Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ruta del Che

Going away party
Cake in a box

I left Sucre on Monday June 30th and would have used the slightest excuse to stay another day or another week, but knew that would not make things any easier. On Sunday, the day before leaving, many of the kids from center came by the house to surprise me with a going away party. I had been tipped off a couple days prior but acted surprised when I swung the large wooden door open. Laughing hysterically at what they thought they had just pulled off, the children entered the expansive colonial courtyard. Eleven-year old Edmundo was carrying a cardboard box that when opened revealed a battered store-bought cake. Peering inside I asked if they had dropped the box down a flight of stairs or if it had fallen off the back of a truck. They played embarrassed as they lined up for a slice. I was presented with many homemade cards and a plastic Chinese made wall clock as a going away gift. “Ah, just what I needed!” After some photos, they scurried off to their next soccer game. There were other goodbyes during that last week in Sucre, but that is the one I will remember the most, and the one that made me want to stay the most.

The plan was to head east and then cut up north to the financial capital of Bolivia, the city of Santa Cruz. On the way I would take the dirt roads and follow the Ruta del Che and visit the last stand of Che Guevara. After a brief stay in Santa Cruz, head north on even poorer roads to complete a loop of UNESCO World Heritage Site declared Jesuit missions. The end of the loop would put me a day’s ride out from the Brazilian border at Corumba.

As Fidel Castro’s right hand man during the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara had always wanted to export the revolutionary movement to South America. Forming many of his political ideals on his own motorcycle journey throughout the continent while in his early 20s, he wanted to right the many wrongs he had witnessed. Bolivia, which borders five countries, was to be the kick-off point for the new revolution. However, many mistakes where made from the onset, and things went from bad to worse once the CIA got word of their existence.

My first night outside of Sucre I stayed in the small town of Villa Serrano. The head cold that I had been fighting worsened and settled deep into my chest and I was forced to stay a second night. The following day I headed out on smooth dirt roads with several small water crossings to navigate. Always traveling alone, I did not have any photos of me riding in the mountains of Bolivia, so I spent some extra time in the morning shooting some video (see below). The roads were fast and fun, but as I got higher onto the ridge, the road conditions deteriorated. I should have slowed down. I hit several large rocks and potholes that jarred the bike and me. Around one corner, I heard a muffled crashing sound and pulled to edge of the road. It is a terrible necessity, and overall bad feeling to have to turn over your shoulder to look up the road for parts of your bike. There, about 30-yards up the road was my right pannier. The previous welds made in Sucre, ones that I knew would only be a temporary fix, turned out to be very temporary. Luckily, I was able to re-attach the pannier and continue – though much more slowly.

Che’s ill-fated and ill-planned Bolivian campaign ended when a local villager informed the CIA trained military patrol of his whereabouts. He was captured and quickly killed while his hands where bound in a small mountaintop schoolhouse in the nothing-of-a-village, La Higuera. From there, his body was strapped to a skid of a helicopter and taken to the small town of Vallegrande. There, his body was put on display atop a laundry sink at the town’s hospital – a trophy on display for the international press.

Fearing that he would be viewed as a martyr and that his body would become a symbol for other revolutionaries, a small group of Bolivian soldiers secretly buried his body under the dirt runway of the local landing strip. For 30-years the location of his body remained a mystery, until a group of Cuban anthropologists found him in 1997, and transported his remains to Cuban where he now rests.

After visiting the now historic schoolhouse, I ventured on towards Vallegrande. The weather could not have been better, and other than tired shoulders and some coughing, it was a great day. The vistas were stunning with hazy blue mountains stacked up for as far as the eye could see. I was sad to be leaving the mountains that had become my home.

The dirt and clay roads were deeply rutted from previous rains and had dried hard and rigid, but manageable. I rolled into Vallegrande at about 3:30 and by 4:30 had checked into a $6 hotel, changed out of my riding suit and dropped off the pannier at a welding/machine shop on the outside of town. For $15 an aluminum plate would be welded to the inside panel of the box reinforcing all the weakened areas caused by previous breaks and welds. They would also machine a new mounting part that I noticed was missing from the opposing pannier. They promised the work done by noon the next day, giving me time to tour the sites of Che.

Since crossing into Mexico, Che’s presence has been a constant. His image is omnipresent. Whether it is on t-shirts, taxi or bus windows, stenciled graffiti, key chains … you name it, he is always there. I have tried to find greatness in him, reading his biography and his Bolivian journal, watching the movies, talking to Bolivians and Cubans, visiting museums and I could never really find what I was looking for. He is an icon, a man of his time and a man that was intensely committed to his ideals. He made the most of his life and I believe his intentions were honest - for this I respect his legacy. Seemingly, for a period of time, his stars aligned and he found himself in the right place at the right time and he changed history -there is no denying that fact. He has become an iconic image for college freshman and the oppressed poor everywhere. He represents change, albeit iron fist change. However, it is often overlooked that his vision of the “ideal man” was one that lived under the strictest of discipline and government control.

Last word: Some now call what is happening politically in South America, as “Che’s Revenge”. Hugo Chavez’s brand of government has spread to almost every South American government, wherever the majority of the population is indigenous and/or poor. Although, I would not call what has happened in Cuba and Venezuela a success story. What Cuba can be proud of, and largely thankful to Che, is a quality education and healthcare system. Cuba now trains young doctors from all over the world for free - even though the country cannot afford it. All Cuba asks is that graduates go back to their country and treat the rural poor. In fact, Santusa and Damian’s oldest son, Daniel, just graduated from the five-year medical program, gratis, room and board included. Now a doctor, he is back in Bolivia practicing in a small mountain village, treating people that otherwise would receive no care. Cuba also sends it’s own doctors abroad to staff clinics and hospitals where there is a shortage of physicians. In fact, the irony is not lost on the fact that Cuban doctors now staff the hospital where Che’s body was once displayed.

Here is a short video of my time on the Ruta del Che

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