He stood at the bow of the ‘Granma’. The boat rose and fell upon rolling waves as it pierced through the heart of the Gulf of Mexico and across the Caribbean. He stood with both hands upon the railing, a specter of what he would become, disheveled yet immaculate, devoid of the shoulder length mane and unkempt beard that would be immortalized in the tomes of history.
He was no longer the idealistic boy who had conquered South America mounted on a dying piece of metal and machine, he was radicalizing, he was mobilizing. He was compelled, he had seen the fall of Árbenz in Guatemala, he had watched as the West swooped down upon the tiny country and ripped its heart out over the distribution of land to the landless. He had watched as the streets of Guatemala City were flooded with the sticky red wetness of the defense of democracy.
He was compelled, he was hopeful, he was terrified. He had smiled, he had laughed, he had cried, he had felt joy, he had felt fear, he had felt sorrow. He had lay awake all night listening and loving and laughing, he had lay awake thrashing and worrying and grinding his teeth, but he had never felt this. This is what separated man from the kingdom of beasts he held dominion over, not art, nor culture, nor language or love, it was the awareness of the imminent, man could acknowledge his impending struggle, he could creep up to the edge of the abyss and stare deep down into the inky darkness that is the oblivion that awaits him. He felt jealous of the ignorance, of the routine of instinct, where hunger, breath and sex were the extent of emotion. If nature could feel this, the entirety of this world would surely shudder and surge forth in chaos. He felt the same chaos boil up inside him, it started in a tight knot in his stomach that reached up to strangle his lungs, he desperately sucked in deep breaths of the salt-ridden air in order to stall the bout of hyperventilating he knew would follow.
He suppressed the asthma that had followed him from the lowlands of Argentina to the dry desert air of Mexico and across the sea to the jungles of Cuba. He stood among names that would be etched into history, names that would live among the mountains and jungles, names that would liberate a nation from the iron grip of a tyrant and sever the greedy hand of a giant less than 800 kilometres away, names that would submit the tiny island nation to a new tyranny under a different banner, Cienfuegos, Castro, Guevara, July 26th.
He watched as the island began to rise out of the chopping waves and the jungles and mountains that would serve as his home and his trenches materialized out of the sea spray. He thought it odd how some trees resemble explosions, like fiery ordinances halted dead in time. Green pieces of shrapnel in the shape of leaves, surging forth and tearing viciously into the air, followed by slender trails of flame and smoke the colour of bark, all leading back to the single point on the ground where the seed took root and the grenade ignited. He had never properly known war, or listened to devastation, or smelled massacre, but he had seen pictures, and listened to old men, and he thought he knew enough of war to recognize the jungle before him for what it really was, a valley of napalm, painted in endless shades of green.
After taking an overnight bus out of Mendoza, we arrived in the city of Cordoba, a jewel of colonial era architecture int he centre of Argentina. After finding a hostel owned by an American living in Argentina we set out to the bus station to catch a mini-bus about an hour out of the city to the the town of Alta Gracia, the child-hood home of the infamous Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Upon arriving in Alta Gracia we were given some directions to the centre of town where we could find a colonial jesuit mission, places to eat and the home of a young Che. It is customary in some places in Argentina to take a siesta during the day, so we had to kill some time to wait for the jesuit museum to open up so we grabbed some empanadas and relaxed in a park along the river before heading into the museum. It was interesting seeing the architecture and the exhibits describing the history of the town and the way of life of the jesuits who lived here in colonial times, but I was itching to check out Che’s home.
All ideology aside, I was a huge fan of Che, I had read the Motorcycle Diaries chronicling his travels across Latin America on the back of a dilapidated motorcycle named the La Ponderosa, I had watched the movies and read the books describing his life and his transformation from a doctor well connected within the Argentine elite to a passionate revolutionary fighting in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia. Upon arriving to the house we were met by a young bronze Che perched on the ledge, as well as an admission fee to enter the house, something I feel the socialist Che would not have been a fan of.
The house was interesting, many of the rooms had been returned to their original condition, filled with childhood drawings, notes, pictures and possessions of Che. It gave a great timeline of his life and his evolution, from a meek child at the mercy of his frequent asthma attacks, to the young graduate hurtling around Latin America on a motorcycle, to the devote revolutionary. The walls were adorned with maps of his travels, photos of him from a child up until his death in Bolivia, letters between him and Fidel Castro, as well as photos of Hugo Chavez and the Castros visiting the house. The best part for me was the actual bike he traveled around Latin America in. After spending some time taking in everything we headed back to the bus station and jumped on a bus back to Cordoba.
That night in Cordoba the owner of the hostel took everyone out to a local Irish Pub owned by a friend, joined by his dog we all drank and had a good time before heading back to the hostel for some sleep.
The following day we set out to explore the city, taking in all the rich colonial architecture and history, as well as a darker side of the city’s history. We visited a museum commemorating Argentina’s “Dirty War”, which is a rather misleading name as it was not so much a war as it was systematic state terrorism against political dissidents within Argentina from 1975 to 1978, a branch of “Operation Condor”, a South American wide initiative commenced after the Western backed coup of the democratically elected President Salvador Allende and installation of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. It rooted out anyone thought to be associated with socialism, and during the three years an estimated 30,000 Argentinians were “disappeared” by military police, never to be seen again.
The museum was held in a police jail that was used to detain, interrogate and torture the “disappeared”, there are few words to describe how haunting and upsetting it was walking through rooms with walls covered in pictures of the “disappeared”. I stood in tiny, dark jail cells with messages to loved ones scratched into the walls, and in rooms used to torture political dissidents. It was a saddening experience, but a necessary one, the point of the museum was to ensure that those that were “disappeared” are not forgotten, and that the atrocities of a crazed and bloodthirsty government are never permitted to happen again.
After the gravity of the museum we were lucky enough to stumble on one of the best meals of my time in South America. At a small restaurant called La Vieja Esquina (The Old Corner), nestled in a corner of the colonial quarter of the city. There we enjoyed popular Argentine food like humita (a kind of corn stew) and delicious empanadas
That night the hostel held an “asado” and we all sat around enjoying delicious food and drinking fernet and coke, a popular drink in Argentina. The next day we set out for the bus station for another overnight bus to the Igauzu Falls, our final destination before turning around and making the journey back across Argentina.