Contemporary American Society
Three Cups of Tea
By Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin
“One man’s mission to promote peace… one school at a time”
This book is about a man’s quest to promote peace by building schools especially for
girls, in some of the remote and harsh areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan known as the breeding
place of the Taliban. Greg Mortenson, a former mountaineer and an army veteran, is the man
who accomplished this feat of bringing peace by building 58 schools in 13 years. Mortenson is
also the Director of the Central Asia Institute. He lives with his family in Montana. David
Oliver Relin, the coauthor, is an acclaimed journalist who has won many awards for his writing.
He now contributes to magazines such as the “Parade” and “Skiing Magazine.” Relin was a
former teacher who now lives in Portland, Oregon.
This wonderful book immediately draws the reader with its simple title – Three Cups of
Tea. The meaning is best described in this quote by Haji Ali, Chief of Korphe Village. “Here,
we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a
friend and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything -
According to Relin, Mortenson has succeeded in a place where Americans are often
loathed, feared or misunderstood. He single handedly brings change in the thousands of lives of
the children thus winning the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis and Afghanis. Mortenson’s
vision started with a failed climb to the top of K2 (the second highest mountain in the world).
He was disoriented and wandering when he was discovered by a porter named Mouzafer who
takes him to a remote region of Pakistan called Korphe, where he is nursed back to health by
Haji Ali, the Chief of Korphe and his family. Upon his recovery and his subsequent return back
to the hotel he feels something tugging him back to Korphe.
The people of Korphe were poor and uneducated who lived in a village lacking modern
conveniences. The nearest doctor was a week’s walk away and where one out of three children
died before their first birthday. Mortenson’s army training as a trauma nurse proved to be an
asset to this little village. He spent most of his days cleaning open sores and wounds and setting
broken bones. As word spread of his work people from the outskirts of Korphe would send for
“Dr. Greg” as he had become known in Northern Pakistan. One day while watching the children
studying in an open air school he was shocked to find out that they lacked basic materials like
books, pencils, blackboards etc. They sat in the freezing cold writing in the dirt with sticks. He
was also shocked to find that the only school shared a teacher with a neighboring village, who
could only teach at Korphe three days a week. It was the perseverance of these children that
makes him decide to build a school for them. The perseverance also reminded him of his dead
sister, Christa, who had struggled throughout her life after contracting meningitis. The school he
decided would be in memory of his sister.
Soon, thereafter, upon his return to the U.S. he starts his fund raising campaign. His first
few letters were to Oprah Winfrey and some networks requesting their help for funds to build a
school in Northern Pakistan. During the campaigning days Mortensen calls his car his home to
save on rent. He continues with his letter writing and sends out a total of 580 letters. His
mother, a school principal, invites him to come speak at her school which launches a drive called
“Pennies for Pakistan” by the children of that school. His first response, to one of the 580 letters
was from Tom Brokaw who sends him a check for $100. He then receives another check from
Dr. Jean Hoerni who had read an article about him and calls to talk to him. Hoerni had been a
mountaineer in his younger days and had a fondness for Karakoram where Korphe resides.
Hoerni presents Mortenson with the entire $12,000 that he needs to build the school. With that
in hand and after selling all of his possessions Mortenson leaves for Pakistan to fulfill a promise.
Upon landing at Pakistan he stays at the same hotel which is frequented by mountaineers,
where he meets a Pakistani porter named Abdul who helps him with the next stages of his dream.
They hire a taxi and visit many local tea shops to find the cheapest places to buy their cement,
lumber and other tools. After numerous cups of tea they are directed to the right cement
factories where they end up buying one hundred bags of cement. The next day they again set out
to buy tools and end up with everything from a sledgehammer to nails that he would need to
build his dream. The next stop was the lumber yards where after much bargaining they buy
enough plywood for the school. Happy with his purchases Mortenson packs up his meager
belongings and leaves for Korphe.
Enroute he has his first encounter with the Talibans who have blocked the bridge that he
has to cross to get to Karakoram. After a short delay and after hearing his story, the Taliban lets
him through. Mortenson first stop is at Skardu at the trekking agent, Changazi’s office where he
unloads his supplies. Later, when he is ready to leave he realizes that his supplies are missing
and finds out that Changazzi has hidden them. He later finds out that Changazzi and other
leaders of Skardu want him to build a school there instead of Korphe, but after convincing them
that he would return to build a school for Skardu he leaves with his supplies for Korphe. As he
gets closer to Korphe he is told that the bridge which is the only way into Korphe is down and
that there is an immediate need for a new bridge rather than a school. Disappointed at this
setback, he returns back to San Francisco in search of more funds with Jean Hoerni’s words
echoing in his head “Don’t screw up.”
His former climbing partner, Dr. Louis Reichardt advises him to call Hoerni and with
trepidation he does just that, but instead of being turned away Hoerni readily agrees to fund his
bridge project. With a promise to send him photos of his work, he sets off once again for
Northern Pakistan. After ten grueling weeks of hard labor the bridge is completed, but by then
winter had set in and therefore the building of the school had to be postponed until summer. So
he returns back to San Francisco for a well earned rest. While there he is invited by Hoerni to a
cultural event hosted by the American Himalayan Foundation. That night proves to be a life
changing event for Mortenson where not only does he have the privilege of meeting Sir Edmund
Hillary the first man to have conquered the Everest, but also his future wife Tara. At the cultural
event he also bumps into George McCown, a board member of the American Himalayan
Foundation and whom he had previously met in Northern Pakistan during the bridge project who
readily donates $20,000 towards his project.
In the summer, as promised, Mortenson returns to Korphe to start the building of his first
school project. That fall when he returns home for Thanksgiving Hoerni makes Mortenson the
Director of a Foundation called “Central Asia Institute” whose goal would be to build schools
every year in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With his new title and renewed vigor he returns back to Korphe, but on his way there he
is kidnapped by the Taliban. Osama Bin Laden had just issued his first open Jihad (holy war)
against the Americans and asks all his followers to attack Americans whenever and wherever to
cause as much harm as possible. After eight days in captivity he is released only because the
leader of the kidnappers had heard stories about his humanitarian efforts to build schools for the
children of Pakistan. Although, he returns to San Francisco to recuperate from his ordeal he
feels a sense of failure and restlessness and returns back to Pakistan to keep his promise to the
innocent people of Korphe.
Once the final nail is hammered into the first school building he returns home with a
picture of the school, as promised, for Jean Hoerni, but his shocked to find his friend in hospital
dying of cancer. Mortenson makes Hoerni’s last few days as comfortable as possible by taking
care of him. Hoerni hangs his priced possession, the framed picture of the school, above his
hospital bed. Before his death he endows millions of dollars to the Central Asia Institute which
enables Mortensen to continue with his dream to build other schools in other cities such as
I chose this book by accident. It was given to me by a friend a few months ago and duly
forgotten until one day I happen to glance at the title – Three Cups of Tea - which immediately
drew me to it. Although, not an easy read and very awkward at times I would definitely
recommend it. This book is about one man’s perseverance, against all odds, to fulfill a promise.
He gives the children of Taliban country an opportunity to learn instead of following the paths of
many young men and women to destruction. Mortenson single handedly fights extremism and
terrorism by replacing guns with books and pencils as he believes that education would make it
difficult for the Madrassas to recruit young impressionable kids. To achieve his goal, Mortenson
survives not only fatwas, death threats and an armed kidnapping, but also long separations from
his family and friends. Mortenson says that the most important lesson of life was taught to him
by Haji Ali, the Chief of Korphe who one day asks him to share three cups of tea, to slow down
and make building relationships as important as building projects. I consider Mortenson a real
hero and a diplomat.
“It is my vision that we all dedicate the next decade to achieve universal literacy and
education for all children, especially for girls. More that 145 million of the world’s children
are deprived of education due to poverty, exploitation, slavery, gender discrimination, religious
extremism and corrupt governments. May Three Cups of Tea be a catalyst to bring the gift of
literacy to each of those children who deserves a chance to go to school.” Greg Mortenson.