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.