Some things I learned about Che Guevara from the Motorcycle Diaries
Just hearing the name “Che Guevara” immediately conjures an image into anyone’s mind, whatever their political leanings. This might be because of Che’s fame as a revolutionary, willing to drop everything to fight for the poor, or more realistically because of that that really, really cool picture of him that everyone has on a t-shirt. Whatever the reason, Che Guevara is an important figure – particularly among slightly left leaning university students.
Since I never really knew much about Che myself (despite being guilty of owning a few t-shirts with his face on them) I decided to remedy that by reading one of his memoirs. The Motorcycle Diaries is Che Guevara’s diary of a trip that he took with his friend Alberto Granado in 1951-52. They travelled from Che’s home in Buenos Aires in Argentina to Venezuela together, stopping at various places along the way. As this was written years before Che became the poster boy for socialist revolutionaries, the book didn’t shed much light on his future political leanings. It did however reveal a few interesting things about Che as I will outline below.
His name was not Che
This might not be a surprise to everybody, but many people – and myself included until recently – are under the impression that Che Guevara was in fact called “Che Guevara”. In reality, Che is just nickname and his real name is the far less exciting Ernesto. This is a fact that should have been obvious to me since the name Ernesto “Che” Guevara is written in big letters on the front cover of The Motorcycle Diaries.
“Che” is evidently a word that Argentinians use a lot. Because of this distinctive feature of their speech, young Ernesto and his friend Alberto both were nicknamed “Che”. Since giving two people the same nickname was clearly too confusing to many people, they decided to distinguish between the two by giving Ernesto an Alberto the additional monikers of “Big Che” and “Little Che” respectively. Eventually “Big Che” dropped the “Big” from his name and became the household name that his is today.
“Che” is a versatile word that loosely translates into “friend” however it is far more adaptable than that. It is equivalent both to the Canadian “eh” and the Australian “mate” and can be used at either the front or the end of a sentence. Che is also used as filler in a sentence in a similar way to the English terms “bro” or “man”, for example:
“Vamos a tomar una cerveza, che” becomes: “Let’s go get a beer, bro”
“Che, Pedro, ¡mirá!” is: “Hey, Pedro, look over there!”, and
“¡Che, que es un burro atractivo!” would be in English: “Man that is an attractive donkey!”
He planned the trip spontaneously
Most people, when planning a trip of this magnitude would not simply wake up one morning and say “I think I will travel 8,000 on a crappy old motorcycle”. I say most people because this was exactly the thought process that Che and his buddy Alberto went through when planning the trip. According to Che himself, this is how the conversation went:
“Why don’t we go to North America?”
“North America? But how?”
“On La Poderosa*, man.”
Perhaps this is why Che is such an alluring figure, everybody dreams about having the freedom like that to just give up everything and try something new. To just wake up one morning and travel halfway across the world not caring about breaking down in the middle of nowhere or being killed by Columbian drug cartels.
*(La Poderosa was the name of their motorcycle)
He was really bad at planning
For somebody who was instrumental in bringing down governments, Che was surprisingly bad at planning for simple tasks. While Che’s spontaneous decision to travel to North America may have seemed a romantic idea to him at the time, it is clear though reading The Motorcycle Diaries that a little bit of planning wouldn’t have gone astray. According to Che, their priorities were as follows:
“My most important mission before leaving was to take exams in as many subjects as possible; Alberto’s to prepare the bike for the long journey, and to study and plan our route”.
Upon reading, it was clear that Che and Alberto should have added one more thing to that list: “learn how to fucking ride a motorcycle”. On the first day of their trans-continental pilgrimage, Che and Alberto crashed a total of nine times. Let me repeat that: nine times, in one day!
He had no idea about motorcycles
In addition to not knowing how to ride their motorcycle, Che and Alberto also had no idea how to repair them. Their inappropriately named motorcycle (La Poderosa II – or the powerful one) barely took the travellers halfway through their journey, however this had more to do with Che and Alberto than the motorcycle itself. The travellers believed adamantly that any repair could be fixed if they just wound enough wire around it to hold it together. After reading that, I’m starting to see how Che managed to get captured in Bolivia.
He is really racist
For someone who is held up as the poster child for vague leftism around the world, it may be strange to learn that he was a dirty racist. I’m certain that none of the pinko lefties running around with Che Guevara t-shirts could justify this following description of the indigenous peoples in Cuzco in Peru, written by Che himself:
“The somewhat animal-like concept the indigenous people have of modesty and hygiene means that irrespective of gender or age they do their business by the roadside, the women cleaning themselves with their skirts, the men not bothering at all, and then carry on as before. The underskirts of Indian women who have kids are literally warehouses of excrement, a consequence of the way they wipe the rascals every time one of them passes wind.
As if accusing indigenous people of smelling worse than cow shit wasn’t bad enough (p.116 in my version), Che later on insists that they also have sex with the pink river dolphins in the Ucayali river in Peru.
Che doesn’t just reserve his racism for the indigenous peoples of South America, the following comparison of Blacks and Europeans (by which he means Portuguese in this context) is…well…enlightening.
“The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing… the black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations.”
He is actually a good writer
Despite the negative things above, I actually really enjoyed The Motorcycle Diaries and perhaps the most surprising part of the book itself was the quality of Che’s writing. I was initially sceptical about reading this, assuming that it would be full of political ranting and dogma and about as enjoyable as The Communist Manifesto. This was absolutely not the case and Che has the good sense to realise that sometimes hearing about the ruins of Mahcu Piccu or natives having sex with dolphins is preferable to an endless description of life on the road.
A good example of Che’s writing is below in the excerpt from the chapter called Chuquicamata:
“The mountains, where not a single blade of grass can grow in the nitrate soil, are defenseless against attacks of wind and water. They display their gray spine, prematurely aged in the battle with the elements, and their wrinkles that do not correspond to their true geological age. And how many of those mountains surrounding their famous brother enclose in their heavy entrails similar riches, as they wait for the soulless arms of the mechanical shovels to devour their insides, spiced as they would be with the inevitable human lives — the lives of the poor, unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserably in one of the thousand traps set by nature to defend its treasures, when all they want is to earn their daily bread”.