Scouting India

Jenna Szydel’s Girl Scout trip was an eye-opening immersion in an exotic South Asian culture
Ozaukee Press staff

Jenna Szydel of Port Washington was a well-traveled Girl Scout, a veteran of visits to Costa Rico and Mexico. But those trips were nothing like her recent sojourn in the eastern hemisphere.

Two-and-a-half weeks in India gave the 2019 Port High graduate an immersion she will never forget in an exotic culture that contrasts radically with her life in small-town America.        

The adventures started right after her 14-hour flight ended. Jenna and her Girl Scout group landed at 3 a.m. in Mumbai.

She and her travel mates were supposed to take a five-hour bus ride to Sangam, a center affiliated with Girl Scouts.

But because a religious parade blocked their road, they had to put themselves and their luggage on motorized rickshaws.

The trip took nearly eight hours.

At the scout center, which Jenna compared to a youth hostel, eight girls stayed in one room.

Volunteers prepared food for them every day. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to like it because it would be too spicy, but they toned it down,” Jenna said.

It was a visit to a cafe that will stay with Szydel forever.

The restaurant offered free food and drinks, asking only for goodwill donations.

The employees were all victims  of disfiguring acid attacks.

Jenna connected with one woman in particular.

She was pregnant with a girl, but her husband wanted a boy.

He threw acid on her, causing one eye to go blind and part of her face to melt away.

“It really stuck with me,” Jenna said. “They’re so happy now. They run their little cafe and all have smiles on their faces.”

A 15-minute documentary about the cafe was shown with English subtitles.

The children of the employees performed a dance.

Jenna’s group of 12 and three chaperones donated 2,500 rupees to the restaurant.

The scouts then went to Maher, a haven for families escaping violence and desperate conditions.

Maher means “mother’s home” in the Marathi language spoken by millions of Indians.

Maher has nearly 900 children, along with adults who live there as long as they need to.

Despite the language barrier, the scouts interacted with the children.

“We were playing tag with the little kids,” Jenna said.

That was right up her alley, since Jenna will major in special education when she attends the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this fall.

She also volunteers with Special Olympics.

People at the center make crafts and other items to help support it. Jenna bought a bag made from an old sari.

Jenna had prepared for the trip for months. Girl Scouts were required to study different elements of Indian culture.

She and a partner from South Carolina remotely worked on a presentation on housing, from slums to middle class to high-rise apartments. None of the residences have air conditioning.

Families in India, Jenna said, live together.

After marriage, the wife moves in with the husband’s extended family.

Jenna said she met a 92-year-old woman who was proud of her kitchen.

Her house was spotless, but small and narrow.

Beds were placed wherever there was space, including under the stairs.

This being Jenna’s third trip, she helped plan some of the tourism elements.

The group flew to Delhi and visited India’s famous landmark, the Taj Mahal.

Delhi had McDonald’s and KFC. Malls had Vans and Levi’s stores and a host of American knockoff brands and native Indian labels.

Marriages are often arranged in India, and Jenna said their tour guide in Delhi told them his father went through 72 guys before finding one for his daughter.

The guide, she said, will let his daughters choose their own.

The climate required an adjustment.

Temperatures reached 107 with 97% humidity. It “cooled” to the 90s at night.         

“It’s so thick,” Jenna said of the air. “It’s hard to breathe when you were outside.”

The group occasionally dressed in traditional garb, but usually wore American clothes.

Jenna said Indian culture required her to have her shoulders covered and slacks below her knees at all times.

Food consisted of mostly chicken, beans, rice and chickpeas. The cow is sacred in India, so no hamburgers or steak.

The group drank out of bottles only and didn’t buy food from street vendors.

Everyone’s favorite food was a dosa, a crepe stuffed with cheese and potatoes.

The country takes a break in the afternoon for chai tea and cookies.

Many people in India have mopeds or motorcycles instead of cars, she said, and it can get crazy. They weave in and out of traffic without wearing helmets.

Jenna emailed her parents every day but she and other scouts did not use their cell phones. “I liked not having my phone there,” she said. “I had people to talk to and we played cards. It’s just nice bonding with other people.”

Jenna found her time in India a wonderful experience that was also “eye opening,” leaving her feeling “very fortunate and grateful for what I have here.”




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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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