Beyond the Sky and the Earth:
A Journey into Bhutan

by Jamie Zeppa

The Berkley Publishing Group, Penguin Putnam, Inc., Riverhead Books, 1999. ISBN 157322815X.
Reviewed by Laurie Park
Posted on 01/12/2002

Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

Billed as a travel log and memoir, Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan at first did not interest me. However, I soon became fascinated by this journal of personal growth and spiritual awakening. I was compelled to read as if nothing else in the world existed.Women fortunate enough to have undertaken such an adventure can relate to the challenges presented and the misgivings of those left behind. I found myself becoming envious of the author's courage as she experienced a remote culture and overcame numerous hardships.

Zeppa's story is well written, thought provoking, and humorous. Leaving behind a comfortable existence in Canada, she ventured to Bhutan full of misconceptions and too much luggage! The differences between her early days in the country and her later immersion in the culture are very descriptive.

Early Days...

"I mount the steep ladder steps to my flat on the second floor and let myself in, not wanting to be in any of the five dank rooms but not knowing where else to go... I look out over the verdant confusion of the Pena Gatshel valley. It makes my head hurt, looking down the green steepness, looking up into the empty sky. There are long moments when I cannot remember where I am.

"It is dark by 6:30 in the evening, an absolute unbroken darkness, and crushingly silent. I light the kerosene lamps, fiddling with the wicks to stop them from smoking, and finally blow them out and light candles. I try to write letters home...writing will put things in order. I begin but cannot get beyond the first lines. After that, I fall into an abyss, sit blankly, blinking, staring."

Zeppa's misgivings are soon replaced with confidence that she will not only survive, but flourish. She seems to be viewing the world from inside a mirror, where all she has known before has faded. Things that so preoccupied her in Canada - her pending marriage, career goals and time management - have little importance in Bhutan. As she incorporates herself into this new lifestyle, her viewpoint changes:

"The rains have turned Pema Gatshel a thousand shades of green: lime, olive, pea, apple, grass, pine, moss, malachite, emerald. The trees are full of singing insects, flowers, birds, hard green oranges, children. I walk along a stone wall, feeling my foot connect with every step to the earth, listening to the whirring humming world around. Above, the cleanest whitest clouds I have ever seen are banked up against the sky. It's hard to believe now that I once thought this a landscape of lack, that I was afraid I wouldn't have enough, wouldn't fare well.

"Everything is more meaningful here because there is less of everything. It occurs to me now, there is no distinction between "to need" and "to desire." If something is thrown out, it is lost to further use and if you want something here, you probably also need it..."

"I have fallen into this world the way you fall into sleep, tumbling through layers of darkness into full dream. The way you fall in love. I am in love with the landscape, the way the green mountains turn into blue shadows in the late afternoon light... I love the sunlight as it rises above the silver valley, the unbearable clarity of everything after rain, the feeling of the great dark night all round, and knowing where I am. I am in love with the simplicity of my life, the plain rooms, the shelves empty of ornaments... I don't want to go home at Christmas. I don't want to go home, ever. They never warned us about this at the orientation."

Zeppa's constant comparison of priorities in her previous life to lessons learned in the mystical Bhutan universe leaves readers feeling as though they are there, living the author's doubts and revelations. Also woven into the story is her disillusionment with the country's political unrest (a result of cultural differences) and her involvement in an exciting but difficult relationship. Along with her discovery of Buddhism, these things help her adapt as she practices her mantra, "Wherever you go, there you are!" Although some of Zeppa's actions caused me to contemplate the true reasons for her decisions, the only thing negative about this book is that it ended.

Jamie Zeppa was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in 1964. In 1988, she traveled to Bhutan to teach for the World University Service of Canada. She resides in Toronto, Canada, and Bhutan. This is her only published novel to date.

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