The Motorcycle Diaries – Che Guevara

The book tells the story of a journey made almost on a whim by Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado almost the full length of South America initially using Guevara’s 500cc Norton motorcycle which is what gives the book its title. However from when they leave Buenos Aires on 4th January 1952 to arriving in Caracas on 17th July almost all the trip is done via hitch-hiking on lorries as the bike broke completely between Lautaro and Los Angeles in southern Chile on the 21st February. At the time Guevara was a student doctor and Granado was a qualified biochemist and taking what was intended to be a year long break to explore South America was seen as madness but neither man could be persuaded to delay the trip. Ernesto would return to medical school and qualify as a doctor before becoming known the world over as Che Guevara the revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro overthrow Fulgencio Batista the then dictator in Cuba before going on to assist in various revolutionary movements across South America and even in Africa. Che simply means pal or mate in Argentinian Spanish but it was the name he would have as his own for most of his adult life and is still how he is best known today.

But this book precedes his fame, he was only 23 when they set out, Granado was 29, and this review is published on my blog on what would have been Ernesto Guevara’s 94th birthday (14th June) if he hadn’t been executed by Bolivian forces on the 9th October 1967 when he was just 39. It wasn’t Guevara’s first journey by motorbike, he had already done at least one very long trip but that was by himself, taking Granado as well just on the one bike was somewhat overloading its capacity and it really didn’t take long for the poor roads and the extra weight to take its toll. At first they just used wire to hold the bike together but then they started to get repeated punctures which proved tricky to fix especially when splits started happening due to multiple holes near one another and the bike finally broke its steering column which consigned it to the scrap heap. This was not a luxury trip, they were largely impoverished on the journey living from hand to mouth, cadging beds and food as well as they could and using a largely fake fame as famous Argentinian leprosy specialists to ingratiate themselves with anyone they could. To be fair Granado did know a lot about leprosy and Guevara was considering making it his speciality when he graduated and they did visit several leper colonies on the trip so they probably knew more than anyone else apart from the specialist doctors at the colonies. But even this appeal to peoples charity didn’t work very well so they were often cold and hungry.

Amongst other ‘cons’ they used to get looked after was to stare dreamily into space after asking what the date was and saying ‘Oh we have been on the road for a year as of today’ and people would help them celebrate by buying food and drink. Guevara was particularly good at when being offered a drink he would just sip at it and when asked why he would explain that Argentinians don’t just drink they would always have food with alcohol and it felt strange to just have a drink. This would invariably get some food on the table for them. The full journey was to head south from Buenos Aires into Chile, go north through that country and then onto Peru, where they visited Lake Titicaca and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. They continued from Peru into Colombia and Venezuela where Guevara and Granado split up so that Guevera could get back to university by plane. This final stage however didn’t go to plan, as so much of the entire journey hadn’t, as to get a cheap flight he agreed to help ship racehorses to Miami with the plane due to fly back to Caracas and then onto Buenos Aires the next day. Instead the plane broke down in Miami and he was stuck there for a month waiting for it to be fixed.

The book was first published in 1993, with the translation into English by Ann Wright published in 1995 by Verso, so well after Guevara’s death, and was put together from his manuscript notes written during the journey. There is also a preface and an epilogue, both written by Guevara’s father, the epilogue details the fraught long unwanted stay in America. I have to say that this particular copy of the book, the thirteenth impression by Fourth Estate, is very badly printed with considerable over inking on random pages making it quite difficult to read in places but it was well worth the effort to get a glimpse into the development of a future revolutionary. You can see in his writing a change as he glimpses the extreme poverty that a lot of the continent is stuck in and the largely despotic rulers that control the lives of the population. Definitely a recommended read.

Three Letters from The Andes – Patrick Leigh Fermor

In 1971 Patrick Leigh Fermor, already by then a respected travel writer, but still six years before he published his best known work ‘A Time of Gifts’, went with five friends to the Andes in Peru. This book consists of three long letters to his wife although he never actually posted the third one as he didn’t finish it until he was on his way home. The expedition was part of a trip organised by his fellow members of the Andean Society in London using privately chartered aircraft to get to and from Peru from London and Fermor’s friends were intent on exploring and scaling the peaks of a relatively unknown part of the Andes mountain range. If all this sounds expensive then it probably was but Fermor and his colleagues could certainly afford it, most of the party were highly experienced climbers:

  • Robin Fedden – Leader of this expedition, Deputy Director-General of Historic Buildings for The National Trust, a writer and diplomat
  • Renee Fedden – Robin’s wife and co leader of the expedition
  • Carl Natar – Ex world ski champion and London manager of famous jewellers Cartier for three decades
  • Andre Choremi – Lawyer and social anthropologist

Along with them were a couple of non climbers

  • Andrew Cavendish – 11th Duke of Devonshire and a keen amateur botanist looking for rare plants to grow at his stately home Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
  • Patrick Fermor – travel writer, just along to spend six weeks with his friends and explore the area with them.

The letters were not intended for publication, and it took twenty years before they were, after what Fermor describes as a general tidy up but not much. That these were originally just letters leads to the main criticism levelled at the book in that it is not as polished as his other works and it feels more like an old boys outing with irrelevant chit chat coming to the fore. Well yes, these are letters to his wife who knew most, if not all, the other people involved and recording the conversations between them is entirely right in that context. I quite like the chattiness of the style and I raced through the book, reading it in just two sessions, as I found it quite difficult to put down once I had started reading. It is full of beautiful descriptive passages as he tries to convey the beauty of the surroundings. To illustrate this I’m just going to open the book at random and quote whatever I find.

The mountains draw back of either side of an airy lift and fall of savannah. As our caravan picked its way over the edge and headed downhill, orange-flowered organ-cactus and myrtle and tamarisk rose up and the air began to smell of spice. There was a blazing sky of very pale blue.

From the second letter

You could almost be there, in just three short sentences Fermor has captured his environs perfectly and as I said this is literally a random sample, not a passage I had picked out in advance, opening the book anywhere will show his talent to take the reader with him which would be displayed fully in his masterpiece of travel writing, ‘A Time for Gifts’. After the climbing expedition the friends head off to Lake Titicaca where they end up in a terrible hotel and the sections covering their always exasperating dealings with the manager and the chef who appears to be incapable of even boiling an egg successfully are very funny. A sudden announcement that there is actually hot water for a change will have the group dive for the showers only for the water to turn icy cold just as they were starting to enjoy finally getting clean. You have to wonder if the manager was incompetent or simply didn’t care about the people staying there. It was only when Andrew in frustration at yet another rock hard egg for breakfast threw it across the dining room did conditions start to improve.

As usual with Fermor the book is thoroughly entertaining and I definitely recommend it.