I hopped on a Philippine Airlines flight last May with only one book in my carry on: Ernesto Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey (Shop your local indie bookstore). Fourteen hours later, I was in Manila with my parents and at 6am, we sped past the early risers of the city. We went straight to my hometown in Pampanga. A couple of hours later, I was headed back again to Manila to fly to Bali with my bestie. On my bag — still Che.
I wanted to bring Che with me as I moved from one part of the world to another, mimicking the way 23-year old Che traveled all over Latin America with his friend, the 29-year old biochemist Alberto Granado, on a break before the last semester of medical school. While our itineraries, intentions and experiences were drastically different, I wanted to capture my own movement with his.
While I was waiting in airports, ready to be drifted from one continent to another on jet planes, Che and his friend relied on a motorcycle they called “La Ponderosa” (or “The Mighty One” which seemed to break down a lot throughout their journey).
The first commandment for every good explorer is that an expedition has two points: the point of departure and the point of arrival. If your attention is to make the second theoretical point coincide with the actual point of arrival, don’t think about the means — because the journey is a virtual space that finishes when it finishes, and there are as many means as there are different ways of “finishing.” That is to say, the means are endless.
Carrying nothing but the clothes on their back and a few essentials, the duo departed from Buenos Aires ready to see their side of the world.
One of my favorite moments is when they came upon the sea, the South Atlantic ocean bordering their home country. Calling it as his confidant, as his friend, Che reveled in the body of water in the same way that I have sentimentalized living by coastal California, passing by the Pacific Ocean on my way to work everyday.
They met many along the way, kind strangers who open up their homes, barns or any dwelling that they can set their sleepy heads on for a few nights. Most offer them food and other necessities, and point them to places where they can get the motorcycle repaired. At other times, they worked odd jobs in return for food and shelter . They also used what they knew as students in the medical field to bring respite to impoverished communities needing medical care.
On their four-month journey, there were many nights spent sleeping under the stars. La Ponderosa would break down in the middle of nowhere and after being exhausted by their feet, they would sleep and settle on the side of roads. They were usually hungry, running out of money. But time and time again, strangers came to their rescue. Most of the people they encountered were peasants who lived humbly. In other places, town officials fawned over their foreignness and offered them all the comforts they needed.
Reading Che’s travel diaries while he and Granado drifted from one town to another was inspiring, diligent repositories of memory. After crossing the border from Argentina to Chile, the duo came upon the town of Chuquicamata. Che’s recollection of what transpired here along with the people he met is probably the most memorable part of the book for me. Turns out, Chuquicamata is not just any town — it’s a copper mine.
There we made friends with a married couple, Chilean workers who were communists. By the light of the single candle illuminating us, drinking mate and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken figure carried a mysterious, tragic air.
The couple, numb with cold, huddling against each other in the desert night, were a living representation of the proletariat in any part of the world. They had not one single miserable blanket to cover themselves with, so we gave them one of ours and Alberto and I wrapped the other around us as best as we could. It was one of the coldest times in my life, but also one which made me feel a little more brotherly toward this strange, for me at least, human species.
Imprinted in his memory and slowly marking his consciousness, his diaries reveal a profound understanding of capitalism, of exploitation. He wrote that the country had a capacity for sustaining itself but because of greed and the need for profit, foreign private companies–specifically from the U.S.–has created and enabled the kind of suffering Chilean workers go through daily.
It is in this same vein that Che writes about Peru, as he ascended Macchu Pichu. His sentiment of anti-colonialism becomes stronger, as he sees the destruction of indigenous communities. First ravaged by the Spaniards and their relentless conquest of land, resources and people, he recounts how indigenous communities rose up to defend and protect themselves and their land.
He also gave us the key to the strange ritual observed by our traveling companions earlier in the day. Arriving at the highest point of the mountain the Indian gifts all of his sadness to Pachamama, Mother Earth, in the symbolic form of a stone. These gradually amass to shape the pyramids we had seen. When the Spaniards arrived to conquer the region they immediately tried to destroy such beliefs and abolish such rituals, but without success. So the Spanish monks decided to accept the inevitable, placing a single cross atop each pile of stones. All this took place four centuries ago (as told by Garcilaso de la Vega) and judging by the number of Indians who made the sign of the cross, the religious didn’t make a lot of progress.
I flew back to the Philippines after a few days in Bali, right in the thick of Holy Week. It took us four hours to get to my hometown from Manila, a trip that would’ve usually taken an hour during that time. My friend and I miscalculated the schedule of city-dwellers anticipating a long weekend back at their provinces, as we all sat in the freeway-turned-massive-parking-lot.
My home country was also conquered by Spain and four centuries later, churches and crosses and rosaries became synonymous with being Filipino. After just having spent some time with the Hindus in Ubud, wrapped up in their gentleness and tenderness, I wasn’t prepared for the rituals and traditions observed by my fellow countrymen at that time.
Bali made me wonder what could’ve happened to the Philippines if we weren’t conquered by the Spanish, ravaged by the Japanese and colonized by the Americans (to this day). How Catholicism is at the cornerstone of each institution, the Church heading every aspect of activity. We even had a priest as a governor in my province at one time!
Towards the end of his travels, it became clear that Che’s simultaneously toughened and softened by everything he witnessed. His resolute to free himself and his Latin American kinfolk was evident, as he centered his life’s work borne out of empathy for the struggle and suffering of the many he encountered.
At a celebration in Peru, he made a declaration that he stood by up until his last breath:
I would also like to say something else, unrelated to the theme of this toast. Although our significance means we can’t be spokespeople for such a noble cause, we believe, and after this journey more firmly than ever, that the division of Latin American into unstable and illusory nations is completely fictional. We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Magellan Straits bears notable ethnographical similarities. And so, in an attempt to rid myself of the weight of small-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and a united Latin America.
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The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Erneste Che Guevara
Ocean Press (218 pages)
August 1, 2003 (first published October 1, 1992)
My rating: ★★★★