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Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan - Jamie Zeppa This book is a gem.

When Jamie Zeppa tires of her doctoral studies and ponders whether the world might offer something more, she spots an announcement for a teaching opportunity near Tibet. The book Zeppa creates about her experience in Bhutan represents travel writing at its best. In theory, travel provides knowledge. In reality, many people leave dumb and come home just as dumb. Zeppa’s journey transforms her, and she gains wisdom in its truest sense, a combination of knowledge and humility.

Time may be the largest barrier to comprehending another culture. Zeppa, who describes her three years in Bhutan in the book, Beyond the Sky and Earth: A Journey into Bhutan, comments on the need for time to even start assimilating a culture. Zeppa remarks that, in contrast to rapid traveling and arriving, “Entering [a culture:] takes longer. You cross over slowly, in bits and pieces” and—after a great deal of time—“You are just beginning to know where you are” (emphasis added, 101). Further, voluntary travel—to use James Clifford’s distinction—whether done by members of a “shopping-mall society” or not, may be marked by scanning as its initial perceptual mode.

Before Jamie Zeppa travels to Bhutan to teach in a remote village, she first receives a thorough orientation on Bhutanese history, culture, customs, and language. Even when armed with quite a bit more knowledge than most travelers would possess, initially Zeppa really cannot “see” or interpret Bhutan. Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, seems small, cluttered, and old to Zeppa, and she scoffs when she is told “Thimphu will look like New York to you when you come back after a year in the east” (15). Zeppa grows impatient at a bank where people push and shove rather than forming lines, while the bank clerk, chatting idly with a guard, blithely ignores them all. Silently, Zeppa fumes, “Do these people have all the time in the world or what? (23). The food and water terrify her, and when traveling to her village, Zeppa thinks the landscape looks blank: “The country seems almost empty to me” (30). Finally, she loses her bearings entirely: “Somewhere south is Pema Getshel. Somewhere west is Thimphu. And beyond Thimphu—but no, I am too tired to retrace the journey mentally. I want to just click my heels three times and be home” (38).

Prejudiced by her own cultural baggage, initially Zeppa sees Thimphu as unimpressive, disorganized, and inefficient. The surrounding landscape seems vacant and desolate. After spending five months in Bhutan, Zeppa re-sees her surroundings vibrantly: “The rains have turned Pema Gatshel a thousand shades of green: lime, olive, pea, apple, grass, pine, moss, malachite, emerald. The trees are full of singing insects, flowers, birds, hard green oranges, children” and then remarks: “It’s hard to believe now that I once thought this a landscape of lack” (137). Zeppa could only see the landscape after she learned what to see.

Provocatively, Zeppa’s culture shock occurs both arriving and “returning.” When Zeppa travels back home to visit, after having spent two years in Bhutan, she finds Toronto enervating. She views her surroundings as “glossy and polished and unreal,” and is “overwhelmed by the number of things” (262). Television is “incomprehensible,” the “images fly out of the screen too fast.…Ten minutes of television exhausts” her for hours, she’s “shaken by the traffic, the rush, the speed at which people walk,” and she finds the “number of stores…overwhelming” (263). Zeppa’s reactions demonstrate that her inability to “interpret” her home now parallel her earlier inability to make sense of Bhutan. Significantly, Zeppa’s confusion, her sense of being too slow in the midst of so much “rush and blur,” emphasizes the steady scrim of images typifying industrialized culture (267). In short, Zeppa has lost (at least temporarily) the ability to “scan”—the mode of perception that may be necessary to decipher the contemporary “society of spectacle.”

From a negative standpoint, scanning may mark our present perceptual mode and suggests a type of seeing characterized by superficiality. In a more positive light and in the terms of travel, scanning may be inevitable. When Jamie Zeppa arrives in Bhutan, she can do no more than skim its surface and her vision, her ability to interpret her landscape is similarly compromised when she arrives in Toronto, after being away for two years. Zeppa’s and any other traveler’s ability to remember the journey may fare no better. Just as the initial perception of travel is partial at best, the journey’s recollection, i.e., the “stuff” of travel literature, becomes distorted by the degree our cultural lens blinds us to the journey initially, the amount of time we can spend within a culture, our imperfect memory of the journey itself, and the changes that will occur once our memories have been exposed to the shaping forces of narrative.

Jamie Zeppa, similarly, understands that she will always remain an outsider in Bhutan but wishes—nonetheless—to present her fragments as honestly and completely as possible. Though Zeppa often finds Bhutan a kind of Shangri-la, she presents its political complexity unflinchingly, and never pretends to understand or agree with it. Zeppa recognizes that sight itself does not bring knowledge. What she learns most of all is that “[t:]ravel should make us more humble, not more proud. We are all tourists, I think. Whether we stay for two weeks or two years, we are still outsiders, passing through” (204-5). At best, Zeppa might feel she reaches an enlightened confusion, and perhaps this is the most that any traveler can attain.


adapated from a prior publication