In the continuation of my stories about my experiences as an Argentinean-Polish mixture (or the other way around if anyone feels offended by the chosen order) I will tell you how everything looked like some 15 years ago, when I used to get my knees dirty with mud and similar elements and tried to be first at morning assemblies during one-month long camps. Everything started a long time ago when I really envied my brother his adventures from distant places in the Argentinean provinces, beautifully decorated uniform and the amount of slight scars which made him more and more adult. I wanted it all! So, first I had to agree to patiently attend junior scouts meetings till I was 10-11 – an age when I could feel adult in Polish terminology. But until that happened I was supposed to pretend to be a child. I was so good at it that now I don’t even remember if I joined the scout ranks a year later.
So that’s how I started spending my Saturdays in ‘Maciaszkoło’, a Polish diaspora centre where I used to go, which was in the Martin Coronado district in the province of Buenos Aires. In this province there are also the centres in Quilmes and Burzaco, and outside Buenos Aires there were the centres (now I don’t know if they still exist) in the provinces of Cordoba and Rosario.
On Saturday mornings we had Polish classes, during which they tried to teach us the language, and afterwards we went to a regular assembly and we played, sang in Polish and made various roars. Our head teacher was Nina, an old scout leader, who told us a lot about Poland the way she (and my grandmother) remembered. It was an opportunity for her to reminisce about how it was in Poland and to pour this sweet foreign melancholy on us. When I reflect on her pedagogical methods I feel surprised. I think it must have been living in Argentina that softened her methods. But our scout leader Nina could not understand how it was possible that some kids didn’t even know one Polish word. And I guess that, on the other hand, those who couldn’t even say ‘hello’ in Polish didn’t have much fun either. Scout Nina came back to Poland about 1991 when democracy was brought and the last thing I found out was that she was trying to start the business by selling ‘dulche de leche’ (milk jam of Argentinean recipe) in the land of Wars and Sawa. And I guess she wasn't successful.
When I finally could join the ranks of the sixth Carpathian scout team in Argentina, I had already been at three cub scout expeditions. And now I was to prepare to the real ‘scout experience’: a camp.
There was a problem with the tendency that everyone wanted to go to very nice places but not everyone wanted to go to the meetings every Saturday when weird things were done that some friends from school were not able to understand. Scout leaders tried very hard to make people attend the assemblies regularly. And they used different techniques: the friendly one – playing football after each session; the less friendly – trying to limit the time of playing football to introduce ZHP (Polish Scouting and Guiding Association) material; and even less friendly method – not allowing those who didn’t come regularly to go to the camps.
People who attended the meetings came from various social backgrounds and from what I recall we treated each other as equals. Maybe our household incomes were equally low (with few exceptions). Sometimes Polish roots were obviously visible in people, and sometimes not. And that was the great mistake of the organization: blocking access for those Polish culture enthusiasts who didn’t have Polish ancestors. Surely it killed a large part of clientele.
During all social events we tried to talk in Polish. However, when we touched official matters concerning scouting we used to rush as much as we could because we wanted to go on to more pleasant subjects. Generally, more than a half didn’t speak Polish at home but camping vocabulary at our meetings was surprisingly polonized: for the words like axe, tent, shovel, hatchet, shack we used Polish terms. Also, parts of a scout’s day were called in Polish but the campfires were the most interesting: lots of people around the fire sang something which seemed to be similar to what was written in the songbook. First campfires were rather uneven and without clear diction but at the end of each camp everyone could sang almost as good as a real Pole. That’s why I can still remember and sing nearly 50 songs.
Location of those camps was always great because we used to go either to holiday centres that belonged to the Polish diaspora in Argentina or to huge fields of the Argentine army. That was the essence - there was almost no one near the camp (we had to walk for several kilometres to get to the nearest village) and the feeling was amazing. Argentina is a vast land and its population is the same as in Poland (about 40 million) so the population density favours travelling hundreds of kilometres without seeing a living soul. Contact with nature on such occasions (drinking river water, living for a month without electricity) was very developing for a 10-year-old boy. Mendoza, Neuquen and Córdoba were the provinces we used to go to and thanks to scouting I had a chance to get to know them. During our trips we often met regular scouts on the streets and sometimes they had already heard about us (we were called ‘Los scouts polacos’) and sometimes not. I strongly recommend to get to know such places through camping if you ever happen to be in Argentina.
My scouting carrier ended with a rank of ‘detective’ (second rank in Polish scouting) and a function of a patrol leader. For 15 years I experienced different things which were moving me away from ‘ranking’ thinking and hierarchical organization. My two last camps were by the sea in ‘Punta del Este’ in Uruguay. The richest people in Argentina spent their holidays not far from us and they often called the police to get us out from there. They must have thought that there were gypsies at our camps who would try to break into their places and steal their valuable possessions. Fortunately, it was not like that at all.
Today, thanks to a famous social network, I can see again the names of people I haven’t heard from for a long time. It might be shocking to see someone you remember wearing shorts and who’s now a bearded man with three children in the photo. Those people still meet, at least in a virtual world, but there’s not much left of scouting in Argentina. Small influx of new members from the Polish community has shrunk the number of participants to minimum and I’m not sure if they would be able to play football after assembly due to their small number.
However, I realized that the world is getting smaller and smaller. During one of the concerts of a great band Yoga Terror some friend of my friend from university told me that she had a cousin from Argentina. She happens to be my first ‘love’ from one of those camps.
Nicolas de la Vega
Translated by: Iwona Białek