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.
I absolutely loved this book; it felt like a story I've been waiting for, and I think anyone else who has considered dropping all their plans for a safe, solid life in favour of the unknown will feel the same. When Jamie Zeppa decides to leave behind her marriage plans and graduate school applications behind to teach English in a remote corner of Bhutan she is not entirely sure of her motivations or whether she has what it takes, but she does know that she is determined to try. At first it all seems like a horrible mistake. She is horrified by her living and working conditions, lives in terror of a plethora of tropical diseases, subsists on a diet of crackers and biscuits and cannot communicate at all with her students, let alone teach them anything. Yet slowly she learns how to cope and eventually thrive, discovering that "anyone can live anywhere. You think you can't in the beginning, but then you do".
Zeppa's memoir is many things. It is a vivid love letter to Bhutan, and her descriptions of the spectacular landscapes make it easy to fall for the country as well, despite having never laid eyes on it. There are some wonderfully touching moments with the people she meets as well, especially her first class of eight year olds, who bang on her door at all hours asking to be let in, teach her how to cook and "roam" with her in the nearby forest after school. She does not shy away from the harsher aspects of reality though; accepting that whilst Bhutan may be beautiful in many ways it is still no "Shangri-la-di-da". It is also an account of her own personal development and whilst some may view this as overly self-absorbed, it didn't seem that way to me at all. Zeppa's self-reflection is well-balanced and does not take away from the exploration of Bhutan, its people and its culture. In particular I loved following her exploration of Buddhism, especially her struggles to come to grasp with mindfulness and the concept of impermanence. In fact, I think there are some really nice explanations of the basic tenets of Buddhism scattered throughout the book.
My copy of this is riddled with highlights; there were so many lines which resonated with me, especially as I am on the brink of a short teaching stint in Cambodia, and have been agonising over whether or not I have what it takes to live overseas long-term after that. Beyond the Sky and Earth is not a sugar-coated version of that experience. It is honest about the challenges faced by both Zeppa and Bhutan and the ending is bittersweet, supporting a message woven throughout the book, in Buddhist doctrine as well as warnings from friends. Nothing lasts forever. Yet that is not necessarily a bad thing. And even taking the bad with the good, finishing this book has left me even more eager to “throw myself into an experience that's too big for me and learn in a way that costs me something”.