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Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
4 min read

This morning I started thinking about my roots. When I was a kid, my friends and I (with the help of some incredibly forward-thinking grown-ups) published “What,” a childrens’ newspaper in Port Townsend. We wrote nonfiction and fiction stories and poems, drew pictures and took photographs. We did the layout on old Apple Macintosh computers, starting my lifelong appreciation for all things Mac. We sold advertising, stuffed envelopes, and learned a lot about running a small operation, considering that this all started before we even hit junior high.

Even then, I knew that my tendency was toward nonfiction, so I became the resident book reviewer. I don’t recall where the idea came from, but I sent letters off to the major New York publishing houses asking if they would send me books to review for our little newsletter. A response actually found its way to me, a pre-teen in Port Townsend, from another Sarah on the other side of the county in New York. For years, Sarah sent me books, and we corresponded about all things in our letters back and forth. The last time I tracked Sarah down, she had become a school teacher; but during her publishing house days she helped feed my lust for books.

Why on earth am I telling this long winded story on a climbing blog? Because I’ve wanted for some time to add book reviews to my blog, and today’s the first. And, in thinking about this review, I thought back to how I got my start in book reviews, my age so early in the double digits, and how Sarah’s response to my query helped cement in my formative little brain that sometimes, if just ask people nicely for what you want, you just might get it.

Greg Mortenson, co-author of Three Cups of Tea, is a fellow graduate of the school of “be careful what you wish for.” Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s book has been widely reviewed and in mid-November celebrated its 40th week on the New York Times Paperback Bestseller list so I realize I’m late to the party. If you’re a climber, you’ve already read reviews and news about this book in the mainstream climber press. But just in case, the short version is that Mortenson stumbled into a Northern Pakistan village named Korphe after an ill-fated (yet heroic) attempt on K2. The village lacked a school for the local children, and Mortenson found his mission: enabling communities to educate their children, especially their girls. Over the years, Mortenson worked tirelessly to ensure that Korphe, and now, upwards of sixty other communities in underserved mountain communities, saw their schools built and critical infrastructure put in place through collaborative and sustainable efforts. In the words of George McCown, a venture capitalist supporter of CAI, for the price of a cheap car Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute have proven that it is possible for one person to make a very large difference in the lives of others.

I don’t envy Mortenson’s wife and children, who spend long stretches in Boseman while Mortenson travels around Central Asia and the U.S. Mortenson is no saint, but that’s a huge part of the charm of this book and the inspiration of his story. He is a normal guy, and his personal story will sound familiar to many climbers. Before finding his mission, a perfect weekend meant sleeping in his car at a climbing area and a $4 burrito on the way home. He lived in his car for a time, and “home” was a mini storage unit where he kept his mountaineering books and climbing gear. He operates on “Mortenson time” and is chronically late for meetings. If Mortenson can do this, each of us is capable of doing something to make our world a safer and more cooperative place.

After the 2004 elections I plunged into a self-imposed exile from national mainstream media and world events. My reading since then has been climbing magazines and the occasional local paper, deliberately skipping over the world and national news. We don’t have traditional television at home, so I no longer watch television “news.” I find it all depressing and discouraging, because it just doesn’t seem like we have any “good guys” any more. Only very recently has the world’s news crept back into my purview with talk even in the least politically-involved lawyers’ circles about the recent events in Pakistan under Musharif’s “emergency rule.” I devoured “Three Cups of Tea” in two sittings, surprised by how thirsty I was to learn about the challenges faced in a part of the world that I knew practically nothing about. The reader is treated to a view of the many conflicts at play in the region and in global policy; and, to a view of how very effective person-to-person connections and actions can be in making change in our world. Out of many choice quotes, one stands out for me above the rest, spoken by Greg Mortenson:

“In times of war, you often hear leaders — Christians, Jewish, and Muslim — saying, ‘God is on our side.’ But that isn’t true. In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows and orphans.”

This is a great long weekend read, but plan to block out some uninterrupted time — good luck trying to put it town.

Greg Mortenson wrote his first of 500+ letters soliciting donations on an IBM Selectric, my favorite typewriter of all time. Through the kindness of one of the many people who helped him on this journey, Mortenson learned to use an Apple Macintosh and finished his hundreds of letters on that Mac. Twenty years ago, my letters to publishing houses all over New York were penned on a Mac with my own youthful enthusiasm. Since then I have done a great many little things, but I haven’t built any schools for girls in Pakistan. Step one is to help spread the word about Three Cups of Tea and the CAI, so please pick up a copy and let me know what you think about the book. You can also visit the website at and click through to Amazon — through Amazon’s referral program 7% of purchases made when you click through their website will go to CAI. It’s a little thing, but according to blog posts by the authors, they’ve already had some funds come in that way and a little goes a long way in the hands of this organization.

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Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.