Oct 6, 2020

The best virtual experiences connect travelers with locals in real time


Ashraf Chalif at home in Kerala

It's 6:30 a.m. in a tropical village near Kozhikode, a coastal city in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Fatima and her daughter-in-law are preparing ginger coffee atop a wood stove as my husband and I settle in front of our TV in Seattle for a visit.

Ashraf, a 29-year-old guide who in pre-COVID times arranged sightseeing for tourists from the Middle East in Kerala for medical care, invites us into his family's kitchen via Zoom. His tour, offered by a group called tenLocals, happens in real time which means it's 6 p.m. in Seattle as we watch his mother and wife prepare breakfast.

Tapping sap from a coconut tree 

As Ashraf walks us past coconut, banana and lemon trees, the surroundings look familiar. I'm transported to a similar village where we arranged a homestay in 2006. It was from our host family that we learned if you have coconut trees, you have just about everything you need to survive in rural Southern India. You can drink the milk, make liquor from the sap, use the palms and wood as building materials or brooms; eat the pulp; grind it for cooking; cook with the oil; make rope by soaking the husks in water; and burn the shells for fuel or use them to make dessert cups.

Our Kerala host family in 2006

Ginger coffee, as it turns out, is more like tea, made by crushing tulsi, ginger, black pepper, coriander seeds, long pepper and jaggery, an Asian cane sugar, with a mortar and pestle. We "imagine" we're sipping the morning beverage as Ashraf walks us through the family compound, past fruit trees, chickens, goats and a fish tank filled with Malaysian guppies. 

Ashraf's family is Muslim. He speaks Arabic which explains his connections in the Middle East. Unlike in some other parts of India, Hindus, Christians and Muslims mix with relative ease in Kerala. I remember being wakened by chanting from a nearby mosque, and an hour later, hearing music from a temple and bells from a church. If I could return to India, Kerala is a place I would re-visit. Knowing that I won't be able to get there again soon, I was pleased to wet my appetite virtually, not by watching a pre-recorded video, but by actually "being" there as Ashraf and his family began their day.

The Chalif family's backyard 

From visits to Bali, Kenya and India to walks and wine-tastings in Southern Italian villages, virtual tourism is taking off. Some experiences are better than others, but chosen carefully, they can bring us closer to the people and places we love or still yearn to discover.

tenLocals, based in Boston, charges participants a small fee (I paid $14.95) for a live virtual experience with a faraway guide out of work due to the pandemic.  We enjoyed our India visit so much we signed on for another, this time to Bhutan with Jamtso, 36, who was leading tours before Covid. He now collects the equivalent of around $150 a month from the government.

Jamtso took us on a tour of the home where he lives with his two daughters, his mother and brother's family. His wife, Gyelmo, demonstrated how to cook Ema datshi, the Bhutanese national dish made with hot chili peppers and cheese, and served with a pink rice.  

Jamtso's mother in the Buddhist prayer room upstairs in their home in Bhutan.

Gyelmo in Bhutan with her chili-cheese dish 

Very different from our tours with tenLocals was an online trip I took earlier this year with a couple from New York who invited me to join a food, wine and art program focused on Southern Italy. The couple's relatives own Borgo La Pietraia, a country inn in Capaccio Paestum, nestled between the Amalfi and Cilento Coats in Southern Italy. As it was with Kerala, "being" in this part of Italy brought back memories of off-the-beaten path travel in a corner of the country unfamiliar to most Americans. My relatives come from the nearby province of Avellino, and I've done stories over the years on some of the wine areas and small towns covered on the virtual visits.

Organized by Feast on History owners Danielle Oteri and Christian Galliani, the tour featured three or four Zoom gatherings a week for a month with a small group of travelers from various parts of the United States. We dropped in on an Italian chef for lessons on how to make stuffed peppers and zucchini fritters. There were pre-recorded visits to wineries, followed by live tastings over Zoom. Fridays were reserved for a weekly "happy hour" when everyone gathered to make and share drinks such an affogato, gelato with a shot of espresso spiked with amaretto.

Our Eatwith meal in Mexico City

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to book a meal in someone's home through  Eatwith.com. Our dinner last November with a family in Mexico City lasted for several hours, and included multiple courses prepared by a delightful couple for whom cooking is a hobby. 

The dinners are continuing in many cities, but for those of us who can't travel, Eatwith hosts offer live, online cooking classes. A Florentine chef will teach you to make pasta, or you can join a home cook Budapest for a hands-on lesson in preparing Hungarian goulash. Most are group classes, so there's a chance to interact with others as everyone gathers around the kitchen counter or a communal table. Cost is around $22-$35 per person, not including ingredients which you buy and assemble ahead. Hosts live-stream from their home countries, so that a class starting 10 p.m. in Budapest begins at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. 

Author Fred Plotkin with some of Michelangelo's favorite cheeses 

Many virtual tours are inexpensive or even free, so check out these types of experiences before signing onto more commercial offerings such as Amazon's new Amazon Explore.  A cooking lesson listed on Amazon with an Italian chef is around $70 compared to similar Eatwith.com offerings for half that amount. Amazon's classes are two-way audio, but only one-way video, meaning the host can hear  and answer questions but not see participants. To me, that adds up a one-way experience that eliminates the sense of really "being there" with another human being. 

More worthwhile was the hour I spent recently with the charming Fred Plotkin, the American godfather of Italian food, wine and opera. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles originally planned "Nourishing Genius: Wine and Food in the Time of Michelangelo"  in May to coincide with an exhibit of the artist's drawings. When COVID forced cancellation of the program, curators "reimagined" it as a free online event available on its YouTube channel. 

The Getty invited viewers to tune in free (Tickets for the live event had been $75) as Fred told us how the young artist, mostly content to refuel on anchovies, stewed fennel and herring,   developed a palate for fine wines and cheeses by dining at the tables of popes and patrons. We were encouraged to assemble a few of Michelangelo's 15th and 16th century favorites (Frascati wine, Pecorino cheeses, ripe pears), and taste along as Fred displayed wedges of cheese and an overflowing fruit basket. 

A virtual tasting with Fred Plotkin at the Getty

Fred is best known as the author of "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler." It's a book we've used many times in our travels to find overlooked Italian towns studded with culinary gems. Noto in Sicily was one. Most visitors come to see the town's elaborate baroque carvings, but with Fred's help, we also found his favorite pastry shop specializing in Arabic-style sorbets. The owner described his tangerine flavor as a "little bit of Sicilia in your mouth."

The mouth is a good place to cultivate an appreciation for a foreign land. No language skills required. Just a good appetite, a smile and an enthusiastic "Delicioso!' My thanks to Fred and the Getty for bringing a bit of Italy into our living room with a glass of wine and few shavings of Pecorino.

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