If you asked a Silicon Valley techno-geek to devise a program that would organize the delivery of around 200,000 lunch pails, picked up from individual homes daily before 10 A M and delivered to the customers at work, then, hours later, picked up again and returned back to their homes before 6 P M, with a failure rate of less than one percent… well… we can only imagine the complicated algorithm this project would generate.
Adding to the difficulty, these lunches must traverse Mumbai, India, a city of nearly 12 million people, by bicycle, train, and sandaled foot, often delivered to the tenth or twelfth floor of an antiquated office building that has no elevator.
Another minor issue is that the train system in Mumbai is among the most dangerous in the world. Every day, 7.5 million people commute in incredibly cramped coaches that ride over broken down rails. In 2015, 3304 people were killed. Most train stations are equipped with morgues to handle the bodies.
This lunch delivery work has been done since 1890, without input from time-and-motion experts or computer geeks, by a group known as dabbawalas. The Hindu name, roughly translated, means “One who carries a box.”
The service is necessary because Mumbai office workers leave home so early there is nobody awake to cook their meals, and they are so loaded with work stuff, and their ride to work is so treacherous, that they can’t carry another item.
Eating out at lunch is too expensive for most, and they consider office cafeteria food to be of inferior quality. Many are vegetarians with strict dietary requirements. So the meal must be prepared at home, picked up by the dabbawalas, grouped together at various checkpoints around the city, and routed from there to their destinations, some more that 30 miles away.
“The dabbawalas use a complex system of collection teams, sorting points, and delivery zones and a completely manual system of routing the right meal to the right destination.”
This task is carried out mostly by men who can’t read, so the entire process is done without a shingle sheet of paperwork. The lunch pails, known as tiffins, are color-coded to direct their delivery and return, all with a system that has been studied by business biggies in America and Europe who hope to learn from the system’s efficient simplicity.
The dabbawalas pay is around 8000 Rupees (roughly $131 per month). Their jobs are handed down over generations and require a six-month apprenticeship. Although the system has an official hierarchy, the dabbawalas work without supervision and consider themselves to be free men, relishing the fact that they work without bosses.
Though their work provides an essential service to Mumbai residents, the dabbawalas are guided by a deeply-held spiritual tradition.
“The Tiffin delivery system is not only supported by a complex logistics system. but also by a specific moral code. Their code is an expression of the interrelationship between a specific manifestation of the Hindu faith, which can be traced back to the Varkari Sampradaya Sect, and India’s unique cultural philosophy. The sect places food at the center of its philosophy, considering it to be a metaphor for life and its primary material impulses and aspirations.”
The dabbawalas believe that delivering food is much more that just a way of making a living. Their mantra is,
“Food is God. Work is worship”
In an age whose primary gods are money and shallow fame, it’s gratifying to know there are people guided by such noble views.
3304 Deaths On Mumbai Locals. thehindu.com, Jan 27, 2016
Dabbawala: Ethics in Transition. Open Book Publications. openbook.org
In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver. NY Times, May29, 2007
Dabbawalas: Mumbai’s Lunchbox Carriers. Financial Times, June 31, 2015
An astute fiction writer once wrote, “Every man has the same dream. All that varies is their mode of transport.”
He wrote this because he knew that, though some great travel writing has been written by women, the desire to cast off the shackles of civilization and head out for parts unknown is primarily a male urge.
Journalist Carl Hoffman, after spending years reporting from some of the most dangerous places in the world, decided to carry this urge to an extreme. His plan was to go around the world, his modes of transport being only the most statistically dangerous buses, boats, trains and planes. He chronicled his experiences in his book, The Lunatic Express.
At first this seems like a journalistic stunt, and Hoffman admits that, like so many other middle-aged dudes hitting the road after an existential meltdown, his own personal life had hit a serious snag.
But he also had a legitimate journalistic goal: to show how the rest of the world gets around.
Here in the western world, we complain about the vile drama of air travel, with its overbearing airport stooges herding us like cattle and frisking our under wear, and the sulking flight attendants that we who fly in steerage have to abide.
But these are luxurious conditions that the rest of the world would envy. And Hoffman shows himself, and the reader, no mercy in portraying the almost heroic measures the people of the rest of the world must undertake, just to get around.
He writes, “I wanted to jump on and circumnavigate the planet on that unseen artery of mass transit. I wanted to know what it was like on the ferries that killed people daily, the buses that plunged off cliffs, the airplanes that crashed. I wanted to travel around the world as most of the people in the world did, putting their lives at risk every time they took off on overcrowded and poorly maintained conveyances because that was all they could afford or there were no other options.
He rides with manic minibus drivers in Lagos, Nigeria, who pilot rickety vans crammed with as many as 30 people as they negotiate the city’s potholed streets, driving at breakneck speeds, always wary of the cops they have to pay daily baksheesh to, working sixteen hours a day, chewing a narcotic weed to stay awake, just to earn the meagerest of livings.
He rides jammed ferries in Bangladesh, ramshackle buses with bad brakes through the Andes, takes listing, overloaded passenger boats down the Amazon, and takes a hair-raising mountain passage through Afghanistan over washed-out roads policed by gun-crazy Afghan fighters. True to the spirit of his journey, he flies on the world’s most dangerous airlines.
But the most heartrending tale of the travel woes of the world’s poor is that of the trains in Mumbai, India. Each day, millions of Indians board these relic trains which ride over decaying rails, packed together like canned meat. IndiaDaily reported on May 9, 2012,
In the first three months of the year, 805 commuters have lost their lives and 867 injured in train-related accidents.”
This was no statistical anomaly. So many Indians diefrom the simple act of getting to work that most of the train stations have morgues to handle the bodies.
Hoffman rides these trains, of course, but he concedes that he could not have survived this experience, or his entire journey, if not aided constantly by some of the world’s poorest people, and he finds daily reminders of the truth many travelers learn; that the most generous people on earth are the ones who have the least to give.
To stay sane, Hoffman develops, in the face of all this danger, a sort of phlegmatic attitude. He stops fighting the nastiness and the dirt and the delays and the dangers, and as he lets go of his resistance, he slips into a form of misery that he comes to find almost comforting.
In quieter moments, Hoffman meditates on the nature of travel. He has plenty of doubts about his motives for this trip, but in the process of his ruminations, he brings to light one of the most prominent myths about the nature of arduous journeying.
It is widely believed that getting away to parts unknown is a form of self-escape. But that might not be true. At home, we are surrounded by evidence of our identity and our importance. We have a reliable source of feedback telling us who we are and what our purpose is and what our next move should be. We live out our lives nestled in this relatively comfy cocoon, where our most cherished illusions about ourselves are constantly reinforced.
But try landing in an Asian or African city at midnight, knowing nothing about the currency, the customs, the language or the culture, and you soon realize that one misstep on your part could place you at the mercy of strangers. With no familiar cues to guide you, you are, in the most frightening way, completely on you own. Short of facing a terminal disease, there are few more stark confrontations with your true self than this moment of appalling aloneness.
If you’re simply trying to escape your circumstances, the rigors of travel may not help you, because they can make you constantly yearn for the comforts of home. If you set off on a journey to find yourself, you may learn things about yourself you wouldn’t really care to know
One thing strikes Hoffman no matter where he goes; the unfailingly upbeat attitudes of the people he meets. When he asks a man how he can remain so genuinely cheerful in the face of his difficult life, the man says,
“But you never know when you will die. So you must be happy all of the time.”
Wise words indeed.
Here’s wishing you happy travels on safe modes of transport, my friends,
Carl Hoffman, The Lunatic Express, Broadway books. 2010
IndiaDaily, may 9, 2012
The Starboard Bar, from The Dark Side Of Enlightenment, Stanfield Books, 2014
If you’re like most people, at some time in your life you’ve gotten a crazy idea, about going somewhere and doing something that doesn’t make sense. You keep hoping that reason and logic will prevail and you’ll drop the idea. But you don’t
You announce your plans to friends and loved ones, but they don’t try to talk you out of it. At first, you think they don’t understand the risks. Then you start to suspect that you’re not the beloved soul you always thought you were.
So, despite your fears and doubts, you find yourself At Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai, Thailand, negotiating a two-week rental of a Honda Phantom. You repress the fact that between 50 and 60 people a day are killed in motorbike accidents in Thailand, and you also ignore the fact that you haven’t spent time on a serious motorcycle since 1976 when you sold your Yamaha 650. You tell yourself the Phantom is no crotch-rocket, but truth is, it’s a powerful cruiser that’ll get you killed just as easy as a mad-dog Kawasaki.
To add juice to this experience, you’ll have to regain your skills in downtown Chiang Mai traffic, among people who believe that traffic laws are an evil vestige of colonialism. Thais are a gentle people, but they can be Hell on Wheels.
Anyway, you sign a contract that says you’re responsible for everything and the shop is responsible for nothing, pay with a credit card, then hand over your passport: no shop in Thailand, to your knowledge will rent a bike without keeping it.
Now it’s time to face up to your folly. You straddle the bike, (a black one with orange flames on the tank) , you lean and turn the key, push the starter button, and when it comes to life. you feel that primordial surge up your spine, the same feeling, no doubt, that the first man to ride a horse felt when he grabbed the animal’s mane and climbed on.
But this romantic stuff fades quick, because the owner and his lovely Thai assistant are staring at you, and all you care about now is getting out of there without killing the engine. You squeeze the clutch, kick the shifter into first, the bike squats, and, Buddha bepraised!, you ease out like a pro, into the maelstrom of traffic.
You stop at the first intersection, waiting for an opening, trying to stave off panic. When traffic eases, you pull out, running the revs up too high for first gear. You shift, throttle up, shift again. Now you realize that Chiang Mai traffic is like a live video game, and the price of unwariness is… nevermind that – just stay on the left!
You’re soon overwhelmed with all this input. Your sphincter is puckered three inches off the seat, your neck muscles are clenched so tight you can’t turn your head, your eyes are burning from sweat and pollution, but you don’t notice the smell because you’re hardly breathing. You don’t really care about any of this, because, truth be told, you’re having too much fun.
To get the feel of the bike before you leave town, you follow the moat road around the Old City, and soon the old reflexes are coming back. You shift and brake smoothly, avoid three vehicles that pull straight out in front of you, getting used to Death being just a few inches away. But at a traffic jam, the bike won’t go into neutral. You fiddle and fuss, but no dice.
Back at the shop. the owner, an Englishman named Duncan, looks at the shifter, shakes his head, says here, try this bike. It’s a black one, good tires, no parts falling off, so away you go. You get to the street that leads to Route 107, and about two kilos up the road, you hear a whining sound and the engine dies. You pitch forward, instinctively push the starter button, the bike fires, then dies again. Can’t have this. Back to the shop.
The owner says sorry, try this other one. Hope springing eternal, you strap on your bag and ride away. At the intersection, you notice that the handlebars are at a twenty degree angle with the front wheel, and the tank has a huge dent in it.
By now, you think Lord Buddha’s trying to tell you something. Back at the shop, you tell the owner the deal’s off – you don’t want to get stranded out in rural Thailand on one of his junk bikes.
He tries to sell you on another Phantom, but by now, your doubts are getting the better if you. You refuse to deal. He points to a sign on the wall that says no refunds. You say you don’t care, give me back my passport.
The owner nods, goes to his desk, gets your passport and, just to be nice, gives back half your rental fee in cash. You stuff this in you pocket, pick up your bag, and head for the door.
But you feel sick. Now, it’s either the same process at another shop or scuttle the plan. Just as you get to the door, Duncan says, “Wait, try this one,” pointing to a bike in the corner. “I was gonna take it out this weekend, but you can have it. It’s all gassed up and ready.”
It’s a blue one. It looks clean, with gleaming chrome and new tires. It beckons. Your heart leaps.
You get on, ease her out, and oh my, she’s a true sweetheart, behaving like the perfect woman, responding to your every command. You pull back into the shop. The owner’s way back in the corner gabbing. Quick as you can, you strap on your bag, wave to him and shout, “See you in two weeks.”
He smiles and waves, and now you’re the only guy in all of Thailand who has rented a motorcycle and still his passport, plus half his rental fee, which’ll come in handy if the bike breaks.
Now you’re really on your way. You get to route 107, glide along, singing songs, can’t believe how great your voice sounds as it reverbs against the helmet’s visor. Then just outside of Mae Rim, you hit an unavoidable pothole and the gas tank lid flips off and slides down the tank into your crotch. You squeeze your thighs, look down and see gas in the full tank gurgling like boiling water. If any of that spills out and hits something hot on the bike…
You pull over, shut down and fuss with the cap. It won’t lock. But you stick it back on and say that’s too bad, ’cause you’re not going back to Chaing Mai.
Things go fine till you get to Doi Wiang National Park and it starts to rain. This tropical rain is so heavy it’s like being under water. The road winds through steep jungle-covered hills. Trucks pass and throw waves of water that make you swerve. Under the fogged-up visor, you see the road drop off into a place they’ll never find you, if they ever bother to look.
The rain lets up, and you realize that you have to urinate immediately. You find a bus-rider’s shelter and pull over. You stand shivering, waiting for the flow to start, then you feel stings on the back of your leg. This is Dengue Fever country, and you don’t fancy three weeks in bed with a temp of 104. After you slather your skin with Deet, you breathe deep, finish your business, and get back on the road.
Darkness falls, but you don’t notice, because you’re focused on Thais on motorbikes coming at you head-on. Driving on the wrong side is considered normal, but what’s even more annoying are the countless stray dogs that dart in front of you.
When you reach the village of Tha Ton, up near the Burmese border, you’re cold, tired and hungry. You get fed, find a bed, and fall into an eight-hour coma.
You wake to the sound of gongs that are far away but seem very near. You pull on yesterday’s clothes and step out of your room, stunned by what you see – steep jungle-covered hills shrouded in heavy mist, a few houses here and there, set amongst a riot of tropical flowers backed by a thousand shades of green. A wide muddy river, the Mae Kok, rustles at your feet.
You’re planning to leave that day, with an agenda of places to see. You sip coffee and consult your written plans. but despite the caffeine, you now feel like you’re hooked to a morphine drip. You breathe slow and deep. You gaze at the lushness around you. Your body sags. The agenda slips from your fingers. You aint’ goin’ nowhere.
You stay for days, enchanted by this village and its friendly people Twice you try to leave town, but you can’t do it.
Then one morning, you tell yourself you’ve had enough of this inner peace business. You’re an American – you’re not built for Nirvana. You settle your bill, say your goodbyes, and top up the Phantom’s tank. But before you leave, you gotta do something about this gas cap.
You pull up at the local repair shop. The shop owner says the cap’s locking mechanism is shot, but he fusses with it for ten minutes and it seems to be down tight. You pull out money. He says no charge, but you hand him twenty Baht. He smiles and takes the bill. You won’t know till a few hours later how important this offer of payment turns out to be.
Slowly you cross the bridge, easing away from a place you don’t want to leave. Three kilos out of town, you’re still going slow, which is very fortunate, because a Thai woman on a motorbike with a young girl on board, paying absolutely no attention, turns directly in front of you. You see the terrified looks on their faces as you slam on the brakes, but there’s no way to avoid the crash.
To be continued.
Source for statistics on Thai motorbike deaths; The Nation, nationmedia.com, May 16, 2013
If you ever make it up to these parts, you might like to try a drink called “lao khao.” It’s a form of rice whiskey made throughout northern Thailand, aged long enough to go from the copper tubing into the bottle.
It’s among that class of beverages that repels with the first sip, beguiles with the second, and after the third, you’re in love.
If you’re staying in one of the tiny bungalows down by the river, you can take your bottle out onto your rickety wooden deck, settle into a rattan chair, pour yourself an inch of firewater, and watch the Mekong drift by.
If you’ve come during the rainy season,as it is now, the river will be high and muddy. You’ll see green-bean shaped boats passing up and down, belching black smoke from their worn-out motors, As the sun sets to your left, you’ll feel a breeze rise from the river, cooling the last of the sweat under your arms.
When the half-moon rises, you’ll see very few lights come on across the river, because most of Laos is still mired in the Late Stone Age, its six million people locked in serfdom to a brutal Communist regime. But just as darkness falls, and your tongue is numb from the drink, someone flips a switch and a burst of colored lights comes on across the river, followed by American Pop music played at speaker-shattering volume. Maybe you’ve already been told that the Laos are mad for Karaoke, so you pour yourself another inch, kick back, and laugh yourself silly through a long serenade of drunken Laotians pouring out their hearts to the tune of golden oldies. This may last through three more inches from the bottle, preparing you for the grand finale, which is every drunken Lao in that bar garbling the words to Bertte Midler’s “The Rose”
When their last bit of breath is spent, the lights go out as suddenly as they came on – there’s a curfew that is harshly imposed – and then comes the sputtering of motorbikes and the rattle of rusty pickups as the revelers wind their way home.
Again, a quiet settles on the river, and maybe on you as well. By now you’ve probably scuttled your travel plans for the next day. thinking another day by the river is needed. You’ll probably feel a sense of heaviness, less a result of the drink than of the darkness, the silence, and the presence of a primordial river that begins as a trickle in the Himalayas and ends in the South China Sea. That heaviness evokes a desire to do nothing but sit, listen, smell, watch, absorb.
Before you can lapse into somberness, you might swear you’ve heard something down by the river’s bank. You might have heard stories about the immigration problems in the area, about the thousands of Laotians and Burmese who cross the Mekong in the dead of nightt, to disappear into the vast cheap-labor underground the feeds Thailand’s thriving economy.
So you’re leaning, cocking an ear,staring into the darkness, waiting, then yes…. you’re sure you hear them, their rustling in the water, their whispered voices, their footsteps squishing the mud.
Then, once again, silence.
You might find yourself in need of a deep breath, and after you take it, and glance at that bottle of Lao Lao, you’ll be stunned at how little is left. But you can’t forget the sound of those whispers in the dark, so in honor of all the desperate peoples in this world who risk life and limb to get from their Land of Bread and Water to a Land of Milk and Money, you might stand, pour a final drink, raise your glass in a solemn salute to their courage, and wish them all Godspeed.