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Social Advocacy

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Three Cups of Tea
Central Asia Institute
Pennies for Peace

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Greg Mortenson
Greg Mortenson
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Greg Mortenson Interview

Best-Selling Author, Three Cups of Tea

July 5, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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  Greg Mortenson

In 1993, you tried to climb "the Savage Mountain," K2, in the Himalayas, as a tribute to your youngest sister, Christa, who had died the year before. Although you were a very experienced climber, you became lost on your way back down, and found your way to the village of Korphe, in Pakistan. Could you tell us what that was like? What was your condition at that point?

Greg Mortenson: Coming off K2, I was utterly at the limits of my physical and emotional abilities. I was weak and emaciated. I was stumbling. I was somewhat incoherent. I had to walk five days. I got lost off the trail. I spent a night out in the open. It was a quite high altitude, and I remember I had rope burns, so I had an infected arm. Didn't have any food with me. And I remember waking up in the morning, looking up at these beautiful mountains. And then there was a gorak, which is like a raven, circling over me like a buzzard. And that kind of got me motivated to get up and keep moving down the trail. I had to walk five days to get to a village so I could get a jeep and go back to civilization. But the word "failure" was also really resonating in my mind. And it seemed as if my boots were so heavy. Because I felt... I didn't feel light and free. I felt as if I really had let Christa down. And then it became more of a survival to get back to the nearest village, so I could get help.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Greg Mortenson Interview Photo

It was a very cold autumn day. The leaves were changing. You could smell, in the autumn, the fires, the juniper and the sage fires. You can smell the wisp of that coming up from the villages. So I finally got outside a village called Korphe. And about 50 kids came and started tugging on me and said, "Please come to our village." But first you need to talk to the chief and get permission. So when I got to Korphe, there was a very elderly, stout, squat man with a silver beard. His name is Haji Ali. He had his hands crossed like this. And he kind of looked at me. First he said, "As-salaam Alaaikum," which means "Peace be with you." Then he looked at me. He shook his head. And he said, "Cheezaley?" And the best translation I can think of the word cheezaley is, "What the heck?" And I was weather beaten. My pants were ripped. I hadn't had a bath in about 80 days. And he said, "Son, before you come to our village, you need to take a bath." So he took me down to a river, washed me up. It's a very silty, icy cold river. And I first went to his house for tea, and I experienced this incredible hospitality.

It's the Balti people who live in these villages in the Karakoram Mountains. The Karakoram Mountain range is the greatest concentration of high peaks in the world. There are 64 peaks above 23,000 feet high, in a 100-mile area. The Balti people have lived there for 600 to 800 years. They migrated originally from Tibet. They're very isolated, cut off from outside influence to a large degree. And in the village, they gave me everything they had. They put their blankets on me, they would massage my legs with yak butter. They were just hovering around me, just really concerned that I wouldn't make it. Or they just really wanted to help. Finally, I regained some strength.

I went behind the village one day. I saw 84 children sitting in the dirt. There was about five girls and 79 boys. And most of the kids were writing with sticks in the sand, and the older kids were helping the younger kids. And then I had looked around, and I didn't see a teacher there. And I thought, "This is very strange. We've got 80 kids here and no teacher." And they said, "Our teacher, Master Hussein..." -- master means teacher -- " in the next village, Munjung, because we can't afford his daily one-dollar salary." And then a young girl named Cho Cho came up to me. She was about seven or eight. She said, "Could you help us build a school here? It's very cold. Could you just please help us build a school?" I had seen a lot of poverty in my life. I grew up in Africa. And I've seen development, so those kind of experiences really shouldn't affect me to such a degree, but when I looked into her eyes, I saw such a purity and such a kind of resilient determination to ask me for help. So I made a promise. It was kind of this "eureka" moment, but I said, "I promise I'll build a school for you." And little did I know that I'd changed my life forever.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

When you returned to the United States, how did you go about fulfilling your promise?

Greg Mortenson: I didn't have any money. I was a grad student. I could work as a trauma nurse, so I could earn some income pretty quickly. And I'd figured out in Pakistan I'd need $12,000 to build a school. So I had no clue how to fundraise. And I've been criticized for this sometimes. People say, "Well, why didn't you do this or this?" But I did the best I can. And probably, based on my childhood experiences, the first thing I did is I went to the library, and I looked up books on how to fundraise. Then I talked to the resource librarian. And she said, "Well, let's look up the name of some celebrities and movie stars, and you could write them a letter. And maybe they'll help you out." So we looked up the names of 580 celebrities and movie stars and sports heroes, and I hand-typed 580 letters. I didn't know how to use a computer at the time. So I hand-typed these letters very kind of fastidiously over the next ten weeks. "Dear Sylvester Stallone..." or "Dear Michael Jordan..." and it didn't seem that bad. But guess what happened? Nothing happened. Then I sold my car. I sold my climbing gear. I sold my books. I sold pretty much everything I owned to raise money for the school. And by the springtime, I'd only raised $2,400. I had about $10,000 to go.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I was working, and I was putting aside some extra money, but I also had to buy a plane ticket, and I had to finance some other things in addition to the school.

In the spring of '94, my mother, who's a principal in an elementary school in Wisconsin, invited me to come and talk to the kids. It was my first time I'd ever spoken to anybody about building a school, and very inspiring. And when I got ready to leave, a fourth grader named Jeffrey came up to me, and he looked at me deadpan in the eye, and he said, "I have a piggybank at home, and I'm going to help you raise money for that school." I didn't think much of it. I went home, and six weeks later, my mother called me up and she said, "Westside School has raised 62,340 pennies, $623.40." And when you think about it, it wasn't adults. It wasn't celebrities, it wasn't movie stars, it wasn't sports heroes. It was children in their innocence and purity reaching out to children halfway around the world to build a school. And they did it with pennies. A penny is worthless in America, but in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a penny you can buy a pencil. It's not that a pencil's so important, but what education does is it gives a child and a community hope. And if you have hope really, you can do anything. So I had a little bit of hope.

Finally, I ended up raising the money and went back to Pakistan in the fall of '94. I got the school supplies. I went three days up the Karakoram Highway on a big old Bedford truck. And then we got up to the village. And there was Haji Ali again to greet me. "As-salaam Alaaikum," which means "Peace be with you." And then again, "Cheezaley?" He said, "You know, we didn't think you were coming back to the village. And not only that, you brought the school supplies. But Son, you've made two big mistakes. First of all, we don't start building right before wintertime. And number two, if you really want to build a school, we have to build a bridge first." So I hadn't calculated that into the equation. So I had to come back to the States, raise $10,000 more dollars. I went back a year later. And in ten weeks, I built a 284-foot span bridge over the Braldu River.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

It's an amazing engineering feat. There are five 800-pound steel cables that they carried 18 miles up the mountain trails on big spools to get this bridge built. So the bridge got built. I came back to the States, September 13th, 1995. I was 38 years old. I was a bachelor. And all I could think about was school and work and getting this one school built.

Greg Mortenson Interview Photo

I was at a fundraising dinner in San Francisco, and one of my childhood heroes, Sir Edmund Hillary -- who was the first guy who climbed Everest and set up many schools in the Himalayas -- he was speaking. But he got kind of long-winded. And he kept talking about the Queen's coronation in 1953. He had gotten a knighthood and was honored by Queen Elizabeth. So I went to the back to get some fresh air, and there was a beautiful woman in the back. She was wearing a dress and black combat boots. Her name was Tara. I started talking to her, and six days later, we got married. And so, 14 years later now, we're living happily ever after in Montana. So it was a beautiful time. We didn't have any money. But I guess it was the first day we kind of knew we were meant to be with each other. And I'm sure glad I waited for Tara. It was the black combat boots.

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This page last revised on Oct 28, 2009 16:24 EDT