(From WKND magazine)
7 August 2009
They saddle up on their cycles and hit the road to meet their deadlines before hunger strikes. Jethu Abraham talks to Dubai’s ‘Dabbawallahs’ — the food delivery men who keep office workers happy and fed
You may have caught a glimpse of them pedalling away as soon as the traffic signal turns red and the cars stop, or suddenly appearing out of a narrow alleyway. They have been here for years and have blended into Dubai’s busy street scenes. Their tools of trade remain unchanged — the brightly coloured crate, numerous plastic bags and, of course, the bicycle. They are Dubai’s answer to India’s dabbawallahs. Always on the move, delivering meals at different times these tiffin carriers differ from their famous counterparts in Mumbai. Unlike the latter who carry homemade meals, these men in Dubai work for restaurants, usually the ones which cannot afford a motorbike and driver for deliveries and consider a bicycle a more feasible and cost effective option to get around the city’s neighbourhoods. Cyclists in Dubai do not follow separate traffic laws, so they make their way along the roads or up the footpaths, whichever takes them to their destination quickest. And once there, they sometimes have to deal with the added chore of being given the wrong addresses and customer complaints before they are back on their bikes to hit the road again.
An endearing innocence crosses Hamza’s boyish face as he remembers his friends back home in Syria. “We spent the nights playing cards and going out having fun. We thought those days would never end,” he reminiscences. Working as a delivery boy at the Yahala restaurant, in Karama, for the last one year, Hamza is on his bicycle most of the day as he makes deliveries in and around the neighbourhood.
“I sometimes make as many as 50 deliveries a day, and once I’m back in the restaurant, I do other chores such as cleaning the glass and serving customers,” he says as he outlines his daily duties. For Hamza and his family, Dubai is their second home: his father works in logistics for a cargo company in the city and two of his brothers and a sister also live here. His mother and youngest brother live in Syria. “Dubai is definitely more modern than Syria, and the city has great laws in place, but I do miss my country a lot,” says the 23-year-old, who doesn’t have any ambitious plans about the future other than daily survival.
Hamza follows the shade most of the time as he pedals his way to deliver food parcels. His customers have always been cordial to him, he says. “If they have any complaints, I ask them to call the restaurant,” he says matter-of-factly. “The heat gets unbearable sometimes, but I hurry with the deliveries so that I can be back in the shade again,” he adds with a shy smile.
“Cycling looks easy, but it can be a risky affair on the city’s busy roads,” says Tulsi Ram gravely as he outlines the risks he takes his line of work: delivering on time, riding against the traffic and making his way through the lanes of cars in Dubai. “I enjoy it as a form of exercise, but when you have a deadline to meet, it can be a bit tricky,” the 48-year-old from Nepal points out. Ram works at the Midnight Cafeteria, in Karama, and has been with the restaurant for the past three years. Earlier, he used to work as a delivery man in a restaurant in Delhi; he left India as it got increasingly difficult for him to maintain a family — a wife and four kids — on his meagre income.
These days, Ram takes his cycle only when there are sudden, urgent deliveries to be made, and the restaurant delivery motorbikes are out. The Dubai heat is quite unbearable at times, he says, but “there is no gain without some pain.” When asked if he has a word for the readers, he politely requests, “Please make sure that you give us the right address for delivery.”
A native of Chennai, India, 24-year-old Mohan works as a delivery boy for the Tiffin Time restaurant, in Al Quoz, and is well versed with the confusing roads that criss-cross around the offices in the area. “I begin my day at the restaurant at 4am where we pack 75 breakfast parcels to be delivered to a company on Shaikh Zayed Road. I help with the kitchen chores and assist the chief cook in preparing dishes and packing them for delivery,” he says. Once that is done, Mohan heads out on his regular routes to deliver breakfast to the offices in Al Quoz. He finishes his morning deliveries by around 10:30am and is back in the kitchen to help prepare the lunches — his favourite activity of the day.
“I have a diploma degree in catering with specialisations in production and service and I love cooking,” he explains. “When I came to Dubai, I hoped to further my interest in this area and for the first two months I helped out in the kitchen, but when one of our delivery boys left, I was put on the job.” He enjoys meeting people on his route and jokes about how he has favourites in every company he delivers to. “Some of them are very nice and tease me about my dialect and where I come from, but it’s all in good spirit.” But sometimes has to listen to complaints about the delay in delivery — something he attributes to the traffic and the fact that he is only on a bicycle, not on a motorbike!
Sporting a bright red cap and smiling widely, 48-year-old Mohammed is a popular employee at the Blue City Restaurant in Garhoud where he has worked for the past 13 years. He doesn’t have a cycle and doesn’t know how to ride one either, unlike many of his counterparts in the city. “It is very rare nowadays to find people who walk and do deliveries on foot, and many of the people I deliver to are a bit surprised when they realise that I walk everywhere,” he says. Mohammed walks from the Al Tayer Motors area and delivers food parcels to as faraway places as the City Centre.
He dispels any concerns about the strain walking in the sun every day causes on his body — and claims it has kept him fit and healthy! Mohammed has three children; two daughters and one son, who he has not seen for the last two years. A native of Kerala, he came to the city to save enough money for his eldest daughter’s wedding. “I was working as a delivery boy in Maharashtra and also sold purses and other accessories. A relative told me about this vacancy and I decided to come to Dubai,” he says.Even though his eldest daughter is now married, he cannot return until he makes enough money for his second daughter’s wedding. “It is not greed for money. It is about the need to survive,” he says as a young boy from the restaurant hands him two more bags for his next round of deliveries.