Che and me: on the road to revolution again

For Alberto Granado, the forthcoming film 'The Motorcycle Diaries' is a chance to relive his amazing road trip across South America with his teenage friend - Che Guevara. Bob Flynn reports

Alberto Granado is 82 this month. His skin is mottled by a lifetime of soaking up Latin American sun and his hands are twisted by arthritis. Yet, more than 50 years ago, the same hands guided him and a 500cc Norton motorcycle down the road to revolution.

Alberto Granado is 82 this month. His skin is mottled by a lifetime of soaking up Latin American sun and his hands are twisted by arthritis. Yet, more than 50 years ago, the same hands guided him and a 500cc Norton motorcycle down the road to revolution.

Granado gripped the handlebars of la Poderosa - the powerful one - on an epic trip that took him through Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. He was 29 years old and had recently qualified as a biochemist. With him went a 23-year-old medical student whom Granado nicknamed el Pelao - baldy.

The journey would radically alter their lives and their continent. For the world would come to know el Pelao as Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

While Guevara went on to lead political uprisings across South America and Africa, Granado founded Cuba's first faculty of medicine at the University of Santiago. He moved to the island at the personal invitation of his old travelling companion.

He still lives there. Now, the old man has helped to recreate the legendary 8,000-mile odyssey. On Wednesday, The Motorcycle Diaries by the Brazilian director Walter Salles, opens the Edinburgh Film Festival. It shows nationwide from the end of August.

The film has been developed and promoted with the help of Mr Granado. And his political identity still dictates the life he leads today. "They wouldn't allow me into America when it was shown first at the Sundance Festival, so I saw it privately with the Guevara family in Cuba, and I was very happy, because it shows the truth of our young lives."

It was on 1 January 1952, that Granado and Guevara celebrated the new year by setting off on La Poderosa from their family homes in Argentina. Eight years earlier, Granado had been jailed for demonstrating against the Argentinian regime of Juan Peron.

But still, their futures appeared to be set out before them, particularly for Guevara, who came from a distinguished Argentine family and was expected to qualify as a doctor and settle in a Buenos Aires practice. It never happened. By the end of their eight-month journey, the friends parted as hardened travellers and politicised men. The direction of their lives had changed for ever. "At the time it was impossible to imagine that the trip would change our lives the way it did," said Granado. "To think that Ernesto, whom I had known since he was 14, would go on to have such an effect on the world was incredible. Before we left Argentina, we didn't know about Latin America, about the enormous gulf between rich and poor and the terrible exploitation of the people. It had a great effect on us."

The rusting British 1939 Norton, which Granado bought for $800, had faulty brakes and a habit of shedding its drive chain. The overloaded bike looked, says Granado, "like a huge prehistoric animal", and eventually gave up on them, in Chile, halfway though their expedition.

But the fuse of revolution was lit on the journey, a journey replicated in Salles's film, which is based on journals written by Granado and Guevara.

Following the exact route taken by the young medics in 1952, Salles filmed for a marathon 84 days on the road, using local crews and mixing indigenous people with the professional cast.

Although the title of the film is taken from Guevara's book, the script, by the acclaimed Puerto Rican playwright Jose Rivera, relies almost entirely on Granado's detailed and vivid account, Travelling With Che Guevara, rather than Guevara's later politicised reflections. "The diaries were written for ourselves. Neither of us ever thought for a moment they would be published," says Granado. "And who could have guessed what Ernesto would become in later life? The film shows what we were, which was two young men - boys, really - who went looking for adventure and found the truth and the tragedy of our homeland."

Raised in Hernando, in the Argentinian province of Cordoba, Granado was a stocky, fun-loving extrovert, an expert tango dancer with a liking for wine, women and football. A brilliant medical scientist by his late 20s, he was determined to see Latin America before turning 30. Guevara, from the neighbouring province of Rosario, was six years his junior and the exact opposite in personality; quiet and introspective, he often suffered from severe asthma attacks which had affected him since childhood. Yet this same shy, asthmatic student would lead the first column of rebel fighters into Havana in January 1959, ousting the American-backed dictator Batista and replacing a corrupt Mafia playground with a socialist state just 90 miles from Florida.

The Motorcycle Diaries, however, is about the time before Ernesto became Che, the icon in beret and military fatigues. It is not so much about politics but about a way of addressing a world of poverty and oppression which the friends met on their long and fateful journey.

"Ernesto was an extremely sensitive human being and he was very shy because of that," Granado explained to me at the Cannes Film Festival. "To some he appeared a cold person, but that was because he was so shy. We were very similar but he was much stronger in his beliefs than me. I liked an argument but Ernesto wanted action. That was the difference between us. And he was fearless." Granado's father worked on the Argentine railroads, at that time controlled by the British, and was, says Granado, fairly treated and well paid. He had high ambitions for his son, but he was shocked when the young Dr Alberto announced his plans to explore their vast continent. "My father was very proud that his three boys had gone to university. So to leave everything at 29 to ride a bike across Latin America was not well received by him. It was even worse for Ernesto. His family told me, 'You are responsible, you are the older one, it's your fault.' In a way it was." And he laughs again.

In the film, the 24-year-old Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal plays Che. Rodrigo de la Serna, an Argentinian, took the role of Granado. He joined us and suddenly there was the disconcerting sight of Granado joking with a younger version of himself.

"Before they made the film, Rodrigo came to Cuba and we were initially a little wary of each other," said Granado. "I didn't know him as an actor, but when we started playing guitar and singing together I knew we would be friends."

De la Serna, is in fact a distant relation of Che's. He said: "Without Alberto there would be no film. He gave us great freedom with his own life. But I'm ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about him before the film. Of course I knew about Che, but only as a romantic figure. The strange thing is we are related, but he died years before I was born, so it's a distant family connection. But in making the movie I found that I identified with many aspects of Alberto and Che's beliefs."

Portraying men whose lives were transformed on the road affected the actors too, says de la Serna. "The journey we made while filming changed me personally, that's for sure. The contact with the indigenous Indian cultures gave me a new perspective on Latin America."

But, as in Granado's diaries, the film is neither preachy nor patronising, initially focusing on the friends' comical battles with the extreme elements and the troublesome motorbike. They are closer to Laurel and Hardy than budding revolutionaries. "It was a tough shoot, but we all had a sense of great responsibility in making this film, especially towards Alberto," says de la Serna. "It was such a unique thing to be able to consult with the man you are playing. The difficult part was that he was going to watch me playing him. But he is a very generous man."

De la Serna often took Granado for rides on the old bike, and in some ways Diaries is the ultimate road movie, focusing on the emergence of extraordinary men from thrill-seeking youths. "Alberto was there when we filmed the moment when the bike finally breaks down and we have to abandon it," says de la Serna. "And I could see that moment was still painful for him. When he was watching the scenes being filmed, it was as if he was back in his youth, back on the road." The mood of the film, as happened in real life, darkens as they travel towards Peru. Continuing the journey as hitch-hikers and stowaways, the young doctors were shocked when they visited a massive American copper mine in Chile where poorly paid itinerant workers were dying of work-related lung disease - a "scene from hell" which still angers Granado 50 years on.

"The conditions at the mine were atrocious," he says. "Ernesto was very disturbed by this, and he often had asthma attacks when he was distressed. I think it was then that we realised the need to fight for change in South America. We were going through a gradual change, but it overwhelmed us both by the end."

Unlike his friend, Granado never took up arms against injustice. Instead he devoted his life to eradicating disease, particularly leprosy, and became a key figure in Cuba's medical system.

Granado talks without a tinge of sentimentality, but grows emotional when describing the defining moment of the trip, on the night of Guevara's 24th birthday. Close to the end of their journey, Guevara swam across a treacherous, piranha-filled river to reach the leprosarium of San Pablo, situated on an island deep in the Peruvian Amazon near Colombia - a midnight swim repeated by Garcia Bernal in the film.

The young doctors worked at a leper hospital for a month before travelling on to their final destination in Venezuela, but not before instigating a medical revolution of their own. Refusing to wear protective clothing and mixing freely with the patients, they defied prevailing prejudices and transformed the approach to the treatment of leprosy. "People told us that we couldn't touch the patients, that the disease was contagious. But we didn't believe it was infectious, so we refused to use rubber gloves and masks. We worked, shared our meals and played football with them. We went against the official line, as always. Our patients liked us for that."

When Granado returned to the hospital with The Motorcycle Diaries film crew he met some of the patients he had treated more than 50 years before. "It was wonderful and amazing that they could still remember me. Some of the patients were maybe 14 or 15 when I had met them first. They were cheering when they saw me. But sometimes retracing our old journey was sad. In many places circumstances had not changed, and some villages are just as poor as they were when we visited them 50 years ago."

The pair parted in Caracas, Venezuela, at the end of their odyssey, Granado remaining there to take up a research post at a leprosarium. Guevara returned to Argentina to graduate as a doctor, specialising in paediatrics and allergies, work which his daughter Aleida continues to this day in Havana.

Within two years, politically active and haunted by his experiences on the road, Guevara had moved to Mexico City. There he met the exiled Fidel Castro, joining him in planning the Cuban revolution. Granado would not see his friend again until 1960, directly after the revolution, when Guevara wrote to say how much he missed his travelling companion and invited him to the new socialist state of Cuba. The rest, as Granado puts it, is "history with a capital H".

"In 1960, I decided to go to Cuba to pay him a visit. That was the first time we had shaken hands since our trip. But that's when I realised that he was not Ernesto anymore: he was Che. He had become a political figure."

Guevara's later life is strange and complex. He remains maybe the most potent symbol of Cuba, yet he became restless and disillusioned, leaving the island in 1966 to attempt a wider Latin American revolution from Bolivia. In 1967 he was captured and executed with the backing of the CIA, shot by a drunken Bolivian soldier in a village schoolhouse. By the end he was revered as a semi-mystical saviour of the oppressed - something Granado does not recognise.

"After Ernesto was assassinated there were many people saying that they were his friend, people who had never even met him. When I saw that Che was becoming an icon, I thought it was important to show he was a human being. That's why I published my diaries."

But the cult of Che continued, and Alberto Korda's landmark 1960 photograph of Guevara as a defiant revolutionary, published upon Guevara's death, has entered into global consciousness, adorning posters and T-shirts ever since. Granado, however, has little time for revolutionary chic.

"I am against the idea of Che as a myth," he says. "All the posters and T-shirts are matters of commercial consumption. But Ernesto was flesh and blood, with virtues and faults. He had ideals and followed them through with a lasting effect. That's no myth."

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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