Author: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
Summary: In 1953, two young men set out on a journey around South America that would change their lives. Taking time out from medical school, 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara and 29-year-old biochemist Alberto Granado took to the road on their motorcycle dubbed ‘La Poderosa’ (The Mighty One) with dreams of visiting the United States. What they found instead were the harsh realities of the impoverished indigenous peasantry and the forgotten proletariat in Latin America. Chronicling the full 8,000 kilometres and nine months in his journal, we follow Guevara as he transforms from a free-spirited medical student to the compassionate warrior for the people as he experiences his social and political awakening.
My Thoughts: I’m not going to do a proper review on this book because I honestly couldn’t write one. There’s nothing about this book that I didn’t find inspiring and could honestly criticise.
As I’ve described in the summary, The Motorcycle Diaries chronicles the nine-month journey Guevara and his friend took around Latin America. What begins as an idealistic adventure for two young men turns into a real eye opener and, in some ways, a coming-of-age story. I didn’t know a lot about Guevara when I picked up the book. I knew about the Cuban revolution in 1959 but knew nothing about Guevara personally. The Motorcycle Diaries takes place years before Guevara became involved in the guerilla campaign and, while he had been quite politically active in local protests, had never thought about anything on a larger scale.
His journey with Granado is almost a spur-of-the-moment decision – a clear indication of the youth and free-spiritedness Guevara shares with most people at that age (and mine). You could almost split the book into two sections from here. The first is what we’ve come to expect: a pair of young men playing pranks in order to blag some money/food/shelter off the locals they meet, drinking their way through meetings, making passes at married women. Anyone who’s known – 0r been – a 23-year-old young man can spot this type of youthful exuberance immediately and it’s refreshing to know that even after 50 years, some things don’t change.
The second half of the book, however, takes place after Guevara and Granado’s journey has taken a darker turn. Rather than cycling through the country, they are forced to abandon La Poderosa and hitchhike or walk the rest of the way. While they still hold their newfound and whispered-about reputation as the “expert doctors”, they now find themselves living amongst the poorer and indigenous people of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. It is here that they witness the squalid living conditions of the proletariat and hear of the horror the indigenous communities faced years ago and continue to battle with.
Guevara’s narrative also changes with these discoveries: We recognise the moment he stops being a boy and finally becomes a man. He somehow feels responsible for everything he sees and has discovered a burning passion inside himself to change everything.
I can’t explain what it was about Guevara’s words that inspired so much in me. Perhaps the same thing that have inspired hundreds before me. Like him, I am 23 and have a clear goal of wanting to travel in order to “see the world.” But Guevara’s maturity and descriptions of what was right in front of his eyes brought out that youthful idealism in me that I never usually know what to do with. Having worked in retail for seven years of my life, selling people crappy things they don’t need, working with money, I know I’ve reached a point in my life where my chosen career path has to mean something. I want to do something that will cause a positive impact among others.
As I read Guevara’s words and saw him go from being a medical doctor to become the ‘doctor of the people’ that we know him as, I began thinking about what I could offer the world. I’m no doctor. I barely passed science in school. But I do have an English degree and a pretty good grasp of the written and spoken word. My old thoughts about becoming a teacher of English as a Foreign Language came flooding back to me and it finally made sense. I could combine my thirst for travel and help those who want to learn a second language. Along the way I can discover new countries and cultures and get a real sense of what’s happening in the world and how to change it.
The only other book that ever made me get up and do something was Into the Wild – that book inspired me to take a trip to the Highlands and see the world from another perspective; to shut out all the consumerism we face every day.
I might be an impressionable young woman but out of all the career ideas and jobs I’ve drifted through, this finally seems to make sense. Like, really make sense. I’m not scared to death of it; I’m excited by the prospect of it. And all because of the influence of a beautifully written journal by a passionate young man who really did change the world. (And FYI, I’m not stupid – I know that Guevara, Castro, and his guerilla army weren’t saints. I’m more than aware of those who lost their lives during the revolution.)
I’m going to leave you with a passage from the book which takes place nearly half way through the book. Guevara goes to visit an elderly woman, brought down by a horrible case of asthma which isn’t helped by her poor living conditions. She is one of the first people who begin to affect Guevara’s way of seeing Latin America:
“The poor thing was in a pitiful state, breathing the acrid smell of concentrated sweat and dirty feet that filled her room, mixed with the dust from a couple of armchairs, the only luxury items in her house. On top of her asthma, she had a heart condition. It is at times like this, when a doctor is conscious of his complete powerlessness, that he longs for a change: a change to prevent the injustice of a system in which only a month ago this poor woman was still earning her living as a waitress, wheezing and panting but facing life with dignity. In circumstances like this, individuals in poor families who can’t pay their way become surrounded by an atmosphere of barely disguised acrimony; they stop being mother, father, sister or brother and become a purely negative factor in the struggle for life and, consequently, a source of bitterness for the healthy members of the community who resent their illness as if it were a personal insult to those who have to support them. It is there, in the final moments, for people whose farthest horizon has always been tomorrow, that one comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over. In those dying eyes there is a submissive appeal for forgiveness and also, often, a desperate plea for consolation which is lost to the void, just as their body will soon be lost in the magnitude of mystery surrounding us. How long this present order, based on an absurd idea of caste, will last is not within my means to answer, but it’s time that those who govern spent less time publicizing their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful works.“