Three Cups of Tea

I have a low tolerance for what I like to call sentimental claptrap. So low that I shy away from anything that looks as though it exists only to try to tug on my heartstrings, bring a tear to my eye or make my chest swell with pride. (What's the difference between your chest swelling with pride and anaphylactic shock? Given my aversion to maudlin sentimentality maybe not so much.) So when a friend suggested I read a book called Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin I was leery. I read a bit about the book and how the author decided to build schools after being dangerously ill in the mountains of Pakistan and I thought the book would be annoying, preachy and filled with cheap, mawkish, badly written prose. Why did I go ahead and read it? Because I trusted my friend's recommendation.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson, a climber who, like a lot of mountaineers, led a ragtag existence of temp jobs and temp housing so he could save money for climbing. He set off on the expedition of a lifetime in 1993, planning to summit K2 – the world's second tallest mountain and the hardest to climb – and ended up in a very dangerous situation. After exhausting even his prodigious strength rescuing a severely ill climber, he lost his way and wandered into a remote village in Pakistan called Korphe, where he in turn was rescued.

The reputation of the Balti people, who lived in the tiny village he'd accidently found, was not the best, but Greg soon discovered the people were nothing like rumors said they were. Despite grinding poverty they shared what they had with him, wrapping him in a fine quilt and giving him food and tea before finding a spot for him to sleep. When Greg was feeling better he explored the village and was appalled to see the children gathered in the open air, with no teacher, trying to conduct school. The more wealthy children wrote on slates with mud while the other children used sticks to scratch out their lessons in the dirt. Greg swore he would return to the mountains and build the children a school.

The book makes kind of a big deal about how many people make promises they don't keep, but I don't think we need to let those sorts of thoughts cross our minds. Even if every single person kept every promise they ever made, Greg's accomplishments would still be impressive. He started with very little - no home, an old gas guzzling car that he slept in, no job, no money – and managed to not only make good on his promise but to build more than fifty schools at the time of the book's publication. He did that despite financial problems, war, cultural differences, and even a terrifying kidnapping.

Building fifty schools is an astonishing achievement, especially for someone trained as a nurse and a mountaineer, but Greg has also accomplished much more. He designed vocational centers for the adult women in various villages so they could earn money to help lift the entire community out of poverty. He facilitated the building of a water system for displaced refugees who had been forced into a desert, saving literally thousands of lives. One thing that worked in his favor is how far American money goes in Pakistan, but his accomplishments are incredible by any yardstick and the story of how he managed everything, the trials and tribulations he had, the heartbreak and the joy, is fascinating.

Greg's story is told as a narrative, cutting back and forth through time and from country to country. (I was especially pleased by the many quotes from explorers and mountain climbers who traveled through the same remote regions of Pakistan. The authors make some interesting comparisons between observations made at different times by very different people. But I've always enjoyed reading books by mountaineers and your mileage may be quite different.) Parts of the story could have been taken straight out of the pages of a thriller, with bombs falling, kidnappings, thousands of people in danger, but it's all real, which makes it all the more frightening.

This is an important book for several reasons. It's been called inspirational because it shows how much one person with not much money can accomplish. It vividly illustrates what poverty and war can do to a population and its succeeding generations. Greg demonstrates how education is the best weapon against the kind of despair that comes from poverty and lack of a future, and explains the importance of traditional schooling to combat the negative teaching that is coming out of extremist schools that are funded by violent organizations. By giving children a basic education Greg's institute also gives each generation after generation hope and choice for the future.

Greg is currently touring in support of his book, which has come out in many different editions, including large print, audio and a new children's version. You can take a look at his schedule here.,,sapid_1000065104...

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from MeAtPuPpEt who wrote in to comment on a character on ER, saying, "Dr. Banfield needs to go home from the hospital if she's going to keep having flashbacks. She's a danger to the patients, which makes it hard to enjoy the show." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at