Out of corona, connection

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By Hilary Rosenthal
June 19, 2020

As a Peace Corps volunteer, distance— both physical and temporal— doesn’t mean you can’t still make an impact, and have your host country continue to impact you. With coronavirus causing all of us to physically distance, it’s important to remember this sentiment now more than ever.

I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 2013 to 2015. My adopted home of Zanjita, Paraguay was about as far a cry from my original home, New York City, as one could get: I lived in a town in the jungle, population 500 people at best. Horses were the main mode of transit and there was no internet. If I stood really still in the northwest corner of my room, I could get occasional cell service. The biggest town nearby, however, did have one thing that reminded me of my old days in the United States: a local radio station.

As an environmental conservation Volunteer, many of my projects in my community centered on working with youth and building conscientiousness toward conserving Paraguay’s incredible natural beauty. For most young people in Zanjita, their town off the long dirt road from the capital is all they’ve ever known. But many still had dreams of something more—like Cristhian, a 16 year-old boy who had a knack for sports-announcing and could perfectly execute any type of Latin American accent. This boy had not a cent to his name, but was my best English student by far. He could hear a word just once and learn it. Cristhian started working at the nearby radio station, walking miles every day to get there, and soon began to host his own shows. One time, he even live-commentated our regional soccer championship game, and interviewed me after my team won the semi-final.

Cristhian is now 21, and studying to be a full-time journalist. Occasionally, he still texts me on WhatsApp, but our messages are typically brief and superficial. However, on May 2, 2020, I got a different type of message from him: “Hilary, would you be interested in being interviewed on my show this afternoon? We go live at 4 p.m.!” I wasn’t sure I was up for it— my Spanish, not to mention my Guarani (the native language spoken in much of Paraguay, including my community) was rather rusty. But I too have a love for radio, and I miss Cristhian, so I thought, why not.

A group of three people sit under a tree with a guitar
Zanjita, Paraguay, is a town of about 500 people.

Cristhian called me at 4 p.m., and, to my horror, music blared in my ear and Cristhian began announcing immediately. There was no easing into this conversation. Yet, despite the spotty connection and Cristhian’s too-loud background music, I could make out just enough to hear his words and reacquaint myself with the jopara— a mix of Spanish and Guarani— to hear what he was saying. He introduced me and thanked me for being a guest on his show, speaking about how I lived in Zanjita for several years, and telling his audience that much of his success today is due to me. I took him to a young environmental leaders camp, Paraguay Verde, that Peace Corps held annually, back in 2014. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but it caused me to start the interview with immense pride and gratitude. His success wasn't really my doing at all. Cristhian was all the talent, he just needed someone to believe in him.

Throughout our interview, Cristhian asked me what the state of things were in New York City, where I currently live. He explained to the audience how New York City has had 172,000 cases of coronavirus and 13,300 deaths. Paraguay has had significantly fewer cases, but people were still going through the same things I was thousands of miles away—fear, concern, inability to travel.

He asked what I had been doing to stay connected with people, and I told him I had been using the pandemic as an excuse to check in with old friends, neighbors, and even exes, I joked. I talked about how I had been volunteering here in New York to get groceries and run errands for other people, whom I had never met, who felt more vulnerable and could not leave their apartments as easily. Cristhian conveyed the message to his audience in Paraguay, hoping it would continue to inspire the sense of community and service that young people in Paraguay possess.

I told Christhian that yes, the situation seemed dire in New York, but this has also been a time to reach out to your loved ones, as well as people you’ve never even met before, and make sure they’re okay. I encouraged his listeners to do the same in Paraguay, even if the cases were not as extreme as in New York. At times, I wasn’t sure if I was responding to Cristhian’s questions exactly, due to the poor connection, but it still felt so good to talk to someone who was a big part of my life not too many years ago (though it feels like a lifetime ago) and, by extension, the community listening to the radio segment.

I also used the interview as an opportunity to not only speak with an old friend and my beloved community, but also to update them on what I’ve been up to since I left Paraguay. I explained how much it means to me that many of my old friends from Paraguay — who I have not seen for nearly five years — have been reaching out to see how I am coping amid the pandemic here. Their messages have bordered on incessant, even they have joked, but I told Cristhian that afternoon that it means so much to me to have all of them continue to care for me and show they haven’t forgotten me, despite space and time. I hadn’t forgotten them either.

Three people from Paraguay and a white woman sit inside of a radio studio, doing interviews.
Cristhian interviewed Hilary when she was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I think many Peace Corps Volunteers fall into the same trap that I do. We think our service won’t matter much unless we build that big stove project, or teach 1,000 kids English, or start that local non-profit. I might be a product of a type-A, "doing" culture, but if there is anything that my Peace Corps service taught me, it’s that often times the biggest impacts we can have on someone’s life is not the thing we build for them or teach them, but the thing that we build or teach together: caring for each other, wanting to know about the other person’s health, values, fears, or joys. These things are important to learn about someone no matter who it is, but especially when you live with people from a background completely different from yours. The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from my Peace Corps service (and there have been many, though most have to do with me and poorly-maintained electrical sockets) is that listening to, learning about, and caring about someone who at first appears to have nothing in common with you is key to not just professional success, but also personal fulfillment.

As we began wrapping up the interview, Cristhian thanked me for joining him, and I thanked him profusely and made sure to tell all of the listeners that I missed them, that I think about them every day, that they have made me who I am today. Maybe it was a bit excessive for a radio interview.

Once our interview was over, I merely clicked the Whatsapp end call button. I stared out for a few silent moments, standing outside on my fire escape, sun in my face. It was a bit surreal. Our interview was probably no longer than 30 minutes, and happened with just a click of a button, but it’s all I’ve really thought about since.

This is just one example of a way I think returned Volunteers, or Volunteers whose service was unfortunately cut short too soon, can continue to connect with their host communities. The current pandemic has forced us to do this in a variety of ways with those closest to us, but I hope it also causes us to check in on those not as close. As I mentioned to Cristhian, it’s been a way for me to connect with my neighbors whom I’ve never met. Not just in my community of New York City, but, as we did the interview, also with his audience, many of whom I may never have met either.

We can still remain involved in our community, whether that’s in rural Paraguay or right down the block. And, even if there is static or you sound a little effusive, it’s worth it to let people know you love them and think of them often.

A young, white woman smiles at the camera in a professional head shot.

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