It was a packed house. Every seat full, a sea of expectant and exuberant faces in the courtyard of the Korphe mosque in the mountains of the Himalayas, eagerly awaiting the evening’s main event. Greg Mortenson, famous the world over for his work bringing the opportunity of a better life to the children of the world and best-selling author of the book “Three Cups of Tea and Some Salted Nuts” was about to take the podium. An affable, easygoing man, possessing a quiet grace, a stoic charisma grown from his years of naming, claiming, and shaming the world’s great mountain summits.
Mortenson takes the stage, with a little skip and an endearing oafish clumsiness. There’s an aura of sincerity emanating off him like cheap after-shave. He’s a mountain climber, a special breed. He begins to speak.
“I was halfway through my descent” he intoned, “when I became separated from my sherpa. The seatbelt light had turned on and he had to return to business class, far down the narrow, serpentine trail. I was alone in first class. I didn’t see him again for a long time. There I was, in seating group A, walking alone down the boarding tunnel of gate K2 in the northern terminal of the O’Hare region, without any of the amenities we take for granted in our daily lives. I hadn’t showered since the Istanbul Marriott, what seemed like an entire world and a lifetime away.”
The audience was listening with rapt attention. Women in their aquamarine burkhas twisted in their seats from the tension. Men nervously fingered the stocks and sights of their Kalashnikovs as the tale unfolded. It was a tale of personal courage. A tale of adversity overcome. It was the story of how one man reached a personal epiphany about his life mission, deep in the middle of a strange land. A land where the value system we take for granted scarcely exists, a place with strange, consonant-poor tribal names: Illinois; Narragansett; Dallas/Ft. Worth; Puerta Vallarta; Acapulco; Hilton Head; Cheyenne; Bozeman. Logan, LaGuardia and LAX. Taking a sip of water from the gourd in front of him on the podium, Mortenson continued.
“I wandered down from Gate K2, alone. As I passed through the ceremonial entrance gates, into ‘The Lobby,’ I found myself in the center of the village. There were children everywhere. They followed me, all 47.33 of them. The people of the village welcomed me, they nursed me back to health with Au Bon Pain and Starbucks. The indigenous food agreed with me: Simple, honest peasant fare, unchanged for hundreds of years. I slept a fitful, deep sleep, occasionally waking to find that there were 13.75 children leaning over the backs of their chairs, peering into my sleeping face. I approached one of the elders of the village, an aged, wise black man wearing the ceremonial rainbow colored robes of leadership. ‘Where are your schools?’ I asked. He replied, ‘man, we is OLD-SKOOL round these parts.’ He took me over to see the children scratching their lessons into etch-a-sketches and Gameboys. I felt my heart fill with a sudden flood of emotion, as I suddenly knew my calling. I would come back, I promised. I would come back and establish a NEW school here, with iPads and mp3 players, so that the 87.33 children would have someplace to learn, someplace to grow, some sense of hope and opportunity to illuminate their empty lives of poverty.”
Mortenson made good on his promise. Returning the next year to O’Hare Lobby, he built that school, between the American Airlines Executive Club and the baby changing station. But that isn’t all. He’s made it his life work, and founded an organization, the Canadian American Institute (CAI) to help. He’s built more schools within the North American Airlines Duty Free region than any other organization, breaking down bureaucratic walls and political barriers to do so. To date, he’s visited over 170 international airports, bringing funds and resources to the children there, creating hope.
The talk concludes, and the crowd pushes toward the front of the dusty apricot orchard in the side yard of the mosque, hoping for an opportunity to buy one of Mortenson’s books and get it signed by the author. Mortenson stays late, until the last person in line had come through. The mosque then sends all the women home so that the nightly prayers to Allah could commence. All who attended were inspired by the will and perseverance of Mortenson, who has over the years built CAI into a multi-million rupee organization.
But depending on who you talk to, all is not well in this inspired story of charity and hope. Another climber, who was present for Mortenson’s Jet Stream ascent from LAX to BOS, says that there’s more than a handful of falsehoods, and even outright lies in Mortenson’s story. Richard Branson, a mountaineer with more than a little experience in the areas that Mortenson claims to have worked in, tells a tale of lies, prevarication, and embellishment that paints Mortenson in an entirely different light.
“He’s a complete fake.” says Branson. “He says he was coming off gate K2 that day. Well, K terminal is at O’Hare airport. If you check the flight manifests that day, you find that Mortenson flew into Midway on Virgin Airlines. He was never even in O’Hare Lobby, because Virgin doesn’t even fly into O’Hare.”
And all those schools he says he built? In a recent expose aired by Al Jazeera, investigative reporters went to those airline terminals to find those schools. The O’Hare Lobby school which Mortenson uses in his inspiring story? It’s a broom closet between the American Airlines Executive Lounge and the Baby Changing Station. Al Jazeera asked the locals if they had seen any school activities, and they all just shook their heads. Branson doesn’t mince words.
“He’s a liar and a cheat.” Branson says. “His charity, CAI? Go look at it’s books sometime. They’re a sham. He doesn’t spend money in those airports. He blows it all on his tours here in the middle east. He uses that charity as his personal ATM.”
The muslim faithful in Afghanistan and Pakistan find these allegations troubling. Abdulla Nabal Chandra, a businessman in Kirkut and a large contributor to CAI, is cautious in his assessment.
“He is doing great works, I am sure of it. But the reports coming out in the media cast a cloud on his operations,” Abdulla says in measured tones. “I do find it extremely disturbing that CAI spends almost 60 percent of it’s revenue here at home, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, apparently on promotional activities, with only 40 percent of it’s operational budget going toward it’s stated purpose, the airline terminals in the impoverished western world.”
That sentiment was echoed everywhere we spoke with people. Recent revelations haven’t helped Mortenson’s cause. A photo in his second book, “turning gravel into taxiways” showed him surrounded by armed men, apparently kidnapped by the group, in the traditional garb of the terrorist group, TSA.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Leon Hearst, one of the men in the photo. “He was our honored guest.” Hearst produced a photo of his own, showing the group presenting Mortenson with a tray containing his wallet, keys, laptop computer, and iPhone. “It’s not only a lie, it’s slander.” said Hearst.
Mortenson has recently installed a new executive director for CAI, in an attempt to manage the adverse publicity. Upon taking up the Directorship, she released this statement:
“We don’t dispute that only 40 percent of our operating budget went to North American Airports, and that a full 60 percent was spent here in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is not a shred of impropriety in the spending, we are a completely transparent organization and welcome an external audit.”
Mortenson was steadfast in his own defense.
“We have always, and will continue as an organization, to work tirelessly to bring education and enlightenment to the hotspots of terrorism in Canada and America, to build bridges with books; to break the deadly cycle of hate using stones, mortar, chalkboards and the multiplication tables.”