Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Socialist Dreams & Beauty Queens - author interview
It's always good to see a new book about Venezuela, especially a travel book, and Jamie Maslin's "Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens" does not disappoint.
The author not only takes his readers on a journey to the capital Caracas and the tourist isle of Margarita, but also heads south to the jungles of the Gran Sabana where he treks up Mount Roraima and takes a canoe to the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls. He even camps out on the shores of Lake Maracaibo to experience the natural phenomenon of all-night lightning storms known as Catatumbo Lightning.
What makes Maslin's account different is that he learns most about the country from the strangers he meets couchsurfing, a friendly bunch of Venezuelans and expatriates who not only show him around their respective towns and teach him a few basics in Spanish but also give him a sofa to crash on.
So what did the author really learn about Venezuela? What were the highs and lows of his trip? And what tips does he have for those wishing to visit Venezuela or publish a travel book of their own? I put these questions to the author and this is what he had to say:
Your first travel book "Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn" took you around Iran, a country that few tourists visit or know much about. What made you choose Venezuela for this latest book?
I first decided to visit Venezuela after flicking through a dog-eared National Geographic magazine in the dusty confines of a second hand book store in London. Whilst doing this a photograph stopped me in my tracks. Rising up from the magazine was the most magnificent flat-topped jungle plateau jutting ominously out of a sea of Amazonian mist. Even before reading where it was located, I knew, there and then, that I would have to visit the place one day. On turning the page I discovered that the mountain was Roraima and it was in Venezuela.
Couchsurfing is quite a new phenomenon. What turned you on to it and how easy was it to travel around Venezuela relying on the hospitality of others?
I first heard about Couchsurfing whilst trying to find a place to stay in New York which I travelled to on my way to Venezuela. I had to do some book promotion there and needed to find accommodation for about a month before continuing to South America. Despite contacting the limited friends I had in the U.S. I initially struggled to find a place to crash, it was then that one of my friends suggest Couchsurfing. In the end I didn't need to couchsurf in New York but it gave me the idea to try it in Venezuela, which, with the exception of Caracas was relatively easy to use to find a place to stay – Caracas, for some reason, proved tricky, although not impossible to find willing and available couchsurfing hosts. It's such a great website that I've now used it all over the world and have made some great friends and been shown incredible kindness and hospitality through it.
How difficult was it to travel without any Spanish? Are there things you could have done before your trip to have made it easier?
Couchsurfing was the key to travelling in Venezuela with zero Spanish. One of the things you can do on the couchsurfing website is select people who as well as speaking the local lingo also speak English. This is what I did, which made my trip a hell of a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. I discovered soon after arrival in Venezuela that quite a low percentage of the general populace speak English.
That said, there were times when some rudimentary Spanish would have made my life a lot easier, and I really should have brushed up on it before going. On one occasion I was trying to get pills for malaria but, like a complete numpty, ended up with a jab for yellow fever instead. As anyone who speaks Spanish knows, yellow fever is fiebre amarilla, it was the “amarilla” bit that was my downfall. On asking at the hospital for Malaria tablets I received in response what I incorrectly heard as a confirmatory “Amalaria.” It was only after afterwards when I met up with my couchsurfing host in the evening that I discovered my schoolboy error – they'd been saying “amarilla” not “amalaria” and I got jabbed up with an unwanted vaccine unnecessarily.
You spent time in the capital Caracas, on the island of Margarita and in the south visiting Angel Falls. What were the highlights of your trip?
Climbing Roraima was magnificent and exceeded all my expectations, as did Angel falls. Venezuela has some truly world class scenery and no shortage of it. I got to see a little of the famed Catatumbo lightning too but unfortunately not at its best. It's something I'd love to return and see when it's really firing.
Were there any low moments when you questioned what you were doing, or got fed up?
I got quite badly ill during my trip – shortly after getting the yellow fever jab! So obviously that wasn't the best of times. One low moment occurred on my second day in the country when I was arrested by the [local Caracas] Policia Metropolitana for not carrying my passport on me in the street. I ended up getting berated for the next couple of hours at a makeshift police station by a stumpy little cretin of a cop who drew his pocket knife and mimed slitting my throat – nice chap. Other than that the rest of the trip was top draw.
Any tips for budding travel writers considering following in your footsteps around the world and producing a book of their own exploits? How do you go about getting published, for example?
Getting published is no easy task. You've got to have a tenacity bordering on obsession and refuse to take “no” for an answer. Unless you're incredibly lucky, you're going to get a ream of rejection letters, so you've got to keep at it. If you get knocked down ten times, damn-well get up eleven. Re-write, re-edit, try every agent, try every publisher and if you have no success domestically try those abroad. Then try them all again. And again.
Once you've got your manuscript written a good place to start is the Writers and Artist's Yearbook, which lists all the agents and publishers in the UK, US and elsewhere. Different agents and publishers have different submission guidelines, all of which can be found in the book. Most will require a cover letter and synopsis of the work which, if they like, they will then request a small sample of. If this meets with their approval, they’ll then generally ask for a bigger sample or possibly the whole book. Even if all this goes well, they still have to feel really strongly about the book’s potential. If they do, hopefully they'll make you an offer.
However, there exists something of a catch 22 situation in the book business, in that without an agent a lot of publishers won’t look at your submission, and without any published work a lot of agents won’t consider taking you on. There’s no real answer to this dilemma other than to keep getting your work out there to both and then hopefully you'll succeed.
Another bit of advice a friend of mine who writes scripts once told me was that when you’re happy with what you’ve written and you think that it’s finished and ready to be submitted, well, the chances are, it isn’t. On the whole I agree with this, so get other people to read it and then re-edit until it is as good as you can possibly get it and then, and only then, submit it.
You devote a portion of the book to discussions about the pros and cons of President Hugo Chavez with the people you met couchsurfing. Did your impression of the political situation in Venezuela change at all during your trip or when writing the book?
I think if anything visiting Venezuela affirmed my belief in the importance of engaging people from all walks of life in the political process. It was very refreshing to see and meet so many people who were politically active, either for or against Chavez.
What tips would you give anybody wanting to visit Venezuela?
Read the superb Bradt Guide to Venezuela, it's got everything you need to know! Other than that I would probably add a word of caution; be wary of the cops, especially in Caracas. As my couchsurfing host there told me, “If you see the police coming, cross to the other side.”
What's next for you? Any more travel books in the pipeline?
I've recently returned from a trip hitch hiking over every land mass from Tasmania to the UK. It took over a thousand lifts through Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, and France to get me home to England. I'm currently writing up this adventure and am contemplating continuing the journey next year across the Atlantic, North America and the Pacific... We'll see.
Jamie Maslin's book "Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A Couchsurfer's Memoir of Venezuela" is published by Skyhorse Publishing and is available in hardback and Kindle editions.
To purchase Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens in the UK click here -in the USA click here.