Three Cups of Tea: Making All the Difference We Can
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, June 1, 2008
In the late summer of 1993, Greg Mortenson joined an expedition to climb K2, the second tallest mountain on Earth—28,267 feet high, on the border between China and northern Pakistan. Compared to Everest, a thousand miles east along the spine of the Himalayas, K2 was considered by climbers to be the real “killer”. In Three Cups of Tea, we read: “To climbers, who call it “The Savage Peak,” it remains the ultimate test, a pyramid of razored granite so steep that the snow can’t cling to its knife-edged ridges.”
But Mortenson would attempt the climb. The son of Christian missionaries, Mortenson had been raised in Tanzania for the first sixteen years of his life. He had first climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, for the first time at the age of 11. Returning to America as a teenager, he had gotten serious about mountaineering with numerous climbs in the Rockies, then had graduated to a half dozen successful Himalayan ascents. When he arrived in Pakistan in May, 1993, he was almost cocky that he would have little trouble in reaching what he called “the biggest and baddest summit on Earth.”
And, he was doing it for a special purpose: to honor the memory of his younger sister, Christa, who had died the year before, just shy of her 23rd birthday. His plan was to leave Christa’s necklace, one of his most prized possessions, on the summit of K2 in her honor.
He came tantalizingly close—within 600 yards. But one night, as Mortenson and his climbing partner Scott Darsney were about to fall into their tents exhausted after a 96-hour stint of climbing, they noticed a flickering light in the distance: their French teammate, Etienne Fine, was in trouble. In spite of their own exhaustion, Mortenson and Darsney set out to rescue Fine.
When they got to him, his condition was severe: pulmonary edema had filled his lungs with fluid; there were also signs of swelling of the brain as well. With Fine strapped to their bodies, they took turns repelling with him down the steepest slopes of K2’s West Ridge. It had taken Mortenson and Darsney 24 hours to reach Fine in the first place; it would take another 48 hours to lower him to Base Camp, from where he could be evacuated to a hospital.
Fine had been saved, but the arduous rescue mission had cost Mortenson any chance of reaching the summit. For two days, he and Darsney drifted in and out of sleep. When they finally emerged from their tents, barely able to walk, they decided to make their way down the mountain together. But somehow along the way, they separated,\ and rather than proceeding along the main side of a great glacier,\ and down toward the village of Askole, fifty miles away, Mortenson had strayed into the maze of the glacier itself, impenetrably separated from Darsney. By the time he realized what had happened, he was more than eight miles off the trail.
So, he turned and decided to retrace his steps, singing a song learned in childhood as his still-numb legs carried him: “Yesu ni refiki Yangu,” “What a friend we have in Jesus.”—and only later did he consider the novelty of the moment: an American, lost in Pakistan, singing a German hymn, in Swahili. A strange contentment fell over him, as he became but one element among the massive mountains and ice formations; one tiny speck in the vastness of creation.
He shouted for help, and in time, help arrived: in the person of Mouzafer, the porter he had hired months before, to help him with his climb on K2.
“Mr. Gireg, Mr. Gireg,” Mouzafer shouted as he made his way toward Mortenson. “Allah Akhbar! Blessings to Allah that you’re alive!” He then led the Westerner to a small cave out of the wind, and proceeded to make him a cup of tea. “Cha, Mr. Gireg,” the porter prescribed. “Cha will give you strength!”
Mouzafer was a Balti, the mountainous people who populated the least-hospitable mountain valleys in northern Pakistan. The Balti had originally been from Tibet, from where they had migrated more than six hundred years ago. While they had retained their original language, a form of Tibetan, they had over time converted to the more severe religion of the region: Shiite Islam.
As they made their way down the mountain, Mortenson quizzed Mouzafer on the Balti words for various objects: glacier was gangs-zhing; avalanche was rdo-rut. He sorted out the many different words that the Balti had for rocks: one meaning a flat rock; another meaning a small round one; a third for a jagged rock; and so on. One more day down the slope, and Mortenson stepped off ice and onto solid ground for the first time in months. Another day, and he saw his first flower: a five-petaled pink rosehip. Another few days, and he saw his first trees. The air began to feel progressively heavy and luxuriant.
Finally, Mouzafer led Mortenson proudly into his own village, Korphe, where he introduced him to the local mullah (or holy man), Hajii Ali. Mortenson was the first foreigner ever to visit the village, and the local people overflowed with curiosity, welcome, and hospitality. They nursed him back to health, fed him, even slaughtered one of the village’s choko rabak, or big rams, to arrange a feast for him. Mortenson thought he had happened upon a Himalayan Shangri-La.
But as his perceptions sharpened, Mortenson began to see the problems with which the Balti people lived, day in, day out, and the challenges against which they struggled constantly. In every home, at least one family member suffered from goiters or cataracts. The children’s hair was almost always a bright ginger color, a sure sign of the nutritional deficiency kwashiorkor. He learned that the nearest doctor was a week’s walk away, and that one out of every three Korphe children died before reaching his or her first birthday. Deaths of women in childbirth were still very common, as well.
As he lived among the simple folk of Korphe, Mortenson felt more and more again the presence his sister, Christa. And he yearned to find ways to pay these good people back for their profound hospitality. He gave away everything he had with him: water bottles and small flashlights; his camping stove; his L.L. Bean fleece jacket; he presented Haji Ali with the insulated Helly Hansen jacket that had kept him warm on K2.
But he knew that he needed to repay the people of Korphe in some deeper, more meaningful, more lasting way. He asked if the village had a school, and Haji Ali led him up a steep path to a vast open ledge 800 feet over the river. Here, 82 children—78 boys and 4 girls—did their lessons, out in the open. There was no aid from the Pakistani government for schools or teachers. If the village wanted a teacher, they had to hire one themselves—at the cost of a dollar a day—a vast sum for the poor Balti. So instead, they shared a teacher with the neighboring village, and classes were held in Korphe three days a week. The rest of the time, the children gathered by themselves to practice the lessons he left behind.
As he watched the children of the village Mortenson resolved to do something. “Can you imagine a fourth grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting their quietly and working on their lessons? I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was being stacked against them, that reminded me of Christa, and I had to do something.”
As the time finally came for him to leave Korphe, Mortenson sat one last time with Haji Ali, peered straight into his eyes, and vowed, “I am going to build you a school. I promise.”
He had no idea how he could do it, but back in America, he searched for ways to make good on his vow. He took a job as an emergency room nurse to make some money; he reduced his own lifestyle considerably; moved into his camper van; and channeled all his money into his new project. He sent out over 580 letters to all the “rich and famous” people he could think of, asking for funds for his project. He received one reply—a $100 check from Tom Brokaw.
One day, a doctor in the hospital where he worked told him of an eccentric Swiss scientist named Dr. Jean Hoerni who seemed interested in Mortenson’s quest. The doctor gave Mortenson Hoerni’s home number and from a pay phone at the Seattle Public Library, Mortenson rang him up.
Jean Hoerni was a brilliant physicist, who had made hundreds of millions of dollars developing a certain kind of microchip. He was also a dedicated alpinist, who had climbed some of the same mountains in northern Pakistan where Mortenson had come to know the Balti people. By the end of their very first call, Hoerni had agreed to send Mortenson the $ 12,000 he needed to build his first school. (“$12,000? “ Hoerni asked incredulously. “You can build a school for that? My wife spends that much in a weekend!”)
The funds secured to build a school, Mortenson returned to Korphe. There, his real education begins.
If raising money was hard, then transporting building materials to the remote site brings other challenges. For three days, Mortenson rode atop a rented truck precariously loaded with lumber, hammers, saws, and tin roofing. As the driver snaked along tortuous roads, Mortenson knew that any miscalculation could send the vehicle tumbling over cliffs.
But sometimes Mortenson's dogged determination to finish the school before winter rattled the gentle rhythms of village life and alienated many of the villagers. "These mountains have been here a long time," the wise old Haji Ali tells him. "And so have we. Sit down and shut your mouth. You're making everyone crazy."
When the butter-colored school with crimson trim finally took its place among Korphe's stone and mud huts, Mortenson refused to stop. Spurred on by Dr. Hoerni, he becomes the co-founder and executive director of the Central Asia Institute, a foundation to fund more schools in other Pakistani villages.
The CAI, as it is called, places particular emphasis on educating girls. For all students, his neutral curriculum offers an alternative to the teachings prevalent in the breeding grounds of the Taliban. As David Oliver Relin, co-author of Three Cups of Tea, explains, "[Mortenson] goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa."
But Mortenson’s trek is still not an easy one. Tall mountains on either side of the political divide threaten to crush him. He has survived death threats—fatwas-- issued by angry Muslim mullahs. He spent eight days in an airless room after being kidnapped by the Taliban. After the September 11th attacks, he received death threats from fellow citizens in the United States. “You are a traitor,” one of his fellow Americans writes him. “I pray every day that you will die a painful and horrible death.” Mortenson is also hauled into the American Embassy in Kabul, where authorities have questioned him for hours, and have demanded that he turn over his complete list of contacts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson has steadfastly refused to do any such thing.
He also refused an undercover agent from the Defense Department who offers, surreptitiously, to start US-government funding of the building of new schools.
One of the things I find most interesting about Three Cups of Tea is that when the book was first published in 2006, it had a different subtitle. Originally, it was called Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism One School at a Time. That edition didn’t sell terribly well (20,000 copies, which might not seem bad in some quarters, but isn’t really all that many). So, at Mortenson’s insistence the subtitle was changed to One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School At A Time—and that’s when the book became a #1 bestseller!
I don’t think this is just snappy marketing here. I think it points to something deeper in our souls, something more profound in our aspirations.
To build a better world, I think it’s less important to cast our efforts in the light of this or that ideology, this or that “side” in some great geo-political battle.
Rather, we need to envision the kind of world we would be. Then, we need to reach and do the immediate tasks that call out to us in realizing that goal.
At the heart of all Creation there beats that great hard of Love and Cpmpassion, of Mercy and Kindness. May that heart beat within each of us, as well. As Wordsworth put it:
That best portion of a good man's life,--
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
"Sometime in your life," wrote Daniel Berrigan, "sometime in your life, hope that you may see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope, pray, that you might have baked it, or bought it, or even needed it for yourself. For that look on your face, from your hands meeting across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little even."
It is through blessing others in our lives that we find ourselves most blessed.
As Gandhi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world."
We must do what we can to help one another where we can. For there lies all the meaning and purpose these lives of ours might ever have.
Our hands are small. But they are the only hands God has; the only hands this world of ours has.
May these hands reach out, and touch, and bless the world-- and bless each man and woman with whom we are called to share this sacred earth at this blessed moment in its history.