I have read parts of many books, which is to say that I have failed to finish many books. Three Cups of Tea is not one of them.
Greg Mortenson grew up as an American missionary kid in Tanzania, became a poor mountain climber spending his spare time in the Bay Area, failed quite colossally in his attempt to summit K2 in the Himalayas, got lost on the way down and stumbled into the small Sherpa village of Korphe, then spent the last fifteen years building schools, mainly for girls, in some of the most remote and unreachable villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now the director of the Central Asia Institute, which to date has built 130 schools that provide education for 51,000 children.
Several good friends indirectly recommended Three Cups of Tea. After the last several weeks, I see why. The obligatory blurbs inside and outside the cover seem typically over-the-top, describing various facets of Mortenson’s life and its literary account as “admirable,” “unassailable,” “exotic,” “beautifully written,” “critically important,” “inspiring,” and “laced with drama, danger, romance, and good deeds” that reveal “one person’s passionate determination to persevere against enormous obstacles.” Yet these are not false advertisements.
Mortenson tells his story through the capable pen of author David Oliver Relin who beautifies the narrative while keeping Mortenson his normal, guy-next-door self. As Shams-ud-din Muhammed Hafiz is quoted at the beginning of Chapter 4, “Greatness is always built on this foundation: the ability to appear, speak and act, as the most common man.”
The story begins in Pakistan’s Karakoram, home to sixty of the planet’s tallest earthen towers, including K2. In 1993 Mortenson failed dangerously in his attempt to conquer this ice-covered behemoth whose height leaves Everest as its only object of envy. A wrong turn on his descent led him to the welcoming village of Korphe where he was mesmerized by the hospitality of the locals and captivated by the lack of education in this wind-swept and snow-blown village high on the cliffs above the Braldu River Gorge. Mortenson promised to return and build them a school.
Mortenson returned to his 6′ x 8′ storage unit in Berkeley, got a job at a local emergency room, and began hand-typing 580 letters on an IBM Selectric typewriter in his attempt to raise $12,000 for Korphe’s school. He lived out of his dilapidated car to save money, and got (remarkably) connected with an old, cranky Swiss-born physicist and millionaire who had a heart for the high-altitude porters of the Karakoram. Jean Hoerni sent him a check for $12,000 with a note that simply read, “Don’t screw up. Regards, J. H.”
Mortenson soon returned to Pakistan to fulfill his promise. He instantly ran into tribal politics, which got his $12,000 worth of building materials held hostage in a locked lumberyard. He also bumped into logistical surprises like the need to build a substantial bridge across the river gorge in order to even get the materials up to the cliffs of Korphe. After some lengthy delays, intense frustration, and life-changing lessons about patience from his wise Sherpa sages, the school was finally built. This launched Mortenson into the past fifteen years of school-building in the Taliban’s backyard.
Along the way he encountered all the twists and turns of maddening political manipulation, the laboratory of Islamic religion, the lengthy delays (by American standards) of third-world administration, the incredible blessing of cross-cultural loyalties and life-long friendships, and the logistical nightmare of starting a one-man organization that builds schools for girls in Pakistan and operates out of a basement in Montana in the heart of the politicized West. Beyond this, there’s the constant danger of an American jaunting through the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan on three-day road trips on the edge of crumbling mountain gorges as he makes his way through shootouts, a kidnapping, and the broken remains of crossfire from India-Pakistan flare-ups.
No wonder Three Cups of Tea didn’t join the ever-growing list of unfinished books.
There are some striking lessons to be learned from Mortenson’s story, not the least of which are the basic twin virtues of patience and perseverance. “Not hammer-strokes, but dance of the water, sings the pebbles into perfection,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore (184). The rest of the powerful and inspiring lessons you can experience yourself if you choose to read the book. Yet I would be remiss if I failed to mention that at the end of it all, there is one other element that, for the Christian, makes the story spin with an irony that is at once disappointing and convicting.
Greg Mortenson is not a believer.