Travel literature review: Beyond the Sky and Earth

beyondsky-1Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa

4 star

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

Steve Waters has spent decades bumming around the Greater Himalaya including the Pamirs, Tien Shan, Karakorum,Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Yunnan.

One wonders whether literature-student Jamie Zeppa has ever heard fellow Canadian Neil Young’s "Helpless". Hailing from “...a town in north Ontario”, and “except for a week in Cuba...never been anywhere”, she decides to dodge her looming PhD to do something in the “real” world – signing-on for two years as a teacher in far-flung Bhutan. Zeppa struggles to find her way as she jumps from her safe, calculated existence into an unknown, unpredictable land where ghosts and demons are commonplace, but indoor plumbing a rarity. Teaching Shakespeare, Macbeth takes on a new light in a country where evil omens, supernatural forces, and the laws of cause and effect (karma) are part of everyday life.

Few outsiders who spend time in the stark, thin-aired lands of the Himalaya remain unchanged, and Zeppa comes to understand the difference between arrival and entrance. “ can arrive at a place and never really enter it...entering takes longer...slowly, in bits and pieces....until one day you really are know where you are”.

Yet even Bhutan has a dark side, and this is a journey on many levels – physically, politically, emotionally and spiritually and it’s Zeppa’s literary skills that help transcend this book from just another fish-out-of water travel yarn into something truly special. “...let Jacques Derrida come here...let him stay up half the night scratching flea bites and then deconstruct the kerosene stove before breakfast”.

Told with humour and honesty, Zeppa’s awakening passion for Bhutan, its people, and her students in particular, is contagious. The writing, mirroring her new life, is simple and sparse, yet her imagery remains vivid. As the country seeps into her pores, Zeppa’s prose conjures the smell of incense and yak-butter lamps, the sound of rain falling softly on the forest or gushing down in torrents, the spinning of prayer-wheels. Her words, light and deliberate, ring with the sound of chanting monks and tinkling bells while the pages utter forth karma and cooking lessons from children – “isn’t it, Miss?” The thin, crisp chapters flutter like prayer flags. And towering over everything, embedded in every character, every word, every nuance, are the wild mountains she comes to love.

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