Travelling With Che Guevara

By Alberto Granado Translated by Lucia Alvarez de Toledo

Random House

Copyright (C) 2004 by Alberto Granado Translated by Lucia Alvarez de Toledo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1844134261

Chapter One

An almost ill-fated departure

Córdoba, 29 December 1951

Everything began and proceeded quickly and efficiently, which is how I usually do things. Time has erased the date, but the scene is as vivid and fresh as ever.

It's a sunlit October afternoon. The first spring tendrils and leaves on the vine climbing my family home tried to shade my faithful companion of trips across the pampas and mountains — my old motorbike, 'Poderosa II'. My brother Toma´s was sitting on it while Gregorio, my other brother, and I sprawled nearby in the scant shade of an orange tree, sipping the ever-present maté.

Lost in thought, I barely followed their conversation. Suddenly, as if thinking aloud, I burst out, 'I'm not happy with this state of affairs. An inner voice is telling me to pack a few things and set out to see America. The years I spent in Chañar, with my dream of doing something for the lepers, quelled my desire to seek new horizons. But now that I've been transferred from a place I loved, and where I was loved, and sent to a hospital where everything is cold and calculating, where first they ask whether a patient can pay for tests and only later whether he needs them or not, I need broader horizons.'

'That's easy,' Toma´s interrupted,' just get Ernesto on the back and go like this — 'and he imitated the noise of the bike at top speed.

I said nothing but took the maté from Gregorio, who was constantly preparing it. As I sipped, I said to myself: Why not? What better time than this to put the plan into action? I've the energy and desire. What more do I need?

The rasping sound of the empty mat gourd interrupted my train of thought and, handing it back to Gregorio, I exclaimed, 'Right, gentlemen, before this year ends, the journey's on.'

That night over dinner I told my parents. They knew that this time I meant it, and instead of their usual pleasant reaction there was a strange heavy silence.

Later, tossing and turning in bed, I wondered whether I could do it. Would the unspoken disapproval of family and friends dissuade me? Would the sense of fulfilment outweigh the suffering I was about to cause them? I knew that in realising my deep desire, the joy of achieving it would make up for the pain of parting.

Suddenly I had another worry. Would Pelao agree to come? Was it not madness to expect him to travel when he was so close to finishing his medical degree? Was it not wrong of me to take him away from Dr Pisani, when Ernesto could no doubt have a brilliant future with him?

Fúser himself provided the answers when he made a surprise visit to Córdoba to see his girlfriend Chichina. The moment I told him my plan, he said he didn't give a shit about the future I saw for him with a doctor who, though brilliant, was trapped in the confines of the medical trade. And with that, Ernesto flung himself into a war dance, whooping and yelling, and the pact between us was sealed.

The next days were a mad whirl of maps, spare parts and dozens of routes adopted and abandoned in turn. Finally, despite my parents' silent opposition — and the less silent opposition of aunts and uncles, who considered the trip utterly mad — the big day arrived.

The bike looked like a huge prehistoric animal. On either side were waterproof canvas bags and on the back a rack loaded with everything from a grill for barbecuing meat to a tent and camp beds.

Our chosen route was as follows: we would head south to Buenos Aires so that Fúser could say goodbye to his mother and father, and then we'd go down the Atlantic coast as far as Bahía Blanca. From there we'd cross the provinces of La Pampa and Neuque´n to see the southern lakes and then make our way over the Andes. Once in Chile, we'd head north to Caracas.

Everybody was nervous and excited. Surrounded by a noisy swarm of children, attracted by the look of the bike and the odd way we were dressed, we began our farewells. After taking a few snapshots 'for posterity', I embraced my parents, who choked back their emotion, and my brothers, who watched us with affectionate envy. I kissed my mother one last time, grateful for the effort she made not to cry. Without more ado, I started the engine. Ernesto climbed onto the back and off we went, wobbling under the burden of luggage. Pelao turned to wave, and for a moment his sudden movement made me lose control of the bike. We almost crashed into a tram that was coming round the corner. The cries of alarm that went up told me how great our danger had been. To avoid any further delay — and in spite of protests and thumps on the back from Pelao — I accelerated, my eyes straight ahead, until we were lost in the traffic and my family's and friends' affectionate anxiety lay far behind. Ahead lay excitement and new horizons.

Villa Gesell, 6 January 1952

I've seen the sea at last! And just the way I wanted to see it for the first time: at night, by moonlight.
I'm overlooking the vast Atlantic, propped against the dunes and gazing at the beach and the waves. Only nine days into the journey, and already I can tell by what we've seen, learned and been through how wonderful and important this trip — finally a reality — will be for our futures.

But back to the 29th. Having narrowly avoided hitting the tram, I rode away at full speed and only after hurtling along at a dizzying speed for twenty or thirty blocks pulled over to the kerb. Ernesto was furious.

'You shit, Mial!' he said, catching his breath. 'I had to hang on like an octopus!'

Fúser's anger was comic and made me burst into nervous laughter. After we'd both had a laugh, I explained the obvious. 'If I'd stopped, the fuss would have welded us to our maternal hearths for ever.'

After sorting ourselves out we set off again. We had a few problems, all caused by the luggage — including a fall that damaged the accumulator — but eventually we got to the town of Ballesteros, groping along in the dark. There, under the eaves of a humble farmhouse, we tended to the bike and after a few mate's got into our sleeping bags. As I lay savouring the joys of my first night as a transcontinental trekker, weariness immediately overcame me and sleep interrupted my ramblings.

The stretch from Ballesteros to Rosario went quickly and without incident. Here we spent some time with my nieces, who were all impressed by Fúser's intelligence and good looks. Our aspirations, however, are a long way from their dreams, inspired by radio soaps and a cheap women's magazine like Vosotras.

We reached Buenos Aires where, as at my home, we were subjected to cutting remarks about our famous trip and its likelihood of failure. We had to listen to the usual drivel about how we should follow the well-trodden path that Fúser's family had followed. Only his mother was not negative. All she said was, 'Alberto, you're the elder, so I'm asking you, try to get Ernesto to come back and finish his studies. A degree never hurts.'

On 4 January we set out for the Atlantic coast. We went through Palermo Park. As usual there were people selling all sorts of different breeds of dogs by the roadside. Pelao wanted to give Chichina a present when we saw her in Miramar, where she was spending the summer, and, falling in love with an Alsatian puppy, he bought it. He named it, in English, Come Back — no doubt as some sort of promise to Chichina.

After we'd gone a few miles along the Mar del Plata highway, a torrential downpour hit us. We had to turn off and head for a dairy farm about half a mile away. When the storm passed, we continued east. But this stretch, over mud, alerted us to the dangers of dirt roads, so different from the terrain around Córdoba or the salt flats we were used to. We spent that night by the side of the road in a police sentry box. The next day, after waiting for Come Back to have his breakfast (he could only drink milk), we continued on our way to Villa Gesell, a spot almost unknown to the typical tourist. It's very pretty, with simple bungalows, broad beaches and a great surf that comes sweeping in smoothly to the shore.

Miramar, 13 January 1952

We reached this beautiful beach seven days ago. Our stay here has been an eye-opener. I've met a lot of people from a social class I've never encountered before, and frankly it makes me proud of my origins. I had never come across the upper class before, let alone socialised with them. It's incredible the way they think, the way they reason. Here are people who believe that it is their divine right — or something of the kind — to live without a care in the world, except for their social standing, or wasting time together in the stupidest possible ways. Fortunately, Chichina in particular and the Guevaras in general (especially Fúser's sister Ana María) are nothing like them.

I talked this over with Pelao. 'Listen, mate, these people make me feel better about myself. We at least have created something — a rugby team, a research lab. We've fed our intellects, while these characters — with all the possibilities open to them, with every advantage — squander all their energy on pointless activities, purely for their own pleasure. No wonder they're astonished when they hear you talk about equality, or when you point out that others have to live too. All those around them, who serve them, who clean up after them, these are people too; they too would like to bathe in the sea and enjoy the sun.'

On the 11th, after dark, I went down to the shore. It was unforgettable. There were two different landscapes. By the sea the dunes sloped smoothly down to the beach, where the breaking waves formed a wall of white foam. On the other side was a lunar landscape made up of hillocks, like craters surrounding small ponds with a few silvery shrubs reflected in their moonlit waters. It was marvellous!

What puzzles me is how all these people, who talked about how deeply they felt the beauty of the night and the place, didn't share my great desire that everyone in the world should be able to admire and enjoy such beauty.

Today we went swimming. When we got out of the water we joined the group of visitors spending their holidays with Ernesto's aunt and Chichina. Several of them are university students. A discussion soon started about political and social questions. We discussed the recent nationalisation of healthcare by the Labour government in England. Ernesto held forth and for almost an hour he warmly defended nationalisation, but condemned the abuse of medicine for profit, the uneven distribution of urban and rural doctors, the scientific isolation of country doctors, who then lapse into commerce, and spoke on many other subjects.

I was a few feet away from those who were talking and couldn't help feeling the affection and admiration I have always had for Pelao. First off, he comes from the same background as the others, yet the views of his class have not dulled his sensitivity. Not only that — he takes a stance against all that they accept as natural. Listening to his solid arguments and the scathing ripostes with which he made nonsense of their feeble rebuttals, I thought: This Pelao reveals a new side every day. He and I had been over this ground many times before, but how well he was putting his points across today!

After demolishing his opponents, Fúser turned to me, grabbed Come Back and said, 'Let's shake off these toffs, Petiso (Shorty), and go bathe the dog. 'We dashed across the sand away from the group, who went on talking and perhaps wondering at Pelao's dialectics.

As I always say — you can hate or admire Ernesto, but you can never ignore him.

Necochea, 14 January 1952

Today we're on our way again. We're at Tamargo's - he and I were at university together for five years. We were both involved in the student struggle of 1943. A bunch of us rented a house near the university hospital, played sports together, clashed with police thugs and helped democratise the Córdoba Students' Union. We left university only four years ago, but how we've grown apart! We no longer understand each other. Tamargo has treated us well, I can't deny that — once, that is, he got over the shock of my turning up on a noisy motorbike, covered in grease and dust.

It drives me to despair that a young man whose outlook until a few years ago was progressive should become completely absorbed by the loathsome society around him. He knows that all this is wrong, that he's charging more for lab tests than they're worth, but still he does it and even seems to take morbid pleasure in going against the dictates of his conscience. He's already a fossil, with his pretty house and lady wife, with her small-town, middle-class mentality, her only concern that everything be in its place and spotless. It is. But it's also devoid of ideas and generous feelings.

Bahía Blanca, 16 January 1952

We arrived in Bahía Blanca, at the home of some friends of Ernesto's — the Saravias, who treated us lavishly. We then went all the way to Necochea in one go, stopping in the shade of two weeping willows in Río Quequén Salado to barbecue a strip of ribs, which did us for both breakfast and lunch. We had to adjust the valves, as the strong wind was making the bike misfire. This is the first little fondle we've given 'Poderosa II' in almost 1200 miles.

Excerpted from Travelling With Che Guevara by Alberto Granado Translated by Lucia Alvarez de Toledo Excerpted by permission.
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