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Three Cups of Tea: One Man' Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations—One School at a Time

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations-One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. New York: Penguin, 2006. Black AND WHITE PHOTOS. 338 PAGES. $25.95.

Three Cups of Tea tells the compelling story of Mortenson’s struggle to help the world. Mortenson had been a fairly active and committed climber until he embarked, almost by chance, on what at first cynical glance would have seemed like a Quixotic undertaking. Retreating from a profoundly discouraging attempt on K2 in 1993, Mortenson barely makes it out the Baltoro Glacier alive. Essentially alone and lost, he is overwhelmed by the kindness and concern shown him by Balti porters and villagers. He resolves to personally build a school for a remote and abysmally poor and powerless village in Pakistan.

One has no difficulty understanding why Mortenson was profoundly moved by the village’s children going through the motions of attending school without teachers, crouched outdoors in the dirt of the high and harsh Karakoram. But then most good people similarly moved would return to the “real” world. They might go as far as contacting a Pakistani official of some sort to alert him to the plight of the Balti people, and then at home they might look to see if there wasn’t already some existing governmental organization dedicated to funding schools for poor people. If we are talking about really good people, they’d devote themselves to digging into the problem until the bureaucratic impossibilities utterly defeated them and they’d go on with their lives.

Mortenson’s approach turns out to be radically different and refreshingly backward. Returning to Berkeley and the Bay Area, he transitions rather easily from being a climbing bum to living in extreme frugality so as to save up the $12,000 that he has determined will build a school in remote Pakistan. Mortenson writes letters to famous people he doesn’t know, asking for money… which might not strike you as being an especially unique practice in this day and age, but when he also sells his precious climbing gear and his mountaineering books to help make his target, you begin to understand his devotion to his goal. He doesn’t bother talking to anyone in either the US government or the Pakistani government and it is clear that in his mind it has nothing whatsoever to do with such irrelevant entities. He is totally focused on a simple way to improve the lives of others and so he doesn’t bother to seek permission to do so.

It won’t spoil your enjoyment of the book to learn that Greg Mortenson succeeds in building not just one school, but dozens. He becomes the director of the Central Asia Institute, finds funding and more funding and devotes himself absolutely to building schools and helping the rural poor in Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan. Most amazingly, he learns the languages and customs and is accepted and beloved by people that most Americans are terrified by. When, inevitably, he runs afoul of those that disagree with his desire to educate Muslim girls in his schools, the dreaded “Fatwas” are issued and instead of running for cover, Mortenson and his growing cadre of Pakistani allies successfully challenge the edicts in the upper levels of the conservative religious institutions that most would assume could never favor an American infidel.

When the attacks of September 11, 2001 take place, the world focuses intently on the very places and peoples that Mortenson has devoted himself to. The book reminds us of how clear it was back in the days when we were dismantling the Taliban in Afghanistan that such a vacuum could not be left once again to be exploited by Al Quaida and the fanatics. Of course, as a nation, we were going to rebuild Afghanistan and prove to those people just how genuinely good Americans could be. But in following Mortenson’s struggles to do just that, on a shoestring budget and with little or no official assistance… it becomes clear that the moment was missed. Outside of Kabul, “aid” turned into security expenditures and other wars. Mortenson went on alone anyway, “fighting terrorism” by caring for people. If this idea is sometimes overstated in the book and comes across as too simplistic, then compare it to the prevailing simplistic idea that terrorism will be ended when enough terrorists are killed.

Climbing turns out to be a backdrop to the great stories this book tells, but climbers shouldn’t be overly concerned with the minor mountaineering specific flaws that proofing missed. It is hard to imagine that any climbers would not want to take great pride in what one of their own has accomplished. The book’s title, “Three Cups of Tea,” refers to a traditional approach to bringing strangers into the close-knit mountain communities that many of us have passed through on our way to summits. Most of us don’t drink that first cup. Too much salt and yak butter and third world in it… but we like and respect the people just the same, don’t we? Greg Mortenson drinks the tea … and he eats the weird food, and he sleeps in the dirty beds, and crowds in with unwashed poor people and he wears the clothes and messes up his life in order to make a real difference.

It isn’t like the rest of us are going to give up our mountains to do all that, but I’d be surprised if, after reading Three Cups of Tea, that you won’t want to reach out and help the guy by simply scratching out a check. Even if you don’t want to save the world, the book just makes for great reading. It is well plotted, honest, avoids preaching and is set in the rugged mountains that we all dream of visiting.

Dave Hahn

Note: This is the second review Hahn was written for the AAJ and sent electronically from Everest Base Camp.