Destination: HAVANA, Cuba
Guevara legend still very much alive in Havana
By KATE POCOCK, Special to The Sun
I jump into a Coco taxi -- a Cuban turtle shell on fast wheels -- and call to my Havana driver, "El Mural de Che, por favor." He knows immediately what I want. After all, Che Guevara's face is everywhere in this Caribbean country -- emblazoned across billboards, silk-screened onto gazillions of T-shirts and for sale as postcards at every kiosk.
As we zoom up the Paseo towards Revolution Square, Che's imposing silhouette looms into view. I recognize this image from Korda's famous photograph. The heroic revolutionary gazes out from under his beret. But here, the face is outlined in black metal and riveted onto a building. His salutatory slogan, "To the Victory Forever," in Spanish below.
"Stop, aqui," I shout and hop out with my camera. But as I train my lens on Che, three policemen appear. One blows his whistle and waves at me -- not in a what I'd call a friendly manner, either. Another in black sunglasses "tweets" and motions for us to come over. Oh, no. Wasn't this the most photographed building in Havana and isn't Che Guevara the most beloved figure in Cuba?
Turns out that we have wandered into forbidden territory. The building is the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for National Security. Fidel Castro has his office in this very edifice. We were not allowed to stop. The driver received a warning, and soon we were off again at full speed for other Che sightings.
As a student of the '60s, I knew Che, or at least his image as it made its way across college campuses. Like this radical free thinker, the Woodstock generation believed in Power to the People and love for humanity. Che's philosophies appealed to our romantic idealism. But that was more than 30 years ago. So I was intrigued to see that here in 21st-century Cuba, Che was still alive.
Ask Cubans and they will rhyme off dates as we would a nursery rhyme. Che's birth? June 14, 1928. The month and year he successfully fought Batista's armed soldiers and set up camp in the hills -- December 1958. The morning he arrived triumphant in Havana to help Castro with the Cuban revolution -- Jan. 2, 1959. The dark day he was murdered in Bolivia -- Oct. 9, 1967.
As one Cuban friend says, "For us, Che is still very much alive."
Indeed, school kids pledge every morning to "Be like Che."
Citizens at bus stops pull out coins or stamps with his picture to tell the story of the Argentinian doctor who came to Cuba, fought for justice and became a hero.
And tourists, from all corners of the world, make the pilgrimage to follow the trail of Che, from the south where he first landed on Cuban soil to the west where he commanded from caves, to the town of Santa Clara, where a huge mausoleum protects his remains.
My quest begins at Museo de la Revolucion y Memorial Granma in Old Havana. Behind glass and guarded by soldiers is Granma, the motor vehicle that in 1956 brought Castro and 82 comrades from Mexico to fight the dictator Batista. Most were killed. But 11 men, including Guevara, escaped into the nearby Sierra Maestra hills where the fight continued.
The dated but interesting museum displays include Che's sandals, tapes and a lock of his hair. Most shocking is a photo of him in Bolivia with a face so altered by plastic surgery that even his daughter did not recognize him.
Further Havana stops along the Che Trail include the Museo del Aire exhibiting the hero's personal Cessna, and the fortress San Carlos de La Cabana where Che executed counter-revolutionaries. Visitors can examine the bullet-holes, his office, his weapons of choice and Nikon camera.
Outside Havana are the Cuevas de los Portales, a series of caves on the western edge of Parque Nacional La Guira.
A guide will lead you from the 30-metre-high room where Che commanded the western army during the 1962 Missile Crisis to the tiny niche for his narrow iron bed. Most tourists, however, head straight to Santa Clara for the Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara, the mausoleum containing his ashes and the huge bronze fighting soldier statue. According to one tour guide, people visiting here often dissolve into tears.
In the end, Che remains an enigma. A man who passionately fought injustice and yet meted it out with no regrets. A hero who had his own plane and was president of the Bank of Cuba, yet urged his family to take the bus. A medical doctor who tried to cure the sickness of the soul.
Back in Havana, I spot an image of Che that I can capture. This time, his face is on a painting in a flea market on a can of Campbell's Soup, a la Andy Warhol.
Written alongside are the words, "Cuba's Ideology Soup." It's $80, cash only, a fitting souvenir and rather ironic. I mean, just how many 15 minutes of fame is one man entitled to? I give up trying to count.
GETTING THERE: Signature Vacations offers a seven-day Cuba Central Explorer Tour that includes trips to Santa Clara City to visit the Mausoleum of Che Guevara. Prices start at $1,699 and include airfare from Toronto, English-speaking guide, air-conditioned coach, meals, accommodation and airport transfers. Their Havana 2-in-1 vacation package offers three nights in Havana where you can tour the Che sites and four nights at Varadero Beach. Prices start at $1,129 for three nights at the funky 50s-era Hotel Riviera and four nights at the beachfront all-inclusive Villa Cuba resort including transportation. Visit www.signaturevacations.com or see your travel agent.
FURTHER READING: For more on Che and Cuba, read Patrick Symmes's excellent Chasing Che: A Motorcyle Journey In search Of The Guevara Legend, (Random House, NY).
MORE INFO: Contact the Cuba Tourist Board 416-362-0700 or visit www.gocuba.ca.