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  • Writer's pictureDia KL

Mumbai touchdown, friends, trains and dabbawalas - India (2011)

Updated: Feb 25, 2023


India... you've heard stories, you've watched endless videos & photos... and then you decide its time to visit yourself. But really, absolutely nothing can prepare you for the experience. And you will need time, a lot of time. For India can't be understood in a few days, or weeks, months even... it will stimulate all your senses, all kinds of emotions will be running through you in just a single day. Especially at the start, it will hit you hard, it might try to scare you off, but you shouldn't. I found myself laughing and crying a lot during the first month in India. But after a while, this changed. Found out that in order to try to understand India I shouldn't think like a westerner but start thinking like an Indian. Definitely not trust most of the people who come to me but learn to trust the ones I go to them. And then, slowly slowly, many incomprehensible things started to make sense... and so the beauty of India started unfolding... for the good or the bad, visiting India and spending time will change you forever, how exactly and on what way, its up to you...

India (2011) ~ 01.Mumbai : touchdown, friends, trains and dabbawalas

Landing in Mumbai, after getting my backpack (too way too long and when it finally appeared on the belt one strap was missing and had quite some dirt, it could have been worse though if it didn't appear at all), getting out of the airport two middle aged Indians started talking to me. They told me to be careful in India, lots of corruption, always check the money I give, the money I receive, take receipts, be suspicious... its so funny, you always read about this on the books and then that's the 1st thing I hear about, arriving in India, from Indians themselves.

Getting into the city there was traffic chaos on the streets, tricycles, endless people walking everywhere, smells of spices and food, horns honking like crazy, oh yeah, I've arrived in India alright! My host, Natasha, has given me directions to her home which I follow and arrive at her place around 22.00. Nobody home, a message on the fridge welcomed me and a mobile phone on the table. Calling Natasha, she gave me instructions how to find her and her friends in another place. Left my stuff, tricycle to Pali Naka in Bandra. Tell the driver my destination and that I'll pay around 100 rupees (€1.5 with that times exchange rate). Driver smiled and said politely, "no, lets use the counter"!! So off we went again through the huge roads and insane traffic, eventually the tariff was quite less than my offer.

I found Natasha with her friends in a pub. Menaka a good friend of hers, Julia from Germany who is also staying in Natashas', Vahishta a nice tall guy who was into IT, Jayant and Menika. I try "Old Monk" Indian Rum with cola and as I'm a bit hungry they order "Paneer Bhurji" for me, a delicious omelet served with bread. Everybody so friendly and happy, feels like I'm on the right place. Paid a visit to a local small club named "Boat Club" which to my surprise was full of people, music mostly rock hits, from Survivor with the Eye of the Tiger to Guns n Roses and Bon Jovi. There was a public microphone open for everybody, people just asked for a track they want and then karaoke it. [as I read the Boat Club has closed down nowadays].

Natasha (my host), Julia from Germany and me in Natashas place.

Natashas block and my place of stay in Mumbai.

Women with the most colorful sarees, people everywhere, many on the streets cooking, doing all kinds of stuff, small little shops selling everything.

Getting a sim card, its costs 210 rupees with 180 rupees charged, Vodafone. They need a passport photo and photocopies of my passport. Normally I don't give my passport to somebody but felt ok and Natasha told me this is the procedure for everybody, everything was fine and got my new Indian sim card.

I join Julia to go around a bit, from Andheri train station we can take a regional train to downtown. Buying some water for 15 rupees and off to the station. Trying to locate the ticket house I see the first street kids. Dirty and with a few clothes, of course they came to us to beg for money. Feels like I want to give them, but I prefer to give them food which will go directly in their stomach. 2nd class ticket for 8 rupees, 1st class for 78 rupees, the difference is quite big. First trains arrive and they are so full that we can't get in. People hanging out of the doors and jumping in and out, squeezing full on. Different carriages for the women, different carriages for the crippled, disabled and cancer patients. After lots of trains missed and endless people, unable to locate a 1st class carriage, we both jump in to the carriage for the disabled. Immediately I feel some tension from the people inside and we are frowned upon, a guy is saying "Get out", another couple smile to me and tell me politely that I'm on the wrong carriage. Weird enough, there is a conductor checking the tickets. I approach and ask him how I can find the 1st class carriage, he is not so happy with us being there and tell us on the next station we go out and change carriage. So we get out and the next carriage is so full that we are still standing when the train goes. Conductor sees us and tells me to stand right there and jump into the next carriage. Next train arrives and we locate a small compartment which is not so full and we jump inside. It is the luggage small carriage, which is available for people as well with a 2nd class ticket. Somehow people don't get in there but go to the other full carriages. A few people also come in but we finally have a chilled train ride.

Get off in Mumbai Train station as we read the bus station for governmental buses is close by. Ask somebody about directions, is trying to sell us his friends private bus etc., we politely deny, finally doesn't tell us where is the bus station. Walked a bit here and there, we found a governmental office and the people were very helpful with directions. Finally found the bus station, used the public toilets for 2 rupees and checked the buses. Looked really like the ones in the Philippines, Natashas advice is not to use them, definitely not for long distances, as I'm gonna be taking a 16 hour bus ride to Udaipur. We get a call from Natasha and we gonna meet her in Church Gate terminus which is the end of the line in Colaba. Again the usual full carriages for the train, finally I jump into the womens section where I am kicked out (again :D). Find the carriage for luggage and once again is not so full, decide this is the way I'm gonna be using the train from now on.

Julia happy in the train. 35 years old (looking younger), she had quit her job a year ago and hit the road to explore the world. She was thinking to sell her place in Berlin (which she was renting) and go try her luck in New Zealand.

Meeting Natasha she explains us something uniquely Indian, about the "dabbawalas". They are professional food carrier deliveries. In India, the devoted wife of the working man, will make his lunch (or dinner if husband works at night too). They want it to have it nice, warm and fresh. So they cook it and have it delivered in pots, all over Mumbai. The "dabbawala" is hired to go to the house, take the pot and deliver it to the working husband. These people don't know how to read or write. But they have developed a very complex system of encoding and decoding where the small food boxes go depending on the shape and color of their compartment which they put. They deliver around 2000 food boxes per day (!!), they never do mistakes and they are never late. They put them on their head as you see in the photo and go around all over the city with it. And we are talking about a city of 16 million people with a density of 22000 persons per square kilometer. So you don't want to know how it is during the rush hour in the train, where you struggle to get in, all the doors are open and people are literally hanging outside the train or climb to its roof because they don't fit. The ones inside are worse than sardines in a can. Special carriages for that reason, only men, only women, for luggage (my favorite, this is where I go, usually much less people but smaller) and one for the crippled, handicapped and cancer patients. I've been to all of them to check, being kicked out from the ones I shouldn't be and resulted that the best one is the luggage carriage. In all these, the dabbawala must go in, with the food and deliver all of them on the designated times. And they do.

Prince Charles of England visited India in 2003 in order to understand the miracle and secret of the dabbawalas efficiency. He observed them at their work, but didn't learn anything about how they do it. And this is why its not something you learn from the street or people. This is tradition passed on from family to family generations. The dabbawalas are very proud of what they do. And you think they are poor...? Not at all, they are pretty rich, even though they don't know how to read and write. Each person who gets his food delivered every day pays the dabbawala 250 rupees per month, while hard manual labor everyday full hours is paid 500 rupees per month (less than 10 euros). So if you multiply this by the boxes they carry every day, you can understand they are making lots of money.

Going around I found small pieces of art here and there

At the above art installation you could get free stuff and clothes with a donation!

I start to observe all these people living on the streets. And worse of all, the kids. Kids who are kids only on the looks, but their childhood has been lost many years ago. Kids who beg on the streets and stick on you -the tourist- like leeches asking for money, food or anything. They come and touch you and keep on trying to get anything they can. You want to help them, giving to one might result to having a swarm of them on you and you will have to deal with it. There is a high possibility the money will not go to the kid at all. My heart hurts watching them. And then the endless stray dogs. They are everywhere. A few surprisingly in good condition due to some NGOs doing their best, but most of them in pitiful condition. Here we have people laying on the streets, the dogs come second.

Natasha (my host in Mumbai) was working as a journalist for a newspaper but quit her job to set off for six weeks traveling in New Zealand with very little money. She hitched her way around and stayed with some circus people. Inspiring people! After walking all day we were pretty tired, Menika and Vahishta joined us in Natashas' home for chai (I love Indian chai), conversation and good time.

Additional information

GPS coordinates for places in this post, click on them to be redirected to the exact point in google maps. Click on the names to be redirected to their official websites (if applicable).

Andheri train station: 19°07'11.5"N 72°50'47.3"E

Churchgate terminus station (where I saw the dabbawalas): 18°56'07.0"N 72°49'38.0"E

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