Review: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin

49436Three Cups of Tea makes me want to donate all my possessions to charity (including the clothes off my back) and volunteer in a foreign country. (Basically, I feel like an inadequate human being after reading this book.) I’m in awe after reading about Mortenson’s journey into the Middle East to build schools for girls; this man should be dead from all the crazy things he’s done, but he miraculously perseveres through all the hardships and turmoil. Three Cups of Tea depicts the political and cultural landscape of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and shows how one person really can make a big difference.

“The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die[.]”

In 1993, Greg Mortenson, fatigued after failing to climb K2 (the second highest mountain on Earth), accidentally stumbles upon a nearby village in Pakistan called Korphe. After being taken care of by the villagers and noticing the lack of a proper school for the children in the village, Mortenson promises the village elder that he’ll come back and build them a school. After going back to the U.S., Mortenson attempts in vain to raise money to build the school, until Jean Hoerni, a fellow mountaineer and Silicon Valley millionaire, donates $12,000 to the cause. Mortenson gleefully returns to Pakistan, only to be informed by the village elder that they have decided to build a bridge first. So begin Mortenson’s struggles of building his first school, among many others, in Pakistan. Jean Hoerni later founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI), allowing Mortenson to gather more allies and resources for his mission. Mortenson is caught in the middle of drug wars, social and political struggles, and 9/11, among many other monumental events; and amidst them all, Mortenson continues to advocate for building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan as the solution to end terrorism.

The foreword of Three Cups of Tea made it seem like Mortenson is a worship-worthy superman hero saint person, and I scoffed at it at first (until it became apparent that HE ACTUALLY IS). It’s one thing to talk about the facts, and another to completely gush and worship someone. . . and Relin unfortunately did the latter in the foreword. BUT it gets better! I felt sympathy for Mortenson as he struggled to make ends meet; slept in his car because he was homeless; painstakingly typed up letters to celebrities to ask for donations when it was obvious that they wouldn’t reply; was hated for supporting anything Middle Eastern after 9/11; and presented his mission to near-empty auditoriums. He was perceived as a guileless and determined man, alone in a world that didn’t understand him. I think that made his successes that much more emotional, as he found unlikely friends and unbelievable luck throughout the years.

Relin’s descriptions of Mortenson’s adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan allowed me to completely immerse myself in the culture, from the accents and languages to the mannerisms and the clothing. He provided the perfect amount of foreshadowing, and enough detail to make me feel like I was watching a movie. However, the major weakness in his writing (aside from the hero-worshipping foreword) was how long and convoluted some of his sentences were. But I give Relin bonus points for a satisfactory ending, filled with hope and better things to come.

I usually don’t read up on authors, but given Relin’s impressive take on Mortenson’s life and Mortenson’s impossible apparently possible and heroic deeds, it is saddening to read about the controversies and tragedies behind Three Cups of Tea. Relin committed suicide in 2002, likely due to stress and depression from accusations about falsehoods in the story as well as suspicious distributions of CAI funds. Relin also wasn’t too impressed by Mortenson’s flightiness, and objected to Mortenson being a co-author. Despite of all the drama, I think that Three Cups of Tea is still one of those books that can change minds and lives, and I definitely learned a lot from it.

Three Cups of Tea is inspiring, hopeful, and eye-opening. Mortenson is the modern Superman, and Relin makes it all come to life. If you like doing good deeds and have a caring, loving soul, Three Cups of Tea might put you to tears. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in a different culture, Three Cups of Tea has that too. (Just avoid the foreword.)

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3 thoughts on “Review: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin

  1. I’m glad that you investigated into the controversy, because I didn’t want to have to break your heart about this book! I read this and thought it was eye opening and amazing a while back and was just so upset to learn the truth. I love that you are still able to look at it in a positive light, that the book still has the power to change minds and lives. I hope so, too, because even if Greg Mortenson is not trustworthy, there are other nonprofits or there need to be nonprofits in Pakistan and Afghanistan that are.

    • Ahhh, I’m glad I did too, Lu! So I was only a little bit put off when I found out (instead of being really angry and upset), and I feel mostly relieved that this wasn’t another A Million Little Pieces. I definitely agree with you about the importance of learning about and supporting other similar nonprofits, so hopefully the controversies don’t deter others from reading Three Cups of Tea. 🙂

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