THE NAME of the wine we drank during those two Peace Corps years was Buzbag, pretty funny to our American eyes, and it was still funny even if you pronounced it right in Turkish: "booze-bah." It was cheap enough for a Peace Corps salary, but after drinking too many glasses of it in our moonlit courtyards, we often got very depressed.
What were we doing in Turkey? The whole thing was a giant ripoff of the American taxpayer. We weren't helping the Turks; they wondered at us as though we had come from Mars. We were supposed to be teaching English, but the only people learning anything were we ourselves.
We had just entered what Gerard T. Rice calls the "culture fatigue" stage of the Peace Corps exprience, the period after nine months to a year in the country when reality sets in and world-changers begin to come to terms with their limits.
The Peace Corps, dented and bruised as it is, still remains the most untarnished remnant of John F. Kennedy's legacy of shattered dreams and promises. In this highly readable book, Rice manages to air most of the dirty linen and grant many serious criticisms, and still brings the Peace Corps out of it in fairly sturdy shape.
He finds that for all its arrogance, error and occasional stupidity, the Peace Corps remains a bargain for the countries that get it and, without much doubt, a life-transforming experience -- horrors and joys together -- for the volunteers who join. Even the most cynical of us returned PCVs will grant that we learned an incredible amount.
After our initial disillusionment about transforming Turkey, for example, things didn't get any easier, but we were more philosophical about it. In retrospect, one or two Turks may have learned a few words of English while I was there. I know a couple of Turkish women told their husbands I was proof that nice women did too expose their faces. Perhaps that was enough.
There's an old saying that an educational experience is what you call an event with no other redeeming features. Rice is at his best describing such bittersweet moments, often in the words of the volunteers and their evaluators taken, according to the voluminous footnotes, from Peace Corps files.
"You can do everything," said a frustrated volunteer in Colombia, writing about weak field backup for lofty host government promises. "But if you can't get a two-peso bag of cement when you need it, everything goes to pieces."
In many ways the early Peace Corps, up to 1966, was Sargent Shriver, Kennedy's hard- charging brother-in-law, whose impolite recruiting and reckless management style repeatedly took the new agency over the brink of outrage. Rice details the Peace Corps' contradictory roots in the idea of noblesse oblige, failed government-to-government aid programs and anti-communist rhetoric, noting that career diplomats saw PCVs as arrogantly ready to "go out and wreak some good on the natives."
IT WAS JUST 10 months from the first articulation of a Peace Corps -- in a Kennedy speech in November 1960, just before he was elected -- to the departure of the first volunteers for Tanzania and Ghana in August 1961. It was a volcanic period with Shriver throwing most of the rocks.
There is, in fact, a bit too much in the book about early bureaucratic infighting over the shape of the Peace Corps. Rice seems determined to have no real villains, dismissing the continuing controversy over the five- year limit on staff tenure, for example, and minimizing discussion of why Turkey (among other nations) finally asked the Peace Corps to leave.
But he is on target in observing that Peace Corps teachers "often had their greaest impact simply by encouraging their students to challenge the status quo and apply the question, 'Why?' to their poverty-stricken societies." If that sounds faintly revolutionary in Ronald Reagan's America, it gives an idea of why the Peace Corps is routinely in trouble in repressive societies worldwide.
Rice is also accurate in evaluating the famous 1961 "lost postcard" incident, in which a volunteer in Nigeria described "the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions" there, outraging the government and making front-page news.
"In later years," Rice notes, "there were much more sensational incidents -- rapes, murder trials, political entanglements -- but the media paid little attention. To the press and the public, the Peace Corps' first setback was its greatest: the dropped postcard."
In those days poor nations didn't like to admit their poverty; today it is the wealthy ones that are uncomfortable when it is spelled out.
For that reason, it would have been useful if Rice had given more than a brief summary of ways the old Peace Corps has changed in the years since 1966. Surely the problems of today's volunteers and today's Peace Corps have changed to reflect these new attitudes. But perhaps that is another book.