A Taste of the Tropics
by Beryl Gutnick (Phillipines 198990)
Lots Wife Publishing
Reviewed by Bill Coolidge (Bolivia 196668)
WHY WOULD A WOMAN, heading up toward her 70th year, leave her friends and family and move to the Phillippines? Had she finished what she needed to do in the United States? Was this a time to broaden her horizon when most men and women her age were looking for a quieter pace of life, a rocking chair, being near grandchildren?
Beryl Gutnick went to the Phillippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer in her 67th year. Equally surprising was that a majority of her group were over 50. What might this be telling us about aging in our own culture? Or a need for people in the last third of their life to confront new challenges?
The book is about a year in the life of Ms. Gutnick beginning with her orientation into Peace Corps life and concluding with her final days in the Phillippines. Ms. Gutnick has turned the letters she had written to friends and family in the United States and journal entries she had made while in country.into a non-fiction book.
There are many strengths to this book, such as acute observations of her host families eating and social habits, diverting travel tips, and honest complaints about her work and lonliness while being a Volunteer. She also chronicles a common malady among many Peace Corps Volunteers: the bad stomach. This is an ongoing theme wrestling with an undiagnosed ailment.
What we dont get from Ms. Gutnick, though, is what I was looking for a deeper inquiry into the customs and life of the people she lived with and met. No one character stands out. Ms. Gutnick also does not let us in on her original yearning of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. So we are unable as we read through the pages to assess how she is doing in realizing her dream. She also does not give us a needed political perspective on the unrest in the Luzon, the northern islands of the Phillipines where she is living and where a coup detat is attempted.
What we are left with is a daily situational observation of her anxiety about doing an effective job, and her ever present desire to hang it all up and return to the United States interspersed with joyful descriptions of parties and travels. Her tour of duty was to be one year, and she relates that she spoke to a Peace Corps staff member about early termination. (I can certainly identify with this need, as I took a Peace Corps offer of an early exit after 18 months to attend graduate school.) But Ms. Gutnick does not explore with us the deeper issues of failure, frustration, or lonliness.
How was Ms. Gutnick changed by this experience? Would she do it again? Recommend it to others? We dont know. This book as it is is a chronicle of daily life, yet it lacks a personal and a soulful reflection of life far away from home.
I would recommend this book to Peace Corps aspirants. It is an honest account of the unhappiness of being in another country without clear working agreements, solely dependent upon the customs of the host country. I also think that other Volunteers who have served in the Phillippines would find this a useful confirmation of their experience and could relate to some to the difficulties of traveling, working, and forming relationships beyond the friendships with other Volunteers.
Beyond these, however, Im not sure of the usefulness of Later Maybe. Ms. Gutnick did not develop a clear enough voice nor a strong enough thread for her readers to be enchanted or held in suspense. Her observations are often gratuitous, such as: Im living in an alien culture, nothing compares with luxury and good company, and oh how I miss my whirlpool. Maybe a year wasnt long enough, maybe there were too many Peace Corps Volunteers living nearby who helped Ms. Gutnick to stay on the fringes an in-between person not able to commit deeply to living with the Phillipinos as her only acquaintances.
In saying that, Later Maybe is the voice of a committed woman, doing the best she could, for a short time in a land of people undergoing great transitions. I salute her for her efforts.
Bill Coolidge was a Volunteer in the Bolivia Mines Project, and lived and worked in an orphanage for the children of miners. Currently he is writing about the environment, endangered species and homelessness. He is in the process of moving from the west coast to the east coast and will be living in Beaufort, North Carolina.