Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A CouchSurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela
By Elayne Badrigian
Hitchhiker, adventurer, and CouchSurfer, Jamie Maslin, sets off to Venezuela for what can easily be described as a whirlwind of experiences, some good, others awful, in Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens: A CouchSurfer’s Memoir of Venezuela.
Almost immediately, he is arrested by Venezuelan police, who are famous for their brutality and corruptness. After a frightful start in Caracas, Jamie shakes if off and heads off the beaten path to areas less explored by tourists, all the while staying on the couches of people he had met online.
He bids farewell to his host before setting his sights on Angel Falls, the highest waterfall on earth. Measuring 3,211 feet in total with a continuous drop of 2,647 feet, Angel Falls is sixteen times higher than Niagara Falls. The waterfall is said to have been discovered by Jimmie Angel, a fighter pilot ace in World War I and flying scout for Laurence of Arabia.
Legend says that sometime in the 1920s, Angel visited Venezuela with an American geologist who paid the pilot to fly to a secret location in the country where they removed a large amount of gold from a riverbed located at the top of a mountain.
Eager to find the mountain again, Angel discovered the waterfall. Unfortunately, he was known to tell lies and so no one took him seriously when he boasted of his find. To prove that there was truth to his tale, he returned to the waterfall with his wife, a Spanish botanist, an expert outdoorsman and a gardener.
The group’s airplane crashed without touching down at the falls, forcing them on an eleven-day trek to an indigenous village on the other side of the mountain. It wasn’t until 1949 that Angel’s discovery was confirmed by American photojournalist Ruth Robertson.
Jamie would witness the enormity of the waterfall, but not before a four-hour canoe ride through the heart of a Venezuelan rain forest.
Chapter 8 Touched by an Angel
A Canoe trip to Angel Falls
By Jamie Maslin
I dipped my hand overboard into the delightfully cool tea-colored river, my fingers acquiescing to the water’s drag like reeds in the wind. I dug deeper, the resistance massaging my palm and throwing off a V-shaped spray akin to a plow through a snowdrift. A minutiae of gemlike droplets danced off the surface, erupting into an explosion of sparkling light and color, reminding me of a Native American saying, “To truly appreciate the grand vistas of nature, you must first know her smaller works.”
Looking up from the spray of water, I gazed out at the enormity of the panorama that stretched beyond. When viewed in its entirety, the water no longer appeared as if tea but transformed into a glassy silver-tinged azure.
As with the water, the thick green forest foliage of the now-distant banks took on a new hue when discovered collectively with the expanse of undulating jungle rising up to the foot of the tepui mountains beyond.
From out of nowhere the weather turned. Clouds opened up overhead, releasing a torrential downpour that drenched us throughout—reminding me where the rain forest gets its name. In an instant the world was transformed; the water’s surface, once glassy and reflective, warped into a kaleidoscope of merging and overlapping rings diffusing the clarity of the surface like an impressionist’s painting. Bankside plants took on new forms, bowing down gracefully as their leaves shed ribbons of water like funnels.
I had plenty of dry clothes in my backpack, sealed inside a waterproof inner lining, so I gave in to the cloudburst above. Lifting my face to the heavens, I closed my eyes with a smile, relishing the unique sensation of freedom that being exposed in such a torrent brings. As the cool water streamed down my face, it seemed to wash away all the discomfort from my previous illness, rejuvenating me in both body and spirit.
Arriving at Angel Falls
After about forty minutes of hiking through the forest, stopping off occasionally en route when the guide pointed out a plant, vine, or spider of interest, accompanied with an explanation in Spanish, we arrived at Angel Falls. Stretching up nearly a kilometre into the air was the table-topped mountain, Auyán-tepuí, from which a hydrant of tumbling water spouted from a central cleft, dropping all the way down to the ground through an arching rainbow.
Its height almost defied belief. Under it you could fit two and a half Empire State Buildings, with room to spare. Everything about it and the surrounding area was scenic perfection—a little slice of heaven hidden away in a trackless jungle. It was so majestic it seemed the sort of thing that someone might only conceive of in an outlandish fantasy book. Only Angel Falls was real and in front of me.
The rocks, forming the backdrop behind the falling ever-changing water, were an artist’s palette of colors: pink, red, orange, gray, black, and brown—and a myriad of shades in between. Framing the picture above was a deep blue sky mottled with fluffy white clouds, and below me spread the vibrant green of the forest floor. When the clouds permitted and sunshine ruled the sky, the rainbow would appear—as if a final finishing flourish on a masterpiece of artwork. It was truly a natural wonder of the world. And I stood transfixed, in awe and humbled.
I may not have been the first to see it, but the euphoric feeling of gazing upon Angel Falls with my own eyes for the first time was uplifting in the extreme. When we finally headed back along the jungle trail to base camp, it was with a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness. A feeling that stayed with me long into the night.
Jamie Maslin is a writer and traveler. He has hitchhiked from England to Iran, throughout Asia and Eastern Europe, and CouchSurfed all over Latin America. He lives in London.
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Read an article about exploring Roraima, in the jungles of Venezuela on GoNOMAD
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