Book review: Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens ( A Couchsurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela) by Jamie Maslincategories: south america travel
With his second book “Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens-A Couchsurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela” Jamie Maslin creates a dual Venezuelan history and politic lesson from which you can glean points in couchsurfing technique and pitfalls. It is at times more political essay than anecdotal adventures. As such Maslin’s books work as good buffers between politicos and travelers seeking exotic locals and the ability to exercise privileged “roughing it” without privileged guilt.
Maslin’s journey couch surfing across this Latin American country begins like the lyrics of You Can Call Me Al by Simon and Garfunkel. He is a non Spanish speaker and holds no Venezuelan currency and at first glance he could quite possibly use a bodyguard. Caracas is listed as the murder capital of the world and its overall crime rates don’t lend itself to seeing Venezuela as a tourist hotspot. The country’s crime statistics on the whole are staggering, something which locals will openly quote and confirm. Kidnappings are so common in Venezuela that they have three categories: conventional, express, and virtual- as well as a national 800 hotline for abductions: (800 -sequestrado)
So it takes a particular mindset to have natural wonders and the promise of beauty pageant winning women outweigh the safety concerns of its unnatural man made problems. But for those like Maslin with a wanderlust or other adrenaline junkies needing a fix the opportunity to take upclose photos of Angel Falls and hike Mt. Roraima, as well as watch the Catatumbo lightning phenomena prove to be the right medicine. And don’t forget the promise of meeting internationally coveted beauty queens in training.
But be forewarned you cannot travel Venezuela without becoming entangled in its politics and you cannot read Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens without starting a discussion if not argument over said politics. In particular you will find yourself arguing the quality of life effectiveness of the policies of Hugo Chavez and his position as a world leader. Even those who Maslin contacted to couchsurf with inundated him with warnings and disclaimers to this effect. Case in point, his first few couch surfs boasted Herculean security systems and intricate household egress and entry customs. Maslin describes one host home using 6 keys across the lobby and then the elevator. And then yet another set of keys needed to be used for each floor of the apartment building he stayed in. Another homestead was surrounded by coiled razor wire which was backed up by an electronic gate and guard dogs.
“Living in Venezuela is like living in Alice and Wonderland, it just doesn’t make any sense.” And as for Chavez you either deify or demonize him.
So you might ask yourself “Why is Maslin doing this?” By American/British/Western standards he is on the second leg of an Axis of Evil summer camping tour. His previous venture was across Iran-documented in his first book Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn. And in his acknowledgments he mentions editing this edition while traveling yet again off the beaten path this time in Kyrgyzstan.
So does this memoir act as a promo for couchsurfing in general? Is it a how to documentary of being the internet arranged house guest? No. If you are looking for this storyline to break down what couchsufing is and how best to do it-it doesn’t. Nor does it answer the question of whether couchsurfing is really for everyone and every country. Basically the narrative entails Maslin’s use of couchsurfing for economic reasons but delves more into political review and support for the Chavez government and its systems. Here Maslin is an armchair economist rather than a traditional couchsurfer as not many travelouges have full chapters dedicated to defining capital market liberalization, market-based pricing and free trade versus privatization theories.
But if you are looking to investigate the natural beauty of Venezuela then keep a pen handy in reading so you can make a list of the parks and sites that Maslin explores. A lover of camping and true outdoor enthusiast he provides some excellent if not somewhat history bookish background notes- most specifically, who discovered what mountain or waterfall and how they were perceived by the Spanish monarchy during Venezuela’s colonization. He also provides a substantial biography of Hugo Chavez and the Chavista movement itself. He exposes the evils of the USA’s and OPEC’s exploitations of the country’s oil riches. And he touches on the racial dichotomy of Venezuela as it relates to class, wealth and beauty ethic. Most obviously stating that ,having African, Indian and Spanish roots, the local population is primarily brown, and like in many Latin American countries the elite are White.
He points out that neighboring Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru share a common mestizo/mulatto ancestry as well as a shared history of perpetual racial liberation and revolution. The great revolution of Latin America which Che Guevara attempted to replicate from Cuba in the 1950’and 60’s stems from an uprising of the indigenous and African ancestral holding underclass. Hugo Chavez is widely known as a Cuban ally as well as Castro and Guevara doctrinaire who is emulating this position in his uniquely Venezuelan brand of socialism. This is pointed out to Maslin again and again by his hosts.
One such proletariat warning issued is “ if you are White in Venezuela, you are automatically considered higher up on the ladder than a nonwhite, but many people will simply be after your money.” It is also re-enforced in the beauty queen system for which Venezuela is re-knowned. While Caracas may be known for the ugliness of murder and street crime it is also the home to the Miss Venezuela Beauty Pageant School which Maslin eagerly attempts to visit. ( Headed by Osmel Sousa- known as King of the beauty queens this Venezuelan institution has produced winners of almost sixty international titles “including five Miss Worlds, five Miss Internationals and six Miss Universes, two of which were won back to back, a feat unparallelled by any other country”)
Afro-Indio Venuzeulan culture is evident in the music and indigenous dances of Venezuela that Maslin enjoys through national showcases. However black-face is still practiced in performing these cultural exhibits. From this Maslin mentions the preponderance of Black-Indian ghettos. Of note is Chavez’s use of literacy programs, music and arts education across Venezuela to improve these communities. The existence of indigenous Indian communities such as the Pemon are explored but mostly as they serve as guides and porters for visitors to the falls and mountains. Maslin has little if no contact with these cultures outside of tourist venues.
Ironically, Maslin purports to be just the happy go lucky wanderer and observer in his travels but he seems to exercise a certain lack of judgment at times that can only be attributed to Western, in this case, British White privilege. Not quite the Ugly American yet he can come across as the British ass (arse?). While boasting about pub fights in the UK and showing the bravado of trusting universal brotherhood of man to protect him he allows himself to get into some foolish situations- like not carrying copies of his passport at all times ,being cheeky with armed officials, and being in possession of what is locally an obscene amount of exchanged currency. Early on in his journey he learns the reason for the barrio expression “It is better to be left with the muggers than with the Policia Metropolitana”.
Although at times he does recognize his position as he puts it being a member of the “lucky sperm club”.
Overall Maslin’s politics come through not like a woman’s slip showing but like a man brushing his teeth in his speedo underwear walking through your living room. The question is what were Maslin’s political views prior to visiting Venezuela? Did his visit make him pro Chavez? Did he come away having enlightened himself against western propaganda about the local reality or was he already shaking a fist at capitalism and wanting to showcase the USA , the CIA and the IMF and the Worldbank as international shadow-kings? So if you still have that pen and paper for tourist attractions you might also add to it the laundry list of documentaries and independent films addressing ”gray propaganda” and US/British manipulation of Latin America for oil and usury that he cites.
Based on some of his encounters even some hardcore back packer intrepids need not consider visiting Venezuela. Jamie himself leaves with the answer to the question “ Would I return?” with a resolute “Maybe”. That said ,so where to next Mr. Maslin? I anxiously await your next publication-Is book three: How I spent My Arab Spring Vacation Backpacking Across Libya and Syria?