Do you hear that?
The radio silence that makes it seem like the blog’s gone dead?
Well, it hasn’t.
I’m coming to you from somewhere high above the Atlantic, as I fly back home. The airplane cabin is dark and quiet. The baby in 24C was crying a while back. He’s fallen asleep. I’ve just a finished a spectacularly bad meal of pack-n-seal biryani. But buckle up, this is going to be a long one.
It would be OK for you to assume that I haven’t been doing much of cooking or baking, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Barring junk-that-will-make-you-slobber-uncontrollably hot dogs and a chicken and mushroom quiche, which I will share with you shortly, I haven’t really spent much time in the kitchen this year. So far.
Two summers ago, in 2015, we took an impromptu flight to Berlin. Just because. Fauri, my BFF from Uni (and fellow kebab-lover), was finishing up with her post-grads in Dessau and I was looking for a short break. Germany seemed like an attractive option. Unfazed by the popular consensus about the starkness of bratwurst, my family wanted to come along. And so they did.
I don’t have to tell you how family vacations are completely different from vacations with friends. It’s the priorities that get you. Hostel vs Hotel. Sightseeing vs Eating. Eating Indian vs Eating local. Walking around all day vs Going back to the hotel for an afternoon siesta.
Luckily, my family’s made up of champs and travel-hungry people.
We booked an AirBnB, a charming two-room apartment in Barbarossastraße, with the tiniest of kitchens and a bathroom that was so narrow, you wouldn’t be able to stretch out both your arms sideways at the same time. The apartment was stacked with its neighboring units and overlooked a cozy courtyard. The coziness and the green of the courtyard was welcoming. However, it meant that neighbors could easily hear you talking if you raised your voice a couple of notches. Toddlers looked up from their playtime and quietly watched us drag our luggage to the first floor.
Early next morning we caught a train to Wolfsburg.
Wolfsburg was not on the list in the first place. But considering the kind of car fanatics my brother and my Dad are, a visit to Autostadt was not to be missed.
By the virtue of not being a car enthusiast, I was sure I’d be bored and kept imagining going back to the flat and dry-roasting a couple of schnitzels we’d bought the day before, or digging through leftover curry wurst from Curry 36 (also acquired the day before). But I have to say the tour was pretty awesome. The Porsche Pavilion, and most of the campus structures, were architectural delights and there is that goosebumpy rush of power when you sit at the driver’s seat of an Audi R8 and pretend you’re a billionaire!
The campus is littered with interactive water fountains, landscaped pavilions, play areas that can be used by children or for picnics, interactive learning centers, gift shops, cafes and a challenging mock drive-track for enthusiasts. You could easily spend an entire day and still not run out of things to do.
As much as we like behaving like locals wherever we go, including an entire afternoon when we sat and guzzled beer after beer at a local bar’s outdoor area, watching people walk by, we were not going to give up on seeing The Wall or pay our respects at the Holocaust Memorial.
All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’
— John F. Kennedy
The city is a clear and strong example of how a Government can take responsibility, turn around and change for the better. It’s professional, hard-working, trendy and casual, all at the same time, which is always a difficult thing to pull off seamlessly. I have not found even the likes of New York or London to be able to pull off something similar. Berlin sits steeped in history, horror, turmoil, technological perfection, hip-quotient and social secularism , very comfortably. And it’s most significant proof is the Berlin Wall.
An entire day was spent admiring the views from the Furnsehturm and a visit to the Bradenburg Gate. If you’re going to Berlin, it is essential that you visit the Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Monolithic cubes in uneven heights is a grave reminder of what history ha put the world through. The unease, the grey concrete blocks stare silently back at you rendering you speechless.
You might just break down at the Museum. My mum almost did. The displays of everyday objects owned by the victims of the Holocaust, letters written to mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, items held close to the heart, precious, trivial or necessary, items held on to while trundling towards a concentration camp. A visit to the Holocaust Museum is not something you might want to do. It is something you need to do whether you want to or not.
Before we left for Germany, we didn’t really take care of much apart from the air tickets and the accommodation. But I did spend some time going through what Viator, at the time, was popular for — the tours and activities industry. We wanted a local guide, or maybe a German college student to show us around the hot spots and take us on a beer tour of the city. Something hyper-local and unique, something typical to Berlin. Something I just couldn’t find no matter how hard I tried.
It took me days and weeks of planning and online research to map out itineraries for each day, that’d be both interesting an comfortable for a couple of almost-sixty-year-olds. Optimum amount of walking that would cover the best spots, pubs and eateries locals rave about, places local families hang out at, and so on. I remembered facing a similar grind for all my previous vacations.
And while a travel-addict like me actually enjoys the intricacies of planning a holiday, I knew there was a gap. Over a month of planning and reading travel blogs and I knew this was a problem.
Tour agents and guides, by then, were only concentrating on finding tourists on social media, their own websites or by partnering with bigger travel agents — a system that was clunky, covered in layers of commission and surrounded by a horde of middle-men. And even though a couple of companies like Viator and GetYourGuide, had managed to group together the most fragmented, and yet congested, part of the travel industry, there was a lot lacking. Especially in continents like Asia, Africa and South America.
I came back with a small thought flickering somewhere at the back of my mind — small enough to not act upon but big enough to be annoyingly aware of it. A whole of two months passed after our holiday, before I actually wrapped my head around the concept of designing tours and vacations for tourists, offering activities and excursions that shifted away from mainstream and focused on the more hyper-local.
After a Saturday night visit to Roxy, Priya and I swayed back home and I spoke to her about the idea. Priya, being an enthusiastic traveler herself, nodded and nodded, silently and fervently, for hours before we fell sleep. The next morning she agreed to be my partner.
It has actually taken us a whole year to focus on what we wanted to do. The gap exists, but whether it needs to be filled has always been the question we’ve asked ourselves. We spent the better part of an entire year talking to guides, hosts, travelers, bloggers, travel agents, while our web developers worked on building a tech-first marketplace web app.
In the process we’ve learnt, re-learnt, walked and stumbled, fell face first and survived and built something that we hope will not only help travelers around the world, but help build jobs for people. Something that will encourage people to travel and discover what a destination and culture is really about. We’ve built the website, broken it, re-built it again and again. We’ve left out features we had thought were important, added features we hadn’t thought were essential. And all tuned to what people have told us would be of help. All to build a company that would not only do all the above, but also be free from discrimination and free from all that is going wrong around the world right now.
I might be getting sentimental. Bear with me.
It’s a journey. I’m in the danger of sounding cliched, I’m aware. But it is what it is. It has been a difficult drag through the mud and we’re sure Altertrips will be a bumpy ride.
And we’d love for you to join us!