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By this Author: mbeymer

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Geneva and Gruyeres, Switzerland

semi-overcast 80 °F

Our flight-related woes continued as we arrived at the Barcelona airport. Although check-in was easy, I got to learn some new words in Spanish as they suspected that my laptop had an "incendiary device" in it. I give a lot of credit to my Spanish teachers for teaching me how to order at restaurants, how to buy train tickets, and how to ask for directions, but the lessons may have fallen a little short in that I wasn't sure how to explain that I wasn't trying to bring weapons onto the aircraft. After me turning the laptop on, showing the logo of my work, and then having it swabbed for the fifth time for bomb residue, the Spanish transportation authority decided that the balding guy with a baby, wife, and mother-in-law probably wasn't a threat after all.

We got to the terminal with plenty of time to spare, but I kept getting alerts that the plane was delayed. It was first delayed 15 minutes, then 45, then an hour, then two hours, and that's when I concluded that we weren't getting on the plane. We finally boarded the plane three hours later and the pilot explained that the delay was caused by unruly passengers on the previous flight who had to be forcibly removed by the police. After being in an airport with poor air-conditioning, 70% humidity, and a tired child, I thought that I was next if they didn't hurry up and get the plane off the ground.

We arrived in Geneva without further incident, and we quickly learned that no one spoke English. In Spain, I was somewhat useful with my broken Spanish, but I felt my utility drastic decreasing as the cab driver spoke in French. Unlike my adventures in Mozambique, Spanish is not AT ALL similar to French when spoken, and I had to rely on Google Translate to get to our Airbnb. We lugged in the suitcases, and I had the task of walking up two flights of stairs with all the suitcases. The size and beauty of the Airbnb made it all worth it, though.

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Walking up two flights of stairs with three fifty pound suitcases definitely gave me a nice workout

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But Ethan seemed to like the apartment just fine

The next day we walked around Lake Geneva and got to explore the famous fountain in Geneva (Jet D'Eau), the flower clock, and the harbor. We ordered a few sandwiches to go (in Spanish, mind you) and had a nice lunch by the lake.

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Docked on Lake Geneva

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Sunflowers were everywhere

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Wait, chocolate churos? This is everything I never knew I always wanted

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Worth the calories

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The flower clock

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The fountain in the English Garden with the Jet D'Eau in the distance

When we walked over to the fountain, Danielle asked, "How is it that we are not getting wet?"

"The wind isn't blowing towards us," I responded.

Thirty seconds later, the wind shifted and we got drenched like the first row would at a Killer Whale show. I quickly retreated baby in hand, and Danielle got a few funny shots of Ethan bracing himself in the temporary monsoon.

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The Jet D'Eau

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Grandma Keri and Ethan

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Ethan and I quickly retreating from the fountain after the wind changed and drenched the crowd

The lakeside was nice, but Geneva doesn't have much else going for it besides the picturesque landscape. The next day I decided to rent a car so we could tour Switzerland a bit on our own. I picked up the car at the airport, and went back to the apartment to pick up the family on our way to the town of Gruyeres. If that name sounds familiar, you've probably had their famous cheese. There was a cheese factory, and I decided that it would be a fun thing to do since it was only about an hour and a half away. We had a tour of the cheese factory, and we finished it up with a lunch at their restaurant where I was treated to three very rich courses containing their signature cheese.

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Cheese factory in Gruyeres

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And said cheese on Macaroni

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Dessert

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The town of Gruyeres

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A resident making his way to the other side

When I mentioned that I wanted to take a day-trip to Gruyeres, Danielle asked me what was special about it. I told her about the cheese factory which seemed reason enough, but she pressed me for more details. Feeling lazy at the time, I just handed my phone over to Danielle so she could read more about it. She read for a few minutes and then asked, "who is H.R. Giger?" My eyes suddenly widened.

H.R. Giger is the main artist behind the visual effects for the Alien movie franchise. In building my bucket list, I had read that he had a museum and a bar in his native Europe that you could visit. The bar is designed like the inside of the Alien spaceship, and I decided I had to go if I ever got the chance. Time has a good way of making one forget these things, and I had thought that the bar was in Belgium. I quickly took back my phone and read that H.R. Giger was actually Swiss and that the bar and museum was only a 15 minute drive from the cheese factory. I was more excited than a kid on Christmas.

Although pictures weren't allowed in the museum itself, the artwork was incredibly fascinating. If you've ever seen the Alien movies, the style of the paintings depicted those images but it was oddly sexual with one picture displaying floating aliens that looks like condoms, another that had a two-sided sex toy, and others in various positions of bondage. The risque nature of the art didn't take away from it's beauty, but it was definitely something I wasn't expecting. Luckily, the bar allowed us to take pictures, and I have a ton of those below. The best part is that it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped it would be.

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The H.R. Giger Museum

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Exterior art

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This looks familiar

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The "Alien" theme bar across the street

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And the view from our table

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These images look a lot different with and without the flash

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With the flash

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The android is infected!

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What do you get at the Alien bar? Blood shots, of course!

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Poor, unfortunate souls

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A close-up of the arch

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It felt oddly ergonomic

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I'll have another

We had dinner at a fondue restaurant back in Geneva called, "Chez Stucki." We had booked yet another table on TheFork (not paid by the company at all, just a huge fan), and the food was incredible. We were the hosts only table for the evening, so they walked us through the best Swiss dishes to order. We started with a salad, followed by two types of fondue with onions, bread, and potatoes for dipping, and we finished up with a potato hamburger. The hosts even showed us how each layer of fondue tasted distinctly different as we worked our way down. The intimacy of the meal made it feel less like a restaurant and more like we were in their home. This restaurant is an absolute must if you find yourself in the Geneva area.

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Our host for the evening

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And her partner showing us the art of fondue

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Keri and Mr. Peanut

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This looks like a regular hamburger, but the patties are actually potato. This thing was so good, one of the best dishes I've had all trip.

The last day of the trip we used for rest, relaxation, and well, blogging. Danielle and Keri booked a massage at a local day-spa, and Ethan and I got to tool around the neighborhood together. I had heard that their was a museum dedicated to the protestant reformation, and I decided to make that my last stop on our Swiss tour.

The Reformation was the start of what we call Protestantism today. It started in 1517 when a Catholic Priest, Martin Luther, issued 95 treatises of what was wrong with the Catholic church. His chief complaint was that individuals with money could pay to be absolved of their sins. He also believed that individuals didn't need a priest to be closer to god. He left the Catholic church with the goal of correcting the course of Christianity. One of the goals of Martin Luther and his successors was to translate the bible into numerous languages to make it more accessible to the masses.

About 50 years before that time, the printing press had been invented by Johannes Gutenburg in Germany (it was probably invented FIRST somewhere else, but we'll call it a speciation event). Martin Luther used this invention to distribute the bible widely around the world. The museum prohibited pictures, but I did get to use an ancient printing press in a special exhibit. It wasn't exactly a life goal, but it was pretty neat to see how books used to be made, one press at a time.

If you plan to come to this part of the world, I would suggest only a day for Geneva and to rent a car for the rest of it. Our best adventure was the day-trip to Gruyeres, and when Danielle and I find ourselves back here, I think we'll take a road trip instead. It's off to Paris for the International AIDS Society conference and a few of the city's highlights, more to come on Wednesday.

Posted by mbeymer 13:22 Archived in Switzerland

Catalonia

Barcelona, Spain

sunny 82 °F

Barcelona is the Capitol of the Catalonia region of Spain, a region that has its own culture, language, and customs. Walking around, you quickly notice that most of the flags hanging from the apartment windows are the Catalan flag, not the Spanish flag. This region has even tried to secede and form it's on country (not unlike the Basque region in the North), but it remains part of the Spanish federation for the time being. Our goal for Barcelona was to eat as much Catalan food as our stomachs could handle and see the works of the renowned Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi. We arrived in the afternoon, checked into our apartment, and used TheFork app to find a delicious spot to have our first dinner in the city.

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The Catalan flag

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The view from our apartment

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A delicious tamil from the restaurant, Agust Gastrobar

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All good things must come to an end

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This desert was simply called, "Cactus." The base was orange sorbet, the dirt on top was flakes of chocolate, the green covering was lemon mousse, and the spikes were white chocolate. It was absolutely amazing.

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Tapioca pearls with carmelized pineapple, also incredibly delicious

On the first full day in the city, the ladies slept in while Ethan and I went for our morning walk. We walked about a mile to the Arc de Triomf (does every country in Europe have one of these? I guess every one except for Germany, 0 for 2), took some obligatory photos, and then trotted back to the apartment to wake up the rest of the family.

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The Arc de Triomf on my morning walk with Ethan

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From the other side

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The center of the arc

Later that afternoon, we took a trip to see the monastery of Montserrat. The monastery is located on a mountaintop that is located about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona. According to our guide, Montserrat translates to "serrated mountain" because of it's unique shape. The monastery on the mountain has existed since 880 CE, and it has housed 80 monks continuously since that time. It is famous not only for its picturesque views but also as the site that supposedly holds the chalice that caught Christ's blood during the crucifixion (sorry, Indiana Jones, it wasn't Alexandretta after all). During their respective conquests, both Napoleon and Hitler sent cadres of soldiers to the monastery in an attempt to find it.

After the 40 minute bus ride from Barcelona to the mountain's base, we boarded a cogwheel train that seemed like it was going up the mountain at a 45 degree angle. Ethan seemed to absolutely love it and kept smiling as he looked out the window. Every time we would try to peel him away from the window, he ended up quivering his lips in protest until we restored his previous place in front of the window. We arrived after about 30 minutes on the train, and the views as well as the architecture were breathtaking.

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Ethan and Danielle on our bus ride to Montserrat

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Ethan loved the views as much as Danielle

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Arriving at the top of Montserrat, about 3,900 feet in elevation

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The main building of the monastery

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The main complex

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The penitent man will pass

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After World War II ended, the monastery acted as a sanctuary for those persecuted by Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. To punish the monks for providing refuge, Franco ordered the murder of 12 monks (although historical accounts differ on the actual number of monks murdered) that had assisted the dissidents. This stone carving serves as a memorial to this atrocity.

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The center of the memorial

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This guy was on his lunch break, apparently

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It was a tad windy

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Crucifixion in space

Our second full day was devoted to exploring The Sagrada Familia, a Catholic cathedral located in the center of Barcelona. It's famous for being the crown jewel in the art collection of Antoni Gaudi, a renowned artist from Catalonia. It's also received worldwide fame since it's been under construction for 135 years and counting. When Gaudi took on the project, he quickly knew that he wouldn't be able to finish the church within his lifetime. He spent the last years of his life sketching the designs for all of the facades until he passed away in 1926. A steady stream of architects have worked over the ensuing decades with the goal of realizing Gaudi's vision. The current architectural team estimates that the church will be done by 2026, or one hundred years after Gaudi's death.

The literal translation of the Sagrada Familia is "Holy Family." Gaudi's goal for the project was to depict the life and passion of the Christ in stone. The outside is marked by numerous events in Christ's life from his birth up to the betrayal and crucifixion. You'll notice that the figures have a block-like style that are representative of Gaudi's style. The rear of the cathedral is distinctly different and represents his successor's depiction of the life of Christ.

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Approaching the cathedral

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Photos don't really capture the massive size of this structure

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At the foot of the cathedral

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If you add the numbers up across any line, they add to 33 - the age that Christ was crucified

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An example of the unique stone carving

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Gaudi portrayed himself above the main entrance to the left of the two Roman soldiers

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The door to the back of the cathedral

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The more life-life depictions at the back of the cathedral

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A close-up of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus

The inside is meant to represent god's kingdom and reflect nature. The large pillars are meant to symbolize trees with the tops forming parabolas that hold up the structure. The Eastern and Western walls represent the arc of the sun with the Eastern walls in blue and green light and the Western walls in yellow and red light. The top of the cathedral is meant to look like the sun.

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The front of the basilica

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The alter

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The ceiling

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The Western wall

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Simba

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The light from the Eastern wall

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What an audio tour is actually like with a kid

Later that evening, we met my cousin Elizabeth and her cousin Anastasia for dinner not far from our apartment. Elizabeth is half-way through a Bachelor of Graphic Design, and she is interning at a design firm in Barcelona for the summer. We got to hear about all of her adventures around Spain and hear about her upcoming trip at the end of her internship. It made me proud to see her traveling just like her Dad did at that age, and I'm sure her sister Katie will follow suit.

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Since Liz has been in Spain for a few months, this was actually her first time meeting her newest cousin

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Liz and I enjoying dinner

Park Guell (pronounced "Gwell") is named after the industrialist, Eusebi Guell. In 1885, he acquired the land on the mountain that overlooks Barcelona with the goal of developing a neighborhood for the elite of the Catalan capitol. He decided to contract his friend, Gaudi, to oversee the design and development of the project. In 1890, Gaudi started with the construction of the common areas that would be used by the residents. He completed a massive reception area, a traffic circle for horse-drawn carriages, and the two iconic houses that are at the main entrance. His goal was to build a structure that was in harmony with nature, using local trees and plants, rocks from the same mountainside for many of the edifices, and a way to collect rain water that fell on the property. In today's world, sustainability is something most housing projects strive for, but this was a completely radical concept at the time.

However, the housing project failed miserably. Sixty plots were available, but they only sold two, to one family. The supposed reason for the failure is that the contracts were very restrictive. The contract stipulated that no house could have a fence between their neighbor that was larger than 14 cm (5.5 inches) because Gaudi wanted the space to be as open as possible. They also required that the houses could not be more than 300 square meters (or about 3,000 square feet) in order to not block the natural light for neighbors. Lastly, there would be no mass transit stops at the neighborhood. While this would have been okay for the residents, potential buyers viewed it as impractical because their staff wouldn't be able to get to work.

In 1914, Guell and Gaudi gave up on the project after the dismal sales and the diversion of resources needed for World War I. Gaudi lived on the premises for many years but ended up moving to Sagrada Familia in the last year of his life to be closer to his masterpiece.

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The gatehouse at Park Guell

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The dragon at the entry steps of Park Guell

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When the play, "Hansel and Gretel," came to Spain, Gaudi was invited by the promoter to see it during it's run in Barcelona. He loved the play so much that he designed this house in homage to the play.

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Gaudi was often viewed as very weird by his contemporaries because he would have his artistic team go around the city and dig through people's trash for glass. He would then break up the glass and use it in his pieces like the one pictured above. This is just known as "recycling" today, but Gaudi was far ahead of his time in this respect.

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In keeping with the recycling theme, Gaudi used the rocks that were dug up in the project in the pillars that supported the walkways of the park. He wanted to use as much of the native soil and plants as possible, and all of the rocks in these pillars were from the area

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A pillar in Park Guell that was NOT designed by Gaudi. One of his apprentices wanted to pay tribute to the laundry women of the park and erected this monument. Gaudi saw it and decided to keep it, even though it didn't fit with his overall design plan.

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His final creation, Sagrada Familia, as viewed from Park Guell

The third an final Gaudi piece we had the pleasure to tour was Casa Batllo located in the center of Barcelona. The Batllo family contracted Gaudi to build this beautiful house in 1877. Gaudi's goal for the house was to make it look like a house in an ocean. The curvature of the walls as well as the ceilings is very reminiscent of waves, seashells, and sandy beaches. It's hard to describe this one in words, so I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Casa Battlo

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From an angle

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The ceiling in the main room that resembles a seashell

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The stained glass in the front of the house that evokes the sea

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These panels acted as a primitive air conditioner that opened up to the atrium. When it was hot out, the panels could simply be opened in order to maximize air flow

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The atrium

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The cross on the roof of the building, a symbol Gaudi used in all of his projects

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The arches of the attic, Salvador Dali said the structure looked like a ribcage

Spain was a great experience overall for food, culture, and practicing my Spanish skills. In the past, I was often very embarrassed when speaking Spanish because I approached every conversation trying to understand every single word. On this trip, I just tried to pick out words to get the general idea of what the person was saying, and the result was a much more natural conversation. I was able to discuss complex topics from getting specific medicines at a pharmacy to the unfair tax rate that Apple receives from the country of Northern Ireland. My eight days in Spain has solidified my goal to complete my advanced Spanish training and become fluent like my mom. I really have her to thank all those years ago for exposing me to the Mexican culture so young and showing me a small piece of a much bigger world.

I also had the overwhelming fear that people would not be receptive to us traveling with Ethan. Instead, people asked us his age and told us all about their children. Every time I would apologize for him crying, people would look at me strange and insist that it wasn't necessary to apologize. I'm not exactly sure where my fear came from, but it was proven to be completely irrational by the time we headed out of Spain en route to Switzerland.

Although Ethan has been an awesome traveler, I will confess that this trip has been a lot harder than those in the past. If you decide to travel with an infant, I recommend making it a one stop trip (not four) and having only one activity per day. I'll also include some more detailed recommendations after the last entry as I learn more, but this has definitely been a learning experience for what to do and what not to do when traveling with a little one. It's off to Switzerland for some chocolate, fondue, and mountain scenery. Nos vamos!

Posted by mbeymer 01:53 Archived in Spain

Plus One

Madrid, Spain

sunny 104 °F

It's been about 11 months since my last entry, and a lot has happened on the domestic front in that time. On March 16, 2017, my wife gave birth to our first born child, Ethan James Beymer. Danielle and I were pretty sure that we were done with travel for the foreseeable future given the complexities and needs of a newborn, but this post is evidence that we both underestimated our levels of wanderlust.

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Mr. Ethan James Beymer

You've probably done the math by now and figured out that we decided to take a three and a half month old on vacation...well, we made the DECISION when he was one month old. I had a presentation accepted at a scientific conference in Paris, and we decided to make it a family trip by visiting Spain for eight days, Switzerland for four days, and then finishing up in Paris for four days so I could attend the conference. Crazy, you ask? Probably, I'll answer. But here we go anyway.

Traveling with an infant has its pros and its cons. At three and a half months old, he only eats one thing and he isn't mobile which makes him easy to keep track of. In addition to that, he still seems to be at the age where most people think he's more cute than a nuisance. When we got to Spain, people would regularly come up to us, hold out their hands, just expecting us to hand over the baby so they could hold him. Those who were hesitant to hold him would still touch his legs, tickle him, and make funny faces. If anything, we got to have a less touristy experience because he was around. Lastly, we got to use taking Ethan as an excuse to take grandma Keri. It's definitely useful to have a third person around when your arm starts to feel dead from carrying a 15 pound human for over an hour.

The cons are that traveling with a child makes for a LOT of luggage, one bag was for the stroller, a second for the car seat, a third for the diaper bag, and a fourth for the boppy (think of it like a baby pillow). That doesn't include the 170+ diapers and 80+ ounces of formula that we also brought along and all of our clothes and equipment. In addition to that, you have to be mindful of the amount of time you spend out of the hotel for any one activity. Babies require regular naps, not to mention feedings, so it's best to go to a place where each activity is four hours or less. You also need to have a place that has a good kitchen sink to wash bottles and a lot of room to store the various bags that you need for the journey, and those requirements can limit your hotel options significantly. Lastly, I've been tired a lot lately as a new parent, but that fatigue triples when you are in a different country, carrying a baby, acting as a translator for the family, AND trying to figure out where you're going all at he same time.

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Needed supplies in the back, child in the front, and an ice cream cone for sanity

The flight had the usual bulshittery of any US carrier. For example, this actually happened which led to our flight being stuck on the tarmac for three hours. Don't ask me how that situation affected a connecting flight from Atlanta, but hey, that's US aviation for you. Other than that, we arrived in Spain with a well-rested child and the rest of us needing a day to catch up.

On the second day, we finally got to go out an explore the awesome cuisine and sites that Madrid had to offer. We started with lunch at an amazing restaurant called Metro Bistro. It doesn't sound like anything special, but it was one of the best meals I have had in a long time. After lunch, we walked around to see various monuments and tour Madrid's largest urban park, Parque del Retiro.

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Estamos en Espana!

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Danielle enjoying her first authentic Spanish dish

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Getting artsy

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Mushroom empanada

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Any meal where the baby is resting is an amazing one

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Short lived, but he was in great spirits

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Rice with Duck

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Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple that was taken apart and then rebuilt in Madrid (see: stolen)

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The National Cathedral from a distance

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The family at Retiro Park

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The focal point of Retiro Park, a Monument to King Alfonso XII

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And it's close-up

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Taking a break with Ethan

That night, Danielle and I had a date at La Lonja which is a wonderful restaurant next to the Royal Palace. We were treated to a seven-course meal which included octopus, salad with crab and mango, sturgeon, beef, and not one but TWO desserts. The meal was incredible, and I definitely think it's a place we'll go back to the next time we stop by this part of the world.

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Crab and mango salad

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Dessert #1

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Dessert #2 - The red flakes are Pop Rocks!

Our second full day involved a tour of the National Art Museum located in the heart of Madrid for our second outing. Our guide gave us a 90 minute tour of the highlights, and although pictures weren't allowed, we got to hear some great stories behind some of the pieces.

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Grandma Keri and Ethan getting some of the museum's residual AC

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The National Museum

The most famous painting is by an individual named Diego Valezquez who was hired to paint a picture of the King and Queen's five year-old daughter (pictured in the foreground of the picture below). Our guide said that the painting was famous because of its interesting perspective of a painting that essentially depicts a painting in progress. It's also interesting to note that behind the girl, there are two people reflected in a mirror. It's still a matter of historical debate, but the most popular hypothesis is that the King and Queen are looking in from the doorway on their daughter being painted.

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Las Meninas

A pair of paintings also hangs in the museum that were painted by Francisco Goya. In the first, there is a woman that is dressed sensually posing for the painting. In the second, it's the same picture, but without her clothes. At the time, it was considered pornographic to paint anyone in the nude who was not a deity or god. The tale was that he displayed the one with clothes in his house and had a pulley that would allow him to show the one in the nude depending on who was visiting. For the second painting, Goya was eventually found out and called in front of the Court of the Spanish Inquisition to answer for his crime. He ended up losing his position as the painter of the Spanish Court as a result of the trespass.

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The Clothed Maja

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The Naked Maja

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And I thought this guy made beans, me = cultured

Later that evening, the four of us took in the views of the Royal Palace from our hotel's rooftop restaurant. Both the view and the food were magnificent, and we had as many tapas as our stomachs could fit. Once Ethan started getting restless, I took him downstairs for his dinner, and Danielle and Keri got to enjoy the view for a bit longer over a brownie and cheesecake.

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The view from the rooftop restaurant

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Ethan taking it in

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I got the fancy water, I felt like I was in a cheesy advertisement

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I've never had Bleu cheese this good

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A view from the other side of the terrace

On our third full day in the city, grandma Keri babysat Ethan while Danielle and I awoke at 4:30 in the morning to take a tour to the country town of Segovia. If that sounds familiar, and you're a comic nerd like me, you are probably thinking of the town that was destroyed in the Avengers: Age of Ultron. That was Sokovia, not Segovia, but it was definitely just as picturesque (but no Avengers sightings).

After the hour long drive from Madrid, we boarded the vessel for our very first hot air balloon ride. The balloon took off and lighted drifted over Segovia for about an hour before landing in a field north of the city. In the pictures below, we got to see a castle, an ancient aqueduct, and the main cathedral in the town. The landing was a lot more gentle than the tutorial made it sound (probably a good thing), and we got back to Madrid later that morning.

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Prepare for liftoff!

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A second balloon ascending

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Give me fuel, give me fire

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The sun breaking through

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The castle in Segovia

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The aqueduct

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Basket case

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The cathedral

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Beauty and the beast

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After the ride

That night, I took care of Ethan while Keri and Danielle went to enjoy the Flamenco Show at Casa Patas. They got to see Flamenco in its native land, and they seemed to enjoy the show. It's off to Barcelona for food, fun, and familia, more to come soon.

Posted by mbeymer 12:11 Archived in Spain

Kingdom in the Clouds

Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa and Sani Pass, Lesotho

sunny 35 °F

As any conference veteran will tell you, most people typically skip the last day of the conference to either travel home early or explore what the host city and its surroundings have to offer. After four soporific days of the conference, I was anxious to get out and play tourist one more time.

Durban itself is a sleepy city. The top-rated activity on Trip Advisor was a place called uShaka Marine World. Having been a resident of San Diego, I had the feeling that I had seen something similar in the past. The remaining activies didn't seem up my alley, so I decided to search a bit further afield. An all-day trip by Tim Brown Tours offered to take tourists on a tour of the Drakensburg Mountains and up the Sani Pass to the country of a Lesotho. The unique beauty of the Drakensburg mountains combined with the chance to add another country to my list sealed the deal. With the trip booked, I was told to be outside and waiting for my tour at 5:25 AM sharp.

I woke up at 4:30 on the morning of and was outside by 5:10. I waited until 5:25, no car. I reasoned that maybe they were on Africa time (this is actually a thing), and I waited until 5:45 until I emailed the tour operator. By 6 AM, I started to worry and called the tour operator twice. He finally called me back and said I had given the wrong address, and the tour had to go on without me.

I sulked, too tired to disagree, and walked back to my apartment with a feeling of defeat. I called Danielle and said I had messed up the address, and she consoled my tired mind. Within 5 minutes, Tim called me again and said that he had got it wrong (he had told the driver "Beach Road" instead of "South Beach Road"), and the driver initally couldn't find me. He apologized profusely and said the car was on the way, I excitedly told Danielle, dusted off the defeat, and within 15 minutes, the car had arrived and I was on my way to Lesotho.

Our driver and guide for the day was a man named Rudi Botha who had been up the Sani Pass over a hundred times with different groups. After giving us a quick itinerary for the day, he started giving me and my four colleagues background on the mountains and the mountain kingdom.

The first point of interest the town of Pietermaritzburg. This town is more infamous than famous in that it was the train stop where Ghandi, and all of his luggage, was thrown off the train for refusing to move out of the first class car. This is often cited as the seminal moment that would change Ghandi's worldview from one of a private citizen to the man who would eventually expel the British empire from his native India.

Rudi also taught us that Drakensburg literally translates to the "Dragon Mountains." The mountains are famous around the world for being the inspiration for the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was born in the nearby town of Bloemfontein in South Africa and spent the first three years of his life there before moving to England. When he wrote about the home of the dragon for the Hobbit, he had the Drakensburg range in mind. Between the Hobbiton tour in New Zealand for our honeymoon and seeing Ghandi's pyre in Delhi earlier this year, it felt like the day-trip was bringing my adventures of the last year full-circle.

Lesotho is a land-locked country completely surrounded by South Africa. The top of the Drakensburg mountains marks the border between the two countries, so we would have to travel to an elevation that was about two miles high to enter the kingdom. When we got to the base of the pass, we slowly meandered up the mountain in the 4x4. We climbed over 4,000 feet as green hillsides slowly morphed to frozen wateralls and small shrubs. The temperature at the base had been about sixty degrees with a light wind. By the time we made it to the top of the pass, and the entrance to Lesotho, the temperature had dropped to about 30 degrees and the wind had become fierce.

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Entering the Drakensburg Mountains

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Our 4x4 chariot

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Look closely on the left, and you'll be able to see the tiny road that goes up the mountain

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Rock formations that looked more like a Picasso painting

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A view from the 4x4 on the way up

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Near the heavens

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Welcome to Lesotho

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That's just over 9,400 feet, about two miles up

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The wind was so fierce at the top that this flag had been ripped to shreds

Rudi has been coming to Lesotho for such a long time that he has deep connections with the villagers and the history. He informed us about the customs for entering a Lesotho household and that it was considered impolite to not try food or beer that was offered. He gave us a history of the Kingdom informing us that over 40% of people were living with HIV in the country (shockingly bad considered that the prevalence is less than 0.5% in the United States). I got to try traditional bread as well as a home-made beer which were both delicious.

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A traditional village

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The hut where we met the villagers

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Traditional bread made with hot stones

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Me trying traditional beer from Lesotho (it was only 2% and the host decided to put the hat on me)

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The land looked like another planet, no trees, just clumps of grass

The second and last stop in Lesotho was a place called "the highest pub in Africa." I had a delicious ginger beer (called Stoney's, something my friend Susanna and I had discovered in Mozambique in 2010) and a huge hamburger as I peered out the window at the almost moon-like landscape. After we finished eating, we took the requisite pictures and then made our way back down the mountain pass.

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The highest pub in Africa!

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And what does one do at the highest pub in Africa? Have a ginger beer, of course!

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Me

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Someone had a sense of humor

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Making our way down the pass. If you look closely, you can see a tiny white truck on the road ahead of us.

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Careful eaters

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A frozen waterfall

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The Drakensburg as the sun faded

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Arriving back in South Africa

As we drove back to the beach city, I had thought about how fortunate I had been over the last few years. As a child, I had traveled with my family to a lot of national parks as well as international trips to Canada, Mexico, and an overseas trip to England and France. My own adventures began in South America in 2009, and by the time I was 27, I was able to say that I had finally set foot on five continents. In just the past 10 months, I had set foot on five different continents for the second time.

After 20 different countries, six different ones this year alone, I've decided that it's time to take a break from travel. Rest assured that there will be another adventure, but when that will be is anyone's guess. Thank you for following along, dear reader, and we'll correspond again before it's time for the next adventure. Until then, I wish you well on your own adventures and encourage you to take pictures and blog so that we can share in the spectacle!

Posted by mbeymer 15:23 Archived in Lesotho

Back in the South

Durban, South Africa

sunny 65 °F

After my quick stop in London, and another 10 hour flight, I arrived back in the beautiful nation of South Africa for the AIDS 2016 conference. During my 2010 journey, I had barely made my plane to Mozambique after some on-ground and in-air delays. I thought I would be fine this time with a four hour gap (compared to two hours on the first try), but ground delays and a very long customs line led to another sprint through the Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg to make my connection to Durban. Should there ever be a 5 K held in an airport, I will be able to say that I was the pioneer of said 5 K given my two successful finishes. And given the urgency, I'm sure one of them was a personal record.

I arrived in Durban and was whisked away to an apartment in Umdloti that I would call home for the next week. The two bedroom apartment was absolutely beautiful, and it was right across the street from a wonderful beach. I took a five hour nap to get over the jet lag only to wake up, and three hours later, settle in for my usual eight hour siesta.

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My beachfront apartment for a whopping $60 a night

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Ships making their way around the Cape of Good Hope

I decided to hail an Uber the first day, but I didn't have much luck. The first four canceled on me because of my distance from the city center, but the fifth time was the charm. I arrived, perused the exhibits, and sat through a few sessions before the big opening session in the evening. Charlize Theron, a native to South Africa, gave the opening talk and had a great speech overall. There were others, but my friend Ryan and I decided that we should probably make some headway against the persistent jet lag and head back.

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Sunrise from my balcony the first day

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The 2016 International AIDS Society Conference venue in Durban

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Condom chic, these art pieces were reminiscent of those found at "Cabbages and Condoms" in Bangkok

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South African, Charlize Theron, giving the opening talk

The opening talk from Ms. Theron (obviously not my video)

The next three days had a few interesting talks, but there was not much of a focus on LGBT health. I got to see a lot of posters that were definitely more up my alley and networked with a few researchers for possible collaborations.

I was able to catch up with a lot of colleagues that I no longer see very much including many UCLA alums like Cristina Rodriguez-Hart and Dvora Davey who have become friends over the years. I mainly tagged along with my friend and colleague, Ryan Kofron, marveling at art deco casinos (long story) and eating new and interesting things (bunny chow! kudu!). The conference was filled with speeches, grandstanding, and the requisite celebrity or two, but I won't bore you with the details.

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A protest over drug prices during a session

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Me and the poster from my dissertation

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My friend, Ryan, with his poster

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Prince Harry of England addressing the crowd. His mother, Princess Diana, was an early HIV/AIDS advocate, and he has taken up the mantle to advocate for an end to HIV.

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Sir Elton and Prince Harry

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Elton addressing the masses

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A South African favorite, Bunny Chow

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Delicious kudu

While it was a nice experience with colleagues and friends, each conference can be rather hit or miss with regards to how much you actually learn. I was able to network with new collaborators, talk with old friends, and eat some amazing food, so it was definitely a win overall. However, the sessions themselves either did not directly pertain to my field of expertise or were confirmations of dated findings. I had a good time overall, but I'm definitely happy to be coming home.

Posted by mbeymer 15:23 Archived in South Africa

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