Fifty years ago, Alberto Granado travelled across Latin America on a motorbike with Che Guevara - a journey that has now become a film, The Motorcycle Diaries. He relives the trip of a lifetime with Geoffrey Macnab
It is now over 50 years since a young Argentinian called Alberto Granado spent $800 on a 1939 Norton 500 motorbike so that he and his close friend Ernesto Guevara could travel round Latin America.
He was 29 at the time, a biologist and researcher working in a hospital in the provinces - "tired, bored and fed up". Guevara was six years younger. The motorbike, Granado remembers, was a symbol of their yearning for knowledge and freedom. The pair's journey took them across Argentina, Chile, Columbia and Venezuela, transforming both their lives.
Granado, who lives in Cuba, was due to attend the Sundance film festival last month for the world premiere of The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles's film about the friends' epic odyssey. Incredibly, the US authorities refused him a visa. "It's always easy to blame the imperialists, but maybe we didn't ask for the visa in time," the 81-year-old sighs. "I would have loved to have been there."
Instead, earlier this week, Granado came to the Berlin film festival for the screening of Travelling with Che Guevara, Gianni Mina's documentary about the making of The Motorcycle Diaries. There is a sense of Chinese boxes about Mina's project. He follows Granado as they retrace his journey across South America, and he also shows scenes from the shooting of Salles's movie.
In one, we hear the Argentinian describe how he and Guevara arrived in a new town and caused a sensation in the local press by pretending to be distinguished experts on leprosy. In the next, we see Salles filming this very incident with his two young actors, Gael García Bernal (as Guevara) and Rodrigo De La Serna (as Granado) while the real-life Granado sits on a director's chair behind the cameras. It's as if they were acting out his memories.
Only very slowly do the politics come into focus. Travelling with Che Guevara begins as a story of two hedonistic and adventurous youngsters, out to have a good time. "I lived in an era of good soccer and good tango," Granado remembers of early-1950s Argentina. The documentary is full of songs by Carlos Gardel and anecdotes about the scrapes the two companions got into.
They briefly tried to go to Easter Island because they had heard that there were 11 women to every man on the island. Once, when they'd drunk the local wine, the travellers were almost lynched by the furious husband and friends of a woman who had been flirting with Ernesto. "Luckily, they were all drunk too or they would have got us," Granado confides.
In a strange aside, we hear how the "rambling tramps", as Guevara and Granado styled themselves, had a chance meeting with the Real Madrid soccer player Alfredo Di Stefano, and asked him for tickets to a match (which he gave them). In later years, Di Stefano could still remember the incident, but he was astounded to discover that one of those scruffy Argentinian boys turned into a revolutionary leader.
The more they travelled, the more their eyes were opened to the injustices around them. Guevara was incensed by what he witnessed in the American-run tin mines in Chile, where many of the workers were dying of silicosis.
Of all the defining moments during their journey, perhaps the most important came when Guevara, on the night of his 24th birthday, swam across a treacherous river to reach the San Pablo leprosy colony where he and Granado had been working. The river was full of piranha and there were whirlpools. We see footage of Salles shooting this swim for The Motorcycle Diaries. García Bernal (who refused to use a double) plunges into the water. Doing a jerky crawl, he slowly disappears into the dark. De La Serna, as Granado, waits by the shore on one side of the river; the lepers they have befriended are on the other. When the young Guevara makes it to the other side, the lepers greet him as if he was a messiah.
In real life, Granado tells me, the incident wasn't quite as dramatic as Salles shows it. No, he never felt the urge to jump in after Guevara. He was too afraid of the water. Instead, he followed behind on a little raft, carrying a torch. But he acknowledges that the river crossing had a huge symbolic significance for his friend. Guevara was striking out entirely on his own for the first time. "It shows us what Che Guevara has inside him and that he doesn't care about danger," Granado says.
A tiny, impish man in a black leather jacket and a green cap, Granado comes across as both wise and mischievous. We see him greeting people he met on his journey all those years ago. Again and again, he expresses his gratitude to the film-makers for allowing him to "relive a dream".
There's a steeliness to him, too. "Although I came from a poor family, I wanted to be a scientist," he says. "I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to cure leprosy." When I speak to him in the bar of the CineMax cinema in Berlin after the screening of the documentary, Granado dismisses the idea that he played an important part in helping his friend find his political identity. "Fifty years after that marvellous adventure, it's a little difficult to say I had any influence on Che Guevara."
Camillo Guevara (Che's son, who accompanied Granado to Berlin) is not so sure. He explains that, a year after his father's trip with Granado, Guevara made a second journey through Latin America. "He wrote a short story, part fiction, part reality, about how much he missed Alberto during the second trip." As Camillo emphasises, Ernesto's life could have been very different if Granado hadn't bought that motorbike all those years ago.
After the Cuban revolution, Granado founded the Santiago School of Medicine in Cuba. It's four years since he retired; now, he spends his days reading and dreaming. Yes, he tells me between sips of red wine, he admires both the documentary and Salles's feature film.
"They show what I have been saying again and again - that Che Guevara was a real person, a person of flesh and blood," he reflects. "Walter sees the story through a very beautiful lens. He shows how we both developed. At the start, I was the older one, the one with more responsibility, but more and more, Che assumed this responsibility ... in Walter's movie and in Gianni's documentary, you see how everything became too small for him. First medicine became too small for him, then the revolution became too small for him and then Cuba grew too small for him. You can define Ernesto by the things he couldn't stand - he couldn't stand lies or unfairness or getting things he didn't deserve."
In the end, as Romano Scavolini's Che: The Last Hours (another film screening in Berlin) reveals, Guevara's war against injustice ended on a grim and squalid note in October 1967 at a school house in La Higuera, a poverty-stricken village in Bolivia. The guerrilla fighter was captured by Bolivian Rangers. On the orders of CIA-backed President Rene Barrientos, Bolivian radio broadcast the news that he had been killed in combat when he was still alive. When the order came to execute him, none of the Bolivian soldiers was willing to take on the job. Eventually, a sergeant who wanted the money, and who was determined to prove he was not a coward, agreed to carry out the assassination. He was so drunk that his colleagues recall him vomiting outside the school house before he went in to shoot Guevara.
Even in death, the revolutionary leader still mesmerised those he came into contact with. Scavolini tracked down Susana Osinaga, one of the nurses who cleaned his filthy body prior to his burial. She told Scavolini that she felt his eyes were following her round the room. "I felt he was looking directly into my heart. He was like Jesus Christ."
Nowadays, as Camillo acknowledges, Che Guevara is a pop culture icon whose image is as ubiquitous as that of Elvis or Madonna. "People love the myth of Che Guevara and to have T-shirts, hats and posters in their room, but they don't respect the integrity of what he did. They don't really know the story. I'd love that they understood who he was ... he was not a model."
Granado, though, fully understands why his old friend has such a magnetic pull on the imagination of the young. "He was heroic by nature," he says as if that explains it in a nutshell. But he is still fretting over a broken promise he made more than half a century ago.
Before they embarked on their 1952 trip together, Granado assured Guevara's father that he would bring his son home and make sure he finished his degree. "His family blamed me for his going away on a motorbike, while for my family, he was the guilty one - the one who had me in his pocket ... but the fact is that I had promised I would bring him back to Buenos Aires where he could get a degree. After that, we planned to meet again to continue our trips. But somehow it didn't turn out that way."
Ernesto "Che" Guevara may be an icon of revolution to millions, but for Alberto Granado he was a friend. He tells the story of their extraordinary friendship for a BBC Two documentary. In 1952 two young men from Argentina set off to explore South America on a motorbike.
Their journey forged a life-long bond and changed them forever.
Alberto, whose trip was made into the recent film The Motorcycle Diaries, says he still turns to Che for advice - nearly 40 years after his death.
"He never forgot me and I never forgot him either," the biochemist in Cuba told the BBC.
"His personality is so strong it is impossible to forget him - especially me."
The future travelling companions met in 1942, when Alberto was 20 and Che was 14.
Back then Alberto could already foresee that Che would become an important person. "What I appreciated most was his honesty - and his ability to transform negative things into positive things," he said.
They were natural companions, but Che was not an easy friend.
"He was not compromising. It wasn't easy unless you shared his vision and believed in it," Alberto said.
The restless young men turned a long-time dream into a reality when they set off on their motorbike "La Poderosa" in 1952.
They crossed from Argentina into Chile, where they quickly ran out of money and were forced to become "motorised scroungers", as Che put it later.
The pair had to blag and charm their way across Latin America - relying on the goodwill and hospitality of strangers.
La Poderosa finally broke down in Los Angeles, Chile, so the friends continued their trip by boat, horse and lorry.
For Alberto, it was a terrible moment.
"It was like saying goodbye to someone you love," he said.
'Doctor of the people'
The journey also opened their eyes to inequality.
"The trip made us aware of poverty and wealth," Alberto said. "The most important thing was to realise that we had a common sensibility for the things that were wrong and unjust."
Their week at the leper colony of Sao Paulo in the Amazon proved pivotal.
The pair shared everything with the sick people, he said.
"I got the impression that Che was saying goodbye to institutional medicine and becoming a doctor of the people," he recalls of his friend's wave on their departure.
In Caracas they parted, after nine months together. Alberto stayed on in the Venezuelan capital to work on research into leprosy, while Che went to Buenos Aires to graduate as a doctor.
Later, Che moved to Mexico, where he met the future Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In 1956 they invaded Cuba with a revolutionary army.
After the success of the 1959 revolution, Che invited Alberto to Cuba.
For Alberto, it was easy to make a home in the country he "had always dreamed of".
Cuba is a place "where people aim to improve themselves from a scientific or artistic point of view", he said, "instead of always thinking about consuming".
After the Cuban revolution, the friends went their own ways.
"Che chose the road to liberation," Alberto said. He rebuts the speculation about whether Che's departure from Cuba was prompted by arguments with President Castro or the Russians.
"He just wanted to cause a revolution in Latin America."
More than 37 years after Che Guevara's execution in Bolivia, his face is still emblazoned on thousands of t-shirts and posters, and the legend is kept alive in books and films.
"He was always worthy of what he said, thought and did - that's why they use Che's image," Alberto said.
And he remains an "admirer" of his old friend.
"Our journey, the Cuban revolution and Che have made me what I am now," he said.
"When I have doubts, I ask myself what Ernesto would say."