The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 5 November 2018

Radio Shangri-La

What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth

by Lisa Napoli

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is an exotic and complicated place, made famous by its policy of replacing Gross National Product with Gross National Happiness (GNH). This is in part a sincere effort to better quantify the quality of life of its citizens, but also it is a bit of marketing. The "Happiest Place on Earth" is a good image to have around the world, but the country is not rich. It is also not poor. Its efforts to realize GNH are complicated by the limitations of Bhutan's resources and the changing expectations of a culture that is very rapidly modernizing after centuries of sequestration from the world at large. A few good books have been written about the amazing saga of Bhutan. It's been in the news occasionally, on television here and there, even in a movie or two. The landscape there is incredibly beautiful, protected by clauses in the nation's constitution. The Buddhist culture is deep and ancient. It is a complex place of wonders. But it is not Shangri-La. No place is.

In 2007, through an unlikely chain of associations, Lisa Napoli, who was a reporter for the Marketplace radio program, got an opportunity to travel to Bhutan as a volunteer in support of the young king's project of setting up a radio station for young people. It was meant as a way for the young people of Bhutan to become more engaged in their wider culture and the politics of a country that only recently instituted democratic elections, converting an absolute into a parliamentary monarchy. Young people are not so easily directed, of course, and radio station Kuzoo became largely a medium for global pop music and a nascent Bhutanese 21st-century pop culture. Napoli was able to provide some guidance along the way. At the same time, her journey to Bhutan, like many journeys of its kind, was transformative for her.

By way of illustration of this point, Napoli gives a broad overview of her life and the challenges and dark events that have formed her outlook on her world. Bhutan offered a dramatic change, the kind that tends to reveal more about what it is we truly want in our lives and about the kind of people we are. As in many books of this kind, our protagonist falls in love with the country she discovers far away from home. The book is an engaging journey into a down-to-earth aspect of life in Bhutan that the typical tourist is unlikely to see. Bhutan's tourist industry is so tightly controlled that the kind of journey Napoli takes is unique to someone who has connections that allow her to offer useful service to the kingdom. We meet a number of the young people who are chafing at the limits placed upon them by a country just starting to loosen up its controls over its people. Indeed, the Bhutan before democratic change has some dark episodes it is unwilling to come to terms with, the kind of events that challenge its image as Happiest Country on Earth. As enchanting as Bhutan is to the Western traveler, its people are moving away from the sequestered world of a Buddhist kingdom and trying to join the global community, for better and for worse. Napoli gets that and yet remains in love with the Bhutan she ends up visiting several times over a few years. Still, we get the sense that, unlike some other authors of this kind of memoir, she allows Bhutan to affect her only so much. Rather than become an expatraite, she takes her Bhutan home with her. Her life is changed, and she is newly aware of who she has become, recovering from years of uncertainty and fear.

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See also: [Beyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa]

[Other books by Women Authors]

[Other Books about Buddhism, Tibet and the Himalayas]

[Other Travel Books]