Mortenson discovers his life purpose as a result of getting lost, and throughout the story there are many points where Mortenson, despite having taken a wrong turn, ends up in the right place after all. He is disappointed, for example, that he will not reach the summit of K2, but that failure leads him to the village of Korphe, where he realizes that building a school would be a better monument to his sister than placing her necklace at the top of the mountain and where his mission as a humanitarian begins. In another fortunate coincidence, when Changazi hides the stored building materials, Mortenson happens to meet Ghulam Parvi, who becomes one of the CAI’s most important workers. Later, as a result of the religious proclamation against him that might have ended his efforts in Baltistan, Mortenson gains the support of Syed Assam. Again and again, obstacles turn into opportunities, and Mortenson often succeeds not in spite of his mistakes, but often because of them.
From the beginning, Mortenson instinctively recognizes that education is the key to positive change. For instance, girls like Jahan, Tahira, and Shakeela who might have played limited roles in their communities without education ultimately become catalysts for change in their villages after going to CAI schools. They improve medical care, teach other women, and change attitudes towards women as they gain respect. Educated girls, we learn, are more likely than the educated boys—who tend to leave for the cities to find work—to remain near their homes, thus they share the advantages of their education with those around them. Consequently, the reader comes to understand that education for girls is a powerful and cost-effective tool for improving the social and economic conditions for everyone in rural areas. Mortenson also recognizes that education may be the best way to counter the spread of terrorism and violent strains of Islam. When Mortenson sees that ultra-conservative Muslims are building more and more madrassas that offer a free education for boys but also direct them toward militancy, he realizes the best way to counter the trend is by providing a free, more liberal education as an alternative. By showing young boys that violence is not their only option for escaping poverty, Mortenson believes they will be less likely to turn toward terrorism.
Mortenson’s genuine interest in understanding other cultures aids tremendously in his success. Growing up in Africa, Mortenson learned to regard foreign cultures as the equals of his own. When he first comes to Korphe, he wants to participate in the lives of the villagers. As he returns again and again, he strives to become part of the community. He learns about Islamic prayer not only to fit in better but also to gain an understanding of the people and their spiritual lives. Although he often becomes impatient and tries at first to force events that he feels aren’t happening quickly enough, Haji Ali teaches him that he must respect the ways of the Balti people if he wants their cooperation. As Mortenson becomes more engaged in humanitarian projects, he continues to build bridges between cultures. After 9/11, he urges Americans to combat terrorism through understanding and cooperation rather than warfare.
Relin regularly introduces excerpts from the writings of other people who have traveled in or studied the region. In the first part of the book, these come from explorers who have traveled in the region. Significantly, two of the explorers are women: Dervla Murphy, an Irish nurse who rode across the Karakoram on horseback with her young daughter and wrote about their explorations in Where the Indus is Young; and Helena Norberg-Hodge, who wrote about the region in her book Ancient Futures. Norberg-Hodge lived for seventeen years in the Himalayan country of Ladakh. There are also observations about the Balti people from Fosco Maraini’s Karakoram: The Ascent of Gasherbrum IV, an account of a 1958 Italian climbing expedition. In later chapters, Relin provides quotations from articles written about Mortenson, as well as excerpts from theories on girl’s education and political issues in Central Asia. Incorporating these different voices both adds support for Mortenson’s conclusions about the area and provides a broader context for his personal observations and experiences.
Building the schools requires a number of sacrifices from Mortenson and from the local villagers involved. When Mortenson begins his Korphe project, for instance, he spends practically everything he has on the project. Where previously his money went toward financing his climbing trips and his outings with Christa, now he spends the money for the benefit of others. Rather than ask Hoerni for money to pay his way back to Korphe, Mortenson sells all his possessions—including cherished books and his grandmother’s car. Even after becoming successful, Mortenson continues to make sacrifices, taking as little money as possible from the CAI and leaving his family alone for months at a time. Of the sacrifices offered by the local villagers, the most dramatic is Haji Ali’s decision to give twelve rams (half of the village’s wealth) as a bribe to a neighboring chief so construction of the school can proceed in Korphe. In each of these instances, the person gives up a material object, whether a car or a ram, to achieve a greater goal, specifically education for children in rural Pakistan, suggesting that the sacrifice isn’t really a sacrifice at all but an investment. As Haji Ali puts it, the children of Korphe will have their education far longer than the rams would have lasted.
Numerous coincidences in the story affect the direction of the plot, such as the fact that Mortenson’s fall and Christa’s death occur at nearly the same time. Then his wrong turn leads him to Korphe instead of another village, where he might not have been welcomed so warmly. Later, Mortenson takes a job in the hospital where Tom Vaughan works, and that decision leads to his connection with Jean Hoerni. When Mortenson stays in the Rawalpindi hotel where Abdul works, it turns out Abdul has the necessary connections to help Mortenson start his project. Both George McCown and Julia Bergman meet Mortenson by chance, and both become important supporters of the CAI. McCown’s guide, Faisal Baig, even becomes Mortenson’s bodyguard. Another fortunate coincidence occurs when Jahan bursts into the men’s meeting to ask Mortenson about money for school, ultimately convincing journalist Kevin Fedarko to write a feature about Mortenson for Parade, bringing Mortenson to national attention. These lucky accidents demonstrate that Mortenson is not entirely responsible for his own success. He owes many of his achievements to different people he happened to meet that either provided him with help or gave him guidance on how to accomplish the next step in his school-building project.
In Balti culture, having tea with someone symbolizes trust and respect, and the act of sharing tea is how the Balti people become familiar with strangers. The brief breaks the Balti regularly take for tea also function as a venue for the Balti to set aside all other concerns and focus on their relationships with each other. Haji Ali makes the meaning of having tea clear when he tells Mortenson, “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.” Haji explains to Mortenson that he must make time to share three cups of tea, by which he means Mortenson needs to build relationships with the Balti people if he wants to accomplish his goals in the region.
The Baltistan region of Pakistan, and most of the other areas that Mortenson works in, are mountainous and rocky. For Mortenson and the American climbing community, the huge mountains of the Karakoram represent adventures to be had and challenges to be overcome. But after spending time among the people who actually live in the region, Mortenson realizes that they view the mountains entirely differently. They have no need or desire to scale the mountains, and the rocky environment creates many difficulties, such as making farming difficult and keeping food scarce. Even so, the Balti have found a way to live in that difficult environment, and consequently the rocky terrain holds a different symbolic meaning for them, serving as a symbol of their endless strength, endurance, and resourcefulness. Mortenson and the Baltis even use the stones to build their schools (emphasized by the title of Chapter 23, “Stones into Schools”), reiterating the theme of hardship turned into opportunity.
Throughout the book, the serving of food acts as a token of hospitality, and accepting food accordingly represents gratitude for that hospitality. Mortenson, for instance, struggles to show his thanks for the Korphe villagers’ kindness by drinking the popular rancid butter tea and eating ibex jerky. Though he does not like the food, Mortenson recognizes that eating it is a symbolic act demonstrating his appreciation. For the Balti people in particular, offering food is their greatest symbol of hospitality, as when Sakina serves Mortenson sugared tea, showing the villagers’ concern for Mortenson by sharing a precious commodity. The chiefs of other villages attempt to gain favor with Mortenson by serving him lavish feasts. When Mortenson’s friends in Korphe find out he is married, they serve him an egg, a valuable treat for them, and later, after learning about 9/11, the women of Kuardu give Mortenson eggs for the widows of New York.