In December 1951, Ernesto Guevara, a 23-year-old medical student from a middle-class family in Argentina, and his friend Alberto Granado, a 29-year-old biochemist, set off on a 9-month road trip along the west coast of America, aboard La Poderosa II (The Mighty One), a less-than-mighty 1939 Norton 500 cc motorcycle.
(That’s South America, by the way.)
Ernesto kept a journal of their voyage. He would later rewrite it into a more narrative form, in a book named Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries).
At first, Ernesto and Alberto see themselves as “motorized bums” – riding across the countryside on La Poderosa, the whole machine held together by scraps of wire, whose uneven load would frequently cause the front wheel to leave the ground. (There were nine crashes during one day.) They’d sleep in strangers’ sheds or under the stars. They’d work odd jobs for money or food. Then they met a couple to whom the guys’ blanket was a luxury.
After La Poderosa dies, they stow away on a ship in Chile. They get caught, and are forced to work for their passage – cleaning a filthy toilet and washing the deck with kerosene – and Ernesto learns what manual labor truly is.
In Baquedano, Chile, they make friends with a married couple – who are hungry and freezing, despite both being employed in the sulfur mines. (This couple, too, is without a blanket.) The husband had spent three months in prison for being a communist.
It’s here, on page 78, that The Motorcycle Diaries evolves from a road trip story, full of wine, women, and mate (lots and lots of mate), into a political memoir.
Ernesto and Alberto meet other miners – men and women who are working under cruel conditions for minimal wages, and are hoping that Chile will elect a more progressive president (rather than the US-backed dictator), who will make both communism and labor unions legal again.
They visit medical facilities where even a days’ stay in a hospital is more than most families could afford.
In the mountains of Peru, they meet indigenous peoples who are desperately holding onto their traditions, in spite of exploitation and bullying.
This road trip, from 1951 to 1952, changed Ernesto Guevara forever. “The person who wrote these notes passed away the moment his feet touched Argentine soil again,” he writes at the beginning of the book. (I wanted to borrow the one Spanish edition of Diarios de Motocicleta the library has, long enough to compare the languages, but the line of holds was too long.)
Years later, Ernesto Guevara would be better known by his nickname Che – an Argentine slang meaning something like “buddy” or “bro” or “mate”.
Che Guevara, alongside Fidel Castro, would later lead the Cuban Revolution. It all started with a road trip across America.
I loved this book – both as a road trip story and as a political memoir. Reading everything that comes before the book – both prefaces, the biography, the chronology, the map, the itinerary, and the introduction – is a must, since the story actually starts after the trip is underway, and ends before the trip is over, and contains no dates along the way.
(I saw the 2004 movie based on this book several years ago, so I was familiar with the story before I started the book.)
- A political memoir