Vacationing in Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Paradise

Muy Mexicano
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 7 2008 7:34 AM

Vacationing in Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Paradise

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The worst thing about sitting in an uncovered canoe for hours being pelted by the rain as we made our way to Angel Falls was the fact that our bodies became a five-course meal for the millions of mosquitoes that have opted to call this breathtakingly scenic corner of South America home.

Amanda and I had agreed to this rain-forest sidebar to our Caracas-based adventure on the fly, so neither of us had brought any outdoor gear to Venezuela. Amanda mocked me for carrying a guide book, but I still somehow managed to skip the key sentence on Canaima national park: "At the very least, pack a bathing suit, sun protection and good insect repellent." We didn't even have bad insect repellent.

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Amanda, ever resourceful, did whip out some heavy-duty garbage bags she'd scored from the lodge the night before. They made for much-appreciated, if unfashionable, rain gear.

The landscape was spectacular, when our long motorized canoe, called a curiara in the Pemon language, got under way around dawn. The region is renowned for its imposing tepuis, eerie sandstone mountains that were shrouded by the cloud cover. It wasn't quite the Grand Canyon, but it was close, and this river might even have piranhas. (I couldn't get a straight answer from our guide, who uttered a maximum of 10 words all day.) Our small group had a Barcelona theme going: There was a Catalan family, the guide wore a Ronaldinho jersey (FC Barcelona's star player), and, of course, Amanda speaks peninsular Spanish.

One reason we travel is that by encountering new places and people, we get a better understanding of who we are and where we came from. If you never leave Kansas, Dorothy, you'll never know what Kansas is all about. I don't feel ardently American back home, but when overseas I find that the patriotic impulse kicks in. As in, Hey, that's my president you are ragging on. … I may rag on him all the time, but I am not sure I like it when you do. An exception, though, happens when I travel in Latin America, when I suddenly find myself feeling muy Mexicano. I compare the food, the culture, and the accent with what I knew growing up. But put me in China, and I am 100 percent gringo.

It's also interesting to introduce myself as an Angeleno, which I've been for almost three years. Prior to that, I lived in New York, where people's attitude toward California can often manage to be, in that frustrating New York way, both snooty and parochial. When the family on our boat says they are from Barcelona, I light up and say, "Wow, that's a great city." They repeat my words when they learn I am from Los Angeles. It was like we all had lodge envy all over again.

In Asia, too, people are always fascinated to learn that visitors are from California, and especially from Los Angeles. It reminds me of what Barry Sanders, the head of the ill-fated L.A. 2016 Olympic bid, once told me: Los Angeles has stronger brand equity around the world than it has domestically.

Such thoughts didn't occupy me for long. We eventually reached our destination, the launching pad for our three-mile uphill hike to see the falls. By then the rain was torrential—falling in sheets vertically, horizontally, diagonally, you name it. Laughing deliriously, we waded into the thick, um, rain forest, following a barely discernible path that was quickly becoming a vibrant stream. I was trying to keep up with Amanda, in her olive-green plastic garb, thinking she could have made a fetching Marxist guerrilla in this or any other jungle. There were moments when I could barely see a few feet ahead of me, and I was having trouble breathing—the water kept getting in the way.

Cue the Platoon soundtrack.

Then, predictably, I fell. My running shoes gave way on a slippery rock, and I fell on my ass in a fledgling stream, my lower back crashing into a large rock, giving me a memento of this trip (along with the numerous souvenirs provided by all those mosquitoes) that would stay with me for weeks after I left Chávez's Bolivarian paradise. But onward we marched, toward the inevitable photo-op at the end of the trail, where a large rock formation in a clearing provides a great vista of the roaring falls up above—and little else.

The trek was too epic for me to admit to myself at that moment what would be readily apparent when comparing the pictures later: The view of the falls was far more spectacular a day earlier from the little Cessna that brought us into Canaima.

Mercifully, on the hike back, the rain let up a bit. Back in the village, we hit the general store, and though it was about 7 p.m., I saw on the television above the cashier that Chávez's Aló, Presidente show, which started at 11 a.m., was still going strong. The next day's newspapers would make much of it being Chávez's longest-ever show. He was on location at an oil refinery, and in the snippet I caught, he warned Bush not to underestimate the great "Persian empire," that great friend of Venezuela, and he boasted that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be visiting Caracas soon.

At dinner, back at the lodge, we chatted with our next-door neighbors (gracious providers of anti-inflammatory pills and shampoo), a dapper couple from Bariloche, Argentina. They didn't react well to my teasing that they should be grateful to Chávez. As a gesture of continental solidarity, Venezuela is buying up some of Argentina's foreign debt, and the papers and television are full of patriotic ads urging investors to buy some of these bonos del sur ("Southern bonds") at $3,000 a pop. It turns out, like so much in Venezuela, that this is about arbitraging the exchange rates, as the bonds provide a means for people to get their hands on more subsidized dollars. Still, the Argentine couple were clearly not amused that their government consorts with "this vulgar colonel," as they call him.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of the New America Foundation.

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