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At age 22 Jamie Zeppa, a Canadian who had never been outside of North America, said goodbye to her fiancé and her plans for graduate school and moved to Bhutan, a remote Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth is an autobiographical work that details her experiences and transformations after spending three years in Bhutan. It is as much a book about Zeppa's day-to-day life in Bhutan as it is about the personal awakenings and realizations that she had while living there.
Visitors to Bhutan, an increasingly hot tourist destination, are still few and far between, largely because of tight government restrictions on entry, visa requirements, and a law requiring tourists to spend at least $200 a day there. There aren't many books on Bhutan, and even fewer firsthand accounts of life there. Beyond the Sky and the Earth stands out as both an informative introduction to the people and culture of Bhutan and as a beautiful piece of travel literature set against the backdrop of one of the most remote and unspoiled places on earth.
Zeppa recounts her experiences living abroad — like learning to live without electricity and carrying on a forbidden affair with one of her students — in such a compelling way that even someone who has never left home will become entranced by her story and captivated by her unique experiences.
Naturally, Zeppa experienced culture shock when she arrived in Bhutan. The hardships she encountered seemed insurmountable, and at first she thought she couldn't bear it and fantasized about returning toCanada.She had to learn a new language in order to communicate with her students, she had to learn to live on her own, and she had to learn to deal with homesickness. Perhaps her biggest challenge was learning how to reconcile her growing love for Bhutan with her nostalgia for her life in Canada, her family, and her fiancé.
But after living among Bhutan's Himalayan peaks, lush valleys, colorful villages, and friendly people, and after gaining an appreciation for life in a place frozen in time, Zeppa realizes that she feels at home in Bhutan and wants to stay.
Although to Zeppa Bhutan is a magical land, she cautions herself and the reader not to deem it "the last Shangri-La," as is often done by the lucky travelers who make their way through the red tape required for entry into the kingdom. Bhutan is not without its problems: It is an underdeveloped country plagued by the problems that affect many places cut off from modernity. There is infant mortality, illness, and poverty. There are also domestic and international tensions that stem from the government's stringent regulations intended to preserve the national culture. Among them are the prohibition of foreign television and a requirement that people wear the national dress, a kira for women and a gho for men.
Few of us will ever get to see the place that was Zeppa's home. But her narrative is so clear and insightful that you easily feel as though you are sharing this portion of her life with her. Even if you haven't had the experience of living abroad, or if the prospect of a trip to the furthest reaches of Asia is not in your cards, Zeppa's book is a worthy read on many levels.
From her powerful use of language to describe the superb beauty of Bhutan's landscape to her passionate description of her spellbinding relationship with her future husband, Beyond the Sky and the Earth draws readers in and takes them on her rocky ride to self-realization.
When trying to explain to a friend what she finds appealing about Bhutan, Zeppa writes: "It takes a long time to find the true words, to put them in order, to tell the whole story. It is not just this or that, the mountains, the people, it is me and the way I can be here, the freedom to walk unafraid into the great dark night. It is a hundred thousand things and I could never trace or tell all the connections and reflections, the shadows and echoes and secret relations between them."
But, in fact, Zeppa does tell the reader about these connections and reflections in a lyrical way. After reading the book, you will have a deep understanding, appreciation, and respect for Zeppa's strength of character and for the wonders of Bhutan.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a delight to read in every way. Zeppa's beautiful prose, peppered alternately with funny observations and profound soul-searching, is a truly special and unique work that will leave you craving an adventure of your own.