The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America

By Ernesto Che Guevara

story by Paul Peczon, Created Jul. 14, 2003
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Hearken ye back to the sixties, when people listened to Glen Campbell and rode CB750s. It was time of great social change, as baby boomers got a stranglehold on such things as the entertainment industry. Back in those early salad years the thing to be was, like, against the establishment, man, a political extremist. There was no more romantic t-shirt icon then the stern visage of Che Guevara, filled with the fervor of revolution for the people. But whoever knew he was a motorcyclist?

Born in Argentina of downwardly mobile aristocratic blood, Guevara rebelled against 1950's social convention in countless ways, not the least of which being his dressed-down attire. Aside from being the Leonardo Da Vinci of grunge fashion, Che was Fidel Castro's right hand man in his takeover of Cuba, and was later martyred in Bolivia. The handwritten diaries found in a knapsack after his death at 39 years old were subsequently published in 1968 to an intellectually-hungry international audience as the Bolivian Diaries.

But the recently translated Motorcycle Diaries took place much earlier, when Guevara was, at 23, just getting over a long relationship. An older friend, Alberto Grandos, suggested they take a year off their medical school studies to ride to South America on an old Norton 500 single. Che readily agreed, and the two took off on "La Poderosa," supposedly to do research on establishing a chain of leprosy hospitals. The world was a very different place back then, and the pair depended entirely on the generous hospitality of strangers, drank lots of spiced wine, lusted for ladies, and had plenty of colorful times. The adventures they had varied.

"During the night I had a bad case of the runs and, not wanting to leave a souvenir in the pot under my bed, I positioned myself at the window and delivered up the contents of my aching guts to the darkness beyond. The next morning I looked out and saw that two meters below added by me was impressive. We beat a speedy retreat."

if you like history and social thought and want to impress the intellectual babes...

Not much is said about the actual motorcycle, other than a litany of brutal punishment which included multiple crashes repaired with wire and randomly found junk. There are no pictures of the fully laden bike, which is a pity because the two of them, equipped with necessities that included spare tires, must have been quite a sight. Predictably the poor Norton doesn't survive the whole trip, although this doesn't stop the adventure.

Guevara's writing is animated, with a keen eye for details. Che makes plenty of socio-economic and political commentary along the journey but, remarkably, isn't biased in his descriptions of the places and people along the way.

On a practical note, it's not the best motorcycle book around, and it's definitely on the optional list for those assembling a moto-book library. However, if you like history and social thought and want to impress the intellectual babes, it's a hell of a lot more readable than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and looks just as impressive on the coffee table.

Motorcycle Online Rating: ****
Buy it at Amazon.com! The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America.
By Ernesto Che Guevara.
156 pages, 16 glossy B&w ill, hardcover.
ISBN 1 85984 971 7.

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