Three Cups of Tea

by Susana Fletcher

I don’t think Mother Abbess was speaking literally when she sang to Maria, “Climb every mountain, ford every stream… ‘til you find your dream.” But ever since Greg Mortenson took her at her word, the world is the better for it. “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, tells Mortenson’s recent history: how he went from a homeless mountain climber to a revered and effective co-ed school builder in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson’s endearing character and Relin’s compelling narrative, although it reads a little rough in places, is an amazing story of conviction and determination.

Greg Mortenson was a nurse in California, and worked just long enough to pay bills and plan for his next climb. When his sister died in 1992, the devastated Mortenson made the decision to climb K2, the world’s second largest mountain in the Karakorams of Pakistan, in her honor. In heartbreaking defeat, he found himself lost, without his guide or supplies, and nearly dead. He stumbled into the remote Korphe village, where the frightened women covered their faces. He writes, “No foreigner had ever been to Korphe before.” After seven weeks in the care of the Korphe, he promised to build a school for the village, a school that Pakistani girls were allowed to attend.

Mortenson takes us through the painful and laborious first school building, and the lessons he learned about himself and the Pakistani people. “Sit down. And shut your mouth,” Haji Ali, the village leader said to a micromanaging Mortenson. “You’re making everyone crazy.” Mortenson’s humbled and persistent heart is rewarded. He trusts and empowers the locals, and they in turn, devote themselves to the task.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a page turner from the victorious and joyful moments to the most frightening and disappointing. He comes against some serious opposition, including two fatwas and a kidnapping, but through Mortenson’s generous donors, emotional support from his devoted wife, his commitment to education as means to promote peace, and his quirky local crew, he builds 58 schools by the time “Three Cups of Tea” went to print.

The world according to Greg Mortenson is one where people change their own destiny, where oppression and adversity means finding another way, and where one American with the right heart attitude can be a living legend in the footsteps of Johnny Appleseed, spreading seeds of tolerance and knowledge throughout the world, beginning with central Asia. If you appreciate efficiency and effectiveness in non-profit endeavors, you'll want to keep a checkbook on your nightstand, right next to your bookmark.

By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
368 pp. Penguin. $15.00 paperback.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time


  1. I LOVE the story and all that he has done, but Totally inspiring that one person could accomplish so much. However I did find it to read a little bit rough as you mentioned briefly. What did you think about the writing perspective? A third-party narrative with quotes from everyone including the author - I found it a little strange.

  2. I agree. There were a few times where I felt like David Oliver Relin's reporter voice read more like a news article with awkward quotes and that the attention to detailed attribution was counterproductive.