Category Archives: Travel

FASTag is a failure

A few years ago, the government introduced an ambitious project called FASTag-Electronic toll collection. On paper, this was a great initiative & long overdue – a simple RFID sticker affixed to your car windshield that sensors at toll collection centers on highways will automatically scan. The appropriate toll would then be deducted from your linked prepaid wallet. To make things even better, this prepaid wallet wouldn’t be maintained by FASTag, but by a few partner companies (Like ICICI Bank, PayTM, Airtel, HDFC Bank among many others). You can order your FASTag from any of the partners, stick it on your windshield by yourself and maintain appropriate balance in your wallet before passing a toll plaza.

Not Easy at all. PC: FASTag.org

This would ease congestion at toll collection centers because people wouldn’t need to fish for change, wait for balance, interact with a human etc. They only need to slow down at the toll center and the boom barrier opens automatically to let you through. Why would anyone not want to use this method as opposed to fishing for cash? A perfect arrangement, right?

Wrong. Indians being Indians made sure not to let a positive thing succeed.

I have been using FASTag for many months, but it was on a recent trip to Agra that I realised that this initiative has been a complete failure.

  1. Most highways still don’t accept FASTag. 7 out of 8 toll plazas on my trip to Agra didn’t accept FASTag. These were all on Western Peripheral Expressway & Yamuna Expressway.
  2. People have sworn not to use it. Typical Indian mentality is doing the opposite of what you are told to do, and in this case, the people did exactly that. People have sworn not to use FASTag and they have kept their promise.
  3. The government has been too lenient in enforcing its use.

The one toll plaza on my trip which did accept FASTag was backed up for at least 1km, and that too in the FASTag exclusive lane. It was evident that people were not using FASTag. I decided to note what the 10 cars ahead of me did while passings the toll (There’re electronic displays showing toll status).

  • Only 1/10 cars ahead of mine used FASTag.
  • 7/10 cars ahead of mine had FASTags, but insufficient balance. They all paid cash. I believe this is because by law all new cars are mandated to be delivered with a FASTag and these cars had one but the drivers never bothered to add balance to their accounts.
  • 2/10 cars ahead of mine didn’t have any FASTag.

The fact that even when cars come preinstalled with FASTag people don’t bother to use it shows me what a failure this has been. On top of it, the government seems to have backtracked on its claims that people who enter FASTag lanes without one will be penalised or charged double. The toll collector sitting in the FASTag lane booth didn’t even expect anyone to use a FASTag, he was quite casually taking cash from people and returning them change.

Why anyone would chose to use cash when there’s a much simpler and convenient alternative boggles my mind. It is a testament to how stubborn we Indians are and refuse to do something new even at the cost of convenience.

The Unintended Chinese Racism

In my last job, I had to travel a lot, and very frequently to China. All in all, I travelled to China 8 times, multiple times each year.

Although my Chinese hosts and colleagues have been the most hospitable people I have met, I couldn’t help but notice the unnatural (to me) behaviour of many Chinese people on the streets whom I didn’t know.

A bit of background – most Chinese do not have much facial or body hair. This is not racist, just a fact. Chinese men with proper beards are very uncommon, mostly because they genetically can’t grow beards. I not only have a full beard, I also have a shock of (mostly) unkempt hair, which makes my appearance definitely non-Chinese.

Chinese men playing Mahjong. PC Uncycloedia

The first time I landed at China was at Xiamen., which is a cosmopolitan city with a lot of travellers and foreigners. Not till my second trip to China, when I left Shanghai Pudong airport to go to the railway station at Hongqiao, did I notice something odd: 2 old men openly pointing at me, smiling and discussing my appearance. I gave them a polite nod, smiled and went on my way.

Fast forward a few more trips later and I am leaving my hotel at Changzhou to take a walk around my favourite Xintiandi park. I hope there aren’t too many people there because I know what will happen.

  • The old men will openly point at me and comment at my appearance (among themselves)
  • The young kids will stare. Some will burst into tears, while others would keep staring without blinking till I am no longer in their line of sight. Their parents will hurriedly tell them not to stare.

The only people who don’t exhibit this kind of behaviour is young people between 18-40.

First timers to China will classify this is blatant racism. I, however, feel that this “racism” is borne more from ignorance and curiosity rather than bad intent, like in the west. I have had an old government official in Australia tell me openly that he didn’t like my face. I have had people ignore me openly at Vienna when I asked them for directions. This kind of racism is borne from ill will and hate.

I wouldn’t classify the Chinese behaviour in the same category. I believe most of them don’t know any better. Most of these people have never seen a full bearded man and it is genuine shock that they are experiencing.

The Chinese are a self contained people who don’t have as much exposure to western media (partly by choice, partly by force) as people from other countries. Also, these incidents are more frequent in the smaller (by Chinese standards) cities than bigger and more cosmopolitan cities. It is understandable that many will find my appearance odd and unnatural.

Overall, I can say that these incidents have not dampened my love for China and my desire to travel there again, in the near future.

Crazy Sofa at Bang Saen

During my last trip to Bangkok, I had a yearning to go visit a beach. Me and my Indian friend decided to head to Bang Saen, which is a beach in Chonburi province, a little more than an hour’s drive from Bangkok. He also brought along his Indian roommate. His name, translated to English literally means Snake 🐍, so that’s how we’ll refer to him for the rest of the story. 

Bang Saen Beach

The Snake is your typical Indian tourist who doesn’t want to part with any of his money & is always on his guard thinking that everyone is out to cheat him. He cribbed about paying 10 Baht to use the changing rooms (why can’t we just change behind that tree?), paying 50 Baht to use the beach chairs (we should have brought our own chairs). He cribbed about paying for food (so overpriced). When we decided to ride the crazy sofa, he immediately began to haggle with the operator. Note that, he paid for none of the above things; he is just a habitual haggler.

Unlike a Banana boat, which is streamlined and cuts through the water gracefully, a crazy sofa is inherently unstable and would bounce and flop around even in the most stable waters. So when the snake haggled with the operator and the operator agreed to reduce his rate, but with a nefarious smile slowly spreading across his face, I knew something was wrong.

So started our crazy sofa ride, with me and my friend on each edge and the snake in the middle. It soon became clear that the operator’s main agenda was to punish us for haggling like every other Indian that had crossed his path in the past. The ride was simultaneously the most thrilling and the scariest experience of my life. The operator was going much faster than usual, the sofa was bouncing like crazy and we were holding on to the plastic handles for dear life and screaming for the guy to stop (he conveniently forgot how to understand even the most basic English words).

A Crazy Sofa ride, not our Crazy Sofa Ride

Now would be a good time to mention that the snake easily weighed >100kg and was bobbing around both sides and hitting me and my friend (who were already bouncing hard) and only sheer terror made us hold on and prevented us from being thrown off the sofa. Multiple times, the sofa was airborne for more than 5 seconds at a time and more than a couple times, it almost overturned.

When the operator finally stopped the Jet ski and let us off, we literally toppled into the water from sheer exhaustion and took a long time to wade back to the beach.

Next day, woke up with soreness in unusual parts of the body, like the joints of fingers etc. This was one adventure, though, that I am unlikely to forget soon.

Weirdest Birthday Ever

This year, I had the weirdest birthday ever. Normally, my birthday is spent with a close family lunch and a wider family dinner. This year, however, I had to travel to Bangkok for work & since this was my last week in this particular company, I didn’t say no.

I went on the company trip and planned my family to visit me on the weekend before my birthday and stay till the day after my birthday, but because of the Covid-19 situation, their trip had to be cancelled. On top of that, my birthday was a Thai holiday, so I was staring at spending my birthday alone.

I started the day waking up late and having a leisurely breakfast at the hotel.

I saw a couple of movies, and then was surprised by the Hotel staff with a birthday cake. The cake was delicious and heavy, so I skipped lunch.

Weirdest Birthday
Cake!

In the evening, I took a long walk to Benjakiti Park, took the Skytrain From Asok to Phrom Phong station and spent some time at the Emquartier mall. After roaming round the Glass Quartier, the Waterfall Quartier, I headed for dinner at the Helix Quartier.

The Helix Quartier is a beautifully designed section of the mall. As the name says, it has a gently sloping walkway in the shape of a Helix without a clear distinction between different floors, with restaurants lining both sides of the walkway. I found a nice Korean Organic Chicken and Rice place and had a hearty meal.

Organic Korean Chicken and Rice

After dinner, I went back to the hotel, alone, watched some TV and fell asleep, thus bringing to end, the weirdest birthday ever.