The Dabbawalas, The Dhobi Ghat, and The Dharavi


Gateway to India

Since we don’t have a private jet our disposal, we found ourselves with a huge gap between the hour our luggage was unceremoniously deposited from the ship into the cavernous port terminal and the time we departed Mumbai airspace. “Wheels up” for the Air India jet was not until 1:30 AM on Saturday, which was actually the day after the cruise ended. By then, someone else would be soundly sleeping in the cruise ship cabin we had come to call home. They would be sailing toward the Suez Canal on an adventure totally unlike ours.

We refused to spend the day and evening wandering the Mumbai airport. Instead, we enlisted the assistance of our travel agent in helping us make a plan to turn a day that would otherwise be wasted into a chance to experience more of this city of twenty one million inhabitants. It took a few emails tossing ideas back and forth, along with a valid credit card, but before long, a plan was made. A guide and car secured, we were eager to see Mumbai through the eyes of a local.

Our new best friend and fixer, Wilson, and our driver, Deva (I think that’s short for a name with thirteen syllables), secured by the travel company Peirce & Leslie, were waiting for us as we departed the ship for the final time. Wilson popped up all day and half the night and fixed anything and everything. In India, there are lots of “anythings and everythings.” Soon we were introduced to our guide for the morning, Aanksha. She had an ambitious plan and we just sat back and went along for the ride. Its hard to describe a car ride in Mumbai, but I can tell you how the drivers proceed. They apply the horn and the gas with equal intensity and then off you go on a Olympic-level game of chicken.

Aanksha made sure we hit the “must-sees” like the Victoria Terminus Railway Station, the “Big Ben” of Mumbai, the High Court, and the Gateway of India. We spent about 45 minutes at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum. (It was formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. Much easier to pronounce.) When we left, we still couldn’t tell you where we had been.

Aanksha devoted most of our time together to the stops we had requested. We toured Mani Bhagwan, the home where Mahatma Gandhi lived when in Mumbai; today it is a museum and was high on our list. The museum does a fabulous job of chronicling Gandhi’s life and has his correspondence with people such as Hitler, Tolstoy, and FDR.

Seeing the dabbawalas in action was another big priority for us. Our guide took us to the Churchgate station. From there, we could watch the dabbawalas sort and route the dabbas, or metal tiffin boxes so that they would make the correct train. Sometimes the train doors are only open for 10-15 seconds, so the dabbawalas have to have the tiffins in the metal racks and ready to transfer onto the trains when the doors open. A YouTube video about this phenomenal business is a hoot to watch. Here is the Cliff Notes version of the story: About 125 years ago, a banker wanted lunch from home, but his wife had not even started preparing lunch by the time he left home for the long commute to work in downtown Mumbai. He paid a guy to deliver his tiffin to his office after his wife prepared it and the idea spread like wildfire. Currently, the five thousand dabbawalas deliver 200,000 lunches per day. A dabbawala works nine hours per day. Not only do they pick up the tiffins and deliver them by lunchtime, but they return the empty boxes back to the correct home each evening by six o’clock. Their coding system has evolved over the years. They now use alpha numeric characters and just make a few marks on each tiffin. These fellows are semi-literate, but they are a proud lot. Not just anyone can wear the white hat of a dabbawala. It doesn’t matter how hot or how wet the weather is, how heavy all those tiffins are, or how many flights of stairs must be climbed each day. No excuses, no errors. Actually, they do make an occasional mistake, but there is only one error per six million deliveries. Keep in mind that, in India, an error involving food is not taken lightly. A Muslim cannot even touch a dabba containing pork, and the Hindis feel the same way about beef. Perhaps the most famous dabbawala was Sir Richard Branson, who spent a day with the dabbawalas. He delivered lunch to his Virgin employees. The dabbawalas and what they do is a miraculous sight to see. And such a bargain at roughly ten dollars per month! Delivery by Sir Richard would probably run you a little more than that.

We were again amazed by the Indian work ethic when we visited the Dhobi Ghat. This is the world’s largest outdoor laundromat and also a sight to behold. These dhobis wash, dry, and press laundry for a very small fee and serve Mumbai’s residents, hotels and hospitals. There are 1026 open-air troughs and the dhobis beat the dirt out of the laundry on flogging stones. Aashaka said that you could get a shirt picked up, washed, pressed, and returned to your home for about fifteen cents. She said that the dhobi comes to her house daily, picking up and dropping off on time and without error. She said that the creases in her husband’s shirts are crisp and no stain evades the dhobi.

After lunch, we visited the largest slum in Asia, the Dharavi. Our guide was Akash and he took us on a two hour tour of the filthiest place we have ever seen. The dharavi is not a slum as we think of slums; this place is not home to bums and lay-abouts. It’s not a drug or alcohol infested place. There are churches, mosques, and temples in the Dharavi. There are schools, though our guide admitted that they are government schools and aren’t good. The children were so cute and wanted to talk to us. One group was with a teacher from an NGO that does a lot of work in the Dharavi. They kept chanting “Sing! Sing! Sing!” I explained to them that I sing horribly, but Rick had them screaming and shouting with his rendition of “Oh, Happy Day!” His fans went wild and followed us for a while. My only fan was a goat who butted me in the ribs. Akash tried to downplay it, calling it a nudge, but it wasn’t his ribcage that got rammed. There were lots of goats in the Dharavi. Big goats.  Akash said the goats were for some sort of celebration. I don’t know if they are party animals or dinner, but I know one that I hope ends up on a spit.

The people who live and work there are just trying to keep their heads above water and food in their bellies. These people are industrious and are trying to build a life. There is a leather factory in the Dharavi, as well as garment “sweat shop,” a pottery enterprise, and many recycling businesses. No picture taking is allowed in the Dharavi; these people don’t mind if others come to see their way of life, but they do not want to be gawked at. The Dharavi traces its roots back to 1840. A million plus people live in an area that is approximately 1.7 square kilometers (about the size of Central Park, NYC).

Our driver lives in a slum, though not the Dharavi. He said that he pays half of his monthly income for a room the size of the interior of the compact car we were riding in. He was very proud to tell us that both of his children were college graduates.

After two hours in the Dharavi, it was Wilson to the rescue! We were taken to a hotel near the airport to regroup (read: have a cocktail), sit quietly in a clean place, and get ready for our journey onward. How ironic it was that, as we walked into the magnificent lobby of a fine Indian hotel, the tune playing was “Georgia On My Mind.” I nearly broke down and cried. As much as we love to go, we love to come home to the places and people we cherish. With airline tickets to the Savannah airport, Georgia was indeed on our minds and we wanted nothing more than to be home.

Fortified with food and drink, we were delivered to the airport by Deva and Wilson. (Believe it or not, the airport has the same name as that museum. Just seems to me that they could find someone with a shorter name to memorialize and immortalize when naming an airport or highway or building.) There were swarms and lines of people everywhere! Wilson said that’s because every time an Indian flies somewhere, at least twenty family members come out to see them off, even if they can barely get past the front door of the airport. Wilson sweet-talked the Air India girl into letting us into the lounge early. (How we love that Wilson!) It was mighty fine to take a shower and wash away the dirt and sweat from the day in Mumbai. We left our filthy shoes and just took the memories and impressions.  India is indeed !ncredible.


  1. Judy on May 13, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Whew! I got tired just reading about your last day in Mumbai. We are glad Georgia
    Is on your mind! Have a safe trip home!????????

  2. Pam Morgan on May 13, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    God Bless your sweet hearts! We can’t wait for you to come home!!!!

  3. Sarah Guida on May 15, 2017 at 12:00 am

    What an interesting write up of Mumbai. Can’t wait to talk to you in person about your trip. We welcome you home.

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