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BEYOND THE SKY AND THE EARTH:
A Journey into Bhutan

Author:  Jamie Zeppa
Zeppa’s memoir of her years in Bhutan is the story of a young woman’s self-discovery in a foreign land.

When she left for the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in 1988, Zeppa was committing herself to two years of teaching and a daunting new experience. A week on a Caribbean beach had been her only previous trip outside Canada; Bhutan was on the other side of the world, one of the most isolated countries in the world known as the last Shangri-La, where little had changed in centuries and visits by foreigners were restricted. Clinging to her bags full of chocolate, hair conditioner and Immodium, she began the biggest challenge of her life, with no idea she would fall in love with the country and with a Bhutanese man, end up spending nine years in Bhutan, and begin a literary career with her account of this transformative journey.

At her first posting in a remote village of eastern Bhutan, she is plunged into an overwhelmingly different culture with squalid Third World conditions and an impossible language. Her house has rats and fleas and she refuses to eat the local food, fearing the rampant deadly infections her overly protective grandfather warned her about. Gradually, however, her fear vanishes. She adjusts, begins to laugh, and is captivated by the pristine mountain scenery and the kind students in her grade 2 class. She also begins to discover for herself the spiritual serenity of Buddhism.

A transfer to the government college of Sherubtse, where the housing conditions are comparatively luxurious and the students closer to her own age, gives her a deeper awareness of Bhutan’s challenges: the lack of personal privacy, the pressure to conform, and the political tensions. However, her connection to Bhutan intensifies when she falls in love with a student, Tshewang, and finds herself pregnant. After a brief sojourn in Canada to give birth to her son, Pema Dorji, she marries Tshewang and makes Bhutan her home for another four years.

Although cultural differences finally separated Jamie and Tshewang in 1997 while she was writing the book and she returned to Canada, she will always feel at home in Bhutan. Zeppa shares her compelling insights into this land and culture, but Beyond the Sky and the Earth is more than a travel book.

From Publishers Weekly
Zeppa's story is nearly an inversion of the ancient Buddhist tale of Siddhartha (in which a prince ventures from the paradise of his father's palace only to find the suffering and decay that he never knew existed) in that the author, at the age of 22, abruptly leaves a stale life in Canada to become a volunteer teacher in the remote and largely undisturbed Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. Cloaked in the airy mountains between India and China, Bhutan initially frustrates but eventually captivates Zeppa with its rudimentary lifestyle that forces her to question former values and plans for the future. Though the story line would seem to open itself to cloying romanticization, Zeppa's telling of her clumsy attempts to adapt rings with sincerity and inspires sympathy. She thinks to herself upon visiting a local house: "In one shadowy corner, there is a skinny chicken. I blink several times but it does not vanish. Is it a pet? Is it dinner?" Zeppa's lucid descriptions of the craggy terrain and honest respect for the daily struggles of the natives bring the tiny land to life in a way that is reverent but real. Though she tries to avoid what a friend terms "that Shangri-La-Di-Da business" and grapples with the poverty, sexism and political squabbles in Bhutan that bother her, there is little doubt that she sees the place in a largely positive light and is tempted to remain. In the end, Zeppa's is a lively tale of her earnest efforts to reconcile what she has learned with what she has known.
© 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
$16.00 (softcover)
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