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.”

I was a bit lost after college and had no idea what I wanted to do other than hang out with my boyfriend, drink mochas while reading the thick Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, and travel around Europe sitting in bustling cafés where I could look at people. This isn’t to say I wasn’t a hard worker, I’ve always worked hard, it’s in my bloodline. I just didn’t have an interest in anything that might be called a career. And then I thought of the airlines: fly free to anywhere in the world, meet interesting people, layovers in Paris and Rome, or Oklahoma even!

I sent the two largest American carriers my resume and was granted interviews—in Atlanta and Dallas—right away.

On the flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, I was seated next to a girl who was also interviewing. She had short blond hair and was cute in the universally accepted meaning of the word.

“I’ve only eaten five-hundred calories a day for the past two weeks!” she said.

“Why?” I was astounded. My sister had had anorexia as a teen and it was so gruesome to witness that I’d never taken much to starvation.

“To fit into the height/weight chart!”

The airlines had sent a packet of information that included a height weight chart. I am five feet two inches tall. For my height I wasn’t allowed to weigh more than 112 pounds. I didn’t own a scale so I bought one, and sure enough, there I stood at 112 pounds. One pound more and I’d be too fat for the airlines.

“And I’ve been doing an hour of aerobics every day!” the girl said.

The only exercise I’d been getting was using a left-hander golf club to hit a single ball in my apartment courtyard, or, when we were feeling ambitious, my boyfriend and I would take turns hitting the ball in the park down the street. We had inherited the club after rummaging through the empty apartment of the recently deceased ninety-year old woman who had lived across the hall from us. Her middle-aged children came and cleaned out her belongings leaving only two things behind: a battery-operated “personal massager” and a left-handed golf club. We took the club and left the massager for the cleaning crew.

All the interviewees were staying at the same airport Marriott in Atlanta. The interview wasn’t until the next morning so there was an entire evening open where I planned to lie on the hotel bed and read while watching TV (if TVs boring, you eventually forget it’s on, if it’s riveting, you read during the commercials). I didn’t have a TV at the time, so a bed with a remote control was a true luxury. Before I could settle in, there was a knock on my door. It was 500 Calories, my aisle-mate from the flight. She had a guy and a girl with her, both Southerners with huge white smiles and shiny hair. The guy looked like a shorter, stockier Ken doll. He could have won Miss Congeniality at any beauty pageant. He stepped into my room, stuck his palm out and pumped my hand.

“I’m Barry! Y’all wanna come out to dinner with us!”

I stared at the gleaming faces. I wasn’t used to such intense sunshine and cheer. The girl standing beside Barry looked like young Brooke Shields on ecstasy. I had been living in Northern California for a few years already and had grown used to ashy eyes, brooding men, dank hair. But, truthfully, I was sick of the mopers, the over-thinkers, the kvetchers. I was ready for cheerful!

“Come on!” 500 Calories said. “You’re not going to sit here alone!”

“Y’all gotta come with us!” Brooke Shields said. Her hair was so perfectly thick that it rested over her shoulder and down to her chest in a giant letter J.

“I’m comin’!” I said.

We piled into a cab together, all four in the back seat. I was wedged between Barry and Brooke. Together they smelled like the perfume counter at Macy’s. Barry announced we were going to T.G.I.Fridays, a place I had never been.

At the restaurant we were given a horseshoe shaped booth. I was the only one who glanced at the menu, everyone else seemed to know what they wanted, and what they wanted was a salad with dressing on the side. I ordered the potato skins with cheddar cheese, sour cream and bacon. Barry looked at me and said, “Are y’all sure you wanna eat that before the weigh in?”

“What’s the weigh in?” I asked.

Brooke, Barry and 500 Calories had all read the same book on how to get a job with the airlines. The book explained that each applicant was weighed before the interview and if you were overweight, well, that was the end the line.

“Y’all brought a suit the color of their uniform didn’t you?” Brooke asked.

“Uh,” I said. “I’m wearing a white skirt and a white cotton jacket with a brown silk blouse.”

They looked at me with sad, wet eyes.

“It’ll be okay!” 500 Calories said, “I’m sure you’ll make up for it with your winning personality!”

When the potato skins came everyone watched me eat while they aimlessly forked at their salads. And although I offered a skin to each of them, no one dared take me up on the offer.

Barry said, “I can’t believe y’all are brave enough to eat that. I’d gain, like, fifteen pounds tonight if I ate that.”

“Can I just have, like, a tiny bit of bacon?” Brooke asked. I took a spoon and scooped off a cheesy-bacony dollop. With her long pink nail she plucked a booger-sized crumb from the spoon and stuck it in her mouth.

“Yummy,” she said, then she smiled and it was like a Polaroid flash bulb had gone off.

Later that night, when I was in bed, blissful with a TV blaring in front of me, there was a frantic rapping at my door. It was Brooke.

“OH MY GOD,” she was panting. “Do y’all have an iron?! I know I packed mine but I can’t find it anywhere!”

I didn’t even have an iron at home. My preferred method for straightening clothes was to hang them on the curtain rod while I showered.

“Isn’t there one in the room?” I asked, and I went to the closet and looked around. There wasn’t one. Brooke rushed away and knocked on the door next to mine. I could hear them talking out in the hallway. Yes she had an iron. Who would come to an interview for the airlines without an iron?

“That girl in the room next to y’all,” Brooke said, “she didn’t bring an iron and she isn’t even wearing the right colors!”

She was right, there was no arguing with the facts. And when Brooke hugged me the next morning and blessed me before I got in line for the weigh-in, I swear I felt like something golden and shiny in her had rubbed off on me.

Everyone took off their shoes and lined up to step on the scale. I came in at 112 again, although I have to admit I was a little worried after seeing the horror on their faces at TGI Fridays when I devoured those skins. There were a few people who walked away from the scale teary-eyed.

The interview was done in groups of twenty, none of my dinner mates were in my group. My interviewer was a nice looking man the way politicians are nice looking: neatly dressed, perfectly square front teeth. We sat in a circle of desks and were given a five-page questionnaire. When my pen didn’t flow well, I asked the leader for a new pen. He responded as if I’d demanded a pint of blood, but finally gave one up. When I retold this part of the interview to my father he said, “Jessie, there are some men who when you walk into a room, their balls shrink up into their stomachs. He was one of those men.” I was twenty-two years old and didn’t feel comfortable discussing ball positioning with my father, so said nothing. But I wondered, who were these men whose balls shrunk up? And, what made me a ball shrinker?

The questionnaire wasn’t surprising (How much weight have you gained and/or lost in the last ten years? What is the most you’ve ever weighed in the last ten years?) until I got to the page where I was asked about the quality and duration of my periods, if I had ever been pregnant and if I had vaginal discharge. There was even a question inquiring about the color of my discharge. Crossed out with a ballpoint pen, but entirely legible, was, “Have you ever had sexual relations with someone of the same sex?” I had visions of spiriting away the questionnaire under my skirt, sending it off to Gloria Steinem or the San Francisco Chronicle. But Shrunken-Balls had his eyes on me, as if he knew what I was thinking.

After the interview people congregated in the lobby to exchange stories. There was a tingling energy in the air—the relief of being done, the excitement of what might be next. Brooke asked me how it went and I told her about Shrunken Balls clear dislike for me.

“If y’all get called back,” she said, “pull your hair back like this.” She took the front strands and pulled them back so my hair was off my face but still long in the back. “It will make you look better groomed.”

Just then, I wished I were Brooke: someone who travels with an iron, knows to wear the airline uniform color, and has ideas about grooming. I vowed that if were called in for a second interview I would do it all right, I would order salad with dressing on the side, I’d try not to be one of those women who makes a guys balls shrink up, and damn if I wouldn’t smile a whole lot more.

Surprisingly, I was called back for a second interview. Even more surprising was that I had lost interest in the airline by the time I’d landed back in San Francisco. As much as I thought it would be fun to be perky and well-groomed, I just couldn’t fathom working for a company who seemed to be sniffing in my underpants.