Wednesday, June 10, 2009

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

Book 22

I found Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin at the Library UBS after hearing raves about it. The Amazon description:

In 1993 Greg Mortenson was the exhausted survivor of a failed attempt to ascend K2, an American climbing bum wandering emaciated and lost through Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya. After he was taken in and nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani village, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. From that rash, earnest promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time—Greg Mortenson’s one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban.

The first half of the book was fabulous. In describing the climb, the region and how Mortenson came to know the people of Korphe, a village in Pakistan, we are made to care about the quest. Then came the story of a total novice trying to raise the funds for one school, and finally finding a sponsor that has the cash. Then they talk about how having the money is only half of the struggle for a foreigner trying to navigate the socio-cultural issues of the country he is trying to help.

Then comes the story of trying to build an organization that can do it again and again.

Mortenson seems to be a pretty humble guy. He went so far as to print the complaints of former members of his Board, which takes some courage. He has no problem retelling and analyzing mistakes that he has made, which is fabulous for people who are making similar efforts. The weird thing, though, is that it is written entirely in the third person so that Mortenson is actually quoted in the text. As in “Mortenson says”. That was distracting to me since he is a co-author and this is his story.

His description of 9/11 – he had started trying to build schools in Afghanistan at the time – was rather unnerving. His aftermath involved the first hate mail he had ever received from people that didn’t appreciate his message: that we should be spending money on helping rather than bombing. And his own experience being detained with a passport problem. He was actually asked where Osama bin Laden was hiding. I am not criticizing the government here, but I must say that I completely understood Mortenson describing his urge to laugh at the absurdity of that question and knowing that he would be totally screwed if he did because these people were dead serious. So he summoned all of his willpower to keep a straight face and say, “I hope I never know a thing like that.” It was cinematic.

Finally, one must assume that a major reason that Mortenson bothered to write a book was for the fundraising potential. The least I can do is put in a link to the website for his organization, the Central Asia Institute. Also, I must add that I the web site shows Mortenson’s speaking schedule. It confirms that his wife is a saint.

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