Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I read this book a couple of months back, but the holidays were so hectic that I didn't get a chance to post my review before now. And this was such a fabulous book, there was no way I wanted to neglect it.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time is written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It is Mortenson's memoir told from his perspective, but is actually written by Relin from extensive interviews.

The story starts out with Mortenson attempting to summit the world-famous mountain K2, but through various circumstances not entirely his fault, failing to do so. As he climbs back down the mountain behind his guide, he misses a turn because he is so weak and ill, and ends up in a tiny Pakistani village. The villagers, who barely survive on the mountain themselves, selflessly nurse him back to health. In gratitude to their service, he promises to return to the village with enough money and supplies to build them a school. This promise drives his lifetime career to building around a hundred schools (presently) throughout Pakistan and into Afghanistan.

The beginning of the story is a little bit slow and difficult to get into because there is so much background information to ground the reader. However, I cannot really think of anything in it that could have been left out, so instead you must just push through the first few chapters. These first chapters are not boring or tedious per se; they just read more like an informational text than a story.  But once Mortenson leaves the village to return to the USA, the driving presence of the story begins to emerge.

The true presence of the book is simply Mortenson's character: his tenacity, his determination, his refusal to accept no, even his pure luck. At times, he happens to be in the right place at the right time, or just say the right thing, but his personality is such that he knows how to further his situation, whatever it may be.

He stands out from other Westerners who visit the Middle East because he genuinely cares about the people he is among. He disregards their culture or religion and instead focuses on their characters. At one point in the story, he even asks a shopkeeper to teach him how to pray the Muslim way. (It is clear throughout the book that he is very spiritual and has a strong belief in God, although he never ascribes to any particular denomination; it seems he is Christian.)

He judges people upon their actions solely, calling some "good Muslims" or "bad Muslims," but only when a native has termed the individual as such before.  And it is all based upon how closely the individual follows the teachings of Islam. He respects the natives, and frequently seeks out some he can trust to help him with his business transactions and politics. Indeed, he tries as much as possible to make the natives the "face" of his organization, installing them into high-ranking positions.

Mortenson's perseverence stands out the most throughout the novel. When trying to build the first (and at the time for him, only) school, he lives out of his car as he tries to work as a nurse and find donors to help him fund the school. He returns to Pakistan after acquiring the money to purchase local supplies and finds that everyone else wants him to build his school for them. He refuses and eventually makes it back to the original village. After arriving, he is devastated to find they want him to build a bridge first. More time, more plans, more supplies, more money. And the Pakistani builder who acquired most of his original supplies for him has also cheated him out of the supplies. But he continues on and sets a precedent for future projects.

After learning the hard way, he only enters villages into which he is invited. He requires the villagers put in 50 percent of the costs to ensure their buy-in, whether it be in land, labor, or other resources. And he requires that the girls have the same opportunity to be educated as the boys. He has found that boys move away, but girls remain in their villages, so they are the ones who needed to be educated in order to raise the entire community.

There are more things to talk about in this inspiring story than I have the space for here. Mortenson is truly one of the world's great men. I would put him on par with Mother Teresa as far as character and service to those in the greatest need of it. His story of accomplishing great things through pure strength of will shows his readers that anything is truly possible if you believe in it enough. There is a definite reason why this book has become the talk of the nation, even including the military leaders fighting in this same region of the world.