Eating With Locals The Easy Way

There was once a time when travelers were a rare species, so venturing off into foreign lands often meant being invited into the homes of generous locals where you were treated to lavish meals. This kind of thing still occasionally happens in developing countries, but as tourism becomes more and more commonplace, it’s rare to be able to dine with locals unless you’ve already got connections, are visiting friends, or are taking part in a home stay of some sort.

But the good new is that there’s now another a way to sit down to a meal with locals, and it doesn’t rely on serendipitous encounters with potential hosts or having a rolodex full of international friends. EatWith is a new online community that connects travelers with local hosts willing to invite tourists to their dinner tables. The concept – which recently launched – works much the same way as couchsurfing. Travelers and hosts sign up online, write detailed profiles about themselves, and then choose where and with whom they wish to dine.The user profiles provide plenty of information, like which languages the host speaks (always useful), what kind of food they plan on cooking for you and what you can expect during your meal (like whether you’ll be eating with just the host or a merry band of relatives as well). EatWith’s database also includes a number of “verified” hosts that have been vetted by the organization for travelers who are concerned about safety.

Some of the meal experiences currently on offer through the program include enjoying homemade paella in Spain, sitting down to a nine-course meal on a farm or taking part in a barbeque with a local family. Travelers pay around $30 and up for the privilege, but the cost is comparable to eating out at a restaurant – not to mention all the benefits that are hard to put a price on.

For one thing, the meal is a chance to meet locals and enjoy the home-cooked cuisine people really eat – not just the food available in the touristy restaurants (and sometimes there’s a big difference between the two). It’s also a great opportunity to pick the brains of a local, whether that’s an insight into the culture or politics, or simply some tips on things to see and do. And of course, it’s a chance to get some good suggestions about the hot places to dine so you can ensure the rest of your meals live up to the one you just had.

I think it’s a concept that’s sure to take off, since it’s great for travelers who are attracted by the social aspect of couchsurfing but don’t want to deal with safety or comfort issues. With programs like this, you can stay in a regular hotel but still enjoy the company of a local host. It’s also ideal if you’re a solo traveler – after all, sharing a meal with a friendly local and perhaps a few other travelers beats dining alone in a restaurant.

Right now, EatWith only offers hosted meals in Israel and Spain, but the company plans to expand to other destinations.

Have you ever eaten a meal with locals when traveling? Would you sign up to do it?

[Photo credit: Flickr user Laurel Fan]

Photo Of The Day: Israel’s Negev Desert

Alexis Wiener has a gift for photography and I knew that immediately when I saw her photos from Israel on her website. This photo, an expanse of the Negev Desert from Zin Valley, is striking. Wiener’s words about Israel cannot be separated from the photo itself. Beneath the album for the country on her website, she writes:

“It was about two weeks into my journey in Israel that I found myself, surrounded by new family and friends, downing a final meal before my 12 hour flight back to the US.

This is a special moment for me because I recognized just how amazing this place really is and how generations of my family before me have had that exact same realization. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have been able to travel to Israel on four separate occasions.

At first, it seemed like culture shock, I’d watch: people crying, wailing, people praying, people, like me, not knowing what to do really.

Yet, as I’ve grown spiritually, pursuing various philosophies and wandering the world, the most important questions rush through me when I spend even just a few days, even hours, in Israel. How have I been doing on my path? Am I honoring my loved ones? Myself? My gifts? How can I do better?

Years later, still on my journey, I feel at home and rejuvenated in a way, whenever I return to this magical land.”

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[Photo Credit: Alexis Weiner]

Israel Restores Ancient City

Israel, Avdat
The government of Israel has just completed a $2 million restoration of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat, The Jewish Press reports.

Avdat is in the Negev Desert and was one of the westernmost points on an extensive incense trade network the Nabateans built stretching as far as the southern Saudi peninsula that flourished from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Incense was important in rituals for many civilizations, especially for Roman funerals. The trade network began to wither when Romans converted to Christianity and stopped needing incense to cover up the stink of their cremations.

The extensive ruins include houses and an acropolis with a Nabatean temple. Avdat later became part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empire. Remains of a Roman military camp and a Byzantine church can be seen there. The church has a floor made up of marble tombstones with still legible epitaphs. Like in the more famous Nabatean city of Petra, a sophisticated irrigation system allowed for agriculture and even vineyards in the harsh desert region. The residents even had enough water to make themselves a bathhouse.

The city was destroyed by an earthquake in the 5th century and was rebuilt. Another earthquake in the 7th century finished it off.

The site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, suffered vandalism in 2009. The vandals pulled down columns, smashed stones and wrote graffiti over parts of the site. They were never caught. Now Avdat has been completely restored and the local archaeologists boast that it’s better than it was before.

Avdat hit the news last year when it was discussed in historian Tom Holland’s book “In the Shadow of the Sword,” in which he suggests that Muhammad was from Avdat and not Mecca. He also calls into question much of the Muslim tradition for its own origins. The book was criticized by scholars and Holland even received death threats, presumably not from scholars.

The site is in Avdat National Park, so a visit to the ruins can also include hiking and wildlife photography. Check out the gallery for some images of this amazing site. If it looks a familiar, that’s because it was the site for the filming of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

[Photo courtesy Urij]

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Palestine, Israel In Controversy Over King Herod’s Tomb

PalestineAn upcoming exhibit is causing friction between Palestinians and Israelis, the Associated Press reports.

On February 13, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem will open “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey.” It will be the first exhibition dedicated to the architectural legacy of the infamous Jewish king, who ruled as a vassal of the Roman Empire from 37-4 B.C.

Best known for the Biblical story of his killing the male children of Bethlehem to try to get rid of the baby Jesus, he was also one of the region’s great builders, expanding the Second Temple and erecting many other monuments.

The exhibition will display remains from his many building projects. The centerpiece will be his recently discovered tomb, shown here, and what may be his sarcophagus, painstakingly reconstructed from hundreds of shattered pieces. Archaeologists believe it was destroyed by Jews to show their hatred of Herod.

Almost all the artifacts are from the West Bank, part of Palestine, and here is where the problem lies. Palestinian Authority officials say they weren’t consulted about the exhibit and that excavating and removing artifacts from Palestine without their permission breaks international antiquities laws. The Israel Museum denies this and says they have authority over the artifacts. They also say the material will be returned to the West Bank after the exhibition closes October 5.

In this part of the world, history frequently gets enmeshed in politics, with both sides trying to claim the land by historical precedent.

The BBC has an interesting article on the troubles archaeologists face in Gaza. Besides a shortage of funding, sanctions keep them from getting many of the materials needed for excavation and conservation. War has also taken its toll, with Israeli bombs hitting the antiquities office and also damaging an early medieval mosaic in a Byzantine Church.

[Photo of Herod's tomb courtesy Deror Avi]

2700-Year-Old Temple Discovered In Israel

A new temple discovered in IsraelA construction crew planning an expansion to a highway running between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel has discovered an ancient temple believed to be more than 2700 years old. The archaeological site was unearthed last Wednesday and is part of the larger dig at Tel Motza, which features ruins dating back to the Neolithic Era.

The temple has an entrance that faces east, allowing the first light of the day to illuminate its sparse interior. Inside, archaeologists found a large square structure that is thought to be an alter, as well as an array of ceremonial objects. Those objects include the remains of pottery and chalices, and tiny clay figures of humans and animals that are believed to have been used in religious rituals.

This new find is just the latest to be discovered in Motza, which has been part of an ongoing archaeological excavation since the 1990s. The temple is similar in age to some of the other ruins in the area, which also include an underground reservoir that dates to the time of the Crusades and grain silos that once served as storage for the city of Jerusalem.

Once the small temple has been completely examined it will be sealed off from the public and preserved from harm. The new highway expansion will move ahead directly over the site, which will prevent it from being accessible to the public. The ceremonial objects discovered inside will be cataloged and put on display in museums.

[Photo Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority]