On the Bolivian Trail of Che Guevara, a Literary Guerilla

by Stephen Eisenhammer

The dust lay smooth. No vehicle had passed in over an hour, as I sat gazing at the grainy pages in my hand. I could feel the damp paper curl on my fingertips in the afternoon sun. I turned the page, welcoming the chance to start anew. 12th December 1966. I explored the geometry of the new page: the wide margins, the bold font of the date, and the well-spaced sans-serif of the main text.

Four hours had passed since I’d arrived at this deserted spot on the far side of town and still the dirt road showed no sign of relieving me from my post. I was on a traffic island, where the only two roads that led out of the small town of Vallegrande converged. It was the only way out into the jungles mountains where I was headed. All buses going in my direction had to pass by here. At least that’s what they’d told me as I stuffed my pack on the crumpling colonial patio of my hospedaje.

Beside me stood a statue of some important figure in Bolivian history that I didn’t recognise, his horse rearing and his sword drawn. The drunk who had been spitting indiscernible speeches at me earlier had been distracted and was now swearing at a dilapidated truck stationed behind me. The tattered paper in my hand was Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diary. I did not understand how this book had become so worn in just two days travelling. The heavy humidity that had played havoc with Guevara’s asthma seemed also to be taking its toll on his words. This was the record of his final campaign. His admirers say he was as skilled with the pen as he was with the gun. But the few pages I had read made me question my hero’s aim.

“Shoot coward! You are only going to kill a man,” were the words Guevara chose to leave as his final testament. Nine bullets marked the transition from man to myth that rainy October day in 1967. Shortly after life had left his sharp gaze, his matted body was flown by helicopter to the nearby town of Vallegrande, and shown to the world. This was where I now stood, still shaken from a video report I’d sent out from the disheveled laundry where Guevara’s body had been laid out for view. The small concrete room lay at the back of the town hospital. With the directions of a ghost-like nurse I had passed the whitewashed wards, breathing in the sterile air of medicated death.  The old laundry resembled a pillbox, the sort I’d seen in Ypres. Wild with graffiti, I stood inside the empty tomb of the living dead. A colourful bouquet of wilting flowers stood on the stone, altar-like basin in the middle of the room.

A dust cloud marked my bus arrival. I jumped up, and waved the 1980s Mercedes down, flapping Che’s diary with zeal. Knowing that a failure to halt this bus would mean another 24 hour wait brought on a prickly urgency. This is travel at its best, I thought to myself, smiling tensely. The bus passed in a cloud of dust. With my hands protecting my vision, I saw the conductor, a sandy kid of about 12, waving a soiled handkerchief out the window. I hoped that this vague gesture meant another bus followed up behind, but I couldn’t be sure. A horrible stillness hung heavy as the bus disappeared down the lone jungle-bound road. I stood, frozen in nervous irritation. I heard another bus. Its approach was so similar to the first that I had to blink hard to shake off an unnerving sense of deja vu. The bus stopped and I climbed through the floating dust, pulling myself up onto the first step, my pack hanging heavily from my opposite shoulder.

“La Higuera,” I exclaimed to the moustached driver. “Un discipulo del che,” he replied smiling. Is there still such a thing as a disciple of Che? I wondered as I squeezed myself into the bus.

Guevara is a historical anomaly that stands out heroically, but comically, in the modern tale of man. So serious, so stubborn, so brave. Everything that no one is today – no one good at least. A fanatic. Completely obsessed with equality, with truth, with moral justice. So much so that he could only fight, lose and die.

Ernesto Che Guevara was his own myth. He lived and died by a myth inspired by and formed through literature. A famous photograph taken during the Cuban campaign shows him sitting high in a tree, away from his men, reading.

Che read and fought, fought and wrote.

He is said to have endured the entire Cuban guerrilla war with a tattered copy of Pablo Neruda’s Canto General in his pack. This epic poem of Latin American history is a lyrical cry to the continent’s struggle for identity. As you hold this solid 500 page tome, Guevara’s passion for the written word is put into perspective. Despite his debilitating asthma, shoulders raw from dragging his heavy pack, he carried Neruda’s book every step of the way. Perhaps he felt he owed it to the great poet. Neruda had himself heroically escaped house arrest in Chile, fleeing over the Andes on horseback, carrying little but the finished manuscript of Canto General.

Guevara aspired his whole life to the myth that he had created, and that in death he would embody. The myth of the new man: A human being so selfless that he sacrifices himself every second of his life for the greater good of the community that he serves unceasingly. For Guevara, this must be the bedrock on which communism is built; nothing less than a shift in the human soul. In his essay “Man and Socialism in Cuba,” Che famously wrote:

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.

Guevara found his dream best expressed in poetry. When he was captured in his last battle, he had on him his precious diary in two tattered parts and a small, green notebook. The guards, expecting to find battle tactics and secret plots, pounced on it. They were surprised to find a selection of Guevara’s favourite poems, copied by hand during his last days in Cuba.

The bus was full. Handed an empty milk crate, I sat hunched for the two hour journey to Pucara. Unable to see out the window I read Guevara’s diary as the pentagonal grid slowly imprinted itself onto my ass. The bus meandered the dirt road that climbed into the mountainous jungle: guerrilla territory. As I fought against the waves of nausea brought on by the bus’s haphazard cornering, I was immersed in the daily struggle of Guevara’s band; stories of disease, exhaustion, betrayal and courage. One sentence, however, hidden in the midst of emotional and physical decay, stood out to seal Guevara’s uniqueness in my mind:

I must write letters to Sartre and Bertrand Russell, so they can organize an international fund to raise money for the Bolivian liberation movement.

This dirtied, matted Argentine, lost deep in the obscure jungle of South America’s forgotten heartland, with just a dozen armed personnel at his disposal, had befriended the greatest minds of his generation.

On Guevara’s death in 1967 Sartre declared him to be “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.” Strange that a man of such ruthless cruelty, who after victory in Cuba, executed without trial hundreds of the former ruling class, could herald such prestigious admiration. Guevara claimed it was a necessary evil. History can hardly contradict him. Sandinista Nicaragua, the other great Latin American revolution, was usurped by the American funded Contr a, composed of exactly the sorts of people Guevara killed in Cuba. Che was a cool, rational executioner, madly principled and mythically conscious of his own destiny.

I arrived bruised and nauseous. Dusk was falling. I checked into the only lodging in town, which was a stereotypical concrete mess of peeling paint. It looked like it had been designed to be two storeys taller, but the building had stopped one day, and never been resumed. Exhausted, I crashed out. Woken by the rural shriek of birds untamed by urban waste, I had some scrambled eggs in the cantina before starting my hike. No busses run to La Higuera, the remote Bolivian village where Guevara was executed. I arrived in time for lunch. An old lady who said this shed stood exactly where I was standing when Che was dragged by soldiers into this quiet village, beckoned from a doorway. I followed into the front room of her house, which doubled as a small general store. As she served me a large portion of rice, eggs and beans, she recounted that fateful day that would change Latin America forever, sparking countless armed struggles up and down the continent and costing a whole generation of idealistic lives.

No one in the village knew who Che was back then, she told me as my tongue blackened with every mouthful of beans. Today the walls of La Higuera are tattooed with Korda’s iconic photograph of the guerrilla. Now they realise he died for them. But has it made any difference? I asked my host and guide.

“We have a resident Cuban doctor. Ever since a few a months after Che’s death, Fidel has sent a doctor here to care for the sick.”

This is Cuba’s legacy. Even in this humid corner of Bolivia, forgotten by its own government, Castro’s shrewd fingers are at work. Much of Cuba’s lasting testament has been to bring to the fore a romantic and emotive politics that relates so closely to this continent’s naive sense of hope.

After lunch I dropped my bag in the school dormitory where I’d spend the night. I shared it with two other travellers. One, a Venezuelan social worker called Santiago who was a disciple of Che. The other a Korean student who called herself Kim and travelled with a pet kitten. Unable to find a companion to drift so far off into the Bolivian wilderness, we’d all made the arduous journey on our own.

Santiago had travelled across South America carrying a specific cigar smoked by Che, as well as a pack of mate, a strong Argentine tea Che drunk compulsively. We sat beneath a giant bust of the revolutionary and smoked, slurped and talked.

“I didn’t expect to find someone like you here,” Santiago said in between heavy tokes on his Havana. “A Korean, yes. They have a revolutionary past in Asia. But an Englishman,” he laughed, “that I did not expect.”

As the grey sky began to darken with an invisibly setting sun, we joined in a game of football on the school pitch. The whole village played. The different ages were marked by their footwear. Whilst older men dragged sandals, or played barefoot, the youngsters darted about in brightly coloured Nike and Reebok trainers. As I played, panting and sweating, I noticed that the men were calling each other Che. The nickname of Ernesto Guevara is a colloquialism in Argentina, meaning roughly mate or man. I had never heard it used in Bolivia and it was touchingly surreal to find it here. I pointed it out to Santiago, who shining with a brilliant grin said, “I already heard, isn’t it brilliant?”

A thunderstorm stopped the football game. The power which had only come on two hours before was knocked out within 15 minutes, as the rain came pouring down. Sheltered in our damp dormitory Santiago, Kim and I sat around a flickering candle. We talked of Che and politics, of Latin America and possibility. We shared the small amount of food we had, the rain having spoilt our chances of dinner. Between a feast of crisps, nuts and raisins we chatted well into the night.

As the candle burnt out Santiago looked over at me, glimmering in the last frame of light.

“Read today’s entry from Che’s diary?” he asked. “5 December 1966; No news. We thought about going out, but it rained heavily all day.”

Stephen Eisenhammer is the travel editor of the immersion travel website, www.catchthelingo.com.

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