CHE GOES TO LOOK FOR AMERICA

Wine, women - and some dubious views on black people: as these extracts from Che Guevara's m ot; orcycle diaries show, young Ernesto did not emerge from the womb a fully- fledged revolutionary
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PRELUDE

Cordoba, Argentina, 1951

IT WAS an October morning. We were under the vine at Alberto Granado's place in Cordoba, drinking sweet mate [herb tea], commenting on the latest events in this "wretched life", and tinkering with La Poderosa II [Alberto's Model 55 1937 Norton; literally, "The powerful one"].

Alberto was grumbling about having had to quit his job at the leper colony in San Francisco del Chanar and how badly paid he now was at the Hospital Espanol. I'd also had to quit my job but, unlike him, I was happy to leave. Still, I was restless too, mainly because I was dreamer and a free spirit; I was fed up with medical school, hospitals and exams.

Our fantasising took us to faraway places, sailing tropical seas, travelling through Asia. And suddenly, slipping in as if part of our fantasy, came the question: "Why don't we go to North America?"

"North America? How?"

"On La Poderosa, man."

That's how the trip came about, and it never deviated from the general principle laid down then: improvisation. Alberto's brothers joined us and a round of mate sealed our pact not to give up until our dream was a reality. Next came the tedious business of chasing visas, but all we could see was the dusty road ahead and us on our bike devouring kilometres in the flight northward.

ROMANTIC INTERLUDE

Miramar, 13 January 1952

IT ISN'T really the purpose of this diary to recount the days in Miramar where the trip hung in the balance, in a cocoon subordinate to the word which consents and ties. [Che was meant to be saying goodbye to his girlfriend, Chichina, but it was proving a difficult passion to shrug off.]

Alberto saw the danger and was already imagining himself alone on the highways and byways of America, but he said nothing. The tug of war was between her and me. For a moment Otero Silva's poem rang in my ears as I left, I thought, victorious:

I heard on the boat

Wet feet splashing

And felt faces dusk with hunger

My heart a pendulum between her and the street

What strength broke me free from her eyes

Loose from her arms

She stood tears clouding her grief

Behind rain and window pane

But unable to cry: Wait

I'll go with you.

The two days I'd planned stretched like elastic into eight, and with the bitter-sweet taste of the good-bye mingling with my inveterate halitosis I finally felt myself wafted away on the winds of adventure towards worlds which I fancied stranger than they were, in situations I imagined much more normal than they turned out to be.

But a man in love (Alberto used a juicier, less literary word) is in no condition to listen to that kind of signal; in the great belly of the Buick the bourgeois side of my universe was still under construction. I remembered Alberto's exhortation: "Get back the bracelet or you're not who you think you are."

Her hands disappeared in the hollow of mine. "Chichina, that bracelet... Can I take it to guide me and remind me of you?"

Poor thing! I know the gold didn't matter, despite what they say: her fingers were merely weighing up the love that made me ask for it. At least, that's what I honestly think. Alberto says (a bit mischievously, I feel) that you don't need very sensitive fingers to weigh up 29 carats of my love.

CUTTING THE LAST TIES

Necochea, 14 January

WE FINALLY left at three in the afternoon, under a blazing sun which was even hotter by the time we reached the sand dunes round Medanos. The bike, with its badly distributed load, kept leaping out of control and spinning over. Alberto fought a stubborn duel with the sand which he insists he won. The truth is that we found ourselves resting comfortably on our backsides in the sand six times before we finally we got out on to the flat.

Setting off again, I took the controls and accelerated to make up for lost time. A fine sand covered part of the bend and, wham: the worst crash of our whole expedition. Alberto came out unscathed but the cylinder trapped my foot and scorched it, leaving an unpleasant souvenir for a long time because the wound didn't heal.

A heavy downpour forced us to seek shelter at an estancia, but to reach it we had to go 300 metres up a muddy track which sent us flying another couple of times. The welcome was magnificent but the toll of our first experience on unpaved roads was alarming: nine spills in a single day. However, lying on camp beds, the only beds we'd know from now on - apart from La Poderosa - we looked into the future with impatient joy. We seemed to breathe more freely, a lighter air, an air of adventure.

REMEDY FOR FLU: BED

Choele Choel, 22 January

WE GOT up early, but when I went to fetch water for our mate, a strange sensation ran through my body. Ten minutes later I was trembling uncontrollably like a man possessed. My quinine tablets were no use, my head was like a drum beating out strange rhythms, and some desperate retching produced a green vomit. I spent the whole day in that state, until the evening, when I felt fit enough to climb on the bike and, dozing on Alberto's shoulder, reached Choele Choel. We went straight to see Dr Barrera, the director of the little hospital and a member of parliament. He received us amiably, giving us a room to sleep in. He put me on a course of penicillin which lowered my temperature within four hours. But whenever we talked about leaving, the doctor shook his head and said, "For flu, bed." (That was the diagnosis, for want of a better one.)

So we spent several days there, being looked after like royalty. Albert took a photo of me in my hospital garb. I looked awful; gaunt, huge eyes, a beard whose ridiculous shape didn't change much in the following months. It's a shame it wasn't a good photo, it documented our changed circumstances, our new horizons, free from the shackles of "civilisation".

One morning the doctor didn't shake his head in the usual fashion and that was enough. We were gone within the hour, heading west towards the lakes. Our bike struggled, showing signs it was feeling the strain, especially in the bodywork which we constantly had to fix with Alberto's favourite spare part - wire. I don't know where he picked up this quote, which he attributed to Oscar Galvez: "Wherever a piece of wire can replace a screw, give me the wire, it's safer." Our trousers and hands were proof that we sided with Galvez, at least as far as wire was concerned.

Except for a couple more minor spills which didn't damage the bike too much, we continued calmly on towards San Martin de los Andes. We were almost there, and I was driving, when we took our first tumble in the south on a beautiful gravel bend by a babbling brook. This time La Poderosa's bodywork was damaged enough to make us stop and, to cap it all, we had what we most dreaded: a punctured back tyre. To be able to mend it, we had to take off all the luggage, undo all the wire securing the rack, then struggle with the wheel cover which defied our pathetic crowbar. Late in the afternoon we stopped at an estancia whose owners, very welcoming Germans, said we could fish in the river. Alberto cast his line, and before he knew what was happening, he had a fleeting form glinting in the sunlight jumping about on the end of his hook. It was a rainbow trout, a beautiful fish, succulent and fleshy (at least it was when baked and seasoned by our hunger). I prepared the fish while Alberto cast his line again and again, but he didn't get a single bite despite hours of trying. It was dark by then, so we had to spend the night in the farm labourers' kitchen.

At five in the morning, the huge stove which occupies the middle of this kind of kitchen was lit and the whole place filled with smoke. The farm labourers passed round their bitter mate and cast aspersions on our own "girlish" mate, as they call sweet mate in those parts. They weren't very communicative on the whole, typical of the subjugated Araucanian race, still wary of the white man who in the past brought them so much misfortune and still exploits them. When we asked about the land and their work, they answered by shrugging their shoulders and saying "don't know" or "maybe", which ended the conversation.

DIFFICULTIES INCREASE

Temuco and Lautaro, Chile, 21 February

WE'D GONE a little way when, without warning, the bike veered sideways and threw us off. Alberto and I, unhurt, examined the bike and found one of the steering columns broken and, even more serious, the gearbox was smashed. It was impossible to go on; all we could do was wait patiently for an obliging lorry. Around noon, a van came along and, after much pleading, the driver agreed to take us to the next town, Lautaro. We managed to get space in the best garage in the area and someone to do the soldering, a friendly little guy called Luna who took us home for lunch a couple of times. We divided our time between working on the bike and cadging something to eat in the homes of the many curiosity seekers who came to see us at the garage. We slept in the local barracks.

The bike was more or less mended and we were all set to leave the following day, so we decided to let our hair down with some of our new pals who invited us for a few drinks. Chilean wine is very good and I was downing it at an amazing rate, so by the time we went on to the village dance I felt ready for anything. It was a very cosy evening and we kept filling our bellies and minds with wine. One of the mechanics from the garage, a particularly nice guy, asked me to dance with his wife because he'd been mixing his drinks and was the worse for wear. His wife was pretty randy and obviously in the mood, and I, full of Chilean wine, took her by the hand to lead her outside. She followed me docilely, but then realised her husband was watching and changed her mind. I was in no state to listen to reason and we had bit of a barney in the middle of the dance floor, resulting in me pulling her towards one of the doors with everybody watching. She tried to kick me and as I was pulling her she lost her balance and went crashing to the floor. When we were running towards the village, pursued by a swarm of enraged dancers, Alberto lamented all the wine her husband might have bought us.

THE END OF THE ROAD FOR LA PODEROSA II

Los Angeles, 27 February

WE GOT up early to flee what was no longer a very hospitable spot for us - though not before accepting another invitation to lunch. Alberto had a premonition and didn't want to drive, so I took the controls. We did quite a few kilometres before stopping to fix the gearbox. Not much further on, we went round a tight bend at quite a speed, the screw came off the back brake, a cow's head appeared round the bend, then lots more, and I clutched the hand brake which, soldered in an elementary fashion, broke too. For a moment I saw nothing but the shapes of cattle flashing by on the sides, while poor Poderosa gathered speed down the steep hill. By an absolute miracle, all we touched was the leg of the last cow. In the distance there was a river which seemed to be beckoning us with terrifying certainty. I steered the bike on to the side of the road and it flew up the two-metre bank, ending up lodged between two rocks, but we were unhurt.

Still reaping the benefit of the letter of recommendation from the press [Che, a medical student, and Alberto, a doctor some years older than Che, had been featured as "leprology experts" in a local newspaper, and had become neighbourhood stars], we were put up by some Germans who treated us very well. During the night I had a bad case of the runs and, not wanting to leave a souvenir in the pot under the bed, I positioned myself at the window and delivered the contents of my aching guts to the darkness beyond. The next morning I looked out to see the effect and saw that two metres below was a large tin roof with peaches on it drying in the sun; the spectacle added by me was impressive. We beat a speedy retreat.

Although at first the accident hadn't seemed important, it was now clear that we had underestimated it. The bike did strange things every time it had to go uphill. We began the climb to Malleco where there is a railway bridge the Chileans say is the highest in the Americas. The bike packed it in halfway up and we wasted the whole day waiting for some charitable soul in the form of a lorry to take us to the top. We slept in the town of Cullipulli (after the lift materialised) and left early, expecting catastrophe. On the first steep hill - one of the many on that road - La Poderosa finally gave up the ghost. It was our last day as "motorised bums"; the next stage, as "non-motorised bums", looked like being more difficult.

LA GIOCONDA

Valparaiso, 7 March

THAT afternoon in Valparaiso we went separate ways: Alberto following up the doctors while I went to see an old woman with asthma, a customer at La Gioconda [a bar that the pair patronised]. The poor thing was in an awful state, breathing the smell of stale sweat and dirty feet that filled her room, mixed with the dust from a couple of armchairs, the only luxuries in her house. As well as her asthma, she had a bad heart. It is in cases like this, when a doctor knows he is powerless in such circumstances, that he longs for change; a change which would prevent the injustice of a system in which until a month ago this poor old woman had had to earn her living as a waitress, wheezing and panting but facing life with dignity. In these circumstances people in poor families who can't pay their way are surrounded by an atmosphere of barely disguised acrimony; they stop being father, mother, sister or brother and become a purely negative factor in the struggle for life and, by extension, 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 then, at the end, for people whose horizons never reach beyond tomorrow, that we see the profound tragedy which circumscribes the life of the proletariat the world over. In these dying eyes there is a humble appeal for forgiveness and also, often, a desperate plea for solace which is lost in the void, just as their body will soon be lost in the vast mystery surrounding us. How long this present order, based on an absurd idea of caste, will last I can't say, but it's time governments spent less time publicising their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful projects. There wasn't much I

Cordoba, Argentina, 1951

IT WAS an October morning. We were under the vine at Alberto Granado's, drinking sweet mate [herb tea], commenting on the latest events in this "wretched life", and tinkering with La Poderosa II [Alberto's Model 55 1937 Norton; literally, "The powerful one"].

Alberto was grumbling about having had to quit his job at the leper colony in San Francisco del Chanar and how badly paid he now was at the Hospital Espanol. I'd also had to quit my job but, unlike him, I was happy to leave. Still, I was restless too, mainly because I was dreamer and a free spirit; I was fed up with medical school, hospitals and exams.

Our fantasising took us to faraway places, sailing tropical seas, travelling through Asia. And suddenly, slipping in as if part of our fantasy, came the question: "Why don't we go to North America?"

"North America? How?"

"On La Poderosa, man."

That's how the trip came about, and it never deviated from the general principle laid down then: improvisation. Alberto's brothers joined us and a round of mate sealed our pact not to give up until our dream was a reality. All we could see was the dusty road ahead and us on our bike devouring kilometres in the flight northward.

ROMANTIC INTERLUDE

Miramar, 13 January 1952

IT ISN'T really the purpose of this diary to recount the days in Miramar where the trip hung in the balance, in a cocoon subordinate to the word which consents and ties. [Che was allegedly saying goodbye to his girlfriend, Chichina, but it was proving a difficult passion to resist.]

Alberto saw the danger and was already imagining himself alone on the highways and byways of America, but he said nothing. The tug of war was between her and me. For a moment Otero Silva's poem rang in my ears as I left, I thought, victorious:

I heard on the boat

Wet feet splashing

And felt faces dusk with hunger

My heart a pendulum between her and the street

What strength broke me free from her eyes

Loose from her arms

She stood tears clouding her grief

Behind rain and window pane

But unable to cry: Wait

I'll go with you.

The two days I'd planned stretched like elastic into eight, and with the bitter-sweet taste of the good-bye mingling with my inveterate halitosis I finally felt myself wafted away on the winds of adventure towards worlds which I fancied stranger than they were, in situations I imagined much more normal than they turned out to be.

But a man in love (Alberto used a juicier, less literary word) is in no condition to listen to that kind of signal; in the great belly of the Buick the bourgeois side of my universe was still under construction. I remembered Alberto's exhortation: "Get back the bracelet or you're not who you think you are."

Her hands disappeared in the hollow of mine. "Chichina, that bracelet... Can I take it to guide me and remind me of you?"

Poor thing! I know the gold didn't matter, despite what they say: her fingers were merely weighing up the love that made me ask for it. At least, that's what I honestly think. Alberto says (a bit mischievously, I feel) that you don't need very sensitive fingers to weigh up 29 carats of my love.

CUTTING THE LAST TIES

Necochea, 14 January

WE FINALLY left at three in the afternoon, under a blazing sun which was even hotter by the time we reached the sand dunes round Medanos. The bike, with its badly distributed load, kept leaping out of control and spinning over. Alberto fought a stubborn duel with the sand which he insists he won. The truth is that we found ourselves resting comfortably on our backsides in the sand six times before we finally we got out on to the flat.

Setting off again, I took the controls and accelerated to make up for lost time. A fine sand covered part of the bend and, wham: the worst crash of our whole expedition. Alberto came out unscathed but the cylinder trapped my foot and scorched it, leaving an unpleasant souvenir for a long time because the wound didn't heal.

A heavy downpour forced us to seek shelter at an estancia, but to reach it we had to go 300 metres up a muddy track which sent us flying another couple of times. The welcome was magnificent but the toll of our first experience on unpaved roads was alarming: nine spills in a single day. However, lying on camp beds, the only beds we'd know from now on - apart from La Poderosa - we looked into the future with impatient joy. We seemed to breathe more freely, a lighter air, an air of adventure.

REMEDY FOR FLU: BED

Choele Choel, 22 January

WE GOT up early, but when I went to fetch water for our mate, a strange sensation ran through my body. Ten minutes later I was trembling uncontrollably like a man possessed. My quinine tablets were no use, my head was like a drum beating out strange rhythms, and some desperate retching produced a green vomit. I spent the whole day in that state, until the evening, when I felt fit enough to climb on the bike and, dozing on Alberto's shoulder, reached Choele Choel. We went straight to see Dr Barrera, the director of the little hospital and a member of parliament. He received us amiably, giving us a room to sleep in. He put me on a course of penicillin which lowered my temperature within four hours. But whenever we talked about leaving, the doctor shook his head and said, "For flu, bed." (That was the diagnosis, for want of a better one.)

So we spent several days there, being looked after like royalty. Albert took a photo of me in my hospital garb. I looked awful; gaunt, huge eyes, a beard whose ridiculous shape didn't change much in the following months. It's a shame it wasn't a good photo, it documented our changed circumstances, our new horizons, free from the shackles of "civilisation".

One morning the doctor didn't shake his head in the usual fashion and that was enough. We were gone within the hour, heading west towards the lakes. Our bike struggled, showing signs it was feeling the strain, especially in the bodywork which we constantly had to fix with Alberto's favourite spare part - wire. I don't know where he picked up this quote, which he attributed to Oscar Galvez: "Wherever a piece of wire can replace a screw, give me the wire, it's safer." Our trousers and hands were proof that we sided with Galvez, at least as far as wire was concerned.

Except for a couple more minor spills which didn't damage the bike too much, we continued calmly on towards San Martin de los Andes. We were almost there, and I was driving, when we took our first tumble in the south on a beautiful gravel bend by a babbling brook. This time La Poderosa's bodywork was damaged enough to make us stop and, to cap it all, we had what we most dreaded: a punctured back tyre. To be able to mend it, we had to take off all the luggage, undo all the wire securing the rack, then struggle with the wheel cover which defied our pathetic crowbar. Late in the afternoon we stopped at an estancia whose owners, very welcoming Germans, said we could fish in the river. Alberto cast his line, and before he knew what was happening, he had a fleeting form glinting in the sunlight jumping about on the end of his hook. It was a rainbow trout, a beautiful fish, succulent and fleshy (at least it was when baked and seasoned by our hunger). I prepared the fish while Alberto cast his line again and again, but he didn't get a single bite despite hours of trying. It was dark by then, so we had to spend the night in the farm labourers' kitchen.

At five in the morning, the huge stove which occupies the middle of this kind of kitchen was lit and the whole place filled with smoke. The farm labourers passed round their bitter mate and cast aspersions on our own "girlish" mate, as they call sweet mate in those parts. They weren't very communicative on the whole, typical of the subjugated Araucanian race, still wary of the white man who in the past brought them so much misfortune and still exploits them. When we asked about the land and their work, they answered by shrugging their shoulders and saying "don't know" or "maybe", which ended the conversation.

DIFFICULTIES INCREASE

Temuco and Lautaro, Chile, 21 February

WE'D GONE a little way when, without warning, the bike veered sideways and threw us off. Alberto and I, unhurt, examined the bike and found one of the steering columns broken and, even more serious, the gearbox was smashed. It was impossible to go on; all we could do was wait patiently for an obliging lorry. Around noon, a van came along and, after much pleading, the driver agreed to take us to the next town, Lautaro. We managed to get space in the best garage in the area and someone to do the soldering, a friendly little guy called Luna who took us home for lunch a couple of times. We divided our time between working on the bike and cadging something to eat in the homes of the many curiosity seekers who came to see us at the garage. We slept in the local barracks.

The bike was more or less mended and we were all set to leave the following day, so we decided to let our hair down with some of our new pals who invited us for a few drinks. Chilean wine is very good and I was downing it at an amazing rate, so by the time we went on to the village dance I felt ready for anything. It was a very cosy evening and we kept filling our bellies and minds with wine. One of the mechanics from the garage, a particularly nice guy, asked me to dance with his wife because he'd been mixing his drinks and was the worse for wear. His wife was pretty randy and obviously in the mood, and I, full of Chilean wine, took her by the hand to lead her outside. She followed me docilely, but then realised her husband was watching and changed her mind. I was in no state to listen to reason and we had bit of a barney in the middle of the dance floor, resulting in me pulling her towards one of the doors with everybody watching. She tried to kick me and as I was pulling her she lost her balance and went crashing to the floor. When we were running towards the village, pursued by a swarm of enraged dancers, Alberto lamented all the wine her husband might have bought us.

THE END OF THE ROAD FOR LA PODEROSA II

Los Angeles, 27 February

WE GOT up early to flee what was no longer a very hospitable spot for us - though not before accepting another invitation to lunch. Alberto had a premonition and didn't want to drive, so I took the controls. We did quite a few kilometres before stopping to fix the gearbox. Not much further on, we went round a tight bend at quite a speed, the screw came off the back brake, a cow's head appeared round the bend, then lots more, and I clutched the hand brake which, soldered in an elementary fashion, broke too. For a moment I saw nothing but the shapes of cattle flashing by on the sides, while poor Poderosa gathered speed down the steep hill. By an absolute miracle, all we touched was the leg of the last cow. In the distance there was a river which seemed to be beckoning us with terrifying certainty. I steered the bike on to the side of the road and it flew up the two-metre bank, ending up lodged between two rocks, but we were unhurt.

Still reaping the benefit of the letter of recommendation from the press [Che, a medical student, and Alberto, a doctor some years older than Che, had been featured as "leprology experts" in a local newspaper, and had become neighbourhood stars], we were put up by some Germans who treated us very well. During the night I had a bad case of the runs and, not wanting to leave a souvenir in the pot under the bed, I positioned myself at the window and delivered the contents of my aching guts to the darkness beyond. The next morning I looked out to see the effect and saw that two metres below was a large tin roof with peaches on it drying in the sun; the spectacle added by me was impressive. We beat a speedy retreat.

Although at first the accident hadn't seemed important, it was now clear that we had underestimated it. The bike did strange things every time it had to go uphill. We began the climb to Malleco where there is a railway bridge the Chileans say is the highest in the Americas. The bike packed it in halfway up and we wasted the whole day waiting for some charitable soul in the form of a lorry to take us to the top. We slept in the town of Cullipulli (after the lift materialised) and left early, expecting catastrophe. On the first steep hill - one of the many on that road - La Poderosa finally gave up the ghost. It was our last day as "motorised bums"; the next stage, as "non-motorised bums", looked like being more difficult.

LA GIOCONDA

Valparaiso, 7 March

THAT afternoon in Valparaiso we went separate ways: Alberto following up the doctors while I went to see an old woman with asthma, a customer at La Gioconda [a restaurant the pair patronised]. The poor thing was in an awful state, breathing the smell of stale sweat and dirty feet that filled her room, mixed with the dust from a couple of armchairs, the only luxuries in her house. As well as her asthma, she had a bad heart. It is in cases like this, when a doctor knows he is powerless in such circumstances, that he longs for change; a change which would prevent the injustice of a system in which until a month ago this poor old woman had had to earn her living as a waitress, wheezing and panting but facing life with dignity. In these circumstances people in poor families who can't pay their way are surrounded by an atmosphere of barely disguised acrimony; they stop being father, mother, sister or brother and become a purely negative factor in the struggle for life and, by extension, 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 then, at the end, for people whose horizons never reach beyond tomorrow, that we see the profound tragedy which circumscribes the life of the proletariat the world over. In these dying eyes there is a humble appeal for forgiveness and also, often, a desperate plea for solace which is lost in the void, just as their body will soon be lost in the vast mystery surrounding us. How long this present order, based on an absurd idea of caste, will last I can't say, but it's time governments spent less time publicising their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful projects. There wasn't much I could do for the sick woman. I simply advised her on her diet and prescribed a diuretic and some asthma pills. I had a few dramamine tablets left and I gave them to her. As I went out, I was followed by the old dear's fawning words and the family's indifferent gaze.

STOWAWAYS

At sea, off Valparaiso, 9 March

WE GOT through customs with no trouble and headed boldly for our target. The boat we'd chosen, the San Antonio, was the centre of feverish activity in the port but, because it was small, it didn't need to come right alongside the quay for the cranes to reach it, so there was a gap of several metres between it and the docks. We had no option but to wait until the boat moved closer before going on board, and we sat on our bundles waiting philosophically for a suitable moment. At midnight, with a change of shift, the boat was brought alongside, but the harbour master, an unfriendly- looking fellow, stood squarely on the gangplank checking the men. We'd made friends with the crane driver in the meantime and he'd advised us to wait for a better moment because the guy was a real bastard. So we began a long wait which lasted all night, keeping warm in the crane, an ancient contraption which ran on steam. Our hopes of getting aboard had almost vanished when the captain turned up with a ramp which had been being mended, and the San Antonio was now permanently connected to dry land. So, we slipped on board with no trouble at all and locked ourselves in a toilet in the officers' quarters. From then on, all we had to do was say in a nasal voice "Can't come in" or "Occupied", on the half-dozen or so times someone tried to use it.

It was midday and the boat had just sailed, but our good mood was disappearing fast because the toilet, apparently blocked for some time, stank to high heaven and it was incredibly hot. By one o'clock, Alberto had brought up the entire contents of his stomach, and at five in the afternoon, absolutely starving and with no land in sight, we presented ourselves to the captain as stowaways. He thundered: "D'you think all you have to do to travel is to jump on the first boat you come across? Haven't you thought of the consequences?" The truth is we hadn't given them a moment's thought.

He called the steward and told him to give us work and something to eat. We cheerfully gobbled down our rations, but when I learned I had to clean the famous toilet, the food stuck in my throat. As I went below protesting between clenched teeth, followed by the smirking Alberto, who had been assigned to peeling potatoes, I confess I was tempted to forget everything written about the rules of friendship and ask to change jobs. There's no justice! He adds a fair portion to the accumulated muck and I have to clean it up.

THIS TIME, FAILURE

Baquedano, 12 March

ONE OF our friends from the San Antonio summed up his philosophy of life with these elegant words: "You're up shit creek because you're such shits. Why don't you stop shitting about and shit off back to your shitty country." So that's more or less what we did; picked up our bags and set off for Chuquicamata, the famous copper mine.

Lying in the meagre shade of two lamp-posts on the arid road leading to the mines, we spent a good part of the day yelling things, until we spied the asthmatic shape of the van which took us half way, to a town called Baquedano. There we made friends with a married couple, Chilean workers who were communists. In the light of a candle, drinking mate and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man's shrunken features struck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife who followed him with exemplary loyalty, his children left in the care of a kindly neighbour, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

The couple, numb with cold, huddling together in the desert night, were a living symbol of the proletariat the world over. They didn't have a single miserable blanket to sleep under, so we gave them one of ours and Alberto and I wrapped the other round us as best we could. It was one of the coldest nights I've ever spent; but also one which made me feel a little closer to this strange, for me anyway, human species.

At eight the next morning we got a lorry to take us to the town of Chuquicamata. We said goodbye to the couple who were heading for the sulphur mines in the mountains where the weather is so bad and conditions so hard that you don't need a work permit and nobody asks what your politics are. The only thing that counts is the enthusiasm with which the worker ruins his health for a few meagre crumbs.

It's really upsetting to think they use repressive measures against people like these. Leaving aside the question of whether or not "communist vermin" are dangerous for a society's health, what had burgeoned in him was nothing more than the natural desire for a better life, a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose real meaning he could never grasp but, translated into "bread for the poor", was something that he understood and, more importantly, that filled him with hope.

The bosses, the blond, efficient, arrogant managers, told us in primitive Spanish: "This isn't a tourist town. I'll get a guide to give you a half- hour round the mine and then please be good enough to leave, we have a lot of work to do." A strike was in the offing, yet the guide, the Yankee bosses' faithful lapdog, told us: "Stupid gringos, they lose thousands of pesos every day in a strike so as not to give a poor worker a couple of extra centavos. That'll be over when our General Ibanez comes to power [he did, and was president of Peru from 1952-58]. And a foreman-poet said: "These famous terraces enable every scrap of copper to be mined. People like you ask me lots of technical questions but I'm rarely asked how many lives it has cost. I don't know the answer, doctors, but thank you for asking."

Cold efficiency and impotent resentment go hand-in-hand in the big mine, linked despite the hatred by the common need to survive, on the one side, and to speculate on the other... maybe one day, some miner will joyfully take up his pick and go and poison his lungs with a smile. They say that's what it's like over there, where the red blaze dazzling the world comes from. So they say. I don't know.

IN THE REALMS OF PACHAMAMA

Puno, Peru, 26 March

BY THREE in the morning the Peruvian police blankets had proved their worth by reviving us with their warmth, when we were shaken awake by the policeman on duty and sadly forced to leave them behind as we set off on a lorry heading for Ilave. It was a magnificent night, but bitterly cold. As a special privilege we were given some planks to sit on which separated us from the smelly, flea-ridden human cargo giving off a heady but warm stench beneath us. When the lorry began to climb, we realised the full extent of the privilege: not a whiff reached our nostrils and no flea could possibly be athletic enough to jump up to our refuge. On the other hand, the wind whipped round our bodies and within minutes we were literally frozen stiff. The lorry kept climbing, so the cold got more and more intense. We had to keep our hands outside the relative protection of our blankets to stop ourselves falling off; the slightest movement would have sent us headlong into the back of the lorry.

Halfway through the afternoon, the drizzle which had lashed our faces for some time turned into a real downpour. The driver called the "Argentine doctors" and invited us into his cabin, the height of luxury in those parts. We immediately made friends with a schoolteacher from Puno who had been sacked by the government for being a member of the APRA party [American Popular Revolutionary Alliance]. The man also had Indian blood and sided with the Aymaras in the interminable debate against the Coyas [Indians of Inca origin] whom he called wily and cowardly. His voice took on an inspired reverence whenever he spoke about his Indians, the formerly rebellious Aymara race who had held the Inca armies at bay, and it switched to deep despondency when he spoke of the Indians' present condition, brutalised by modern civilisation and the impure mestizos [mixed race folk], his bitter enemies, who take revenge on the Aymaras for their own position as neither fish nor fowl. He spoke of the need to set up schools which would help individuals value their own world, enable them to play a useful role within it; of the need to change completely the present system of education which, on the rare occasions it does offer Indians an education (education, that is, according to the white man's criteria), only fills them with shame and resentment, leaving them unable to help their fellow Indians and at a tremendous disadvantage in a white society which is hostile to them and doesn't want to accept them.

The fate of these unhappy people, he said, is to vegetate in some obscure bureaucratic job and die hoping that, thanks to the miraculous power of the drop of Spanish blood in their veins, one or other of their children will somehow achieve the goal to which they aspire until the end of their days. As he spoke, the convulsive clenching of his fist betrayed the spirit of a man tormented by his own misfortune and also the very desire he attributed to his hypothetical example. Wasn't he in fact a typical product of an education which damages the person who is granted it as a favour to demonstrate the magic power of that precious "drop of blood", even if it came from some poor mestizo woman sold to a local cacique [boss], or was the result of an Indian maid's rape by her drunken Spanish master?

CAFE SOCIETY

Juliaca, 28 March

THE first part of the journey was not very long as the driver dropped us off in Juliaca, where we had to find another lorry heading north. On the recommendation of the Civil Guard in Puno, we made for the police station where we found a sergeant, pissed to the gills, who took a liking to us and invited us for a drink. He ordered beer which everyone downed in one, except for me.

"What's the matter, my Argentine friend, don't you drink?"

"It's not that, but in Argentina we're not used to drinking like this. Don't get me wrong, but we only drink with food."

"But, che-e-e," he said, prolonging our onomatopoeic patronymic into a nasal wine, "why didn't you say so?" And with a clap of his hands he ordered some good old cheese sandwiches which went down very well. Then he got carried away with boasting about his exploits and began telling us how everyone in the area was afraid of him because he was such a fabulous shot.

To prove it he pulled out his gun and waved it at Alberto, saying: "Look, che-e-e, stand back 20 metres with a cigarette in your mouth and if I don't light it for you first go, I'll give you 50 soles." Alberto's not that keen on money, he wasn't about to get out of his chair for only 50 soles. "I'll make it 100." Still no sign of interest from Alberto.

By the time he got to 200 soles - on the table, no less - there was a gleam in Alberto's eye, but his instinct for self-preservation was stronger and he didn't move. So the sergeant took off his cap and, aiming at it in a mirror, threw it in the air behind him and fired. The cap remained intact, of course, but the wall didn't and the owner of the bar blew her top and went to the police station to complain.

A few minutes later an officer turned up to find out what was going on and hauled the sergeant off into a corner to give him a talking to. When they came back to our group, the sergeant said to Alberto, making faces at him so he'd get the gist: "Hey, Argentine, got another banger like the one you just let off?" Alberto caught on and said with all the innocence in the world that he had run out. The officer warned him about letting off fireworks in public places, then told the owner the incident was closed, that no shot had been fired, he couldn't see any trace on the wall. The woman was about to ask the sergeant to move a couple of centimetres from where he was standing stiffly against the wall, but after a quick calculation of pros and cons decided to keep her mouth shut and give Alberto an extra telling off.

"These Argentines think they own the place," she said, adding a few more insults as we fled, one of us thinking ruefully of the beer we were missing, the other of the sandwiches.

In the next lorry, we travelled with a couple of youngsters from Lima bent on proving their superiority over the Indians, who put up with their taunts as if they hadn't heard. At first we looked the other way and tried to ignore them, but what with the tedium of the journey on an unending plain, after several hours we were forced into conversation with the only other white people on board, the only people we could talk to since the wary Indians offered barely more than monosyllabic replies to questions from outsiders. In fact, these kids from Lima were normal enough, they just wanted to make clear the difference between them and the Indians. Soon a flood of tangos descended on our unsuspecting companions as we chewed energetically on the coca leaves which our new-found friends obligingly obtained for us.

As the light was fading, we reached a village called Ayaviry, where we were put up in a hotel paid for by the head of the Civil Guard. "What, two Argentine doctors sleeping rough because they have no money? I won't hear of it," he replied when we feebly protested at his unexpected generosity. But despite the warm bed, neither of us slept a wink: the coca wreaked its revenge on us with waves of nausea, diarrhoea and migraine.

TRAVELLER'S TALES

Oxapampa, 27 April

OUR reception was magnificent and we had a wonderful day; swimming in the river, free of care, good food, delicious coffee. But all good things come to an end and by the evening of the second day, the engineer - because our "host" was an engineer - came up with a solution that was not only effective but cheap: a highways inspector had offered to take us all the way to Lima. We were delighted since we wanted to get to the capital to try our luck, so we fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

That night we climbed into the back of a pick-up truck which, after a downpour which soaked us to the skin, left us at 2am in San Ramon, less than half way to Lima. The driver told us to wait while he changed vehicles and left his assistant with us to allay any suspicions. Ten minutes later he too disappeared off to buy cigarettes, and this pair of Argentinian wiseguys breakfasted at 5am on the bitter realisation that we had been fooled all along the line. I hope the driver gets his comeuppance...

Shortly before dawn, we came across a couple of drunks and did our brilliant "anniversary" routine. It goes like this: (1) One of us says something in a loud voice immediately identifying us as Argentine, something with a che in it and other typical expressions and pronounciation. The victim asks where we're from and we strike up a conversation. (2) We begin our tale of woe but don't make too much of it. (3) Then I butt in and ask what the date is. Someone says it and Alberto sighs and says: "What a coincidence, it was exactly a year ago." The victim asks what was a year ago, and we reply that that was when we started out on our trip. (4) Alberto then heaves a tremendous sigh and says, "Shame we're in such dire straits, we won't be able to celebrate." The victim immediately offers to pay, we pretend to refuse for a while saying we can't possibly pay him back, etc, then finally we accept. (5) After the first drink, I adamantly refuse another and Alberto makes fun of me. Our host gets annoyed and insists, I keep refusing but I won't say why. The victim keeps asking until I confess, rather shamefacedly, that in Argentina it's the custom to eat when we drink. Just how much we eat depends on what we think we can get away with, but the technique never fails.

LETTER TO CHE'S FATHER

Iquitos, 4 June

AWAY from scientific centres where we might be cut down to size, our journey becomes something of an event for the staff of the anti-leprosy hospitals and they treat us with a respect worthy of two visiting researchers. I've got really keen on leprology but I don't know how long for. The farewell which the patients in the Lima hospital gave us was enough to encourage us to carry on; they gave us a Primus stove and collected 100 soles, which in their economic circumstances is a fortune, and several of them said goodbye with tears in their eyes. Their appreciation stemmed from the fact that we didn't wear overalls or gloves, that we shook hands with them as we would with the next man, sat with them, chatting about this and that, and played football with them. This may seem pointless bravado, but the psychological benefit to these poor people - usually treated like animals - of being treated as normal human beings, is incalculable and the risk incredibly remote. Until now the only staff to have been infected are a medical orderly in Indochina who lived with his patients, and a zealous monk whom I wouldn't like to vouch for.

SAN PABLO LEPER COLONY

Beside the Amazon, 18-20 June

ON MONDAY, after sending some of our clothes to be washed, we went to visit the patients' compound. Six hundred of them live in typical jungle huts, quite independently, doing whatever they wish, working at their own jobs, in an organisation which has taken on characteristics and a pace all its own. Dr Bresciani commands considerable respect and he clearly co-ordinates the whole colony. He is working on a detailed study of nervous forms of leprosy based on 400 cases.

On Wednesday we did the rounds again, with a bit of fishing and swimming in between. At night I play chess or we chat. Thursday, we played football in the afternoon, and I wasn't quite so bad in goal. In the morning we had tried to fish, fruitlessly...

A group of the colony's patients came over to give us a farewell serenade that night [the next Thursday], with a blind man singing local songs. The band consisted of a flute player, a guitarist and a bandoneon (a small accordion) player with virtually no fingers, and non-patients helping out with a saxophone, another guitar and some percussion. After that came the speechifying; four patients in turn made us speeches as best they could, a bit clumsily. One of them got stuck and out of desperation shouted, "Three cheers for the doctors." Alberto then thanked them for their welcome in glowing terms, saying that the natural beauty of Peru paled in comparison with the emotional beauty of this moment, but he was deeply touched, that words failed him except to say, and here he flung open his arms with a Peron-like gesture and intonation, "A big thank you to all of you."

LETTER TO CHE'S MOTHER

Bogota, Colombia, 6 July

Dear Old Girl,

Here I am, a few kilometres further and a few pesos poorer, getting ready to head for Venezuela. First of all, let me wish you the indispensable happy birthday, I hope you spent it as happily as ever with the family. Next, I'll give you a succinct account of my great adventure since leaving Iquitos. We set off more or less according to plan; we travelled for two nights with our faithful retinue of mosquitoes and arrived in the San Pablo colony at dawn, where we were given accommodation. The medical director, a marvellous guy, took to us immediately and, generally speaking, we got on well with the whole colony, except the nuns who asked why we didn't go to mass. It turned out these nuns run the place and anyone who didn't go to mass had their rations cut (we went without, but the kids helped us and got us something every day). Apart from this minor cold war, life was incredibly pleasant. The place is very lovely, completely surrounded by jungle, with aboriginal tribes barely a mile away whom we visited, of course, and an abundance of fish and game to eat everywhere and incalculable potential wealth, all of which set us dreaming of crossing the Mato Grosso by river, from the Paraguay to the Amazon, practising medicine as we go, and so on... a dream like having your own home... maybe one day...

We set sail downriver on a raft. After a good sleep, Alberto, who prefers fish to chicken, discovered our two baited hooks had disappeared during the night, which put him in an even fouler mood and, as there was a house nearby, we decided to find out how far it was to Leticia. When the owner told us in proper Portuguese that Leticia was seven hours upriver and that we were now in Brazil, we had a heated argument over which of us had fallen asleep on watch. This got us nowhere. We gave the owner the fish and a pineapple weighing about four kilos which the lepers had given us and stayed overnight in his house before he took us upriver again. The return trip was also very fast, but hard work because we had to row for at least seven hours in a canoe and we weren't used to it. We were well treated in Leticia; they gave us board and lodging, etc, at the police station, but we couldn't get more than 50 per cent off our air fares. What saved the day, though, was that we were asked to coach a football team while we were waiting for the plane, which came once a fortnight. Initially we only meant to coach them so they didn't make fools of themselves, but they were so bad we decided to play too, with the brilliant result that what was considered the weakest team got to the final and only lost on penalties. Alberto was inspired and I saved a penalty which will go down in the history of Leticia.

THIS STRANGE 20th CENTURY

Caracas, Venezuela, 17-26 July

THE worst of my asthma attack is over and I feel almost right, though now and again I resort to my new acquisition, a French inhaler. I drift away from the centre of Caracas and walk towards the suburbs. Caracas extends along a narrow valley so that you can't go very far without having to climb the surrounding hills and there, with the city spread at your feet, you see a new feature of its heterogeneous make up. The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have conserved their racial purity by a lack of affinity with washing, have seen their patch invaded by a different kind of slave: the Portuguese. And the two ancient races now share a common experience, fraught with bickering and squabbling. Discrimination and poverty unite them in a daily battle for survival, but their different attitudes to life separate them completely: the black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of America and drives him to get ahead, even independently of his own individual aspirations.

Dotted along the sides of the roads are crates for transporting cars which the Portuguese use to live in. In one of these, with a black family in it, I glimpse a brand new fridge, and blaring out of many of them is music from radios with the volume turned full up. Shiny new cars are parked outside the most miserable dwellings. Planes fly overhead sowing the sky with noise and silvery glints while at my feet lies Caracas, the city of eternal spring. Its historic centre is threatened by the encroaching red of tiled roofs mixed with flat roofs of modern constructions. But there is something which will make the yellowy tones of its colonial buildings live on even after they have disappeared: the spirit of Caracas, impervious to the way of life of the north and stubbornly rooted in its retrograde semi-pastoral colonial past.

AFTERTHOUGHT

Written back home in Argentina; it is not known when or where the events described took place

THE stars streaked the night sky with light in that little mountain town, and the silence and the cold dematerialised in the darkness. The man's face was lost in the shadows; all I could see were the two sparks of his eyes and the white of his four front teeth.

After the introductory trivialities and niceties, when we were about to go our separate ways, he let slip, with that cheeky laugh of his, accentuating the disparity between his four front incisors: "The future belongs to the people and gradually or suddenly they will take power, here and all over the world.

"The problem is," he went on, "that the people need to be educated and they can't do that before taking power, only after. They can only learn by their own mistakes, and these will be very serious and will cost many innocent lives. Or maybe not, maybe those lives are not innocent because they'll belong to those who commit the huge sin contra natura; in other words, they lack the ability to adapt. Revolution is impersonal, so it will take their lives and even use their memory as an instrument to control the young people coming after them. My sin is greater because I will die knowing that my sacrifice stems only from a stubbornness which symbolises our rotten civilisation. I also know - and this won't change the course of history - that you will die with your fist clenched and your jaw tense, the manifestation of hatred and struggle, because you aren't a symbol, you are an authentic member of the society to be destroyed; the spirit of the beehive speaks through your mouth and moves through your actions."

I saw his teeth and the playful grin with which he foretold history, I felt his handshake and, like a distant murmur, his conventional goodbye. The night closed in around me again, enveloping me within it. Despite what he said, I now knew... I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people. And I know it because I see it imprinted on the night that I, the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas, will assail the barricades and trenches, will stain my weapon with blood and, consumed with rage, will slaughter any enemy I lay hands on. And then, as if an immense weariness were consuming my recent exhilaration, I see myself being sacrificed to the authentic revolution, the great leveller of individual will, pronouncing the exemplary mea culpa. I feel my nostrils dilate, savouring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, of the enemy's death; I brace my body, ready for combat, and prepare myself to be a sacred precinct within which the bestial howl of the victorious proletariat can resound with new vigour and new hope.

! 'The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America' will be published by Verso on 5 June at pounds 14.95.

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