Travel literature that may inspire the philanthropist in you

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Here’s an idea for a feel-good Christmas present -- a “benevolit” book. That’s what I’m calling this relatively new and increasingly popular genre of travel literature. They are typically narratives of journeys that were so life-changing as to inspire the author to start a philanthropy dedicated to helping those who helped them on their adventures.

Three Cups of Tea
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Viking (2006): 349 pp., $16

The meteoric success in the category is “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, which, despite being of average literary merit, has spent more than 145 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The book describes how in 1993 Mortenson, an emergency room nurse, became lost while climbing Pakistan’s K2 and wandered, half-dead, into a village. Despite their poverty, the villagers fed and nursed him.

One day, Mortenson observed schoolchildren sitting under a tree scratching sums in the dirt. Mortenson returned to the U.S. determined to raise money, build a school and hire a teacher. Now called the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s single school blossomed into a movement that has built more than 130 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, grants scholarships to girls and addresses public health problems.

Few people knew any of that until “Three Cups of Tea” turned Mortenson into a rock star of the nonprofit world. The title garnered book club fans, magazine articles and appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” raising millions of dollars and subsequently building more schools.,

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World
John Wood
HarperBusiness (2006): 304 pp., $14.95

John Wood’s “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” is an inspirational treatise on what most would love to do but don’t have the guts to -- chucking the day job. In 1998, Wood was near the top of the heap as a Microsoft executive. He took a trip alone to Nepal, with the resulting epiphany. While trekking, he visited a school library that had no books on the shelves. The tomes were so precious they were locked up. He asked to see them, and a teacher reverently displayed a Danielle Steele novel, James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” a guidebook to Mongolia and a dog-eared book in Italian. Wood, who had had a nagging despondency about his work, sent an e-mail from Katmandu asking his friends to send used children’s books, with his parents’ garage as the depository. Three thousand books arrived. His alarmed father suggested he do something about the pile, and so was born Room to Read and then the book.

Room to Read is now a fast-growing and effective nonprofit, having built 7,526 libraries in Asia and Africa, and 832 schools, delivered 6 million books and funded 8,700 girls’ scholarships. Wood also recognized that providing books in English was well meaning but somewhat misguided, so he hired local writers and illustrators and began to publish children’s books in native languages.

Why did he decide to write a book about his odyssey? In part, because his mother suggested he do so, and in part because he was tired of discontented strangers seeking the “What’s it like?” and the “Is this all there is?” chat. Although he says the book doesn’t provide a step-by-step solution for dissatisfied workers seeking deeper meaning, it does “give them something to think about.”

Wood makes no bones about the emotional and fiscal vicissitudes of philanthropic life, although he says he wouldn’t change a thing.,

The Blue Sweater
Jacqueline Novogratz
Rodale (2009): 304 pp., $24.95

No book makes these vicissitudes more obvious than Jacqueline Novogratz’s “The Blue Sweater.” The book starts with a serendipitous tale that seems more “Twilight Zone” than literary device. As a teenager in the ‘70s, Novogratz had a sweater she wore continually until some tactless boy made a cruel joke, after which the sweater was dispatched to Goodwill. Fast-forward 11 years to a street in Rwanda, where Novogratz saw a child wearing, yes, her sweater -- confirmed by her name still inked on the label. As a young banker who had given up a Wall Street career to try to make a difference, she took that as an omen of interconnectedness. But the omen took its sweet time to come to pass.

Novogratz had failed mortifyingly to save the world on her first attempt in Africa. “The Blue Sweater” begins with this failure, which is refreshing coming from someone now so wildly successful. But it’s a tale of refusing to give up, of years of dedication and whetting the skills to care carefully. After seeing heartbreaking waste and ineptitude in the aid economy, Novogratz founded Acumen Fund, a new breed of nonprofit venture capital fund (how’s that for an oxymoron). They accept charitable donations and invest the money with entrepreneurs working on housing, water and healthcare innovations for the poorest nations.

“I actually started writing the book in 1996,” she says. “I had worked with a group of Rwandan women establishing their country’s first micro-finance bank in the late 1980s. After the genocide of 1994, I returned to see what had happened to the women. You can imagine how shocked I was to discover that they had played every conceivable role in the genocide. One was murdered; one witnessed the killing of her family; one delivered twins in the midst of the horrors; one actually took part in planning the genocide and was known to have incited many to murder their neighbors.

“I wanted to write these women’s stories, to dive into the questions of what it means to be human, what enables us to bring about incredible good as well as incredible evil. By 2001, I decided that telling the stories was not enough to ensure ‘never again.’ And so I created Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund that serves the poor.”,

The Places in Between
Rory Stewart
Harvest Books (2006): 320 pp., $14

There are other travelers’ tales that have been influential, some of them not even mentioning the philanthropies the traveler goes on to found. One of my favorites is “The Places in Between,” by Rory Stewart. Stewart is one of those mid-30s people who makes you wonder what on Earth you’ve done with your life. While at Oxford, he was a tutor to Princes William and Harry. Then, jumping over a few other achievements, he worked for the British government in Malaysia, Montenegro and in wartime Iraq.

Today, he is a human rights fellow at Harvard, an advisor to the Obama administration and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. And, in his most recent development, he is poised to become a member of Parliament.

But perhaps his greatest accomplishment is that in 2000 he decided to walk across India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It took him two years to cover the 6,000 miles. By the time he entered Afghanistan, the nation was at war and the Taliban were fighting from villages, which is exactly where Stewart decided to venture.

The resulting book, which focuses on Afghanistan, is one of the best travel stories of the decade. The unpretentious Stewart never mentions that he later returned to live in Kabul and to found Turquoise Mountain, a nonprofit organization that has done staggering things in the old city, including clearing tons of garbage; working to build the first sewage plant; building a school; and restoring 60 historic buildings.

“The organization now employs 550 staff,” Stewart says. “And over 100 men and women are now studying specific skills, bringing back the traditional crafts.”

Stewart says that Turquoise Mountain “is the right kind of aid, a form of development that responds to the Afghan sense of history and pride.” Why Afghanistan? “Because when walking in Afghanistan I witnessed people with such innate dignity and generosity and one of the most beautiful countries on Earth.”,