How did I miss the buzz about Three Cups of Tea when it lit up important segments of the reading public a couple of years ago? Or when this remarkable tale – all true – was named a New York Times Best Seller? Or when the leading character, American mountaineer Greg Mortenson, was featured at Telluride’s Mountainfilm Festival. (The Memorial Day weekend film event, as you probably know, is entirely complimentary to this weekend’s celebrated Telluride Film Festival.)
Strangely, I first heard about an exciting, inspiring book, Three Cups of Tea, just a few months ago during National Public Radio’s series on favorite books, reviewed by other well-known writers. The national news this summer has been grim. Any number of best selling books tells us that the economy is in ruins, U.S. foreign policy – starting with the war in Iraq – is a complete disaster, and our standing in the world has tanked. Then, amid all the gloom and despair, NPR is touting this magnificent little book, Three Cups of Tea, which tells about an American mountaineer who has lost his way in the remote and inhospitable reaches of the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan, and stumbles into an impoverished village.
There the villagers shelter and care for this stranger, who has failed in his attempt to summit nearby – and infamous – K2 peak in 1993. Mortenson is so moved by their kindness, he promises to return and build a school for the children of this isolated village – especially for girls. Over time, he returns again and again. Mortenson soon comes to see that it is the girls who will understand that education is the future of both their families and their tribes. Word spreads about this American mountaineer who builds schools and has become a treasured friend and trusted ally of the villagers.
Along the way, Mortenson gains a profound understanding of regional conflicts –including the Taliban – and ways to bring peace to this troubled part of the world. And the reviewer says Three cups of Tea is no less a riveting and magnificent adventure tale set in the hidden glacier valleys of mountainous Pakistan, bordered there by China and the Himalayas to the east and Afghanistan to the north.
Oh, ho! This is the book I’ve been yearning for – one full of hope and promise. And when the book arrives, I dive right in and soon find out that it’s everything I’d hoped for. In vivid detail, Mortenson’s story takes me on an impossible and harrowing journey to hitherto unknown places, and introduces me to wonderful tribesman and villagers who work with “Dr. Greg” – he’s an experienced medic – to ultimately build over 100 schools. And, of course, the unlikely financial benefactors who step in at the 11th hour to keep the project going.
Moreover, Mortenson’s remarkable mission is still going. Formed as the non-profit Central Asia Institute, with headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, this American is still striving to “promote peace one school at a time.” Then, just a few days ago, an NPR news report said international leaders and American policy makers, such as U.S. General David H. Petraeus, Commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq, were consulting with Mortenson, about new strategies to consider for this incendiary part of the world. How cool! In the book itself, one admirer, fellow mountaineer, Charlie Shimanski, predicts that Greg Mortenson will win the Nobel Prize one day. Mortenson co-wrote the book with journalist David Oliver Relin.
Mortenson, it’s clear, has many gifts. Among them is a remarkable ear for language. During his larger-than-life (and ongoing) odyssey, he’s quickly learned the language and tribal dialects of the many mountain villages where he’s gone – usually at a tribal leader’s request – to help build a new school, pipe water from an alpine glacier, or otherwise bring lifesaving services to these impoverished, neglected Pakistanis. In the final chapter, Mortenson is responding to a summons in Afghanistan, to help do the same kind of humanitarian work he’s become so well known for in neighboring Pakistan. The year is 2003. The Afghans have survived the Russians, the Taliban, the U.S. backed Afghan-Mujahdeen war that drove the Russians out (check the book and the film, Charlie Wilson’s War). Now, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Afghans had been abandoned by the American forces, along with the aid that had once been promised.
We will hear much more about mountaineer and humanitarian Greg Mortenson. Some of the right international players are now consulting him. In a tribute in the opening pages of this book, Indian journalist Ahmed Rashid writes: “Three Cups of Tea is beautifully written. It is also a critically important book at this time in history. The governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan are both failing their students on a massive scale. The work Mortenson is doing, providing the poorest students with a balanced education, is making them much more difficult for the extremist madrassas to recruit.”
Both films and books about heroes like Greg Mortenson, bring us hope.