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I’M BAREFOOT and 5,000 miles from home. I’m surrounded by a group of strangers speaking languages I don’t understand. The light is fading—at 9:30 p.m. Bizarre. But one thing I’m sure of: I’m having the time of my life.
A thought hits me during an impromptu volleyball game with Scouts from at least eight different countries. Here is one of the few events where a moment like this could take place. Different colors of skin—and uniforms—only make the experience that much sweeter. (The lingonberries help, too.)
My mind snaps back into the game just as a wiry, mustached Pakistani Scout from the opposing team dives to his left and thumps the ball into the air. His pass wobbles toward a shaggy-haired French Scout, who smoothly sends the ball skyward in the direction of a British teammate. The Brit’s spike sails over my head and lands … six feet out of bounds.
My side wins the point. But the victory hardly matters. Both teams share encouraging words and high-fives as an American Scout chases the errant ball. “Join us,” someone calls out, waving to a young Swedish woman who’s been standing near our court. She kicks off her sandals and joins the game, saying “Hej” to her new friends before taking a spot opposite me.
We’re Scouts and Scouters, after all, and this contest—this whole 22nd World Scout Jamboree, really—isn’t about winning or losing or keeping score. Sure, we proudly wear our nation’s colors on our uniforms. But for these two weeks, we’re united under Scouting’s common banner.
From 150 different countries we’ve come to this flat, grassy, 550-acre farmland in southern Sweden to celebrate diversity, build friendships, and change the world “with a small step forward”—a quote from the jamboree’s official song.
Organizers say this version of the quadrennial event is the largest ever: 40,000 participants and staff. Despite its size, though, the whole thing feels like a big family reunion. By the end of the first full day, I’ve made friends from places I only dreamed of visiting: Iceland, South Korea, Egypt, Finland. And Ohio, which is home to Justin Sayre, the Scoutmaster of Troop 279 in Reynoldsburg.
Like me, Sayre didn’t know what to expect before he arrived. “I was nervous, as I’m sure many were,” he says. “The sometimes-negative views of America throughout the world concerned me at first. But those fears were quickly put aside. Scouting has a unique ability to cross those cultural and political barriers and allow the participants the camaraderie we all share.”
That camaraderie reaches well beyond the dimensions of a mere volleyball court. I find it in dozens of cultural exhibits, where Scouts meet people from places most of us see only on the Travel Channel. I find it in late-night card games with friends, where the fast-paced chatter caroms between topics such as tax rates (Sweden has one of the world’s highest), sports (do you call it soccer or football?), and Scouting (how do you get more adults active in your troop?). And I find it in the continuous exchange of stories, tasty food items from back home, and memorabilia.
Lots and lots of memorabilia. By the end of the jamboree, swapping has made it all but impossible to identify a Scout’s country of origin by what he’s wearing. The kid with the red-and-yellow neckerchief is more likely to hail from Melbourne than Madrid. And don’t be fooled by those Scouts toting the orange Hong Kong backpacks. They’re British.
The hodgepodge of garb at the jamboree offers a fitting visual representation of solidarity that’s contrary to a world in which we’re often labeled friend or foe solely by the nation to which we pledge allegiance. At the world jamboree, for two weeks every four years, you’re a Scout first and foremost.
That’s nothing new in world Scouting. In 1947, with World War II still fresh on everyone’s minds, 24,000 Scouts gathered in France for the sixth edition of this event, dubbed the “Jamboree of Peace.” Just two years after the deadliest war in history, leave it to Scouts to come together in the name of harmony.
Before and since, this event has been that one place where your nationality is a point of interest, not a point of contention.
That’s what helps make the World Scout Jamboree the trip of a lifetime.
BRYAN WENDELL is Scouting magazine’s Senior Editor.