Tales of a bold librarian

Three Cups of Tea character Julia Bergman recounts her adventures in Pakistan

The plump, middle-aged woman in black on stage in a nearly packed Chico State University recital hall Tuesday night (Feb. 17) hardly looked like anyone’s idea of an adventurer. It was hard to picture her hopping into an old Russian freight helicopter outfitted with only white plastic garden chairs and no seat belts to take a rugged sightseeing trip over the 20,000-foot-plus Karakoram Mountains in Northern Pakistan—the greatest concentration of high-altitude peaks in the world.

And yet Julia Bergman—by now known to countless local readers as the destiny-sent librarian from San Francisco in Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea, the 2008-09 Book in Common for CSU Chico, Butte College and the cities of Chico and Oroville—did exactly that, and a whole lot more.

Now board president of the Central Asia Institute—the Montana-based organization founded by mountaineer-turned-humanitarian Mortenson—Bergman has traveled often to and around the highest (and oftentimes most dangerous) areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan to assist Mortenson with his highly successful school-building mission.

She’s helped create libraries, brought her former colleagues from San Francisco City College to help train teachers, and even given $1,600 of her own money to pay for a pipeline from a mountain spring down to one particular village where the women didn’t have enough water left over to wash their faces after hauling bowls and buckets of it daily up a steep hillside to use for cooking.

Introduced by Brooks Thorlaksson, CSUC associate dean of humanities and fine arts, as “the blonde librarian who met Greg at the most opportune time and helped him build over 80 schools,” Bergman launched into her hour-long talk and slide show in the Performing Arts Center’s Ruth Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall standing before a large, projected map of Pakistan.

“I will tell some stories,” said the engaging Bergman, after a show of hands indicating that just about everyone in the room was reading or had read Three Cups of Tea.

Bergman gave backstory details about her becoming involved with CAI. She spoke of falling in love with the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan after traveling there back in 1985. That love would lead her back to Uzbekistan (the suffix “-stan,” Bergman informed the audience, means “land") in 1996, during a one-semester sabbatical from her City College librarian job.

There her travels eventually led her to the remote, high region in northern Pakistan called Baltistan, where she took that fateful helicopter trip that, by twists and turns, led her to join forces with Mortenson, who was working in the area at the time, though she wouldn’t know that until later.

The colorful slides Bergman showed of her journeys around Pakistan and Afghanistan brought added life to what audience members already likely envisioned about the area from their reading of the book.

She introduced a series of slides of travel over the Karakoram Highway as depicting the “high drama” of traversing “the eighth wonder of the world” (referring to the treacherous road). Slides of ornately decorated buses teetering along rocky precipices were followed by amazing slides of Jeeps wading wheel-well-deep through the rushing brown water of mountain roads turned into flash-flood areas by swiftly melting glacier water.

Bergman colored her presentation with interesting anecdotes, such as the story she told of one Balti teacher who said he was unable to teach his students the color red. “Baltistan is very monochromatic,” Bergman explained.

She solved the problem when she returned to California by shipping color charts back to CAI’s Baltistani schools, along with other instructional material requested, such as English-Urdu dictionaries.

Stopping on one slide of a beautiful Balti woman carrying a basket of apricots, Bergman pointed out that there are 24 different kinds of apricots in Baltistan, and that the kernel inside the seed is also used for food—the apricot’s kernel being “the basis of winter survival” in Baltistan.

One slide of a CAI-built school showed a jungle gym and other playground equipment in the schoolyard. “All of our schools now have playground equipment,” said Bergman. “Why shouldn’t these kids have fun? Their lives are very tough.”

Jahan, a girl prominently mentioned in Three Cups of Tea, appeared in one slide. Bergman let everyone know that she left her village of Korphe to go on to the bigger town of Skardu, where she is in a nursing program on a CAI scholarship.

Bergman announced that Mortenson has finished a second book, a collection of stories written entirely by himself and tentatively titled Stones Into Schools, but stressed during the short question-and-answer period following her talk that no movie will made from the book, despite the many requests from various filmmakers.

“Greg doesn’t think a film will help [CAI’s cause],” she offered. “One issue is that we would have to control the script very tightly. Also, Greg has been described … as ‘the Indiana Jones of the world, fighting terrorism.’ Greg hates that. We … build schools.”