumming It

Shantytown resorts, homeless hotels, and 6 other tasteless vacations for the 1 percent

When Marie Antoinette wanted to escape the confines and pressures of courtly life, she retreated to her quaint Petit Hameau where she and her companions donned their finest peasant frocks and pretended to be poor. A century later, fashionable Londoners took that pauper fantasy to a new extreme -- nocturnally touring East London's slums, where they gawked at ladies of the night and coined the phrase "slumming it." The idiosyncratic pastime eventually made its way across the pond and, before long, New York City socialites were hitting the Bowery in search of opium dens and low-brow adventure. Back then, slum tourism was sort of a DIY diversion.

Today, it's an all-inclusive destination vacation. Twenty-first century slum tourism is a far cry from the back alley excursions of yesteryear. For the right price, discerning travelers can experience firsthand how the poorest of the poor live -- without ever having to sacrifice first-world conveniences like WiFi, heated floors, and jacuzzi tubs.

Here are details of eight of our (least) favorite poverty-chic getaways, including what a vacation or tour will set you back, where to book -- and just how tasteless these options are.

1. A 5-star South African shantytown
Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa
Bloemfontein, South Africa
Lodging From $82 per night
Tastelessness: Very High

Have you ever wanted to steal away to a cozy tin shack in one of South Africa's sprawling shantytowns -- only to change your mind over concerns about crime, noise, and generally poor infrastructure? Emoya, a luxury hotel in Bloemfontein, may be just what you're looking for: A quaint little shantytown tucked safely away on a game preserve. A mere $82 per night will get you a private shack, made of corrugated tin sheets, so you can experience the charm of living in a post-apartheid shantytown, without ever having to set foot in one. The shantys are child-friendly, and come equipped with heated floors, free WiFi, and spa services.

Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa

 

 

2. Vacation like a border crosser, in Mexico

Parque EcoAlberto
Hidalgo, Mexico
Lodging from $105 per night
“Night Walk“ Tour $19 per person
Tastelessness: Moderate

In Southern Mexico, an eco-park owned by Hñahñu Indians offers tourists a chance to live out the drama and tension of an illegal border crossing. Called "Night Walk," the strange excursion lasts about four hours and takes groups on an imaginary journey through the desert and across the Rio Grande. A dozen or so Hñahñus act out different roles: fellow migrants in search of work, as well as police on the lookout for border crossers. The park has many other attractions, too -- including hot springs, kayaking and camp grounds -- but the Night Walk seems to be the biggest draw.

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

3. Take a load off at the largest garbage dump in the Philippines
Smokey Tours
Manila, Philippines
Landfill Tour $17 per person
Cockfighting Tour $22 per person
Tastelessness: Moderate

Manila's largest landfill is also home to thousands of urban poor who eke out a living by sifting through trash. Now, an enterprising company is inviting curious tourists to participate in that bleak reality. "We wander down the narrow alleys of the area ... and see residents living in small, wooden huts with poor sanitation, and with poor access to water and electricity," the company's website advertises. The tour costs $17 and participants are asked to wear plastic booties and surgical masks to protect themselves from the refuse. There is a silver lining to this troubling voeyeruism: The company claims that the tours are meant to raise awareness of the plight of Manila's urban poor communities. As such, no photos are allowed and 100 percent of profits from the tours reportedly supports education and health programs for children who live in the dump. That said, they also offer a cockfighting tour.

David Greedy/Getty Images

 

4. In Indonesia, an authentic, bare-bones (and sometimes flooded) getaway
Banana Republic Village
Jakarta, Indonesia
Lodging $10 per night
Tastelessness: High

Travelers looking for a more realistic third-world experience may find it at "Banana Republic," a plantation village just minutes outside of Jakarta. Ten dollars per night will get you a room, a mattress, and a fan within this interconnected complex of shanty homes. Bring your own flashlight if you expect to use the outdoor toilet at night, as well as your own toiletries for the communal shower. If that's not authentic enough for you, the Airbnb posting notes that "In December, the floods arrive. Heavy rain causes the river surrounding the village to overflow.... The rusty roofs leak and leave the homes damp." According to the ad, your $10 will go towards unclogging the river and repairing damaged roofs -- but not before you get the chance to enjoy both.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

5. Tour Rio de Janeiro's largest favela with some of its very own residents
Favela Tourism Workshop
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tour starting from $30 per person
Tastelessness: Moderate to Mild

A Brazilian company called Exotic Tours was the first to offer sightseeing tours of Rio de Janeiro's biggest slum, Rocinha. In recent years, it began hiring local favela residents to work as guides, an effort that created a more authentic experience for travelers, and provided some income for members of the community. The company claims that some of the proceeds benefit a local school, so tourists can rest assured that they're doing their part to help Rio's urban poor. Be warned, though: Increasing tourism has helped to transform Rocinha from a sprawling shantytown into a semi-developed urban slum, so it's perhaps less gritty than the average poverty tourist might prefer.

CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

 

6. In Sweden, book a spot below an overpass like a homeless person
Faktum Hotels
Gothenburg, Sweden
Lodging starting from $15 per night
Tastelessness: Moderate

Gothenburg, Sweden has more than 3,000 homeless people. Now, one company, Faktum Hotels, has mapped out 10 of their favorite places to sleep, and is renting them out to intrepid travelers who want to experience Sweden from the perspective of its most destitute. Book a corner at the abandoned paper mill, curl up under a bridge, or camp out in a public park (conveniently situated near several trendy cafes). Admittedly, the enterprise is a tad tongue-in-cheek. Hotel proceeds go towards programs that benefit Gothenburg's homeless population. Patrons aren't even expected to sleep in the spots they book -- but it's probably fair to assume that at least a few bold souls have given it a try.

Faktum Hotels

 

7. Walk a mile in a homeless person's shoes, in Amsterdam
Mokum Events
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Tour starts at $16 per person
Tastelessness: Moderate (though Mokum’s advertising language gets a High)

If you want a more textured experience of homelessness than a single night under a bridge can accomplish, you might trek on over to Amsterdam, where an entertainment company is offering city tours guided by an actual homeless person. As advertised on its website, Mokum Events "has found a homeless person in Amsterdam who experienced it all." For a fee, you can take a walk with this man, beg for food together, and hear all about the ups and downs of living on the street. And lest you question the ethics of this pastime, the company reassures tourists that "your homeless person is not unhappy!" He'll even show you where he sleeps and "point to the rubbish bins of restaurants, where at times a royal meal can be made from hearty scraps."

EVERT ELZINGA/AFP/Getty Images

8. Enjoy San Francisco's grittiest neighborhood alongside its homeless
Vayable
San Francisco, California
Tour is $20 per person
Tastelessness: Relatively mild

Most visitors to San Francisco try to avoid the Tenderloin, a downtown neighborhood once notorious for its high crime rate but now better known for its population of vagrants. One man, Milton Aparicio, is trying to change that, by offering tours that highlight the Tenderloin's unique culture of homelessness. "We'll go to a couple of shelters, day centers for children, soup kitchens, " he advertises, offering "a guided experience of what it's like to be homeless from a friendly homeless person." Like most other examples of slum tourism, it promises an eye-opening experience that will certainly lead to personal growth and enlightenment.

In that respect, contemporary poverty tourism still resembles its 19th century predecessors. While the original London slumming parties were unabashedly voyeuristic and exploitative, they nevertheless revealed an upside: The parting of the veil between rich and poor moved some members of the upper classes to charitable action. "London slumming brought to the notice of the rich much suffering," the New York Times reported in 1884, "and led to sanitary reforms." Modern day slumming, by contrast, is often characterized at the outset as a socially responsible endeavor -- often purporting to benefit impoverished communities. That said, it's still a little creepy to pay for the experience of watching poor people like animals in a zoo.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The List

Martin Luther and the Viral Superstars

5 pioneers of social media, from before social media was an annoying buzzword.

 

Before PSY blew up YouTube, before @Horse_ebooks became a Twitter superstar, even before the world discovered LOLcats, there was the apostle Paul -- early Christian missionary, eventual saint and, it turns out, a pioneer of viral media.

Today, we think of social media as a uniquely modern, uniquely digital phenomenon, one that only took off in the last decade -- really in just the last five years. In fact, today's bloggers and tweeters are heirs to a surprisingly deep and rich tradition that began with the Romans 2,000 years ago, helped cause the split within the Catholic Church, aided the U.S. fight for independence, and prepared the way for the French Revolution.

Put down the iPad, my children, and gather round. Here are five historical pioneers of social media -- figures who went viral long before the Internet.

1. The Apostle Paul

Paul of Tarsus was the most adroit user of the Roman social-media system, harnessing it to amass followers and bind together the scattered communities of the early Christian church, and promote his ideas on how the church should develop. Written on papyrus rolls in the 1st century AD, his open letters -- or epistles, as we now know them in their New Testament form -- were addressed to specific churches (the Book of Romans is a letter to the church in Rome, for example, and Corinthians is a letter to the church in Corinth) but were clearly intended for wider distribution, like a Tumblr post sent out into the world to be blogged and reblogged. Initially, church leaders would read them out to the members of their congregation. But Paul also expected recipient churches to copy and share his letters with other churches nearby. As he wrote in his letter to the Colossians: "After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea." Copies of the letters rippled across Paul's network of churches, so that they each ended up with a complete collection. Readings from Paul's letters became a part of Christian worship, and they eventually came to be seen as scripture by the early church, whose leaders incorporated them into the New Testament.

In its early years, Christianity consisted of rival movements whose members disagreed over the meaning of Christ's teachings and his intended audience for them. Paul used social media to ensure that his view prevailed, cementing the establishment of the Christian church as a religion open to all, not just to Jews. Such is his influence that his letters are still read out in churches all over the world today -- a striking testament to the power of social distribution.

Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

 

2. Martin Luther

Social media helped Paul build a church; in the hands of Martin Luther, an obscure theologian in the German town of Wittenberg, it helped to split Western Christianity.

Luther hadn't expected his "95 Theses" -- a handwritten list of theological challenges to the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, which he proposed as topics of debate in 1517 -- to spread as quickly as it did. Manuscript copies of his pioneering listicle passed from hand to hand at first, but then printers got hold of it, accelerating its spread and making it the talk of Germany within two weeks, and of Western Europe in four. Luther realized he could use this new technology, invented a few decades earlier by Johannes Gutenberg, to his further advantage.

He followed up with a series of pamphlets written in vernacular German, giving the text of each to a printer in his home town and waiting for it to ripple to the next town, and the next, through repeated reprinting (akin, you could say, to retweeting). Millions of copies of his pamphlets spread like wildfire throughout Europe between 1517 and 1527 as readers shared and recommended them to their friends, who then sought out their own copies. Thanks to the "marvellous, new and subtle art, the art of printing," one of Luther's contemporaries later noted, "each man became eager for knowledge, not without feeling a sense of amazement at his former blindness." This posed a dilemma for the Catholic Church, which was initially reluctant to respond with pamphlets of its own, because doing so would be an admission that theological matters were open to debate. The extraordinary popularity of Luther's pamphlets signaled to him, and to his readers, the breadth of support for his views -- just as social media revealed the extent of anti-government feeling in Egypt and Tunisia, a phenomenon that modern media scholars call "synchronization of opinion." Luther's message went viral, and the result was the Reformation.

Credit: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images


3. John Harington

Today, using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to improve your "personal brand" is social media 101. But it was Elizabethan courtier John Harington who, in the 16th century, pioneered the use of social media for self-promotion (though today he is better known as the inventor of the flushing toilet).

The son of a poet and an attendant to Elizabeth I, he was one of the childless queen's 102 godchildren. He first appeared at court at age 21 and quickly made a name for himself with his snarky epigrams. Satirical and daring in their humor, the chief purpose of these short, snappy messages (today, they'd fit neatly into a tweet) was to advertise the dazzling intellect of their author and advance his career. He became known as the queen's "saucy godson" for quips like this one: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason." He even dared to criticize the queen's father, Henry VIII, for his unfortunate habit of having his wives beheaded. In one of his epigrams, a noblewoman receives an invitation to marry the king, but declines:

"...I greatly thank the king your master,
And would (such love in me his fame hath bred)
My body venture so: but not my head."

His quips were eagerly whispered from one courtier to another and circulated in written form within the court and beyond. Harington himself gave manuscripts of his collected epigrams to close friends and family members. He liked to play the part of the wise fool, jesting on the sidelines of Elizabeth's court and wrapping up his moral and political barbs in apparently harmless witticisms -- their true meaning only apparent once the laughter had subsided. For Harington and his contemporaries, writing poetry was a way to establish a reputation and win a place at court. Poetry in the Elizabethan court could be used to ask for advancement or, in the event of falling from favor, to apologize for misdeeds. Harington's poetry convinced the queen of his cleverness, and she eventually gave him official duties to perform as a courtier, tutor and military observer. After a checkered career in which he often got into trouble for overstepping the mark, he eventually ended up with a knighthood.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

4. Thomas Paine

During the 18th century, the American colonies established an increasingly efficient media-sharing system. Local newspapers, with a circulation of a few hundred at best, did not rely on journalists for stories, but instead reprinted letters, speeches, and pamphlets supplied by their readers, and thus provided a shared, social platform through which people could share and discuss their views with others. (Think of it as Gawker or SBNation.) As the reliability and frequency of the postal service improved, it allowed free exchange by post of newspapers both within and between colonies. This allowed noteworthy letters and pamphlets to reach a wide audience as they were printed in one newspaper and then copied and reprinted by others.

As tensions grew with the government in London, several authors wrote letters or pamphlets that lit up this colonial media network, including John Dickinson's anonymous "Letters from a Farmer" and John Adams's writings under the pen name "Novanglus." But most successful of all at exploiting this network was Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant to the colonies who articulated the case for independence more clearly and forcefully than anyone had done before. His pamphlet, "Common Sense," quickly rippled through the colonies, shared at first among the political elite, who excitedly recommended it to each other, and then widely reprinted and excerpted in local papers. It was unquestionably the most popular and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, eventually selling more than 250,000 copies and making Paine the world's bestselling author. In another example of synchronization of opinion, its popularity revealed to the colonists the breadth of support for independence. Many years later, John Adams wrote disapprovingly to Thomas Jefferson that "history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine." That is an exaggeration, but not much of one.

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


5. Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux

One of the jobs of the count of Maurepas, a senior official in charge of the Paris police in the 1740s, was to monitor closely what was being said about King Louis XV in satirical rhymes, called libelles, which circulated in salons, cafes, markets, and taverns. As they passed from person to person, whether orally or written on small scraps of paper, these ditties would be modified and reworked, with new verses added or names changed. Such poems could easily be updated in response to the news, a process of collective authorship that assimilated and encapsulated public opinion. Maurepas collected these poems through a network of informers, so that he could monitor public opinion on the king's behalf, tracking which courtiers were being satirized and collecting the latest rumors about the royal family. As with modern Internet censorship in China, the authorities would intervene if someone went too far.

On occasion, Maurepas and other courtiers would also write rhymes of their own to try to influence public opinion, letting them circulate at court and then filter out via salons and cafes to society at large. One such rhyme led to Maurepas's dismissal in 1749, when it became apparent that he was the author. It insulted the king's mistress, who was unpopular among his faction at court. Perhaps not unlike a certain former White House staffer, Maurepas had sought to exploit the media system to his own advantage, but instead brought about his own downfall. The power of the rhymes, however, remained intact: The relentless criticism of the libelles steadily corroded respect for the monarchy, undermined the king's authority, and paved the way for the French Revolution.

* * *

And then came the Dark Ages. Starting in the mid-19th century, everything changed. The advent of the steam-powered printing press, followed in the 20th century by radio and television, made possible what we now call mass media (and what conventional wisdom thinks of as traditional media). These new technologies of mass dissemination could supply information directly to large numbers of people with unprecedented speed and efficiency, but their high cost meant that control of the flow of information became concentrated into the hands of a select few. The delivery of information became a one-way, centralized broadcast, overshadowing the tradition of two-way, conversational and social distribution that had come before.

It is only in recent years that the Internet has made it possible to reach a large audience at low cost, allowing social distribution to re-emerge from the shadow of mass media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age is thus both a profound shift -- and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons