Staying among the Have-Nots

Article excerpt

Byline: Mac Margolis

Travelers seek out neighborhoods they once shunned.

As first violinist for the acclaimed London Mozart Players, David Juritz gets around. Thanks to his work as a soloist and on the soundtracks of such films as "The Last King of Scotland" and the "Harry Potter" series, he has seen a fair patch of the world, and grown used to bedding down in "some posh places," as he puts it. But few accommodations have impressed him like the Maze, a small bed-and-breakfast in Rio de Janeiro. "The atmosphere was fantastic and the views unbelievable," he says. "It's probably the best place I ever stayed in."

Don't bother looking it up in the Michelin Guide. The Maze is a 20-room-plus (it keeps growing) hostel sprouting from the crown of a favela, one of the many chockablock shantytowns that cling to Rio's mountains. The impossible jumble of raw brick and cement buildings offends the laws of gravity, not to mention the sensibilities of upscale Cariocas, as the city's residents are called. But for moneyed gringos eager to escape the crush and cliches of mass travel, the setting couldn't be more appealing.

And it's not just in Brazil. Slum tours are the travel business's new growth industry. Whether it's in a Mumbai shantytown or the alleys of Moscow, a Mexican garbage dump or the blighted townships of Johannesburg, foreign travelers are spending time in neighborhoods they long avoided. Critics dismiss the trend as "poorism," a peep show on poverty for the well heeled. But tour operators and their patrons say visiting the slums and coming face to face with the stark disparities of megalopolitan life--where a power lunch costs as much as a favela maid's monthly wage--can be a transforming experience. …