"Motorcycle Diaries" Shows Che Guevara at Crossroads

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Encountering Poverty

The first stop: Miramar, a small resort where Guevara's girlfriend, Chichina, was spending the summer with her upper-class family. Two days stretched into eight. Chichina lent him U.S. $15 to buy her a swimsuit in the U.S., and Guevara swore he would starve rather than spend the money on anything else.

The two men crossed into Chile on February 14. At one point they introduced themselves as internationally renowned leprosy experts at a local newspaper, which wrote a glowing story about them. The travelers used the press clipping as a way to score meals and other favors with locals along the way.

The pair also got into trouble. While stopping in the town of Lautaro to repair the motorcycle after an accident, they were invited to a dance. The evening ended badly, however, after Guevara was caught trying to seduce a married woman. The two men were chased out of town by an angry mob.

In Santiago, the capital of Chile, the motorcycle broke down for good. The two men decided to carry on by hitchhiking.

Guevara's political consciousness began to stir as he and Granada moved into mining country. They visited Chuquicamata copper mine, the world's largest open-pit mine and the primary source of Chile's wealth. It was run by U.S. mining monopolies and viewed by many as a symbol of foreign domination.

A meeting with a homeless communist couple in search of mining work made a particularly strong impression on Guevara.

"By the light of the single candle … the contracted features of the worker gave off a mysterious and tragic air … the couple, frozen stiff in the desert night, hugging one another, were a live representation of the proletariat of any part of the world," Guevara wrote in his diary.

Man of the People

In Peru, Guevara was impressed by the old Inca civilization. Riding in trucks with Indians and animals, he felt a fraternity with the indigenous people.

In Lima, the capital, the two men went to see Hugo Pesce, a leading leprosy researcher and a Marxist. Guevara engaged Pesce in political discussions. A decade later Guevara acknowledged the doctor's formative influence on him when he sent him a copy of his first book, Guerilla Warfare.

From Lima, Guevara and Granada traveled into the Amazon rain forest. They stayed for three weeks at San Pablo, a leper colony deep in the jungle, where the pair gave consultations and treated patients.

Guevara swam once from the side of the Amazon where the doctors stayed to the other side of the river where the leper patients lived, a distance of two and a half miles (four kilometers).

On his 24th birthday, with the doctors and nurses as his audience, Guevara gave his first political speech, advocating a unified Latin America.

"We believe, and after this trip even more firmly than before, that Latin America's division into illusory and uncertain nationalities is completely fictitious," he said.

The two men traveled on to Colombia and Venezuela, where Granada found work at a leprosarium. Guevara flew back to Argentina—via Miami, where he had to spend 20 days after the plane's engine broke down—where his family welcomed him upon his arrival.

Guevara was a changed man.

"I will be on the side of the people … I will take to the barricades and the trenches, screaming as one possessed, will stain my weapons with blood, and, mad with rage, will cut the throat of any vanquished foe I encounter," he wrote in his diary.

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