Thursday, March 05, 2015

Book: Jamie Zeppa's "Beyond The Sky And The Earth"

For my next book I chose a travelogue with a hint of biography.  Jamie Zeppa's "Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan" tells the story of a inexperienced young Canadian woman, fresh out of school traveling on a lark halfway around the world to teach English in the himalayan nation of Bhutan.  The book follows the transformation from someone who had hardly ever left her home in Toronto to someone in love with the newly emerging buddhist country.

The book takes place in 1989 before Bhutan had fully opened it's doors to the outside world.  The author doesn't really know what she is getting into as she travels to a tiny town in eastern Bhutan to teach elementary school.  She questions her sanity for making this jump into the unknown and longs to return home to her family and fiance.

Time moves on and she begins noticing the world around her.  For the first time she interacts with the Bhutanese people and before long she falls in love with the mountains, country, and the people.  Along the way she converts to Buddhism.  By Christmas, when she returns to Toronto on winter break, her marriage is off, her entire world view has shifted, and she longs to return back to her home in Bhutan.

I really enjoyed most of the book.  I was most intrigued by the north-south conflict between the Bhutanese and the Nepali-born Bhutanese of the south.  The author experiences this first hand when her job moves her to a college and she encounters students from the north and the south.  In the 90s Bhutan expelled many of the Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry.  There is a large population of Nepali Bhutanese refugees in Omaha.

The last section of the book was the least interesting to me.  The author falls in love with one of her students and a romance starts.  Student-teacher romances have always had an unsavory feel to me.  It doesn't really matter that there wasn't much of an age difference.  It doesn't matter that they eventually marry (after having a child).  It always feels like an abuse of authority to me.

Despite this potential ethical lapse, I still gave the book four stars on Goodreads.  I like reading about Bhutan.  It took me back to our brief  four day visit there back in 2012.  I can understand her feelings toward the country.  On the surface it seems so peaceful and beautiful.  It's a true Shangri-La ... as long as you don't look too closely.

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