Rebel with a cause

Travelling With Che Guevara recounts Alberto Granado’s motorcycle journey across Latin America with the young man who would become its most celebrated revolutionary


Travelling with Che Guevara
Alberto Granado. Translated by Lucía Álvarez de Toledo
2003, Pimlico
215 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ITHE DEDICATION written in a book that Che Guevara sent to his old friend Alberto Granado just before leaving Cuba in 1965, the revolutionary celebrity packing his bags for the Congo spoke of how his “dreams shall know no bounds”. Granado’s memories of the motorcyle trip the old friends had taken across South America 13 years previously reveal much about Guevara’s boundless dreams and epic imagination that would take him to his death in Bolivia in 1967. We read Travelling With Che Guevara to gain further insights into the character of Latin America’s most celebrated revolutionary, whose dreams were probably his most powerful weapon, but Granado wrote it with more modest intent, aiming to show that Che was just a man who followed his heart.

Throughout Travelling With Che Guevara this theme recurs in reflections by the youthful pair upon conversations they have had with people encountered during the motorcycle journey who had either followed their dreams or whose dreams had been crushed. The continental trip undertaken by Granado and Guevara in 1952 has been explored in detail in print and in film, and there is probably little to say about the itinerary itself beyond the scale of its ambition in a time before gap-year backpackers became as much a part of the South American landscape as Machu Picchu itself. But while it has been suggested that it served to radicalise Guevara, permitting it to be characterised as a mythical journey towards enlightenment that fits neatly with the romantic iconography surrounding the Argentine revolutionary, that process of radicalisation was only really initiated with this trip, and only in so far as, through it, Guevara escaped for the first time from his own middle-class condition. It was later, in Guatemala, that he genuinely became a revolutionary. “For Guevara the poor were noble and generous, the rich mean and sordid”

Small-town snobbery

What does become clear from this book, and in a way that applies as much to Granado as it does to Guevara, is the pair’s reaction against the small-town snobbery that shaped the medical profession to which they were dedicated, the depth of the humanistic ideals that informed their Marxist inclinations, and the impact upon them of their encounters with poor people who helped them along the way. Granado speaks of a common love of humanity binding us all; for Guevara, the poor were noble and generous, the rich mean and sordid.

The value of this book is that it transforms Granado and Guevara back into young men full of adventure and mischief – Che turned 24 during the trip – left breathless by their own audacity and the limitless possibilities that freedom from their families offered. In the case of Guevara, this journey left him literally breathless – at times exacerbating the serious asthma he suffered to the point of seizure. The seven-month trip began in late December 1951 in Córdoba, Argentina, and took Granado and Guevara across the Pampas and into Chile, thence Peru and briefly Brazil before they entered Colombia and ended up in Venezuela in July 1952, where Granado stayed to work and from where Guevara flew to Miami and eventually back to Argentina to graduate.

Among their many experiences, often recounted with great humour, they helped out as volunteer firemen, stowed away on a cargo ship, were paid to train a football team and sailed a raft down the Amazon. They marvelled at the great monuments left by the Incas, and lamented the listless apathy of the brandy-soaked Indians who live in their shadow. Those encounters that left the greatest impression upon them were at the leprosaria they visited because of Granado’s research specialism in Hansen’s disease.

Granado’s training and Guevara’s own medical studies took them from hospital to hospital, and enabled them to treat scores of individuals for minor ailments along the way. The high points of their trip were meeting the prolific Dr Hugo Pesce in Lima and staying in the San Pablo leprosarium in the Peruvian Amazon Granado is, first and foremost, a witness and through his observations we seek insights into the character of Guevara, whose charisma was captured in the many nicknames he was given over the years, Che being only the last. We learn about Guevara’s reluctance to respect convention, his physical strength and courage – once swimming the Amazon regardless of the dangers – and his biting wit and harsh candour. As Granado writes, “You can hate or admire Ernesto, but you can never ignore him.”

Above all, Guevara reveals the dangerous sense of abandon that often accompanies men who leave their mark. This became apparent when, with the intention of rejoining his friend in Venezuela following graduation, he set off in 1953 on a long train journey but on the way was lured by an Argentinian exile to Guatemala, where a revolution was under way. The rest is history.

Examples of exploitation

On their motorcyle journey, Granado and Guevara encountered clear examples of exploitation and omnipresent signs of US capitalism, but these are not dwelt upon as much as one might expect in this tale. Granado’s own political consciousness was shaped in student struggles in Argentina, although it becomes apparent that his critique was not as sophisticated as that of his younger compatriot, and his analysis often takes the form of a mantra about exploitation by the rich and the suffering of the poor. We are reminded by Granado constantly of the poor conditions so many people in South America endure, but he is honest about Che’s polemical skills and his own propensity to sit and listen when the verbal going got tough.

If there is a discernible political message here, it can be found in the journey’s Bolivarian ethic and, as the book veers from mountainside to clifftop, desert to jungle, we can sense a growing, patriotic love generated by the stunning landscape for a romantic idea of Latin America unified by the solidarity of its humblest peoples. That is reflected in the rich bibliographical diet Granado and Guevara supplemented their journey through each country with, comprising the works of Latin American thinkers and writers such as César Vallejo, José Mariátegui, Ciro Alegría, Porfirio Barba Jacob, Rómulo Gallegos, José Martí and Pablo Neruda. The solidarity that both men longed for was only absent during their miserable stay in Colombia, which neither enjoyed, and one is left sensing that the clash between their own, Argentine chauvinism, and that of the Colombians, may have been to blame. Even here, the Bolivarian moral seems clear.

This book’s achievement is to confirm that the real Che was a wanderer at heart. Just seven months after the Cuban revolutionary victory, for example, he embarked on a world tour. He came to despise being stuck behind a desk as head of Cuba’s national bank. He died, in effect, roaming the Latin American continent looking for a revolutionary war to win. The real Che – not that constructed out of the mythology of Cuba’s revolution, not least by Fidel Castro himself – was far less successful than legend would have us believe, both at industrialising Cuba and putting his strategic principles into action in the field in the Congo and Bolivia, where by the bloody end of his catastrophic campaign some of his recruits were openly questioning his leadership. Granado’s book is an exhilarating read because it allows us to see Guevara as a man, not a myth.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books