Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Greg Mortenson didn’t set out to be a hero. Shortly before he stumbled into a mountain village in northern Pakistan, he was wandering around on K2 trying to save his own life. Out of gratitude to the villagers who took him in following his climbing expedition gone awry, he promised to come back and build them a much-needed school.

And he did–return, that is–but his first heroic mission almost ended in disaster. I won’t supply the details, because it’s a bit of a cliff hanger as Mortenson relates the story in the book. But since Mortenson has gone on to build hundreds more schools (that’s the reason Three Cups of Tea was written), it’s safe to tell you that the school did get built, eventually, and that’s how it all got started.

Mortenson is director of the Central Asia Institute, which exists principally for the purpose of building schools and promoting education in Central Asian villages. Mortenson is particularly interested in starting girls’ schools, not only because education for girls is often in short supply in these areas, but because he believes women have a profound influence on the shape of society through the impact they have on their children. Interestingly, it turns out that education is also a peaceful and proactive means of discouraging terrorism. In many places where Muslim children have not had access to basic education, fundamentalists have filled the void with institutions that promote intolerance and violence. By increasing the availability of sound, secular education, the Central Asia Intsitute reduces the opportunity for this kind of influence on impressionable young minds.

Mortenson and his co-writer, David Oliver Relin, relate many well-crafted stories of Mortenson’s adventures–humorous, suspenseful, poignant. Readers are even treated to a love story, as the romance between Mortenson and his wife-to-be unfolds. An entertaining anecdote from the early days of Mortenson’s philanthropic career concerns the building of that first school in the village of Korphe. Anxious to complete the long-delayed progress, Mortenson reports:

“I tried to be a tough but fair taskmaster. … I spent all day at the construction site, from sunrise to sunset, using my level to make sure the walls were even and my pumb line to check that they were standing straight. I always had my notebook in my hand, and kept my eyes on everyone, anxious to account for every rupee. … I drove people hard” (149).

After a couple of months, the village elder took Mortenson for a walk to a point above the village overlooking the surrounding fields and distant mountains.

Haji Ali reached up and laid his hand on Mortenson’s shoulder. “These mountains have been here a long time,” he said. “And so have we. … By the mercy of Almighty Allah, you have done much for my people, and we appreciate it. But now you must do one more thing for me.”
“Anything,” Mortenson said.
“Sit down. And shut your mouth,” Haji Ali said. “You’re making everyone crazy” (150).

Mortenson appears to have learned his lesson well. One of the things that struck us about Mortenson was the respect and integrity that characterized his dealings with his Pakistani collaborators and beneficiaries.

Since we had recently read Mountains Beyond Mountains, the biography of philanthropist doctor Paul Farmer (click here to see our review), comparisons of the two men and their chroniclers were inevitable. Paul Farmer is a crusader. He is driven not only by personal passion but by principle, and one gets the distinct idea that he believes (and he may be right) that the rest of us should be in on the crusade. Mortenson, too, is singleminded in his devotion to his goals. After returning from that first trip to Pakistan, he typed (on a typewriter) hundreds of fundraising letters, until the compassionate Pakistani owner of a copy shop taught him some computer skills. He lived in his car to save money. He raised more by selling off his possessions. But my impression of Mortenson is of someone who happened to find himself in a position to help someone and did so, simply because it was in his nature to do it.

Mortenson, like Farmer, was influenced by religion early in life (Mortenson’s parents were Lutheran missionaries), but both men, at least at one time, seem to have adopted an ambivalent attitude toward religion and spirituality. I sensed that there might be more to this story than appeared in the pages of both these books; perhaps this is still an unresolved issue for the subjects of these biographies.

Tracy Kidder wrote himself into his biography of Farmer in a discreet and non-intrusive manner. Relin kept an even lower profile, and perhaps his role was different. Although Three Cups of Tea is written in the third person, Mortenson and Relin are identified as co-authors. It would have been interesting to observe the composition process, as Mortenson recalled (and perhaps Relin helped him dredge up) the scenes that appear in such colorful detail in these pages. Stylistically, I found Three Cups a bit more artistic, in contrast to Kidder’s more pragmatic journalistic prose. The opening sentence of Three Cups is representative: “In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness” (7).

Three Cups of Tea is worth reading not only for the entertaining and exciting adventure stories but also for the inspiring and challenging example of one person who really has made a difference … by partnering with and serving others. Mortenson had no special resources, skills or knowledge about the work he set out to do. He just combined remarkable determination and compassion with respect for the people he wanted to help.

Click here to visit the Web site for the Central Asia Institute: CAI Web site


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5 Responses to Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

  1. Alyssa

    Thanks for the review! I ordered a copy of the book tonight from Powell’s… to be read over spring break. 🙂

  2. jamela

    You’re welcome–I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Have you ceased posting book reviews?

  4. jamela

    No, but thanks for asking. Maybe it will inspire me to start again. I have just gotten side tracked by moving, mothering a toddler, and (thanks to Barbara Kingsolver–see the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle post on Sept 5, ’07) gardening, in our new backyard!

  5. I finally finished the book… whew!

    Anxiously awaiting your next book review. : )

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