Read the world: The Motorcycle Diaries

Che Guevara’s formative trip around Latin America offers a candid insight into his identity as a young medical student, and the places that inspired his transformation

While Che Guevara’s legacy is up for debate, his legendary status as a Marxist revolutionary is uncontroversial. Facing execution, his last words were ‘Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man,’ according to Jon Lee Anderson’s pre-eminent biography. How one comes to be such an unflinching ideologue, it’s difficult to imagine.

Yet providing great insight in the case of Che is the posthumously published collection of diary notes and letters, The Motorcycle Diaries. It contains Guevara’s accounts of his first trip around Latin America. Accompanying him was his friend, Alberto Granado. Having taken time off from their studies, they set off from Buenos Aires at the beginning of 1952 on Granado’s Norton 500cc motorcycle, La Poderosa II (aka ‘The Mighty One’). They intended to reach Caracas by passing through locations including the pampas, the Andes, Chile, Peru, and Colombia. 

At that time, Guevara began to compile the notes which would ultimately prove a bildungsroman of the kind novelists can only dream of conjuring by their greatest efforts. Indeed, standing out in the early parts of the book are the duo’s incessant mishaps and vicissitudes.

One of the most memorable of these takes place after they leave Lake Nahuel Huapí, when a caretaker lets them sleep in his shed. Having heard about a puma in the region, Guevara was filled with trepidation the night two eyes appeared amid some trees, out of which a black mass then leapt. With a revolver at the ready, he shot instinctively and realised, then, that he had killed the caretaker’s dog. Later on, sheltered by some Germans this time, Guevara had a bad stomach and was reluctant to ‘leave a souvenir in the pot under my bed’. Climbing onto the window ledge to relieve himself, he failed to see in the darkness below a sheet of tin on which his benefactors were sun-drying their peaches. Upon realising the mistakes, in both cases Guevara and Granado promptly escaped.

On their journey the audacious pair repeatedly relied on the charity of strangers for shelter, food, and, once La Poderosa II broke down irreparably, travel. While they showed great empathy towards ostracised people including lepers and indigenous Indians, the writer reveals excessive animosity towards the apathetic middle classes, of which his portrayals of poverty and marginalisation, one may argue, provide a tenable defence.

Not alone among Marxists, Guevara also derived a constant stream of amusement from mocking and criticising the religious. When an icon of Jesus Christ was taken from Cuzco’s cathedral and paraded through the streets, he noticed ‘layabouts’ competing to toss bunches of flowers over it, flowers, he adds, growing in abundance nearby. 

In spite of the intrigue one naturally finds in its main protagonist, The Motorcycle Diaries is a travel book at its core. Of Latin America’s varied landscapes and peoples he is astutely observant. The moment he sets foot in Chile, he compares the minutiae of its lakes to those in Argentina, and later contrasts the city of Santiago with Córdoba. His recommendations of destinations like San Martín de los Andes are even included, whose stunning scenery he details in a letter to his mother. 

The book’s very first page sees Guevara quoting Protagoras amidst his own philosophic ruminations, revealing how learned he was in spite of his youth. And though the esoteric references diminish thenceforth, Guevara often speaks to the history of the places through which he passes. He explains, for example, how Cuzco and Lima had evolved because of the conquistadors, and measures the extent to which such cities remained marked by bygone eras, from colonisation to the Incan civilisation.

It’s no surprise that medicine plays a prominent role throughout the journey too. After crossing into Chile, where leprosy wasn’t well known, the travelling companions pretended to have expertise in the field in order to impress some doctors. They shortly appeared in a local newspaper in Valdivia, in an article titled ‘Two Argentine Leprosy Experts Tour Latin America by Motorcycle’. For a while they were able to use their new status to get several free meals and other benefits.

But more significantly, it’s the medical context that in large part makes Guevara begin to believe he has to change society as a whole. At the end of the book, there is a transcript of a speech Guevara gave to medical students in 1960. By then he had witnessed the 1954 CIA-backed Guatemalan coup, which would leave genocidal regimes in power for decades to come, and had become a key figure of the Cuban Revolution that had taken power in 1959. In the speech, Che mentions his travels in Latin America as a student (as depicted by the rest of the book), recalling conditions in which doctors were unable ‘to cure a child because of a lack of resources’.

Meeting ill patients and lepers with Granado, Guevara had come to realise that medics could achieve little in societies that did not provide them with sufficient funding and equipment, and that isolated the poor and wretched. In a letter sent to his father earlier in the text, he reports patients in a Lima hospital having shown him and Granado gratitude for merely playing football with them and treating them like more than animals. The leper colony at Huambo in Southern Peru, meanwhile, had sanitary conditions Guevara found appalling, while its inhabitants were tortured by mosquito infestations and were, again, dehumanised by society at large. And it was on the verge of leaving the leper colony at San Pablo de Loreto in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest that Guevara was inspired to give a toast in which he called for Latin American unity – a dream the reader may share after reading this enchanting book.

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