Study Guide

Three Cups of Tea Quotes

  • Education

    Haji Ali, avoiding Mortenson's eyes, said that the village had no school, and the Pakistani government didn't provide a teacher. (3.23)

    When Mortenson hears this, he realizes that he is the one that has to build the school.  If a country's own government isn't going to help, then who is?

    A dollar a day for a teacher, Mortenson fumed, how could a government, even one as impoverished as Pakistan's, not provide that? (3.26)

    Mortenson is furious that a country that spends so much money on the military can't devote even a fraction of that to education. (Note that he's talking about Pakistan here, even though the same accusation could be leveled at Mortenson's own country.)

    "They need teachers in Tanganyika. Let's go to Africa." (4.7)

    Mortenson got his passion for education from his father, who was a teacher in Africa for most of Mortenson's youth.

    Half an hour later […] Mortenson was kneeling with the children, drawing multiplication tables in the dirt with a mulberry branch. (8.74)

    Mortenson isn't just a guy who builds schools, he's a guy who helps teach, too.

    Hussein seemed to Mortenson immeasurably removed from his days of scholarship on the sweltering plains of the Punjab. He would be the perfect teacher for Korphe's school, Mortenson realized. He'd be able to bridge both worlds. (10.71)

    However, a guy like Mortenson isn't enough. A good teacher, a really good teacher, is one who not only knows multiplication tables, but knows the kids' lives and can relate to them.

    "Long after all those rams are dead and eaten this school will still stand. […] Our children have education forever." (12.110)

    Haji Ali ends up bribing a rival village with a ton of livestock in order to keep his school open. He has a larger vision than most, seeing the long-term benefit of education, and how it outweighs the short-term benefit of delicious yak meat.

    "The children of all those other villages that tried to bribe you need schools, too." (15.38)

    Mortenson has to make difficult moral choices, like building schools in corrupt villages. He has to remember that the children aren't the corrupt ones, and they're the ones who will truly benefit.

    "I don't want to teach Pakistan's children to think like Americans," Mortenson says. "I just want them to have a balanced, nonextremist education. That idea is at the very center of what we do." (16.73)

    Mortenson's education isn't about propaganda, like the education in the Wahhabi madrassas. He simply wants to give students the basic building blocks—reading, writing, 'rithmetic—to grow and thrive.

    "Yes, like the bee house. Wahhabi madrassa have many students hidden inside." (19.10)

    It's easy to think that education = good, but in the case of Wahhabi madrassa, which train their students as though they're drones in radical Islam, that kind of education might be worse than no education at all.

    "[Terror] happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." (21.73)

    Ignorance breeds fear, and terror grows from fear. Mortenson hopes that his schools will help end the widespread ignorance toward the outside world in Pakistan, and that this will cut off terrorism at its roots.

  • Women

    [The women] pulled their shawls over their faces when they saw [Mortenson] and ran to put trees between themselves and the Angrezi, the strange white man. (2.37)

    If this were the U.S., women would be running from Greg Mortenson because he hasn't showered in weeks. But in Pakistan, the Shiite women are running from him because it is against their fundamental beliefs to be that close to a foreign man.

    Haji Ali's wife, Sakina, saw [Mortenson] stir and brought a lassi, a fresh-baked chapatti, and sweet tea. She was the first Balti woman who had ever approached him. (3.2)

    Just as Haji Ali is a little more advanced than his villagers (it takes a smart guy to be the village chief), his wife is a little more progressive as well, not shying away from Mortenson simply because her customs tell her to.

    Mortenson asked if Balti women whose husbands were away could also be granted muthaa. (10.26)

    In this culture, it's okay for men to have affairs (it's approved at the mosque) but not women. Talk about a double standard.

    At Haji Ali's, Sakina took Mortenson's hand in welcome, and he realized it was the first time a Balti woman had touched him. (10.41)

    Here's Sakina again, breaking barriers with a simple handshake. What's she going to do next? Let down her hair and tango with him?

    Mortenson's Balti had become fluent, and he and Twaha sat up long after most of Korphe slept to talk. Their great subject was women. (10.79)

    Just because Mortenson is trying to educate the young women of Pakistan doesn't mean that he and Twaha still aren't above objectifying them.

    "How many goat and ram must you give her father?" Twaha asked. (12.37)

    In Pakistan, marriage seems to be more about a business transaction than it is about romance or love. Good women are worth their weight in livestock.

    By August […] Hawa presided glowingly over the new Korphe Women's Vocational Center. In a disused room at the back of Haji Ali's home, Korphe's women gathered each afternoon, learning to use the four new Singer hand-crank sewing machines Mortenson purchased. (15.64)

    Mortenson expands his educational pursuits beyond young girls and decides to help the women, too, by giving them a safe place to gather. And if they're going to spend all day sewing anyway, they might as well be fast about it with these brand new machines.

    "At first, when I began to attend school, many people in my village told me a girl has no business doing such a thing," Shakeela says. (16.57)

    Mortenson might build the schools, but it's up to the people to change the perceptions and opinions of their country themselves. Shakeela defies expectations by going to school, and she sets a precedent so that other girls can go to school, too.

    "You can change a culture by giving its girls the tools to grow up educated so they can help themselves." (18.65)

    Hand-outs and aid are well and good, but education is important. What is that saying again… build a man a fire and he's warm for a night, set a man on fire and he's warm for life? We might have messed that up, but you get the gist.

    "We have a word for someone like you: a man." (20.20)

    In Afghanistan, people see men as innately superior, so this quote is a "compliment" given to a female journalist, though she doesn't see it as such.

  • Visions of Pakistan

    In Pakistan's Karakoram […] more than sixty of the world's tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness. Other than snow leopard and ibex, so few living creatures have passed through this parent icescape that the presence of the world's second-highest mountain, K2, was little more than a rumor to the outside world until the turn of the twentieth century. (1.1)

    The first paragraph of the book isn't about Greg Mortenson—it's about Pakistan, letting us know that this severe, yet beautiful, land is going to be a character all to itself.

    The peaks were painted in garish, sugary colors—all pinks and violets and baby blues—and the sky, just before sunrise, was windless and clear. (2.3)

    This quote is a sharp contrast to the last one. While the first paragraph of the book is all ice and danger, this quote makes the mountains seem like Candy Land or a Mario Kart track.

    The panorama of colossi blinded him. Gasherbrum, Broad Peak, Mitre Peak, Muztagh Tower—these ice-sheathed giants, naked in the embrace of unfiltered sunlight, burned like bonfires. (2.10)

    Hikers get distracted by these named peaks as though they're trophies. It's easy for the small villages, like Korphe, to get ignored amid all this majesty.

    Mortenson smelled the village of Korphe a mile before he approached it. The scent of juniper woodsmoke and unwashed humanity as overwhelming after the sterility of altitude. (2.40)

    Mortenson isn't one to talk about "unwashed humanity," seeing as how he hasn't bathed in weeks, but it's interesting that Korphe has a distinct smell. What does your town or city smell like? Also: Do you think where you live smells the same to you as it does to someone who's never been there before? It seems possible that the scents people identify can clue us into their perspectives on a place.

    [Mortenson had] never heard of Korphe. He was positive it hadn't appeared on any map he'd ever studied of the Karakoram, and he'd studied dozens. (2.53)

    As we said earlier, Mortenson has always been more focused on the mountains than the villages. The mountaineers are only interested in what can benefit them on their journey, so a little village like Korphe passes unnoticed.

    Ali apologized that tea was not yet brewed and sent a boy running for three bottles of warm Thums Up brand orange soda while they waited. (6.60)

    Not only is the landscape different in Pakistan, so are the customs and the soda. Normally tea is offered at a meeting, but in this case it's replaced with a foreign brand of soda. It's so foreign, that Mortenson even gets the flavor wrong. Thums Up is more like Coca-Cola.

    Seeing white wild country again, and watching the Bedford struggling over this "highway" at fifteen miles an hour, [Mortenson] had a renewed appreciation for just how thoroughly these mountains and gorges cut Baltistan off from the world. (7.29)

    Traveling through Pakistan is hard. The roads aren't like the Interstates in the U.S., they're more like the roads probably were when Model Ts were still on the road.

    Though this lunar rockscape in the western Karakoram has to be one of the most forbidding on Earth, Mortenson felt he had come home. (7.49)

    "Lunar rockscape" is a great way to describe these mountains. They're so impressive and strange it's hard to believe they even exist on Earth.

    The busy street, lined with narrow stalls selling soccer balls, cheap Chinese sweaters, and neatly arranged pyramids of foreign treasure like Ovaltine and Tang, seemed overwhelmingly cosmopolitan after the deafening emptiness of the Indus Gorge. (8.3)

    This is a great view of the teeming marketplace in Pakistan. It's not unlike street vendors in New York City, except in Pakistan, powdered drink products are exotic.

    Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country on earth. With millions of tiny explosives buried by half a dozen different armies over decades, no one knows exactly where the patient devices lie in wait. (23.47)

    Mortenson shifts his focus to Afghanistan late in the book and we want to address the different dangers there. Not only is it as rocky and remote as Pakistan, but Afghanistan has the exciting bonus feature of being riddled with explosives. Past conflicts continue to haunt the people there in very real ways.

  • Perseverance

    [Mortenson] spent an hour scrambling up a slope of scree, hoping for a vantage point above the boulders and icebergs, a place where he might snare the landmark he was looking for, the great rocky promontory of Urdukas, which thrust out onto the Baltoro like a massive fist, and haul himself back toward the trail. (1.19)

    Whoa. We're not sure what takes more perseverance: that daring rock climb, or writing that single gigantic sentence.

    Anyone who has spent time or Mortenson's presence […] would recognize this night as one more example of Mortenson's steely-mindedness. (1.24)

    Mortenson's determination at hiking is a nice transferable skill on his resume, one that shows his ability to sniff out and dig up donations from anyone, anywhere, all over the world.

    For six hours […] they communicated only in grunts and whimpers, dragging their friend down a dangerous technical route through the icefall of the Savoia Glacier. (1.41)

    As a climber, Mortenson has to be tenacious. It's a matter of life and death, literally, when they have to rescue one of their own.

    It was his body that had failed, [Mortenson] decided, not his spirit, and every body had its limits. (1.47)

    Just because someone takes a break doesn't mean that they "give up." Mortenson simply changes his course; he never stops.

    "If you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything." (4.22)

    This is cookie cutter advice from Papa Mortenson, but it's positioned as a profound moment in Greg Mortenson's life, and part of the reason why he always perseveres for what he believes in.

    During days he wasn't working, Mortenson hunted and pecked his way through hundreds of letters. He wrote to every U.S. senator. (5.14)

    Even though Mortenson can't use a computer, or type, he writes out hundreds of letters to raise money. This shows incredible determination… and a bit of stupidity. Sometimes there's a fine line between the two.

    Each of the coils of cable weighed eight hundred pounds and it took ten men at a time to carry the thick wood poles they threaded through the center of the spools. (10.46)

    Mortenson isn't the only one determined to build schools. The residents of the villages want to build these buildings just as much, if not more so, than Mortenson does.

    In this sense, Balti men weren't so different from the ibex they pursued. (10.62)

    Like the ibex, the Balti men have adapted to survive at high altitudes, including harsh temperatures and dangerous landscapes. You don't have the luxury of sitting back and relaxing much when you live in a place like that.

    "I felt like whatever I had to say was sort of futile. I wasn't going to change the way the Bush administration had decided to fight its wars […] so I decided to just let it rip." (21.86)

    Even when the odds look impossible, Mortenson still tries. If he keeps silent, no one will hear him, but by speaking up, maybe someone, anyone, will hear about his mission and help.

    "You don't understand. My class starts next week. I need money now!" (22.16)

    They must teach Mortenson Perseverance 101 in the schools that he builds because Jahan isn't going to give up when she needs money to continue her education. That might be the most valuable skill they teach.

  • Religion

    The Balti had originally migrated southwest from Tibet, via Ladakh, more than six hundred years ago, and their Buddhism had been scoured away as they traveled over the rocky passes and replaced by a religion more attuned to the severity of their new landscape—Shiite Islam. (2.23)

    Religions are practically living things, just like the people who practice them. They, too, have to adapt and change to the landscape they find themselves in.

    Even during his five daily prayer sessions, Mouzafer, a fastidious man of faith, would steal a glance away from Mecca to make sure Mortenson was still nearby. (2.30)

    This quote shows how devout Mouzafer is, and maybe we're reading into it too much, but it also seems to suggest how Mortenson is almost as important as Mecca to this man. This is a theme we'll see crop up further down the line.

    "Will you show me how to pray?" Mortenson asked, impulsively.

    "Are you a Muslim?"

    "I respect Islam." (6.43-6.45)

    One way to understand a religion separate from your own is to participate in its rituals and see them for yourself. Mortenson educates himself firsthand in the customs of Islam by participating in their prayer.

    A true Muslim would leap at the chance to help poor children instead of trying to steal their money. (6.63)

    Like any major religion, one of the tenets of Islam is to give charity to others. Many people of all religions lose sight in the whole let's help others who are less fortunate thing.

    For years, Mortenson had known, intellectually, that the word "Muslim" means, literally, "to submit." And like many Americans, who worshipped at the temple of rugged individualism, he had found the idea dehumanizing. But for the first time […] he glimpsed the pleasure to be found in submission to a ritualized fellowship of prayer. (6.86)

    Mortenson sees how the prayer ritual builds community and fellowship, kind of like Mortenson's own devotion to mountain climbing, which relies on brotherhood and support.

    [Mortenson] was praying like a Sunni at the heart of Shiite Pakistan. Among the warring sects of Islam, Mortenson knew, men had been killed for less. (12.50)

    Ah, the joy of sects. Islam is a fiercely divided religion, one in which differing customs can mean the difference between life and death.

    "For these blessings, I thank Almighty Allah," Aslam says, "and Mister Greg Mortenson." (16.65)

    Mortenson ends up being put right alongside Allah here. This kind of talk may contribute to his desire to do everything himself—like a god, he wants to be omnipresent—but then again, Mortenson's also responsible for recounting this moment to Relin…

    Wahhabism is a conservative, fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam and the official state religion of Saudi Arabia's rulers. (19.18)

    All religions have branches. Just like Christianity and its numerous denominations, Islam branches off, too, and some of the denominations are more fundamental, and at times destructive, than others.

    "I wish all the Americans who think 'Muslim' is just another way of saying 'terrorist' could have been there that day. The true core tenets of Islam are justice, tolerance, and charity." (19.110)

    Not all Muslims are terrorists. The vast majority of Muslims are kind and caring people who will do anything to convince people that they're not like the outliers, the ones who are loud, violent, and dangerous.

    "What really humbled me was how the response came from all sorts of people, from church groups, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews." (22.31)

    Mortenson's mission, in its purest form, unites people of all belief systems to work toward a common goal: education.

  • Contrasting Regions: The U.S. and the Middle East

    "Isn't it better to live in ignorance of everything—asphalt and macadam, vehicles, telephones, television—to live in bliss without knowing it?" (3.16)

    This is a quote from 1958, and something that would be completely impossible to do today, even in the remotest regions of Pakistan. Information may travel more slowly there, but it still travels.

    Mortenson watched, his heart in his throat, as the students stood at rigid attention and began their "school day" with Pakistan's national anthem. (3.24)

    Pakistani children are just like many American children, beginning their school day with their respective nation's anthem.

    "It was pretty interesting. […] Someone from Pakistan helping me become computer literate so I could help Pakistani kids get literate." (5.19)

    Mortenson finds a helpful Pakistani in the U.S. who helps him learn to use a computer. Although he finds helpful Americans in Pakistan, too, the Americans are usually there for tourism or business purposes; they don't live there.

    "Children had taken the first step toward building the school. […] And they did it with something that's basically worthless in our society—pennies. But overseas, pennies can move mountains." (5.28)

    While it might seem unfair that Mortenson only pays his Pakistani employees pennies on the dollar (we'll let you be the judge), the exchange is so different that a few U.S. dollars go a long way in Pakistan.

    "Slowly and painfully, we are seeing worldwide acceptance of the fact that the wealthier and more technologically advanced countries have a responsibility to help the underdeveloped ones. […] Only in this way can we ever hope to see any permanent peace and security for ourselves." (5.32)

    As a "technologically advanced" country, the U.S. exerts its power over other countries in a variety of different ways. Whether it's through aid or through war depends on a lot of different factors. In many ways, Pakistan is simply at the mercy of what the U.S. decides to do.

    Every rupee counted now. […] For eighty rupees a night, or about two dollars, Mortenson inhabited this afterthought, an eight-by-eight-foot glassed-in cubicle on the hotel's roof that seemed more like a garden shed than a guest room. (6.4)

    Here we see an example of just how far a couple dollars can go in Pakistan. Two dollars in the U.S. wouldn't even get enough gas to get to a hotel, much less a room, no matter how small.

    "Very near," Akhmalu countered. "Only three or seven hours." (8.21)

    In the U.S., three or seven hours would never be considered "near" for a commute… unless you're in rush hour traffic in Los Angeles.

    "The people of Korphe have been here without a school for six hundred years. […] What is one winter more?" (12.26)

    The people have Korphe may not have running water or PlayStations, but they have something that Mortenson lacks: patience.

    "A village called New York has been bombed." (19.79)

    People in the remote regions of Pakistan either don't have a word for, or don't understand that there are, large cities in other parts of the world, and that New York isn't a village.

    "We need to settle this once and for all in court. Shariat Court." (21.39)

    The court in the U.S. isn't influenced by religion (ideally), but the court in Pakistan is pretty much run by religious leaders. That complicates things a bit.

  • Language and Communication

    The [hymn he sang] was too ingrained for Mortenson to consider the novelty of this moment—an American, lost in Pakistan, singing a German hymn in Swahili. (2.8)

    Mortenson is a regular polyglot knowing all these different languages, a skill that will serve him well navigating all the different dialects of rural Pakistan.

    "Mr. Gireg, Mr. Gireg," [Mouzafer] shouted, dropping the pack and wrapping Mortenson in a bear hug. (2.16)

    We're not sure why the book always reminds us that the Pakistanis have a difficult time saying "Greg," but it does. Often. Why do think this is? How does it affect your reading?

    Glacier was gangs-zhing, avalanche rdo-rut. And the Balti had as many names for rock as the Inuit have for snow. (2.30)

    The more time you spend around something, the more words you have for it. The Balti know mountains, so they have a huge vocabulary to describe them, just like we have a huge vocabulary for books and trashy reality television.

    Greg gave his father a sendoff in Swahili, calling him Baba, kaka, ndugu, "Father, brother, friend." (4.43)

    In some ways, Greg is more at home in a foreign language than he is in English. He even eulogizes his father in a foreign language.

    Two dozen untamed-looking bearded men in black turbans stood guarding the bridge. Their rocket launders and Kalashnikovs were trained lazily in the direction of a smart company of Pakistani soldiers whose own weapons were judiciously holstered. "No good," Mohammed said quietly, exhausting most of his English vocabulary. (7.35)

    Encountering a band of heavily armed men = scary. Encountering a band of heavily armed men when you don't share a common language = you better have packed a spare pair of underpants.

    Mortenson pointed to his noise, his hair, his ears and eyes and mouth. At the sound of each unfamiliar term the children exploded in unison, repeating it, before dissolving in laughter. (8.73)

    Many of the children in Korphe have never seen an English-speaking man, much less heard the English words for body parts. It's all very foreign and humorous to them, but a little educational, too.

    "El Koran?" [Mortenson] said, miming a man of faith paging through a holy book. (13.64)

    We're not sure how this would look different than paging through a normal book. How did Mortenson make sure he got a Koran and not, say, The Da Vinci Code?

    "Sure," [Mortenson] said. "I played football in col, uh, university," he said, and as he translated from American to British English he realized Khan meant soccer. (13.89)

    Who could have guessed that one of the more confusing mistranslations in the book comes from an English to English mistake?

    "How can you know what the people need if you don't ask them?" (17.60)

    Although Mortenson can speak the language by this point, he hasn't truly learned to communicate with the people he's trying to help. Talking to them isn't enough. He has to ask questions, and he has to listen.

    "The smugglers were Pashtun and Kais was a Tajik, so he was going to be suspicious of them no matter what." (23.54)

    Traveling through these remote regions is both similar to and different from traveling across the U.S. While people in the South might have different slang terms than people in the North (soda becomes a coke in the South, for instance, no matter what brand you want), people in different regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan can speak such distinct dialects it's like they're speaking a different language.

  • Man and the Natural World

    To climbers, who call [K2] "The Savage Peak," it remains the ultimate test, a pyramid of razored granite so steep that snow can't cling to its knife-edged ridges. (1.14)

    There's no other way to describe trying to climb K2 than a man versus nature smackdown. The word choice in this sentence proves it: razored, knife-edged, and Savage Peak. Yeah, this climb is gonna hurt.

    The effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude had sapped Mortenson of the ability to act and think decisively. (1.18)

    Okay, so maybe that's why Mortenson perhaps made this whole section up. If that's the case, though, what's his excuse for the rest of the book?

    After thirty minutes, [Mortenson] spotted a cigarette butt, then a cairn. (2.14)

    Hmm… if we were tackling one of the highest mountains in the world, we're not quite sure if we'd smoke along the way. Maybe the cairn is marking the burial site of the smoking hiker.

    They spotlit the progress of a small man sitting in a rickety box suspended on a cable over the gorge, pulling himself toward them. (8.85)

    The people of the mountain village of the Karakoram are resourceful, but only to satisfy their immediate needs. They can move single people across the chasms with their cable box, but they can't move supplies… yet.

    To find ibex, they'd have to climb high. (10.56)

    Even hunting in the mountains isn't simple. They have to hike high just to find food—they can't just go to the 7-11 and buy a shrink-wrapped package of ibex jerky. Nom nom.

    Mortenson marveled at how efficiently he'd been able to summon these men from the far corners of northern Pakistan, even though their distant valleys didn't have phones. (15.25)

    The people of these regions don't need modern conveniences. They have feet and mouths and the ability to walk and talk, thank you very much. And this is how they conquer the nature that surrounds them: with their own strength and wits.

    When winter clasped the high valley of the Karakoram in its annual lingering embrace, Mortenson returned home. (15.85)

    Mortenson may be able to triumph over nature many times—scaling incredibly high peaks, for instance—but he is no match for the harsh winter in this region of Pakistan. No work can be done during these times, making the construction of the schools seem incredibly slow when so many breaks have to be taken.

    "Brolmo is a good place. Or it was. We stayed as long as we could, hiding in the caves by day, and working the fields at night. […] We knew our women and children would die if we didn't do something, so we walked over the mountains to Skardu." (17.62)

    People are able to find little pockets of safety in the harsh landscape. However, when those safe havens are endangered, such as by the bombs of war, people have to venture into the harsh wilderness. It's hard to find safety when the safe zones are spread so far apart.

    "We stepped outside, into snow at the top of a mountain pass. […] There was a moon, so we could see clearly enough. And I tried to get a bearing on which side of the pass we were on, so we could start hiking down." (23.45)

    When Mortenson's truck fails, he falls back on his skill at surviving in the wilderness with only his strength and his wits. Unfortunately, the sharp cliffs of Afghanistan are too daunting for him to attempt to scale down.

    "Every rock, every boulder that you see before you is one of my mujahedeen, shahids, martyrs, who sacrificed their lives fighting the Russians and the Taliban. Now we must make their sacrifice worthwhile. […] We must turn these stones into schools." (23.112)

    The schools represent not only man's triumph over the culture of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also a triumph of nature. It's no easy feat to construct these buildings in such remote regions.