Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chasing Che to the end.

Why were we in Samaipata? I blame Adrian. As long as we’d been on the road he’d been asking folks who’d been to Bolivia if they’d been to the spot where Che Guevera was captured. The unanimous response was no. Easy to see why. Santa Cruz is not high on traveller’s lists and if it is it’s only as a place to catch the train to Brazil. But we weren’t headed for Brazil just yet. No, we had headed to Samaipata to trace Che Guevera’s last steps. Depsite trying to find out how to get there on our own (the concensus, not easily), we had relented and forked out big money for a private car/driver/and guide all the way out to the El Churo ravine where he was captured, La Higuera where he was executed and Vallegrande where he was buried under the airport runway. It was also the price we paid to get up at stupid o’clock. The early morning was made easier by the fact that the kind owners of La Posada had arranged for someone to make us breakfast and a bag lunch before we left. Then it was off with our guide Rufo to chase che.

We left in the dark at 5am sharp as Rufo navigated the roads at top speed. I found it better to close my eyes and felt myself drifting off, only waking as the paved road became deeply rutted dirt track for a few metres before switching back to pavement. I’d like to think that there was some sort of road improvement taking place but I believe it was just a plan to spoil my sleep attempt. In the front seat Adrian snored on. Just after 7am we arrived in Vallegrande. Rufo stopped at a market so we could pick up some food and drinks warning us that there would be very little available further on. Although it was early, the town was already awake but we’d have to wait to explore it until we returned on our way back to Samaipata.

Any attempts to fall back asleep were abandoned on our way out of Vallegrande. The road was now an honest to goodness dirt one. We passed signs announcing La Ruta de Che and pointing down narrow paths to tiny villages. We were getting closer and Adrian was getting more excited and I was relieved that his fanaticism hadn’t sent us on the five-day trek through these mountains. In another hour, we reached Pucara which I had read (in the literature of various tour companies) was a pleasant picturesque colonial town. It was a small village and colonial but falling apart and not really what I would call picturesque. Rufo once again promised we would stop here on our way back for photos but other than crumbling adobe buildings and dirt streets I didn’t see what there was to take pictures of.

Now the road was even worse and we were the lone vehicle trying to get through the mountains here. I’m glad we had chosen this private car route as I’m not sure how we would have gotten past Pucara or even Vallegrand. The scenery was quite stunning though. Deep valleys, high mountain tops and even sun poking through the clouds – something we hadn’t seen in a while. When we were at the top of a mountain, Rufo pulled over on the road and I thought it was time for a photo opportunity. Nope, Rufo explained pointing down to the ravine below. It was time to walk to El Churo, the place where Che was ambushed and captured by the Bolivian army (and CIA, depending on who you asked). I had imagined the hike to this spot would be a nice leisurely stroll that was flat. It was obvious I’d forgotten we were in bumf*cknowhere Bolivia because the path Rufo pointed to was more of a donkey trail that went almost straight down. It was full of sand and loose rock and since I didn’t trust the grip on my shoes I was making my way down slowly while Adrian seemed to run down the mountain. Rufo took his machete and cut a walking stick for me which helped as we negotiated some truly steep paths. We passed through a herd of cows grazing on the thorny underbrush on the hillside and crossed over some streams, walking down for about an hour. The entire time I wondered to myself how we were going to get back up. Finally we scrambled over a mass of fallen trees and over the final slippery river rocks and reached a clearing with the familiar silhouette nearby.

The middle of the clearing was marked by the familiar yellow star surrounded by benches in a circular (erm, perhaps sickle-shaped) pattern. Adrian immediately stood in the circle with a big smile on his face. Rufo pointed to various rocks nearby acting out Che’s last stand as I translated for Adrian. Then it was Adrian’s turn to act it out as I snapped pictures. There was Adrian fighting off the army in front of us until he realized he was surrounded on all sides. Then there was Adrian running to another rock for better cover but leaving his leg exposed to enemy snipers. There was Adrian shot in the leg throwing his stick, I mean gun, aside in surrender. As I snapped away Rufo asked if I wanted a picture of both of us. No, I’m just here to translate, I told him. This day is all for Adrian. Who was now busy writing his name on a tree. Adrian was here indeed.

After a brief rest on the benches, it was time to head back up. It was tough although not as bad as other times since we weren’t at altitude. I lagged behind and Adrian and Rufo had the benefit of extra long breaks as they waited for me to catch up. Rufo tried to encourage me by telling me Che had done this for and he had asthma so I could do it. I wheezed that I had asthma too and he suggested that we take a longer break in the shade this time. It helped a bit but it still took 1.5 hours to climb back up to the road. Finally. All this for Adrian – I think he owes me one. We ate the leftovers from breakfast and then headed down the road to the village? town? hamlet? of La Higuera. It wasn’t more than 5 homes and a handful of storefronts but it was important as the place where Che was held for two days before being executed. The little town had made the most of it. In the square was a small bust of Che next to a giant statue of Che beside another bust of Che next to a cross (photo above). Che grafitti and murals dotted the walls of the small schoolhouse and shops. And we were lead to the Che museum in the replica one room schoolhouse where he had been held captive. Since Bolivia really had no interest in Che until about 10 years ago there was nothing original from his capture but the town did its best with a small timeline and pictoral history of his life and death. Even with Adrian hanging on every word, it only took about 20 minutes to take it all in. Then it was back in the car to retrace our steps.

We passed through Pucara and I declined Rufo’s offers to stop for photos – it didn’t look any nicer the second time around plus I was still exhausted from that “little” hike. However, I was kicking myself for not asking to use the bathroom. While the boys were able to pull over at anytime on the road, I was starting to get a bit uncomfortable in the back. Half way between Pucara and Vallegrande, Rufo read my mind and found a small collection of bushes for me to hide in. Of course I had to kick out the dozens of unhappy chickens hanging out in them and ignore the loud buzzing of what was apparently a nest of bees or wasps nearby. Better to risk a few stings than a burst bladder – and I luckily managed to avoid both.

We arrived in Vallegrande and immediately headed to their Che Museum. But before we could continue to chase Che we were given a guide tour of the small archeological museum. It was more of what we’d already seen at Tiwanaku but I was impressed that Adrian stayed put as the guide took us through the pots and bones when upstairs the definitive Che museum was waiting. However this definitive museum was almost an exact copy of the displays in La Higuera. But there was an extra group of photos of various people standing beside Che’s body when it had been brought to Vallegrande as well as a another outlining the ’97 discovery and unearthing of the mass graves containing the remains of Che and the other 13 killed in the final battle. We lingered as much as we could trying to get our money’s worth and then found Rufo to take us to the next sites.

A man from the museum now accompanied us as we headed to the old airport. Actually it was still the airport but I don’t think Vallegrande has seen any flights since the helicopter that flew Che’s body here, especially since the dirt airstrip was cut short by a mausoleum. Inside were more of the same photos lining the wall and in the middle was a hole in the ground with cement markers showing who’s body came out of what indent. It’s all rather grim in retrospect but at the time Adrian’s excitement made us forget what we were looking at. Although we had the museum guide with us (which we had to pay for), there was an English speaking guy hanging around the mausoleum. His name was also Ernesto Guevera (honest he claimed) and he was from near Santa Clara in Cuba, one of the group of students tending to the grounds. Yup Cuba sent a group of 20 here to maintain the grounds. He led us through the photos and was pleased that we’d been to Cuba and seen the Che stuff around Santa Clara. He also told us about meeting one of Che’s daughters, Aleidita, who told him the story of when Che in disguise came to visit the family for the last time before heading to Bolivia. The children were merely told it was a friend of their father’s visiting but the young Aleidita noticed that this stranger wouldn’t stop looking at her. “I think daddy’s friend is in love with me she told her mother.” Although cute it’s also a sad story, knowing that was the last time she saw her father. The mausoleum had a wall similar to the one in Santa Clara with tombstone like memorial markers for all the guerrillas who died in the battle. We thanked Ernesto for his time and left him to continue touching up the paint in the mausoleum and he thanked us for the opportunity to practice his English.

Back in the car, Rufo and guide now took us to another field on the outskirts of town. It was the grounds of the Rotary Club but just behind the swimming pool was a small parkette full of more Cubans, painting and weeding the plot. This was home to the other mass grave where the 7 had been buried including Tania, the lone woman guerilla who fought along side the men. It was a more like a cemetery and despite the flower beds it wasn’t a place we wanted to linger so we got back in the car for our final stop. We pulled up in front of the town hospital and the guide took us past murals around back to an outbuilding that had once housed the hospital laundry. There in the open air building was the original laundry sink where the Bolivian army had laid out Che’s body for display – this wasn’t so that people could pay their respects but an army displaying the spoils of war. After they let the international press in to take photos of the body, they cut off Che’s hands and sent them to Cuba as a sort of take that, Rufo and the guide explained. And the sad fact is that although lots of locals filed by to check out the body no one really knew who he was at the time. But not now. These days the laundry was a mecca and the walls were covered in names and messages from people from around the world who had come to pay their respects. Since we were accompanied by a man from the museum I stopped Adrian from adding his own scrawl but snapped as many photos as I possibly could for him.

And with that we were done chasing Che.

Rufo now suggested we now chase some food. That proved to be hardest search of the day (minus the hike of course) as it was after 4pm and many places were closed between lunch and dinner. He did find a small Chinese place open and for the price of one meal back in Samaipata we had three. Then it was back in the car for the long ride back. We arrived back at the hostel at 7:30 pm and settled up with Rufo. Chasing Che had been a long day and now it was time to chase some sleep.

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