Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

Olive-Drab Tedium
Kevin Patterson's
The Water in Between
and Jamie Zeppa's
Beyond the Sky and Earth

by Caroline Kettlewell

Two travelers escape their all-too-civilized lives and discover that the true foundation of an adventure is the security of believing that, when you're sick of it all, you can always go home.

Drop everything. Leave it all behind you. Put yourself beyond the reach of telephone and obligations. Step out, alone and unencumbered, into the great wide open mystery of the unknown.

Such is the fantasy and the appeal of travel for those of us tethered to mortgages and careers and school and families. We imagine ourselves tested and proving equal to harsh climates, rough living, quixotic local customs, exotic dangers. Or we imagine a languid, unspoiled paradise of endless sunlit days and wine-sweetened nights. We imagine, but few of us ever actually go. Instead, we read travel literature.

That's what Kevin Patterson did to while away the long, dull, miserable hours he served as a young doctor in the Canadian army on the windswept Manitoba prairie.

"I fled my olive-drab tedium," Patterson writes, "through the pages and pages of walking across deserts and through jungles and smoky bazaars."

What he gets from these books is "this old idea of pilgrimage. Insight through journeying. Transformation through suffering....Off they go, these travelers, into the heart of trouble, and they take us with them, yearning for the film of ennui to be peeled away...."

Released from the army, yearning to peel away his own ennui and escape a recently-broken heart as well, Patterson seizes upon the idea of sailing away from his life. "Self-sufficient isolation as a response to trouble--the fantasy of travel literature," Patterson writes.

"I knew nothing about sailing and had never

The Water In Between:
A Journey at Sea

Kevin Patterson
304 pp.
Amazon.com order now logo

Beyond the Sky and the Earth:
A Journey into Bhutan

Jamie Zeppa
Riverhead Books
320 pp.
Amazon.com order now logo

been on the ocean in a little boat of any sort," he notes, which doesn't stop him from buying, on the spur of the moment, from a sailboat broker named Peter, a twenty-year-old, thirty-seven-foot, ferro-cement, twelve-ton, ketch-rigged sailboat with the unpromising name of Sea Mouse. Such is the impulsive action that launches Patterson's sometimes meditative, sometimes hilarious new book, The Water in Between.


Much of the humor in the book is derived from Patterson's freely admitted, complete ignorance of even the most basic principles of sailing and navigation. "Suffused with optimism and rum, I told Peter I wanted to sail to Tahiti," he writes.


I asked him how long it would take to get to Tahiti. He said five or six weeks. I told him I knew nothing about sailing. He assured me it was in my blood.... I asked him what one did out there alone at night. When you went to sleep, did you put out a sea anchor or what? He took a moment, as if contemplating his response, and then asked when I could get the check to him.


In the end, perhaps taking pity on Patterson and his apparent suicide mission, the broker pairs Patterson up with a former sheet-metal worker named Don Lang, also in flight from a broken heart (and marriage) but fortunately an experienced sailor.

And so the two set sail for Tahiti, and Patterson soon discovers that life at sea in a small boat, far from romantic, is mostly long interludes of lassitude interrupted by brief, storm-driven episodes of terror, and a progressively more desperate need for a bath. Which isn't to say he does not necessarily enjoy some parts of their meandering voyage to Tahiti by way of Hawaii and a couple of small Pacific islands that strike their fancy. Only that it isn't quite the bold foray into the unknown he had imagined.

The Sea Mouse, as it name suggests, is not a racehorse. In mostly calm seas, under relentlessly clear skies, it idles along, leaving its two occupants with little more to do than read and sleep and eat and, most particularly, brood--exactly what Patterson thought he would escape by going to sea. Patterson, still reading travel books--Chatwin and Theroux and Raban, Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World, and Richard Henderson's Singlehanded Sailing--begins to question the romance of restlessness and exotic destinations.

"You had to wonder if there was any escape....Whether every place is just like the last one," Patterson's equally disillusioned travelling companion suggests. Hawaii seems shockingly ordinary, with its strip malls and frozen yogurt stands. The fellow sailors they meet in ports as often as not seem less rigorously self-reliant nomads than homeless because they manage to wear out their welcomes everywhere they go. And when at last Patterson and Lang arrive in Tahiti, they find a polluted harbor, car exhaust and Parisian bureaucrats longing for home: "All of us wishing we were elsewhere." Patterson's greatest pleasure, at the end of his journey, is not freedom but ties to home: discovering the bales of letters awaiting him poste restante at the Papeete post office.

At the end of the book, Patterson makes one last bid for his long-cherished notion of ennobling solitude by singlehanding the return leg of his journey from Hawaii to British Columbia--three thousand uninterrupted miles alone at sea. "This was precisely what I'd longed for, those winter nights in the little army house." But all he can think about is landfall, family, home at the end of the voyage, and with every slow mile his desire for these grows more desperate. When he is caught in the middle of a raging storm, alone and terrified, he realizes finally that "the only buttress against the fearsome and shrieking wind lies in humanity huddled together to keep warm," and that "being awake at night, alone and cold, severed from others, does not have a patch on home."

A cynic might point out that Patterson's book puncturing the myths of travel and adventure literature is being pitched, somewhat inaccurately, by its publisher as "a high seas adventure story." And the liberal sprinkling of technical lingo--mizzen masts and whisker poles and port forestays and halyards--might leave landlubbers wishing for a glossary. What makes the book succeed, however, is Patterson's strong, insightful writing and his humor, much of it at his own expense. If I had to spend months at sea in a small boat, Kevin Patterson is the kind of travelling companion I'd hope to have.


I suppose it was coming directly from Patterson that made me expect not to like Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan. Here's the cover blurb from the New York Times: "Zeppa's book suggests...that there are still a few places left in the world so strange and wondrous that a journey there has the power to transform the traveler...."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another I-went-to-a-foreign-land-and-came-back-
a-better-person story. Like Patterson's book, however, Zeppa's is full of ambiguities and contradictions, and I found myself drawn into the story to the point where I was disappointed when the book ended abruptly.

At twenty-three, Zeppa flees too much certainty--a fiancé, Ph.D. applications, a careful life--for a teaching assignment in Bhutan. At first, she is miserable from homesickness and culture shock, afraid of falling ill from the food and the water, horrified by her grim, rat-and-flea-infested apartment in a remote village, completely mystified by the challenge of teaching the young schoolchildren in her charge.

But gradually she warms to life in Bhutan, first cautiously, then with a wholehearted enthusiasm measured out metaphorically in the increasing number of fiery chili peppers she adds to her ever-more-Bhutanese meals. She falls in love with this tiny, remote country--it seems a perfect, magical idyll still simple and largely untouched by Western commercialism. She converts to Buddhism. She falls in love, literally, with a Bhutanese man, and eventually they marry.

If the book followed only this narrative trajectory, it would have all the makings of a Hollywood movie and not much more. But Zeppa allows reality to intrude its complexities and contradictions on the story. There is a suffocating lack of privacy, and the burden of social disapproval. There is little questioning of authority. There is a growing civil unrest between northern and southern Bhutanese, argued only in rhetoric and rumor. And a world without VCRs and Calvin Klein is also a world without clean water and sanitation, where children die of easily preventable diseases.

A friend, a fellow teacher, 'deconstructs' her romance with the country, telling her, "You're projecting things onto the place, all the things you feel your own culture is missing. The pre-industrialized world, communion with nature, all that Shangri-La-Di-Da business," and Zeppa comes to the realization that "life here is different, but if you add everything up, it is not any better. You can love this landscape because your life does not depend on it. It is merely a scenic backdrop for the other life you will always be able to return to, a life in which you will not be a farmer scraping a living out of difficult terrain." Like Patterson, Zeppa understands that the true foundation of an adventure is the security of believing that, when you're sick of it all, you can always go home.

Even her romance with Tshewang, the man who will become her husband, is more nuanced than not. He is a student at the college where she is transferred after several months in Bhutan. It is not entirely clear whether Zeppa forewarns him that she has decided to get pregnant with him--before they are married, and while they are trying to keep their forbidden romance a secret.

But the book ends suddenly, with the marriage. A cursory postscript indicates unsatisfyingly that "Tshewang and I found some of the cultural difference between us to be even greater than we had expected, and had to make some difficult decisions about our future. Eventually I decided to return to Canada, at least 'for some time' as the Bhutanese say...." The reader feels the hand of editorial imperative at work here, saying "keep it to three hundred pages," but we've followed Zeppa too long to be thus abandoned at the border.




Amazon.com: Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.