On the road to San Salvador, the capitol of El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Central America 2017: On My Way

The Central American countries have always appealed to me as places to visit for the warm climate—this is where bananas and coffee are grown—but I was also especially interested in studying the Mayan ruins. I began thinking about going a couple of years ago and recently got in contact with the owner of a tour company in Honduras; together, we made a plan that worked for me. I was able to fly into one of the countries, travel with a guide though four countries, and depart from the fourth country.

Before purchasing my flight tickets, I checked out pertinent information from the US Travel Bureau. These four countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, are listed in the top ten for most dangerous countries to travel. I am up-to-date on shots and health requirements, but I was a woman, traveling alone except for a native guide. I was concerned:  was my desire to study the Mayan ruins, learn about the culture of the people, and hike in the mountains reason enough to risk my safety? Again, I was putting all my trust in my guide.

This was the time when Trump had just been elected president and a ban on immigration had been put in place. I believed airport security could be a problem, either entering or leaving the country. I have gone through most of our country’s airports and many airports around the world; the atmosphere at Miami International has sometimes been quite unfriendly.

I thought about going or not and found a time of several weeks that were free for me. Finally, I committed to the trip. I only had a couple of weeks to prepare, but fortunately no visas are required, my passport was in order, and I planned to travel light: only a knapsack and a small suitcase. I knew it would be wise to leave behind jewelry and go low-key, bringing hiking shoes and sandals, pants and wicking tops, and a change of clothes. It is a very hot climate with only two seasons: dry and wet. I was traveling in the dry season.

I have been to South America and the Caribbean countries several times, but I had always departed from Maine in the winter. This time, the travel time and temperature changes would require less adjustment on my part, as I was leaving from Florida and only had a drive to Miami and a flight of less than two hours to El Salvador.

At Miami International Airport, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by friendly attendants and a new facelift of the airport interior. The trip was beginning on a pleasant note. The weather was good and there were no delays. I traveled by American Airlines and was surprised that the plane was only about one-third full of passengers.

Adventure awaits in El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Adventure awaits in El Salvador.

In late afternoon, I arrived at a small international airport and went through customs there. The customs officer attending me was friendly, and with documents in hand, I found it easy to gain access into the country. There was a transfer waiting for me at the exit. Soon we were on the way to San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, and I was on my way for a remarkable and unforgettable adventure.

(posted March 21, 2017)

Roman sculptures in Kungliga Slottet, the royal palace in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Sweden, Part 2

Time sped by quickly while I was in Sweden. There is much to do and see in such a beautiful country. I was at the end of another adventure and I wanted to stay longer, yet it was time to pack up and head home.

I had to deal with a few inconveniences. I received an e-mail stating that on the day of my departure, De Gaulle Airport was going on strike. My flight was changed to a different airline and a different country, and I received a new ticket. While I was in Latvia, I noticed I was booked for an overnight ferry from Estonia to Finland and a hotel in Finland, both on the same night! Fortunately it was changed, and I did not have to spend a night on a park bench. These logistics were all the more difficult to deal with because for some reason, cell phones were not working well in that country. Nevertheless, the weather cooperated, and the people throughout my travels were helpful and friendly.

There were still a few places I wanted to see before heading home. One was the city hall in Stockholm where the Nobel Banquet is held. The Nobel Peace Prize, however, is awarded in Norway, because at the time when this was established, Sweden and Norway were under one monarchy. Then there is the Kungliga Slottet (the royal palace). It is such a vast place that it is divided into 5 different tours. One tour is of the interior apartments, and another focuses on the sculpture museum, which mostly has Roman sculptures. The royal vault holds the crown jewels, and another vault is deep under the castle.  Archeological digs have found where previous castles burned, and ancient history remains at this site.

Eden Park, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Eden Park, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I used the Hop On-Hop Off travel system in the city to go by boat, bus, or tram from place to place and island to island. My hotel was across from Eden Park, and at one end was the large Stockholm Public Library. I went in one day just to enjoy the grand architecture of the period in which it was built.

Often I would take a bus one way and walk back to the hotel before dinner. I walked through the narrow cobblestone streets of Nottmalm, Old Town, bustling with tourists. People were out with their families as it was summer and school was not in session.

On my last night, I packed up, wrote a while in my journal, and prepared for an early morning departure. When my transfer picked me up for the ride to the international airport, only the night desk manager was in the lobby, and there were no signs of people out and about. It was a secured ride and my driver mentioned he had transported Justin Bieber a few days ago.

Soon I was on my journey home, with many happy memories of this great experience in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries.

(posted March 7, 2017)

Vasa Ship Carvings, at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Sweden

Since childhood, I had dreamed of visiting the Scandinavian countries. I had hiked throughout Norway, visited a former exchange student and his family in Denmark, and toured with a small international group in Finland, and now I was headed to Sweden. The daylight is long in this part of the world, and it was beautiful summer weather. I took an overnight ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Stockholm, Sweden.

After a few hours of sleep in my cabin, I headed for the deck to view spectacular scenery as we sailed along the coast of Sweden on the Baltic Sea. We sailed slowly, very close to shore. I saw islands, many of them with no inhabitants, and there were only granite rock and evergreen trees on some of the more protected ones. There were white houses, lighthouses, and an occasional fishing village. The ferry trip was a great way to enter Sweden for the first time.

We sailed into Stockholm, a bustling port, by late morning. I went to my hotel to drop my bags and then to a bank exchange for Swedish kroners. Sweden is a member of the European Union but opted to keep their own currency.

Stockholm is a city made up of islands. A good way to see the city is on the Hop On-Hop Off system. It includes buses, trams, and boats. It is well organized, easy to use, and runs daily, with long hours.

My young granddaughters had visited Europe the previous summer, and their recommendation spurred me on to my first destination. One of their most favorite “likes” was the ABBA Museum in Stockholm. I boarded a harbor boat and in only a few minutes was docked a block from the ABBA Museum. The Museum is modern, lively, and encourages participation, such as in the recording booths to try out your own voice.

It all began for the group of four: Freda, Björn, Benny, and Agnetha in 1974 when they won the Euro Vision Song Contest with their song, “Waterloo.” They created “Dancing Queen” and “Ma Ma Mia,” and in 10 short years made music history along with Miche, their producer. At that time, there was nothing in the world like winning the Euro Vision Song Contest. I could see why my granddaughter chose a Halloween costume that year as one of the ABBA girls.

Madelyn Given poses as one of the famous ABBA group!

The famous ABBA group…or wait, is that Madelyn hiding there?

After the ABBA Museum, I went to the Vasa Museum. On August 10, 1628, Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage, but sadly she sank and never left the outer harbor. It was one of the grandest, most splendidly decorated ships with carved figures to ever set sail. In 1961, after 333 years under the sea, the Vasa was salvaged. It is 98 percent original and one of the only ships in the world that has been found intact from this era. The museum building was constructed around the ship.

I toured a few other islands that day, becoming familiar with the city of Stockholm. The weather was sunny and warm, and Stockholm is a safe city for walking. Wherever I went, whether in city parks or different parts of the city, places were clean, filled with friendly people and interesting architecture, and there were lots of cafes to stop and take a break. I was enjoying Sweden.

(posted February 21, 2017)