Hannibal Free Public Library

Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortensen

March 31, 2008

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is the true story of one of the most extraordinary humanitarian missions of our time.  In 1993, a young American mountain climber named Greg Mortenson stumbled into a tiny village high in Pakistan’s beautiful and desperately poor Karakoram Himalaya region. Sick, exhausted, and depressed after a failing to scale the summit of K2, Mortenson regained his strength and his will to live thanks to the generosity of the village people. Before leaving, Mortenson made a vow that profoundly changed both the villagers’ lives and his own—he will return and build them a school.  The book traces how Mortenson kept this promise (and many more) in the high country of Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite considerable odds.

In the course of this narrative, readers come to know Mortenson as a friend, a husband and father, a traveling companion, a son and brother, and also as a flawed human being. Mortenson made enemies along the way and frustrated his friends and family.  Co-author Relin does not shy away from depicting the man’s exasperating qualities—his restlessness, disorganization, sleeplessness, and utter disregard for punctuality. But Mortenson never asks others to make sacrifices that he has not already made himself time and time again.

Greg Mortenson, as the director of the Central Asia Institute, has constructed fifty-five schools, and his work continues.  Co-author David Oliver Relin is a contributing editor for Parade magazine and Skiing magazine.  He has won more than forty national awards for his work as a writer and editor.  Additional information about the authors, the Institute, and the book may be found at http://www.threecupsoftea.com/


  1. Relin gives a “warts and all” portrait of Mortenson, showing him as a hero but also as a flawed human being with some exasperating traits. Is Mortenson someone you’d like to get to know, work with, or have as a neighbor or friend?

  1. At the heart of the book is a powerful but simple message: we each as individuals have the power to change the world, one cup of tea at a time. Yet the book powerfully dramatizes the obstacles in the way of this philosophy. What do you think of the “one cup of tea at a time” philosophy? Have you ever had the experience of making a difference yourself through acts of generosity, aid, or leadership? Do you think Mortenson’s vision can work for lasting and meaningful change?

  2. Does Mortenson’s transition from climbing bum to humanitarian hero seem abrupt, or are its roots in his childhood? Discuss the various facets of Mortenson’s character—the freewheeling mountain climber, the ER nurse, the devoted son and brother, and the leader of a humanitarian cause.

  3. The Balti people are fierce yet extremely hospitable, kind yet rigid, determined to better themselves yet stuck in the past. Discuss your reactions to them and the other groups that Mortenson tries to help. Discuss the pros and cons of bringing “civilization” to the mountain community.

  4. After Haji Ali’s family saves Greg’s life, he reflects that he could never “imagine discharging the debt he felt to his hosts in Korphe.” Discuss this sense of indebtedness as key to Mortenson’s character. In your opinion, does he repay his debt by the end of the book?

  5. References to paradise run throughout the book—Mortenson’s childhood home in Tanzania, the mountain scenery, even Berkeley, California, are all referred to as “paradise.” Discuss the concept of paradise, lost and regained, and how it influences Mortenson’s mission.

  6. “I expected something like this from an ignorant village mullah, but to get those kinds of letters from my fellow Americans made me wonder whether I should just give up,” Mortenson remarked after he started getting hate mail in the wake of September 11. What was your reaction to the letters Mortenson received?

  7. Mortenson hits many bumps in the road—he’s broke, his girlfriend dumps him, he is forced to build a bridge before he can build the school, his health suffers, and he drives his family crazy. Discuss his repeated brushes with failure and how they influenced your opinion of Mortenson and his efforts.

  8. Much of the book is a meditation on what it means to be a foreigner assimilating with another culture. Discuss your own experiences with foreign cultures—things that you have learned, mistakes you have made, misunderstandings you have endured. Did the book change your views toward Islam or Muslims?

Discussion questions adapted from http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/three_cups_of_tea.html