Sunday, November 11, 2007

Under Communism...

I was in the middle of nowhere, Bolivia in a small llama-raising town called San Juan, at least eight hours from the nearest paved road on a three-day 4WD tour of the rural southwest corner of Bolivia, a desolate land of volcanos and desert, mummies in exposed graves, salt lakes full of flamingos, grazing llamas, and, often in places where it seemed there was nothing to graze on, the llama's wild cousin, vicuñas. My traveling companions were five Polish kids in their mid and late 20s, along with our driver and guide, and our cook. The Polish kids all enjoyed traveling and working in the US, apparently on some kind of "study" visa that lets you work as a way to learn. They'd all spent time in Alaska and had visited San Francisco, and three of them had worked in Hatteras, North Carolina, where my family vacations every summer. One of them even knew Asheville, where my brother and sister-in-law live.

I wasn't thrilled at first that I ended up in a group of non-English, non-Spanish speakers, and it was mostly Polish for the first day. But that night, in the dining room of our very modest mud-brick hotel, we had a nice dinner talking, in English, about travel, politics, and language.

What was interesting was that they were just old enough to remember Communism from childhood. I got to hear stories that seemed half horror, half nostalgia, about having money, but nothing to buy, having to wait in line with mom with their siblings so each person could get a ration of coffee, sugar, or butter ("...I don't remember butter," one of them added.)

I already catch myself saying, "when I was a kid..." but these guys' children and grandchildren are going to be in for a lot of "under Communism..." stories. The second night, they shared more memories. They remembered loving cotton candy, which was available from "someone important," someone who had the connections to get his hands on a machine to make it--a rare person who had a business. For each of them it was someone different, but whoever he was, he set up in front of church on Sunday mornings.

This led them to reminiscing about the standard first communion present--a set consisting of a calculator, a watch, and a pen. For those a few years older, it had just been a watch, but one that played tunes--American songs. At school the next day everyone would compare how many songs their watch played--10, 12, 20.

They remembered going to the house of the one person who had a VCR, who charged admission like a theater (another rare business opportunity), to watch the Karate Kid or Rambo.

And they made me try a spoonful of powdered dry milk--a clearly nostalgic treat from when there was no candy available. It was gummy and kind of gross till all that was left was the rich aftertaste. For them, now, this is a treat, because it was back then. They offered me more, but I declined. As they took second and third spoonfuls, I couldn't help but exclaim, "Now I understand Communism!"



sarapennington said...

When W worked as a ranger at the Wright Bros. National Memorial (on the OBX), he knew several Polish students on short-term visas who worked in the grocery stores there.

You come to the US to "work to learn" and end up bagging groceries at the Food Lion. Fun.

Also, I have a friend about the same age as your traveling companions who immigrated to the US from Poland at age 8. I'll have to ask her about the powdered milk and the cotton candy.

Eli said...

it's funny that you have this post right after the water-heater, i've always associated the boxes on the wall with the post-communist countries i've visited. also, have you seen "nu pogodi" all of my friends from estonia, poland, and the czech repubilc have memories of it from their childhood, only cartoon they could watch or something

SLC said...

I think, if I had a band, I would name it "The llama's wild cousin."