Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4 - 6

Chapter 4: Self-Storage

Greatness is always built on this foundation: the ability to appear, speak and act, as the most common man.
Shams-ud-din Muhammed Hafiz

Mortenson is disoriented after returning from Pakistan to life in Berkeley. He starts by visiting his "anchor to himself": his storage locker.

Mortenson was born to Irvin "Dempsey" and Jerene Mortenson in 1958 in Minnesota. When Mortenson was three months old, his parents moved to Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) as Lutheran missionaries. They fell in love with the country, settled near Mt. Kilimanjaro, and raised their family: Greg and his sisters Kari, Sonja Joy, and Christa. Christa had developmental disabilities, possibly due to an early bout of meningitis and possibly a bad smallpox vaccination. Greg served as her godfather and took on the role of her protector throughout her brief life.

Mortenson loved growing up in Tanzania, among a fragrant pepper tree in the family's courtyard and many international students at the school his mother founded. Fluent in Swahili, he grew up comfortable with other cultures and languages. His father not only founded the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre but successfully insured that Tanzanians (and not foreigners) would operate it in the future.

When Mortenson was fourteen, his family moved back to Minnesota. On his first day of high school, Mortenson was beaten up by students in his school. Although he felt comfortable around his African-American classmates, racial mixing was not part of life in Minnesota. In any case, he ended up excelling at sports and transitioned well, except that he still followed "African time" (he was always late). His family did not have enough money for college, so Mortenson joined the army. He appreciated the chance to travel and train as a medic, and he was relieved by the relative lack of importance of race in the army compared to Minnesota. After two years, Mortenson went to college, first at Concordia in Minnesota and then at the larger University of South Dakota. Mortenson worked throughout college and sent money home. He also frequently drove home to see his father, Dempsey, who had cancer. Dempsey died during Mortenson's senior year. Mortenson graduated with honors in chemistry and nursing and spent a year at home helping his sister navigate young adulthood.

Mortenson then moved to California to pursue mountain climbing from 1989-1992. He trained and went on expeditions in the Himalayas. On July 23, 1992, Mortenson was badly injured from a fall; when he called home, he learned that Christa had died from a massive seizure. He felt lost, and hoped to find himself climbing K2.

Chapter 5: 580 Letters, One Check

Let sorrowful longing dwell in your heart/Never give up, never lose hope./Allah says, "The broken ones are my beloved."/Crush your heart. Be broken.
- Shaikh Abu Saeed Abil Kheir, aka Nobody, Son of Nobody

Mortenson begins writing letters to civic-minded celebrities, in hope of getting funding. He uses a typewriter and on his first day completes and sends only six letters.

Mortenson works as a trauma nurse on the night shift at the UCSF Medical Center and sleeps in his car, "La Bamba," to save money. He often talks with Dr. Tom Vaughan, a fellow climber, about their past expeditions. Mortenson also finds himself smitten with another resident, Dr. Marina Villard, a climber herself.

Kishwar Syed, a Pakistani owner of a local photocopying shop, teaches Mortenson how to use a computer; the copy-and-paste function is nothing short of miraculous to him for the time it saves. He eventually writes some 580 letters to celebrities like Oprah, Susan Sarandon, and every U.S. senator asking for the $12,000 required to build the school. Mortenson also writes 16 grant applications, but all get rejected. He only gets one response to his letters: Tom Brokaw sends him $100. However, at his mother Jerene's request, Mortenson speaks to the students at her school in Minnesota. Her students, immediately in synch with the mission, collect $623.45 in pennies to donate to the school.

Though Mortenson is too shy to ask Marina on a date, she finally asks him herself. He grows attached to her and to her daughters from a previous marriage. However, his refusal to spend any money while he is trying to fundraise for the school strains their relationship.

Dr. Vaughan writes about Mortenson in the American Himalayan Foundation newsletter, reminding his fellow climbers of Sir Edmund Hillary, who followed his Everest climb by building schools for the Sherpa communities. In 1964 Hillary published Schoolhouse in the Clouds, emphasizing that charity was important not only for its own sake but also for every country's peace and security. Vaughan's effort pays off: Dr. Jean Hoerni, a wealthy scientist and former climber offers to help. Mortenson calls him and, after convincing Dr. Hoerni he will not squander the money, Dr. Hoerni sends him the full $12,000.

Mortenson sells all his belongings, including his climbing gear, to pay for his flight and expenses for Pakistan. He assures Marina that once the school is built, he will return and they can truly be a family.

Chapter 6: Rawalpindi's Rooftops at Dusk

Prayer is better than sleep.
the hazzan, or call to worship

In Pakistan, Mortenson keeps the $12,000 in cash with him at all times. He pays only $2/night for a room in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. Abdul Shah, the watchman at the guesthouse, offers to help him bargain for the school supplies. Abdul proves to be helpful, identifying the school's needs, choosing trustworthy vendors who are "good Muslims", and bargaining hard. The long process over many cups of tea is very tiresome for Mortenson. Abdul helps him navigate the complex cultural terrain of bargaining and enables him to buy all the necessary supplies - including higher-quality lumber - within his budget.

Abdul takes Mortenson to Manzoor Khan, a tailor who teaches him how to wear his shalwar kamiz appropriately. Khan also shares with Mortenson the rudiments of Muslim prayer; they wash first, face toward Mecca, and pray. Mortenson, praying with Khan in a gas station parking lot, feels transformed by the prayers of many people coming together into a place of worship.


Chapter 4 outlines how Mortenson's upbringing primed him for his future. Growing up, he lived a simple, modest life with his family and was accustomed to sacrifice. His relationship with Christa, in particular, taught him from a young age about responsibility, family, obligation, and sacrifice. His childhood in Africa also instilled in him an appreciation for, and ease with, cultural diversity. These lessons carried on seamlessly into his adulthood: to pay tribute to Christa by trekking to K2, he had to sacrifice basic comforts, and his flexibility, easy language acquisition, and openness streamlines the construction of the school in Korphe.

Mortenson asked Manzoor to teach him how to perform the salat, the five-times-daily Muslim prayer. This scene illustrates Mortenson's willingness to adapt to local customs, rather than to impose American tradition or ideals upon local people. Because Islam affects every aspect of life in Pakistan, Mortenson's obvious respect for this religious tradition will facilitate his relationships with local people. As a start, Abdul counts being a "good Muslim" as the primary criterion in determining which lumber dealer to consult, and Mortenson forges a friendly relationship with his tailor after being straightforward with his respect for, and curiosity about, Islam.

In Chapter 4, the narrative also emphasizes that Mortenson's family had long been dedicated to promoting education. In Tanzania, Mortenson's father helped found the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, the nation's first teaching hospital, and his mother helped found an international school. His parents' decisions instilled in him a sense of commitment to education that guides him through the construction of the school at Korphe. His parents' examples also gave him a blueprint regarding how much work to expect when undertaking a project of this kind.

On the other hand, Mortenson's personal relationships necessarily suffer under the weight of demands the school construction places on him. He seems to be unable to navigate the intricacies of close,romantic relationships, which demand time and, in some cases, money, which he appears unwilling to spend. Though Dr. Villard is a promising potential partner, it appears that the all-encompassing nature of Mortenson's commitment to Korphe may prove to be their relationship's Achilles' heel.

These chapters also make an interesting point about the nature of philanthropy: it comes not only from the expected big-name donors, but also from "angel" donors in the shadows. In Mortenson's case, the biggest preliminary investments were made by two very different groups of people: children and Mortenson's fellow mountaineers. Children understand intuitively the importance of the school project and evince compassion for their contemporaries halfway around the world. Mortenson's connection with fellow climber Dr. Vaughn also becomes instrumental in raising funds; it earns Mortenson a check from Dr. Hoerni that makes the project possible. Thus, while the composition of 600 requests for money from the biggest names in show business was not perhaps a waste of time - Mortenson did, after all, learn to use a computer in the process - it is an early lesson in soliciting the people he may have otherwise overlooked for help.