Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mortenson and Relin’s Three Cups of Tea

Don’t take my word for it. On, Three Cups of Tea has 482 user reviews, 91% of which are five out of five stars. It’s one of the few books I’d recommend to anyone, no caveats.

Three Cups of Tea is the true story of an unlikely saint, an American who against all odds builds schools in Pakistan.

Here is a good summary from Publishers Weekly:

Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, [Greg] Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor [David Oliver] Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.

Just to clarify the extremes of the human spirit, and human condition, that are involved here, a few notes:

  • At the time of his K2 near-death experience, Mortenson was the mountain-climbing equivalent of a ski bum, intermittently working as an emergency room nurse to fund his next climb. When he returned to Berkeley, California, to fulfill his promise to build the Korphe school, he had no money, no contacts, and no idea what to do. To save money while raising funds, he lived in the back of a Buick.
  • Korphe is a place where central heating is a yak-dung fire in the middle of a room made from rock and mud. When Mortenson got there, it not only had no school, the nearest doctor was a week’s walk away. One out of three Korphe children died before reaching their first birthday. The basic medicines in Mortenson’s first-aid kit and his training as a nurse were like godsends—one of many examples where only a little technology and know-how could alleviate much suffering. Later, Mortenson was involved in a simple clean-water project that halved the infant-mortality rate of a 2,000-person community.
  • Even for the healthy, life in Korphe was a constant struggle amid few resources. For example, during a rare celebration in which a ram was slaughtered, “forty people tore every scrape of roasted meat from the skinny animal’s bones, then cracked open the bones themselves with rocks, stripping the marrow with their teeth.”
  • “Traveling with a party of [Korphe] men hunting to eat, rather than Westerners aiming for summits with more complicated motives, Mortenson saw this wilderness of ice with new eyes. It was no wonder the great peaks of the Himalaya had remained unconquered until the mid-twentieth century. For millenia, the people who lived closest to the mountains never considered attempting such a thing. Scratching out enough food and warmth to survive on the roof of the world took all of one’s energy.” (An interesting counterpoint to the famous phrase, “Why climb the mountain? Because it is there.”)
  • About his focus on girls’ education: “‘Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities,’ Mortenson explains. ‘But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change the culture, to empower women, to improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.’”
  • Mortenson on the War on Terror: “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won by books not bombs.

If you wish to buy Three Cups of Tea online, take an extra click and go to the Three Cups of Tea site, where you’ll see a link to buy the book at Clicking the link and then buying will get Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute, up to 7% of the sale.

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