PELHAM — During the two years that Pelham resident Elizabeth Taing served in the Peace Corps in Guyana, she learned exactly why the 47-year-old volunteer organization bills itself as “the toughest job you'll ever love.”
The slogan proved true for Taing, 24, from day one of her experience in March 2006. It held truer still on the last day of her service, when she had to say goodbye to “Auntie Dolly,” one of many patients who Taing befriended while working as a sex-, maternal-, and child-health educator on the small Guyanese island of Leguan.
“Auntie Dolly and her son and I were really close,” Taing said in a recent interview at her parents' home in Pelham, after returning in late June from her tour. “Her 30-year-old (only) son killed himself last year. So when I left, she just cried and cried. She was alone. I felt so bad, because there's nothing you can do.”
For Taing, Auntie Dolly put an unforgettable face to two huge, societal health problems in Guyana: widespread diabetes among the population because of too much starchy, fried food in their diet and not enough vegetables; second, Auntie Dolly lost her son to a too-common method of suicide in Guyana — ingesting liquid pesticide, a thick green sludge that is easily found throughout the heavily agrarian community.
According to a 2000 survey, 67 percent of suicides in Guyana are committed via ingestion of liquid poison, which can be an extremely slow and painful way to go.
“While I was in Leguan, half a dozen people tried to kill themselves that way,” said Taing, “and three actually succeeded... The youngest of these was a 12-year-old girl...”
Taing said people do it for attention, or because they get mad at their parents, or relationship problems, but by the time they regret it, “it's too late.”
Auntie Dolly's son was battling alcoholism and depression, according to Taing. He was also the victim of gay-bashing, she said.
“Anti-man, is the term they use (for homosexual males),” said Taing.
Taing filled out a Peace Corps application in 2004, during her senior year at Wellesley College. After searching for a job, she realized, “I didn't want to go into the (corporate) world until I had gained some real-world experience.” She saw the Peace Corps “as this big adventure.”
The application process took nearly a year, and by the time the letter arrived in spring 2005, Taing, who studied social justice and inequality, had nearly forgotten about the Peace Corps and was about to accept a job offer from a Washington law firm.
She rejected the law firm and spent part of that summer visiting Cambodia, the homeland of her parents, Kevin and June Taing.
The second letter from the Peace Corps informed Taing that she was being assigned to Guyana as a health educator.
“I figured they spoke Spanish. Instead I found that it's the only English-speaking country in South America. So I was a little annoyed, because I thought it would be cool to learn another language,” she said.
What she didn't anticipate was the language and culture shock as she stepped off the plane that carried her and 20 other Peace Corps volunteers from Miami to Guyana's capital of Georgetown. Ironically, “English”-speaking Guyana's peculiar vocabulary and lingo can be very difficult on newcomers. Even Wellesley grads.
“It took me a couple of months to really pick up the intonations and phrasing and vocabulary they use — it's all so different,” she said.
The Guyanese dialect is “a combination of Caribbean and a ‘My-Fair-Lady-ish,' English cockney accent,” Taing explained. The Guyanese also have a peculiar habit of transposing letters within words. For example, “film” is pronounced “flim,” “crispy” becomes “cripsy.”
With communication difficult for the first month, she said she “really felt isolated.”
A ferry took Taing to the island of Leguan in the geographical center of Guyana, one of 365 islands in the Essequibo River. A gull wing-shaped island that is 7 miles long and 2 miles wide, Leguan has a population of 4,000, mostly poor farming families.
In Leguan, Taing was taken in by her elderly “host mom,” who provided a bottom-floor studio apartment (with bars on the windows, per Peace Corps rules) that had running water and electricity for only a few hours per day. Also, Taing was lent an old TV set that picked up exactly four channels.
“I watched a lot of Oprah,” she said. “They play Oprah three times a day there.”
Each day, Taing would report to the hospital and one-room schoolhouse where she was supposed to be teaching sex education and maternity and child-health classes. But she hesitated to speak to anyone because of the communication barrier. Like many Peace Corps workers, Taing thought about giving up and returning home.
“As long as you get past that first two months, you're fine after that,” she said.
Of 20 Peace Corps workers who flew into Guyana with Taing in March 2006, only 10 would stay for the full two years, she said.
Taing threw herself into a daily routine to involve herself. She began attending a Hindu temple across the street from her house; she began running through the neighborhood every morning at 5:30 a.m. “to wake myself up, and let people see me, and to learn who lived in the community.”
As Taing's Guyanese communication skills improved with time, so did her ability to teach health classes to seventh- and eighth-graders in Leguan's one-room schoolhouse, and proper nutrition to mothers-to-be and the moms of newborns at the island's lone hospital.
“I worked with all ages,” Taing said. “My main responsibility was to work with pregnant mothers and babies in the hospital. I would educate them on issues related to their pregnancy, like morning sickness. We would talk about the importance of breast-feeding, healthy eating, how to deal with back pain. Also there was a children's clinic where mothers would bring in their children for vaccinations.”
Taing ate a fruit-laden diet while in Guyana — her host mom allowed her to pick unlimited bananas, mangoes, and guava from fruit trees that filled the backyard. (“I miss my fruit trees!” she exclaimed back at home.) She also got a generous dose of the native islanders' favorite dishes, which include lots of rice, curry, roti (thick, tortilla-like bread), chicken, mutton and iguana.
“When I first got to Guyana, and Leguan, I saw how hard people work just to survive, and how much we take for granted every day,” said Taing. Her time there also taught her how many luxuries Americans they don't really need.
“It was probably the most challenging, exciting, adventurous, terrifying but greatest learning experience I've ever had,” said Taing. “I learned so much from living in Guyana, about the people and culture and relationships and about myself. I would never regret doing it.”
Taing was one of the 62 New Hampshire residents serving in the Peace Corps in 2008, according to Joanna O'Brien, spokeswoman for the Boston regional office. The Peace Corps returned to Guyana in 1995 after a 24-year absence. Currently, there are 42 volunteers working in education and health projects within the country.
“ Guyana has lots of social, economic and political problems, like many other countries,” said Taing. “When I was there at first I wished to come home. Now, I miss it. It's such a beautiful country, and the people are so very polite and friendly… For me, it's become a different kind of home.”