Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

See all posts »

Three Cups of Tea

As we approach the 4th of July, we reflect upon our remarkable country and the freedoms we enjoy. Many of us often take these for granted, but it has been with great sacrifices and extreme efforts that our way of life has been created and maintained. Independence Day is not a universal holiday, sadly, because there are still many places in the world where the essentials of life, truth, equality, and justice are superceded by governments, religions, and human shortcomings that do not support human rights. Many of these places are visited by outdoor adventurers. Sometimes, men and women who intend only to pass through in their quest to meet a personal challenge become drawn to a greater purpose.

Wilderness medicine and adventure attracts men and women of action, many of whom are very sensitive to the people and social issues of the countries they explore. It is difficult to ignore the plight of locals, frequently in "third world" countries, who are far less fortunate than the wealthy, well-educated, and extensively equipped alpinists, divers, and eco-tourists who come to their lands for fulfillment and to accomplish their own missions. When one steps back and witnesses the hospitality and generosity of people who possess far less than we do, and who are in need of health care, food, shelter, and the basic items of existence that we take for granted, it can be a stimulus for wanting to make things better.

Visionaries and missionaries (in the true sense of the word) come in all forms and varieties. One needn't have attained the summit of Mt. Everest or discovered the Titanic to realize that the world will only sustain itself and become a better place for future generations if we are able to make remarkable and sustainable efforts to improve the lot in life of those who are less fortunate. The most profound tool we have to initiate change is education.

Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer who came to understand his calling while climbing in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan, has written a book (with David Oliver Relin) about his experiences. Entitled Three Cups of Tea, it is, in the words of Tom Browaw, "Thrilling...proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world."

Mortenson was the recipient of routine (by local standards), yet extraordinary (by his standards), kindness in an impoverished Pakistani village after his failed attempt to climb K2. During his stay with the villagers, he came to understand how centrally important it was to their future, and in particular that of women, that a school be built. He had the will power and improvisational skills to extrapolate that need into a much larger project to build schools across an entire region, and in so doing, promote the most logical solution to a problem that cuts across all socioeconomic issues. In the process, he was assisted by timely benefactors, who recognized the greatness in this man far ahead of his track record. From his determination and ability to move people in the direction of progress, Mortenson founded the Central Asia Institute, for which he continues to serve as Director.

The book is a fast (because it is a "page-turner") and fascinating read. Anyone who has struggled with a local bureaucracy, needed to grease the palms of greedy officials, or cajoled local bullies in order to complete a project will identify with the universal themes of sweet-talking, surreptitious methods, good luck, and bravado necessary to be successful. Mortenson's mission was pure, which helped, but he spares no credit in explaining how the efforts of many people were necessary for him to get his first bridge, and then first school, built. The principles of perseverance would apply equally well to any similar project in a foreign land, be it the building of a hospital or the initiation of a conservation effort. Good work must be appreciated and supported, or it will take twice as long at three times the cost.

Three Cups of Tea is a case study in contrasts - between East and West, wealth and poverty, men and women, poor explorers and wealthy philanthropists, and local values and political storm. It is the essence of accomplished explorers that they are able to improvise, so that what one learns on belay when an anchor has slipped is applicable to what one must do when a load of lumber is on the verge of being hijacked. Rugged individuals are often great at being leaders and achieving heroic feats, while the qualities necessary to build and support a team are not ingrained by genes or schooling. Greg Mortenson pulled it off, and with the assistance of a wonderful and patient wife, went way beyond. He has created something larger than himself. It will be extremely interesting, and vital to the people and country he has served, to see where he takes it from here. As documentation of the remarkable progress made to date, Three Cups of Tea is a tale of great importance, and very well told. On this upcoming 4th of July, we should be proud to have Americans like Greg in our midst.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
  • 1
Was this article helpful? Yes No

About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.