The accounts I'd heard about Mortenson's adventures building schools for girls in the remote mountain regions of Pakistan sounded too dramatic to believe before I left home. The story I found, with ibex hunters in the high valleys of the Karakoram, in nomad settlements at the wild edge of Afghanistan, around conference tables with Pakistan's military elite, and over endless cups of paiyu cha in tearooms so smoky I had to squint to see my notebook, was even more remarkable than I'd imagined.
As a journalist who has practiced this odd profession of probing into people's lives for two decades, I've met more than my share of public figures who didn't measure up to their own press. But at Korphe and every other Pakistani village where I was welcomed like long-lost family, because another American had taken the time to forge ties there, I saw the story of the last ten years of Greg Mortenson's existence branch and fork with a richness and complexity far beyond what most of us achieve over the course of a full-length life.
This is a fancy way of saying that this is a story I couldn't simply observe. Anyone who travels to the CAI's fifty-three schools with Mortenson is put to work, and in the process, becomes an advocate. And after staying up at all-night jirgas with village elders and weighing in on proposals for new projects, or showing a classroom full of excited eight-year-old girls how to use the first pencil-sharpener anyone has ever cared to give them, or teaching an impromptu class on English slang to a roomful of gravely respectful students, it is impossible to remain simply a reporter.
As Graham Greene's melancholy correspondent Thomas Fowler learned by the end of The Quiet American, sometimes, to be human, you have to take sides. I choose to side with Greg Mortenson. Not because he doesn't have his flaws. His fluid sense of time made pinning down the exact sequence of many events in this book almost impossible, as did interviewing the Balti people with whom he works, who have no tenses in their language and as little attachment to linear time as the man they call Dr. Greg.
During the two years we worked together on this book, Mortenson was often so maddeningly late for appointments that I considered abandoning the project. Many people, particularly in America, have turned on Mortenson after similar experiences, calling him "unreliable," or worse. But I have come to realize, as his wife Tara Bishop often says, "Greg is not one of us." He operates on Mortenson Time, a product, perhaps, of growing up in Africa and working much of each year in Pakistan. And his method of operation, hiring people with limited experience based on gut feelings, forging working alliances with necessarily unsavory characters, and, above all, winging it, while unsettling and unconventional, has moved mountains.
For a man who has achieved so much, Mortenson has a remarkable lack of ego. After I agreed to write this book, he handed me a page of notepaper with dozens of names and numbers printed densely down the margin in tiny script. It was a list of his enemies. "Talk to them all," he said. "Let them have their say. We've got the results. That's all I care about."
I listened to hundreds of Mortenson's allies and enemies. And in the interest of security and/or privacy I've changed a very few names and locations.