Where Locomotion stands still with Time

It isn’t difficult to find places in Greece where time stands still. But even here, it is rare to see a combination of this effect with modern technology. Yesterday, I came across just such a place, during my first visit to Thessaloniki.

None of the locals I met knew about it. They probably visited it as children in school, had a good time there, and promptly forgot about it. Nor do taxi drivers know it. Yet it is barely a 15 minute 7-Euro drive from the centre of the city. I had to get directions from Google Maps to show my non-English speaking taxi driver how to get there. Even up to the last minute, he wanted to ignore the app and take an opposite turn towards where everyone else goes. Fortunately I saw behind some buildings what I was looking for and pointed it out to him. Reluctantly he took a couple of left turns and stopped before an open gate.

It was a beautifully warm and sunny day during a cold February. There were three small buildings, with an old style of architecture and painted in warm colours. A bicycle that looked a hundred years old stood against a wall. A big dog slept in the yard and hardly batted an eyelid at me.

As I walked and looked around, a woman came out of one of the buildings and spoke to me in Greek. I said “English please” and she asked me what I was doing there. I mentioned to her that I had emailed to say I would visit, and had received a positive response. She asked me to wait, and walked into the other building. Presently, out walked Andreas Mylonakis, the person who had responded to my email earlier.

Andreas is a jovial old man with a mild manner. He looks somewhat scholarly. Indeed, as I introduced myself and mentioned Silicon Valley, he told me that he was the first software programmer in Thessaloniki, having worked with Forth, MS-DOS and assembly. He is a civil engineer by profession and worked for many years with the Greek Railways. He recently visited India, and was very impressed with his experiences in Delhi and Rajasthan. Now in his retired life, his primary passion is managing the Railway Museum of Thessaloniki, which I was now visiting.

Back in the US, when I was planning this trip to Thessaloniki, I put in an extra day since it was going to be a long weekend, due to President’s Day on February 18. Then, looking for interesting things to do, I planned a photo shoot with a local model, Spookie. Old architecture, ruins and monuments, they bore me unless there are interesting people or stories connected with them, so I figured this was a good way to experience such things in Greece. And then I looked for nice places to shoot in, found some photos on the web, and subsequently the museum.

Thus, here I was. Spookie’s makeup artist was taking her job too seriously, so they arrived over an hour late, and then it took another hour to get her ready for the shoot.

Andreas in the meantime took me around and narrated the history of the place and its treasures. He refused to take any money from me, saying instead that if I liked his tour, I could buy a calendar from him for 5 Euros. And by the way, my hotel was on his way back home so he could drop me off when I was done with my shoot. One of the best bargains I’ve had, gaining knowledge, friendship, experiencing history, doing a fabulous photo shoot, and saving 2 Euros and the entrance fee in the process!

Here is Andreas showing me around the Pullman restaurant car from the original Orient Express, where kings and queens and various important people dined.

And here is his old TI-59 programmable calculator from circa 1955, with its original box, manuals and program cards, with which he started his software work. He is pointing out the program cards which fit into a slot on the side of the calculator.

Tourists almost never come to this museum, so I was an oddity in that regard, which is why he probably was so excited to see me. The visitors to this museum are usually school children on field trips, or other students like these two girls who stopped by while I was doing my shoot.

The museum is right next to the main railway line out of Thessaloniki, so every once in a while, you get to hear and see a regular train going by.

The buildings and yard where the museum is, were built in the Ottoman era for the rail line to Constantinople. They were then taken over by the Germans during WWII. Thessaloniki is at an important intersection point of land and sea routes, so transportation was important to them, as it was for the Ottomans. The RAF bombed this area to prevent Germans moving equipment to Rommel in North Africa. Last year, construction workers found an unexploded bomb here, from a WWII RAF air strike. The authorities had to evacuate thousands of people from around the museum area and call in munitions experts to remove it. Greek Jews, more than 50,000 of them were rounded up here, the older ones sent to Auschwitz to die, the younger ones made to work on the port and marshalling yard before suffering a similar fate. There is a lot of history here.

Spookie’s makeup artist ended up with a look that was both macabre and hilarious at the same time. I’d never done such a shoot before – this visit became a first for me on many levels. As Andreas drove us back, I thought I couldn’t have asked for a better day and experience.

Turn Fifty in a ’69 Kombi

As luck would have it, my fiftieth birthday fell on a Saturday. My wife planned a trip to Sonoma, where we would tour some wineries in a VW Kombi, and do wine tasting. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when my parents lived in Kenya and Nigeria, we would go everywhere in these Kombis, better known in the US as the ‘VW Bus’. So, it had sentimental value for me. The idea was to leave the kids at home, and go for a day trip, just the two of us.

I admit, at first I was not sure it was a great idea. Turning fifty is not something I’ve been looking forward to with great excitement. But it slowly grew on me. I love wine, Volkswagens and vinyards. What was there to not like?

We left early in the morning and got to Sonoma exactly at 10:30 am despite a few twists and turns. Luckily, the parking lot we chose to park in turned out to be the place where we were supposed to meet. There was the green Kombi just a year younger than myself, already waiting for us with the driver, Tommy, and one couple (Dani and Logan). There was to be a total of 3 couples including us, so we waited for the last one.

They came within minutes and we set off for the first winery – Liana Estates. It turns out, they are taking entries for a new name, because this one is being disputed by a Liano from Italy, who says the name is too similar to his, which he uses for his own wines.

In the meantime, we started chatting among ourselves. It was instantly obvious that the company we had was just fantastic. Dani and Logan were a young couple from the University of Nevada in Reno. Dani had just graduated with a degree in journalism, and Logan would graduate in the winter. They had met in Italy where they had gone to study as part of their program, and were together for just 2 months. Logan was to turn 23 on the Monday.

Tommy, our host was a young guy just out of high school. But he knows a lot about wine-making and has a friendly and vivacious personality, just the right type for a trip like this.

Rebekah and Nate lived just a little south of Chicago, Champaign, Illinois, where Nate is a teacher, sports coach, and entrepreneur. Rebekah is a wedding photographer, which interested me immensely because it is what I have been thinking of doing for a while recently. We were to have several interesting chats about this along the way. Nate also had his birthday the same day, he had turned forty. Like us, Rebekah and he also had three children, that they had left behind with family, so we had that topic to talk about as well. Strangely enough, on a previous wine tour in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek near Cape Town, we had also met a family with three children and we had many family conversations with them too!

The wines at Liana were the best, but I think after a while we lost track of what we were having. Partly because we were drunk, partly because the company was too interesting, and we were really just very interested in getting to know more about each other and chatting. Here’s a photo of all of us: from left, Rebekah, Nate, yours truly, Gayatri, Dani and Logan.

At Liana, Tommy showed us the fermentation vats and barrels, and explained the wine-making process as well.

We had lunch at the Sixteen 600 Winery tasting house. The lady there explained a bunch of things but I was too drunk at that point to care – I just heard a few words about organic wine, vinyl records and something else. Lunch was a fabulous salad, with cheese bread. That helped a bit with the alcohol.

After that, we set off for the last winery, Buena Vista, which also happens to be California’s oldest premium winery. The tasting room is beautiful, with two floors. The upper floor is a gallery with a straight staircase leading up, next to a lovely chandelier.

We had plenty of time at Buena Vista to sit on some comfortable sofas and carry on our conversations. And watch the stuffed peacocks in the corners. For a while we were also just standing around the wine tasting bar and looking at other people below doing the same thing.

Before the tour ended, we stopped at some vineyards at the side of the road, and took many photos. Here’s one with our green ’69 VW Kombi from West Wine Tours.

And here’s one of Rebekah taking a photo of Dani and Logan with her Canon EOS 5D MkIV clad in red, that she uses for her wedding photography business.

Every good thing has to end, and so it was with our wine tasting tour. Tommy deposited us all in the parking lot, three unbalanced couples tottering their way back to their cars with their purchases.

Gayatri and I decided to stay in downtown Sonoma for a bit till we got back to our senses for the almost 2-hr drive back home. Walking around, we found Figone’s a family-owned business that specializes in olive oil and balsamic. It was the smell that drew us in from the sidewalk, it was so mesmerizing. Frank, the owner told us that he had started a line of body products too, that by itself would sustain his business, but we told him that he needed to keep the oils just because of how the smell would get him more customers. Here he is, with his wife and daughter.

The oil tasting experience was new for us. Frank gave us a lot of different types of oils and balsamic in these little cups. Frankly, I would have liked it better with some bread. But the concoctions are quite tasty, we had a lot of fun trying so many.

The drive home was anti-climactic but uneventful. We got home to this lovely cake selected by my kids. I cut it the next morning with my proud and happy parents looking on and cheering via Facetime video.

I don’t know whether I should be happy or not having got to 50. I reflect a lot these days on how I have lived my life so far, and what I should do in the years I have left. But I’m eternally grateful for the wonderful family and friends I have, the irreplaceable experiences, and the chances I get to meet so many new and fabulous people all the time, from all over the world. I couldn’t ask for more.

En una Milonga, hay que Bailar, no hay que Practicar and other El Flaco Dany Memories

In February 2010, Almirante and I visited Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo and Colonia in Uruguay. He had been there before and I was fascinated by the tango stories. I had just started dancing tango and wanted to see what it was really like.

In Buenos Aires, we stayed very close to Salon Canning, which is well known for its tango milongas, so we went there a few times. On one of those occasions, I met an Argentinian guy who spent some time talking to me. He pointed out to me an old man, sitting at a nearby table. He told me, this is El Flaco Dany – he is a famous milonguero. I was sufficiently awed by the man that I took a few photos to take back with me as memories.

Fast forward 7 years, and to my surprise one day, I saw a Facebook post that said El Flaco Dany was coming to teach workshops at Gustavo and Jesica’s in San Mateo! Needless to say, I signed up for and did these workshops, and got to know this wonderful man. The world is indeed a small place!


I’m eternally grateful to the Argentinian man I met at Salon Canning. He was a serious tanguero. While he was chatting with me, Almirante was having a conversation with a Brazilian couple who was also sitting at our table. The lady told Almirante how she had been trying some steps she learnt in class in the milonga. She encouraged him to try it too. Immediately the Argentinian guy stiffened significantly, leaned forward and told her: “En una milonga, hay que bailar, ¡no hay que practicar!” – in a milonga, you must dance, not practice!

Lunar Rainbow at Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls is by itself an amazing wonder. But about three or four times a  year, an amazing phenomenon occurs. During the nights of the full moon, there is enough light to create a lunar rainbow over the falls. This happens in the months of June and July, when it is winter in the southern hemisphere.

At the same time, the water over the falls is at its maximum. In the summer months, there is less water, with the Zimbabwe side seeing the most, and the Zambia side mostly dry. But in the winter, there is a single sheet of water all across the falls.

The Avani Livingstone Resort on the Zambia side is probably the best place to see the falls from. It is right next to the falls, and it takes about 5 minutes to get to the view sites by foot on the falls trails.