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From Barnes & NobleBefore he became Che, the world's foremost revolutionary icon, he was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a handsome and somewhat naive young medical student with a romantic urge to travel. In the early 1950s, Guevara set off across South America on a ramshackle motorcycle ironically nicknamed "La Poderosa" -- the Powerful One. Accompanied by his friend Alberto Granado, an older medical student who was already a devoted Marxist, Guevara experienced firsthand the region's economic and social problems. Deeply affected by the poverty and desperation he saw, and influenced by Granado's Marxist perspective, Ernesto's worldview was changed forever. At the end of his trip -- which took him through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Cuba -- Ernesto had become Che.
It is this act of transformation through travel that fascinated journalist Patrick Symmes and inspired him to set off on his own motorcycle in search of Che, a copy of Guevara's road journal, The Motorcycle Diaries, in his saddlebags. In his rich, multilayered travel narrative, Chasing Che, Symmes retraces Guevara's journey through South America, eventually traveling more than 10,000 miles. Part biography, part travelogue, and part cultural critique, Chasing Che is a compelling book about the relationship of travel to identity, revolution, and the complexities of history. Claiming that travel is the "quintessential revolutionary act," Symmes bases Chasing Che on the idea that Guevara's epic South American journey was the primary force behind the creation of Che, the radical, powerful guerrilla leader. "Every long journey overturns the established order of one's own life, and all revolutionaries must begin by transforming themselves," writes Symmes.
Like all great travel writers, Symmes is a keen observer of history and political intrigue, and sections of Chasing Che are devoted to his probing of South America's turbulent political past. However, the best sections of Chasing Che are the moments when Symmes is describing his own journey through the beautiful, wild scenery of South America, illuminating the special intimacy of traveling by motorcycle. "The driver of a car knows nothing about the directions of the wind, the lay of sunlight, the small changes in temperature between a peak and valley," writes Symmes as he flies across Patagonia's immense emptiness. Symmes's portraits of the villages, shantytowns, deserts, rivers, and mountains he encounters are emotional and perceptive, and always laced with historical detail. A travel narrative soaked in history, revolution, and adventure, Chasing Che is an incredible read.