Girl smarts You need to try this woman's game-changing new travel tool on your next vacation

Aashi Vel wants to bring people together with a great experience—and a great meal.

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In 2011, on a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Aashi Vel— then 32 years old, with a professional background in art and design but a passion for food and travel—had an ‘aha’ moment.

On that trip, Aashi found herself struggling to find authentic Mexican food. “I was asking friends for recommendations and looking at review websites, but all too often the restaurants ended up being touristy or not truly authentic,” she remembers.

Then, one day, on the way to a restaurant, Aashi passed a local home and saw a woman through the window cooking dinner. “I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could eat with her and hear her stories and share her food.’ A lightbulb went off.”

In 2013, Aashi and co-founder Steph Lawrence, who she met at UC Berkeley a few months after her trip, founded Traveling Spoon, a tech-meets-travel company that does exactly what Aashi would have loved to do that day in Mexico in 2011: It connects people with pre-approved hosts who welcome travelers into their homes for private, home-cooked meals.

Travelers log onto Traveling Spoon to book in-home meals, cooking classes, or market tours in over 22 countries from China to Morocco for anywhere from $20 to $170. This summer, the company will launch in Europe. “We wanted to disrupt that industry by offering local food experiences,” says Aashi. So they did.

Traveling Spoon also offers hosts the opportunity to make money doing what they love, all while learning new languages, and meeting people of different generations and from different parts of the world, Aashi explains. “They become micro entrepreneurs.”

It’s a business that’s about far more than just food.

“All too often, people go to a city and check off landmarks but leave feeling like they don’t understand the culture,” Aashi says. “Food is such a wonderful way to open up and learn about other people. It’s a catalyst informing meaningful connections. Breaking bread is so important to making the world a smaller and more connected place.”

Take an experience Aashi had in Bali with a host named Dewa, who is a gardener at a local resort. After learning about the medicinal benefits of Balinese herbs and spices, shaving coconuts from scratch, and cooking with traditional utensils on an open wood-fired stove, Aashi asked Dewa why they couldn’t eat another papaya, as they were abundant in the trees nearby. He responded that in Balinese culture, you take only what you need. They’d leave the extra papayas, he said, for the monkeys.

Later, she asked him about the pattern on a black and white checkered apron that struck her. Dewa told her that in every person and in every situation, there is good and not so good. The apron is a constant reminder that people can be a certain way one day, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're not a good person.

“In just a few hours of a cooking class I learned so much about life and living and perspective and balance—on top of having the best meal at their house,” Aashi says. “That’s my goal—to have people experience meaningful adventures and food in their life. It’s rewarding to have been able to touch people’s lives, even in a small way.”

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