Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa is a memoir of the author’s experiences teaching in Bhutan over thirty years ago. While she was at first struck by the lack of supplies and the delays in arriving at her ultimate destination–which was a journey of several days outside the capital, Thimphu–Zeppa gradually learned to accept the Bhutanese way of life, which required patience, initiative and invention. Her trek into the east of the country, where her school was based, produced this awestruck impression:

“Whenever we stop and climb out of the vehicle, I am struck by the silence. It is particularly deep and strong higher up. At the passes, when the wind drops suddenly, the silence almost hums, and I can feel the weight of the earth beneath me, intensified by the emptiness between this solid piece of ground and the nearest ridge, a short flight away.”

Zeppa faced classrooms full of young students who barely understood her and a lack of guidance from administration about the demands of the curriculum. Her eventual adoption of a Buddhist way of life focussed her attention on what mattered most. She realized she did not need possessions or even to be in touch with people back home. Since this was in the years prior to the Internet and cellular telephony, I wonder how she would have reacted if she had a smartphone. She also reexamined her life, which meant breaking up with her fiancé back in Canada.

Her second year of teaching involved adults as students and it was with one of them, a young man named Tshewang, that she slowly developed a romantic relationship. After the birth of their son they were married in a ceremony that was very much a lack of one.

Zeppa thankfully didn’t write a memoir from a fish-out-of-water angle, so we were spared the often funny (yet annoying) stories about miscommunication or being unable to adapt in a foreign environment. She definitely wasn’t a flabbergasted tourist wondering why the rest of the country wasn’t like her. Her Buddhist principles permeate the story so her tone was always one of calm confidence. In hindsight her ordeals were solvable.

The funniest passage in the book dealt with the wild dogs that roam the country. Zeppa was always disturbed by dogs barking at night. One shopkeeper, Amala, thought she had a solution to the problem:

“At Pala’s one morning for breakfast, I watch Amala throw buckets of water at the pack of snarling dogs that has made its home outside her kitchen. ‘What to do with them,’ she says. ‘Always fighting and all night barking.’
Dogs are a problem all over Bhutan, especially in towns, wherever there are institutions with kitchens–schools and hospitals and army camps. The packs belong to no one and to everyone. It would be a sin in Buddhism to round them all up and kill them, since all sentient beings are considered sacred, even these horrid, diseased, deformed dogs.
‘Now I will do something,’ Amala says grimly.
Three days later, I look up from my lunch to see her talking earnestly to a truck driver. He nods and begins rounding up the dogs, using jute sacks to pick them up and toss them, yelping and howling, into the back of his truck. When all the dogs are in, Amala hands him two hundred ngultrum, and he drives off.
‘Where’s he taking them?’ I ask.
‘Wamrong,’ she says.
‘Why Wamrong?’
‘Too far for them to walk back.’ She smiles into her tea.
But the next day, the truck returns. The driver leaps out and unlatches the back door. The dogs pour out, still yelping and howling, and settle themselves in front of Amala’s kitchen. The driver is smiling broadly; he can hardly believe his luck. The good merchants of Wamrong gave him another two hundred rupees to take all the dogs back.”

The memoir ends in 1996, yet it was published in 1999. I was left wondering what her life was like in the intervening three years. The postscript was but one single page and ended abruptly, leaving me hanging and longing to know more. Now that thirty additional years have passed, I wonder how everybody is doing.

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