Airbnb: Six awesome experiences

airbnbLast autumn, after having tracked the Airbnb buzz for a while, I finally took the plunge and reserved rooms through the site in Panama City and Bogotá for my two-stop December jaunt.

About a half-hour into my first pit stop, it was already clear to me that the service was a perfect fit for budget-conscious travelers. (For the record, I’m not the only Airbnb fan at Gadling. Check out my colleague Elizabeth Seward’s Airbnb post published earlier this year.)

For those unfamiliar with it, Airbnb is a rental service. House or apartment owners list their spare beds, rooms, or entire living spaces for rent on the site.

What makes Airbnb distinct? First of all, owners are paid 24 hours after the reservation begins, a delay that helps weed out dishonest landlords. Another important detail: if there is a problem with a rental, guests can contact Airbnb to void payment. I was comfortable with Airbnb from the outset in light of these consumer protection safeguards, and the fact that everyone is encouraged to evaluate one another following a stay was icing on the cake. Landlords can’t get away with false advertising, and poor behavior on the part of a guest or host will also be exposed through reviews. Good hosts and guests can both build up positive profiles via strong reviews.

Overall, Airbnb is pretty scamproof if used as directed. In a review of comments and criticisms of Airbnb online, it appears that some people have been scammed after making a payment on a rental outside of the Airbnb payment system. Payment via the Airbnb payment system, it should go without saying, is a much safer bet. Here’s a tiny piece of advice: If any property owner you contact through Airbnb urges you to bypass the Airbnb payment system and directly wire them money, cut off contact and report them.

Overnight, I became a fan of Airbnb. Seldom had I found such cheap accommodations in such comfortable surroundings, and with the added benefit of an instant social network of locals taking an interest in my welfare. I’ve experienced just two annoyances of the most minor sort: a host in Panama City who never messaged me back and a hostess in Tel Aviv whose room was not available despite being advertised as such.

But where did I stay? What were my accommodations like? And what did they cost?Panama City. In the Panamanian capital, I stayed in a high-rise in a wealthy neighborhood just down the street from the US Embassy. I had my own bright bedroom and a private bathroom. My host introduced me to some of his favorite restaurants and dined with me on two of my three nights in the city. An American expat, he was full of helpful tips and friendly asides. The damage: $72 per night.

Bogotá. I lucked out here, with a beautifully swank apartment near the center of the city (see above for a balcony-level photo of the street in front of the building.) My hosts were phenomenally kind. They served me breakfast, drove me around, gave me advice, and introduced me to their friends at elaborate dinner parties. It was here that I had the incredible experience of sampling homemade ajiaco, a delicious Colombian potato soup. The damage: $60 per night.

Amsterdam. I stayed in the funky neighborhood of De Pijp over the week of Christmas, first by myself for a night (sharing the space with my hosts) and then with my family for a week (by ourselves). De Pijp is an exciting, dynamic neighborhood. The apartment was beautiful if small and the only downside was its draftiness, particularly noticeable due to the frigid temps. The damage: $62 for a single room; $243 per person for seven nights for the entire unit.

Oslo. Before my February visit, I was terrified of Oslo’s price index, and justifiably so, as it turned out. What made Oslo affordable was my rental room, a quiet little space in an apartment about a kilometer from the train station. I shared kitchen and bathroom with the very friendly owner. The damage: $76 per night.

Tel Aviv. I stayed in the superhip neighborhood of Noga, next to Jaffa. My temporary studio, a factory conversion, had high ceilings and a pleasingly post-industrial decor. I had the entire studio to myself for two nights. On my final morning in Tel Aviv, my hosts showed up, chatted with me about a number of topics, and then drove me to the train station. The damage: $119 per night.

Jerusalem. I stayed in a hilly, residential part of West Jerusalem. I had a tiny apartment of my own, an annex to my hosts’ apartment, with a bathroom, a little kitchen, and access to a back garden. My hosts, long-term peace activists, were wonderful for conversation, information, and mid-morning coffee. The damage: $84 per night.

Airbnb has been in the news recently. Ashton Kutcher was announced as an investor and advisor in late May. Last week, it was revealed that contact salespeople working for Airbnb surreptitiously contacted property owners advertising on Craigslist to expand listings.

Raymond Fisman on How Bogota's Mayor Fought Crime

Ancient Jerusalem tunnel causes friction between Israelis and Palestinians

Jerusalem, jerusalem
Here’s a big surprise–the Israelis and Palestinians are squabbling over land rights in Jerusalem again.

Archaeologists have cleared an ancient passageway they believe was a drainage tunnel leading away from the Second Temple, the Jewish holy spot destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Canadian Press reports the tunnel runs from the Temple Mount, now the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, 2,000 feet under the Old City and into the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

The controversy centers around the dig’s sponsors, the Elad Association. Not only do they fund excavations of Jewish sites, but they also move Jewish families into Silwan. Locals have cried foul and say the dig is politically motivated, that what the archaeologists are really trying to do is make a connection with the Jewish temple and Silwan as a justification for moving the Palestinians out. Archaeology quickly gets political in a land where the past justifies the present. As I discussed in my article Two Tours, Two Jerusalems, residents of this city can look at the same thing and see something completely different. Silwan even has another name in Hebrew–The City of David.

But none of this matters to the child in this lovely photo by user Flavio@Flickr via Gadling’s flickr pool. She’s content to sip her drink in a quiet spot somewhere in Jerusalem’s Old City. Looking at her face you can’t tell if she’s Jewish or Arab. Many Israeli Jews can pass for Arab and vice versa. They both speak Semitic languages that share a large number of words. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom. In Arabic it’s salaam.My Spanish wife commented that the kid looks Spanish. Hardly surprising considering that many Spaniards have both Arab and Jewish blood, a legacy of the many periods in that nation’s history when they lived in peace. A thousand years ago, this kid would have been allowed to play with “the other side”. I doubt she gets to now.

I wish it were the same in Israel. When I was working there as an archaeology student back in the Nineties, I made friends with a Palestinian guy and an Orthodox Jewish family. Despite their homes being only a few minutes’ walk apart, they never met. I tried to get them all together, but they weren’t interested. So if you go to Jerusalem, remember you’re actually going to two cities and try to visit both.

Archaeologists discover Roman swimming pool in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel, archaeology
Roman soldiers liked a good swim, especially after a hard day’s work suppressing rebellions.

Archaeologists digging in Jerusalem have discovered the remains of a Roman swimming pool. Some roof tiles at the site bear the inscription “LEG X FR”, which stands for Tenth Legion Fretensis (“of the sea strait”, referring to one of the legion’s early victories). This legion was responsible for controlling Jerusalem. During the Jewish rebellion of 70 AD it besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish Temple, as seen here in an 1850 painting by David Roberts. During the bloody Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 135 AD the Roman legions were again kicked out of the city but were again able to recapture it.

The pools are more like large bathtubs lined with plaster. They’re part of a large complex of buildings housing pools and of course Roman baths. It’s not unusual for Roman military bases to have such luxuries, especially if the legion stayed put for any length of time.

The site is in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. One surprising find was a ceramic roof tile that a dog walked over while it was still wet. Check out this article for a photo. Tiles from the Roman baths in York, England, bear human footprints, some so clear you can see the nails used to attach the sole of the sandal to the upper.

Weekending: Sarajevo


Istanbul’s unique position straddling two continents affords a lot of travel opportunities, with quick direct flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As an American living in Turkey, I try to explore as often as I can, particularly to less-traveled destinations. While my last weekend trip was to Prague, for this trip, I ventured to another Eastern European capital with far fewer tourists but an equally fascinating history.

The place: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
When I stepped off the plane in Sarajevo, the immigration officer asked me what I was doing in Bosnia. I struggled for a moment before answering “holiday” but really had no single good answer. A combination of cheap tickets, a holiday weekend, and an intriguing destination was what brought me to Bosnia. Most people associate Sarajevo with the tragic Bosnian War in the 1990s, or as part of the former communist Yugoslavia, but today the city is rebuilding and winning fans with cafe culture, Ottoman architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventure. The blend of religions and ethnicities have led the city to be called the European Jerusalem, and travelers will find the excellent exchange rate ($1 USD = 1.5 BAM, which is tied to the Euro 2:1) and widely-spoken English especially welcoming.

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  • One of the most amazing things about Bosnia is the the people. Resilient, scrappy, and friendly, Sarajevans have survived a lot and recovered remarkably well in a short time. I was particularly sobered by imagining the incredibly difficult adolescence people my age (30) must have had during the 1992-95 conflict. To get an idea of life under siege, you only have to walk around the city and take in the many bullet hole-ridden, damaged and shelled buildings, like the Moorish National Library which is undergoing reconstruction. Every visitor should go to the Historical Museum, across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn war correspondent hub, with a humble but moving exhibit on the siege. The Tunnel of Hope is another must-see museum documenting and preserving the cramped passage between the city and the free zone, where residents could connect with aid and communication with the outside world.
  • Sarajevo also offers excellent value. Decent hotels start at 40 Euros and rarely top 100 Euros. I stayed at the very comfortable and personal Hotel Michele for 85 Euros with a nice breakfast and wifi; celebrity guests have included Bono and Morgan Freeman. Tram or bus tickets are under 2 BAM, with taxi rides among the lowest in Europe (the most expensive ride is to the airport and under 25 BAM). Most attractive to expats who pay a small fortune for alcohol: beer, wine, and cocktails are 3 to 10 BAM most everywhere. While not a party town, there are a few good night spots including one of my favorite bars ever: the delightful Zlatna Ribica with the most well-stocked bar bathroom I’ve ever seen.

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  • While many of the sights are fascinating and affecting, the small museums and tourist attractions are still limited and can be seen in a day or two. The historic Bascarsija Turkish quarter is fun to stroll but crowded with more souvenir shops than craftsmiths these days. Sarajevo is better spent relaxing at a cafe on pedestrian Ferhadija Street and absorbing the history and culture than ticking sights off a list. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, there are also lots of opportunities for hikes, day trips, and skiing in winter.
  • Bosnian food is not bad, but many staple dishes are strikingly similar to Turkish food, such as stuffed burek pastries and cevapi meatballs (see: Turkish kofte). While tasty and locally-sourced, the food in Sarajevo tends to be heavy and meat-centric, without the abundance of salads and fish that balance out Turkish menus. High-end international and modern Bosnian restaurants are popping up around town, while cheap eats can be had for under 10 BAM. Reliable mid-range options include Noovi Wine Bar near the British Embassy for pizzas and a great regional wine list, and To Be or Not to Be (name reflects the plucky and determined spirit of Sarajevans during the siege) for homemade pastas and funky twists on traditional dishes. A famous local restaurant is Inat Kuca, or House of Spite, across the river from the National Library. The story behind the name dates back to the building of the library (then City Hall) when the house’s resident refused to let them build over his home, so they took the house brick-by-brick across the river to where it stands today (how’s that for thwarting eminent domain?).

Getting there

Tiny but admirably high-tech (they offer mobile and web check-in) Sarajevo International Airport doesn’t offer many flights outside of Eastern Europe, but national carrier B&H Airlines has affordable flights from major hubs including Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich. Many travelers arrive via car or bus from neighboring countries; Croatia’s popular Dubrovnik is 5-7 hours by car and there’s an overnight train to/from Zagreb.

Make it a week

Check out the other half of B&H: Mostar in Herzegovina is another beautiful river town with a famous bridge not far from the Croatian coast. Bosnia is also an emerging destination for adventure travel with a large diversity of activities and landscapes. The Balkans have a wealth of places to go, but be aware of the history and potential Serbia visa issues when traveling overland.

Photo of the Day (4.13.10)

This is what travel photography is all about. If I decided to omit any sort of caption from this image, you’d probably still be able to guess quite a few things about where it’s taken and what’s happening in the picture.

But since it’s not my job to make you guess, I’ll reveal that this is a shot taken near the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was captured by Flickr user and regular contributor Ohad*, who describes that this man was seemingly overwhelmed from the emotional experience at the wall. Kudos to Ohad for snapping such an intimate picture in a place like this – certainly something that many people wouldn’t have the courage to do.

If you’ve captured an emotional moment in your travels, we want to see it! Submit it to the Gadling Flickr Pool and share it with us – it might just be our next Photo of the Day!