Madelyn Given poses with a military officer in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Central America 2017: El Salvador

El Salvador is the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere; it has had a bad reputation since the 12 years of civil war in the 1980s.  The capital, San Salvador, has the highest homicide rate in the world, and street gangs are mainly to blame. Extortion is common, and mugging, highway assault, and car theft are prevalent. A majority of serious crimes are never solved. If you are robbed, a visit to a police station is an exercise in frustration. Police officers are on the take, and corruption is everywhere. Every day while I was there, all of this was foremost in mind, but with no regrets—I was happy to visit this little country.

Why would I want to go here? I had never been here and I was anxious to learn about the Mayan history, hike up to an active volcano, and see the country and the people. When I was a young Girl Scout, we did a project on countries around the world. We dressed in costumes, carried the national flag of each country, and had speaking assignments about each country. Ever since then, I had wanted to come to Central America. El Salvador remains relatively untainted by tourism. It is the smallest country in Central America, and since it is next door to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, it made sense for me to include them all in a single trip.

Especially while traveling, I am keen on staying healthy and safe. I wear long pants and a long-sleeved expedition shirt sprayed with insect repellant. I take care of what I eat and drink. I shy away from street venders, tap water, agua en bolsa (water in a plastic bag), and chipped ice.  I carry my passport at all times, and at crowded places such as plazas, airports, and markets, I stay alert. I know it is important not to stand out, so I leave my jewelry and expensive camera at home. I am particular about having a trustworthy guide accompany me for the entire trip. Then I can settle down to a great adventure.

El Salvador has a population of roughly 6.5 million people and is the most densely populated country in Central America. It is divided into 14 departments, with 25 volcanos, 14 lakes, 3 large cities, and shore land on the Pacific Ocean. The capital, San Salvador, is in the central region. San Salvador has the largest malls in the region and Metro Centro was one of the first built in Central America. Since 2001, the official currency has been the US dollar. Former banks are now museums.

I spent a couple of days in the capital but only one day there with my guide, Moises. Together, we drove and walked in different residential and historical sections of the city to learn about the history and culture of El Salvador. We began with the Memorial Wall in the small unattended Park Cascation. The Memorial Wall depicted scenes of the 1980s civil war and those citizens who lost their lives. The country is still trying to gain confidence since that ugly period.

I tried to concentrate on my history lessons, but I was still getting used to the terrible heat. Although I had come from southern Florida, that now seemed mild compared to this area.  Despite the heat, we walked through many blocks of the city; venders lined both sides of the streets in front of storefronts, selling fruits, vegetables, shoes, clothing, soap, dog food, rice, grains, and hardware.

There is no welfare here and people work hard every day. The elderly are working, along with men and women of all ages, and children not in school help too.  Babies are attended at the workplace by their mothers.

We went to Liberty Square, which was being restored, but according to Moises, it has been going on for a long time—money is being squandered or going somewhere else. We visited the Cathedral, and in the basement is the crypt of Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, which has been visited by two popes. Romero is loved by his countrymen for his work to help the people gain a better life.  He was murdered during the civil war, but he remains El Salvador’s national hero. There are monuments, buildings, and streets named after him.

We went by the palace, but it also was closed due to a complete, long-term restoration. We walked through markets and Moises stopped at a tiny book store, looking for a math book to tutor his son.

Church of the Rosary, designed by modern architect Ruben Martinez, in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Sometimes Moises would stop and tell me general history of the country, and then he would say, “I have a surprise to show you.” We would walk another block, and in one case, the surprise turned out to be the Church of the Rosary, a modern marvel. Shaped like an upside-down U, it was designed by architect Ruben Martinez, who is still living. It is crowded between traditional buildings and until you go inside, it is difficult to see its grandeur. Simple, sparsely decorated, it is a place of spiritual devotion. The Stations of the Cross, the bronze sculptures of Christ, Mary, and the saints, show no heads, only outstretched hands. This edifice was certainly a surprise in this tiny traditional, poverty-laden city.

We drove to a military museum on a high hill with a clear vista of the city and surrounding villages. There wasn’t much at the museum, just a couple of cannons and vehicles on the lawn. There was an outdoor canteen and we stopped for something to drink. The officer in charge came by the deserted place and greeted us.  We passed the national fotebal (soccer) stadium but I missed getting a photo. A few minutes later Moises was driving up the hill of a residential section and stopped the car. We got out and walked across a grassy knoll, and there in full view below us was the stadium.

In the heat, I was glad to call it a day and to retreat to the refuge of my air-conditioned hotel for the night. Once I left the city, I would not have that luxury.

(posted April 4, 2017)

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)