Sunday, July 05, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

I like to think of these three little girls on the cover as

the "three cups of tea"

"If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways," Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. "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."

That quote from village headman Haji Ali to climber-turned-schoolbuilder Greg Mortenson, still gets to me, each time I read it. Mortenson was receiving a lesson in slowing down, in learning that the Balti people had lived in the mountains of the high Karakorams of Pakistan for thousands of years, that they would be there for thousands more, and that they had the patience of the mountains in waiting for their school to be built. Mortenson learned that "American time" and the rush to build and complete projects, would not work in this ancient land, and therefore learned to accomodate Balti ways. What one really learns though, in this amazing book, is that the "primitive" peoples of Central Asia, famed for their hospitality, are absolutely true to their word when they say such things; it is ingrained within them. When Mortenson first encountered the Balti by accident, wandering almost dead into a Balti village from a failed climbing expedition in the Karakorams, he was stunned and moved beyond words, by how these tremendously poor people had received him. He noted that on his first night in the village, in the home of headman Haji Ali, when all were asleep, he had been covered in a blanket covered by sewn-on small mirrors, obviously the most prized possession of these villagers, while they had covered themselves in thin, worn hides and cloths. They soon slaughtered an ibex (a type of mountain goat) for him, something that was of a great material value to a community which very rarely could afford to eat meat, in celebration of an honored guest to the village. Mortenson was so taken by these people, that he vowed to return one day and build a school for its children, who had been studying outside in the elements, many times by just writing figures in the dirt, and usually without a teacher for guidance. Thus were the beginnings of the CAI, the Central Asian Institute, or one man's initial efforts in what became a program of building schools throughout the Karakoram-Himalayan highlands, as well as ultimately into Afghanistan. The beloved Dr. Greg, or Dr. Gri-ek, (who is actually a nurse by training, known forever forward as The Doctor as soon as he treated his first Balti patient) decided that instead of climbing mountains as a goal, building schools in this region, with a particular emphasis on the education of girls, was not only a worthwhile ambition, but could actually work to stem the rising tide of terrorism in the region by giving girls equal worth and opportunity with which to later shape their communities, while allowing for boys other options than the Saudi-funded madrassas which all-too-often preach a distorted Islam and a hatred of the West. I think that "Dr. Greg", stumbling into that Balti village sometime in the early 1990's, has found the key to the fight against terrorism and ignorance through the work that he has decided to undertake as his life's ambition. It's funny sometimes how the answers to such complex issues can be so simple. As simple as a Balti headman and his village community who can remind us what the word "civilization" in fact really means.


Blogger GC (God's Child) said...

amazing story
I'll put that book on my list for Fall Reading

9:06 AM  
Blogger Willowtree said...

I saw this book come up in my recommended book list in amazon the other day. It sounds great. Doesnt it seem that people who can afford it the least, give the most.

9:44 AM  

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