Review of Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A Couchsurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela

Intrigued by the title, I decided to read a less academic work on Venezuela and so decided to pick up Jamie Maslin’s book Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A Couchsurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela. Having done an extensive amount of backpacking myself I was curious to read how he connected his various touristic consumptions in relation to the two topics in the title. What I discovered was that while the Socialist Dreams is a recurring theme, the Beauty Queens only make it into the pages as a missed opportunity.

The praise on the front cover of the book compares Maslin to “Bill Bryson meets Jack Kerouac” which is serious praise that is, I believe, undeserving. Meslin’s account of his time traveling throughout Caracas, Maracaibo, various rural areas and parks was on the whole enjoyable, but a few intelligent asides does not Bryson make and travelling with the assistance of the hospitality of strangers and writing long passages describing the beauty of nature doesn’t make one a Kerouac. Regarding the former, I thought the segues he made between what was in front of him and the history prior was generally appropriate, lacking deeper cultural and social connection to the country – as well as appropriate language skills – made me feel that this was also sort of surface level observations. I touch upon this more in an example below. Additionally, given the inclusion of photos in the book, I felt that such long sketches of nature were spurious. No amount of words, after all, can compare to a photo of Angel Falls.

Angel Falls

Jamie Maslin travels descriptions of the many natural wonders that he visited certainly piqued my interest as locations to visit were I to go to Venezuela. Cubagua, Punta de Piedras, and the Roraima Tepui all seem like magical places to experience. His descriptive language does a good job capturing the appearance and atmosphere, while the words of others he encounters in them shows a charming self-awareness at the at times absurd situations he finds himself in because of his particular travelling style: begpacker.

Tepuy Roraima

While all in all I enjoyed the tale, however it did leave me to think about the nature of inter-cultural exchanges.

At several points Jamie recites his experience as an CourchSurfing host and tells of a traveler that he met in Venezuela taking him up on this offer. Yet despite the reciprocity on offer to those that hose him in Venezuela, he is, however, seemingly ignorant of the near impossibility of them ever being able to take him up on that offer.

Isla Cubagua, Venezuela

Many of the people that he stays with are not only so poor as to be unlikely to ever want to spend the money they could save to travel to a capital of Empire like London, but most are unlikely to be able to obtain a visa to leave. However thoughtful the presumption that his staying with them is predicated on reciprocity, that actuality of it is thus empty.

Jamie also repeats throughout that he only wants to pay “local prices” and tells several was which he is able to accomplish this – always through someone else’s assistance. As someone that frequently travels on a budget I definitely understand the desire to make one’s buck go farther, but I think that he takes being parsimonious and stingy to the point of fetishizing poorness and authenticity instead of recognizing it as a game. Let me give a few examples.

At a park Jamie tries to light a fire the “indigenous way” by rubbing together a number of sticks. An elderly Pemoi woman, seeing him, comes over and offers her lighter – disrupting any notion that the natives wholly reject the products of civilization.

To save a few dollars Jamie puts himself in uncomfortable and undesirable situations multiple times because he either doesn’t have a cellphone; doesn’t speak Spanish; wants to save the equivalent of $10 by taking a “different” tour; doesn’t want to get someplace a certain manner. Going on a five-star tour would be disingenuous as well, however given the refrain he shares regarding the conditions of filth and/or poverty that many Venezuelans live in and how he didn’t feel safe this seems disingenuous as well. I certainly concede that these people would have more authenticity in their assessments of Chavez’s policies as it affected them – but even the conversations that he has on this subject are never deep as he doesn’t know well the history of the country or the language. Besides a few extended asides explaining certain historic events and general assessments – this dramatically undercuts his ability to investigate people’s “Socialist Dreams” within a fractiously divided national context outside of facile stereotypes. Sometime this is a good thing, for instance many outside the country don’t recognize the role racism has in the society so reading,

“If you are white in Venezuela, you are automatically considered higher up the ladder than a nonwhite, but many people will simply be after your money”

is insightful. However, my take away from the totality of encounters was the most people wanted a “free handout” rather than a systemic reconstruction of the hegemonic economic forces such that there was greater opportunity for entrepreneurship and social mobility in the country. Jamie provided some of this context, but the constant ridicule of the embodiments of the state – be they police or park rangers – left me with the impression that he thinks that this is a good goal but impossible given the conditions of the country which easily lends itself to corruption.

All in all I enjoyed the travelogue, though as someone with deep background on Venezuela I found the writing on this to be not really “fitting”. While not likely to pick up his other book about Iran, I do feel pleased for having chanced purchasing and reading this book.

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