Reading the leaves after Three Cups of Tea.

The junction of three nations: the edge of the Takla Makan Desert, near the turnoff for the Mintaka Pass, provides access into northern Pakistan, and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Xinjiang, China. Photo by Mark Mauchline.

It is a sad day indeed when our heroes fall from grace. The publishing of Greg Mortenson’s novel Three Cups of Tea provided readers with inspiration, hope and a desire for positive change; a counterweight to Bush-era foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia back in 2006. The book sold over 3 million copies on its way to becoming required reading for United States service personnel being deployed to Afghanistan, not the least of whom were American generals Stanley McChrystal, and David Patraeus.

Mortenson’s novel recounts a failed attempt to climb K2, the world’s second highest peak, his subsequent stumbling into the Baltistan village of Korphe after getting lost on the descent, and his promise to return and build schools after being nursed back to health by local residents. It’s a wonderful story. But, with the recent allegations by author Jon Krakauer, and CBS’ 60 Minutes, it may prove to be partly fabricated at the very least. At most, the deception may curtail the flow of donations that have included everyone from penny-saving school children to President Barak Obama, and ultimately hurt the very children of Afghanistan and Pakistan that Mortenson’s Montana-based Central Asia Institute was created to support.

On the way to fame, fortune, and philanthropic notoriety, we placed Mortenson on a shaky pedestal that has recently collapsed due to that most human of all traits, fallibility. Now, we are forced to confront the inevitable collateral damage as we try to comprehend the reasons why a New York Times bestselling author felt the need to embellish the truth. We feel betrayed as we question his decisions, and, more specifically, his foundation’s use of millions of dollars in well-meaning donations.

Life is difficult for the residents of many villages, like Korphe, in what was once known as Pakistan’s Northern Areas. Cataclysmic natural disasters like the October 8, 2005 earthquake, which wiped out entire towns and villages, and, according to the government’s numbers, resulted in 75,000 dead, provide an exclamation point to this understatement. Massive landslides occur regularly. The collision zone between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates results in the highest mountains on earth; their stiletto peaks defying gravity, inching skyward until the laws of physics finally kick in, sending huge portions of them back to where they began millennia ago.

In the spring of 1994 I bicycled through the village of Passu on my way to Kashgar, China. I spent a few days hiking and resting as I prepared to cross the 4730-meter Khunjerab Pass 125 kilometers down the road. One afternoon, I was invited to visit the local school by one of the village leaders.

Fields, emerald-green with the new crop of wheat and potato plants, and marked with short, stone-walled borders flanked the pathway through the village’s simple buildings. Small irrigation channels flowed with grey silted water, sparkling in the sunlight because of the mica sequins worn from the rock schist higher up. The calls of excited children followed me into the compound of the Pak-Tajik Model School.

Inside, I was greeted by the school administrator, and shown the two rooms that housed the current student body, and told of future plans for expansion. Classes had already begun when he pulled out a binder, and placed it on the lone table in front of us. He turned the pages carefully, delicately, almost with reverence, until finally stopping at a typed letter that was protected by a plastic cover. The letter was a confirmation of the plans and travel itinerary of a Canadian woman who was due to arrive the previous month, and teach English.

The expected English teacher never arrived, and there had been no further communication from her. Yet, her letter and commitment still maintained its place in the administrator’s ledger, a ledger that represented important milestones in the Pak-Tajik Model School’s young history. It embodied the hopes, and dreams of villagers who recognized the importance of an education for their children as they worked toward a better future. But, it also represented the tenuous foundation of such aspirations, as tenuous as the village’s position on a virtual flood plain with the Hunza River to the east, and the encroaching Batura and Passu glaciers threatening its existence from the west.

On January 4, 2010, a landslide blocked the Hunza River roughly 20 kilometers downstream from the 1000 residents of Passu. Even with the digging of a drainage channel by engineers, the backed up river flow has created a lake 21 kilometers long, and 300 feet deep that is now encroaching on the village. Passu may enjoy lake front property today, but tomorrow, it may be drowned. And, as frightening as that sounds, it pales in comparison to the fate of those villages downstream should the earthen dam suddenly collapse, purging the contents of the lake in a flash flood. As of today, the residents of this part of northern Pakistan continue to live with this uncertainty.

Considering all that the children in this part of the world have to contend with, it would be a shame if a cynical reaction to the failings of Greg Mortenson, no matter how justified, sealed their fate. Rather than be penalized for his lack of better judgement and actions, the children of the region deserve the benefit of the doubt. They deserve to benefit from the essence, and spirit of the man’s initial vision. But, ultimately it will be up to us, the donating public, whether or not we continue to support equality, democracy, and the end of poverty through charities like Greg Mortenson’s. Our decisions will decide how the leaves are finally read after Three Cups of Tea.

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