Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is one of the most inspirational books I’ve read in years. It is a must-read for every adventure traveler who has ever wondered if they could make a difference in the lives of the people they meet.
Mortenson is climbing down K2 after a month on the mountain and a failed attempt at summiting. Disoriented from altitude and exhaustion, he gets lost on a glacier, but manages to survive the night alone in the freezing cold without the supplies his porter is carrying. The next day he finds his way back to the path, and his porter finds him and keeps Greg close the whole rest of the way off the mountain. When they near the villages on the low slopes, his porter goes on ahead to set up camp, but Mortenson wanders off the trail again and ends up in Korphe village instead of finding the camp.
Mortenson is nursed back to health by the villagers (and his porter did find him again) and ends up spending quite a bit of time there. He first thinks of Korphe as a kind of Shangri-la, but then quickly realizes that its not. For instance: he admires the children’s lighter colored hair until he find out that it is due to a rare form of malnutrition. He wants to do something to re-pay the villagers for their kindness and asks to be brought to the village school (thinking he’ll buy them some new school books) and is shocked to find that it’s just an outdoor spot with no building. In the extremely harsh weather conditions, the children would meet outside and verbally go over some lessons – with no books, pads, pencils, desks, building, and much of the time without a teacher.
Mortenson then makes his declaration “I will build you a school…I promise” and then the book takes off on his long journey in order to do that – with a long string of successes and failures.
What is especially compelling about the book is that Greg is not a genius, or even especially gifted in knowing how to go about creating his goal. In the beginning he just seems to be plodding along unsure of really how to attain it and he often seems on the verge of complete failure, but through perseverance and sheer determination he not only keeps his promise to one village, but builds dozens of schools all over the region and now runs an international foundation that is creating better lives for children across this impoverished region. As his co-author Relin says “[Mortenson] has single-handedly changed the lives of tens of thousands of children, and independently won more hearts and minds than all the official American propaganda flooding the region.”
Mortenson’s successes have had a special impact on girls, as many girls did not have access to school and others were kept at home in the belief that girls should not be educated. Some small-mined Mullah’s try to block him in building schools girls could attend in their areas, but through Mortenson’s ability to create allies and advocates of his work, he manages to get the blessing of the highest Iranian clerics for his schools. With their approval, the schools blossom and almost everyone wants one (this is a Shia area of Pakistan who follow the Iranian Supreme Council’s ruling). There are some incredible stories that follow in the book about girl’s empowerment through education.
For anyone who ever had a dream to help the world that they weren’t sure if they could manifest, this is the book to read. I only wish I’d found it sooner.
Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Penguin Books, 2006.
©Christina Kay Bolton