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Radio Shangri-La

A journalist in midlife crisis decamps to Bhutan to see if she can find contentment in the ‘happiest place on earth.’

By Kate Vander Wiede / February 9, 2011

Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth By Lisa Napoli Crown 304 pp.

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It’s a story we think we’ve heard before: a woman, in the midst of a midlife crisis, flies across the globe for a chance of a lifetime that changes her life forever.
If Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-La seems all too familiar at the outset, the book ultimately proves it is much more than just a story of a midlife crisis. It’s the chronicle of a country barreling toward change, and a woman’s search for what happiness really means at any age.

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At the outset of “Radio Shangri-La,” we find longtime journalist Napoli in her early 40s, unhappy with her job in public radio, and without a family to call her own.
Stuck in a rut of regretful “what ifs?” Napoli quickly agrees to a six-week stay in Bhutan, an offer facilitated by a handsome man named Sebastian.

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Known best to the Western world as “The Happiest Place on Earth,” Bhutan is rarely visited by tourists. (The $200-per-day-per-person tourist tax may have something to do with it.) Napoli, however, is given a free pass through the country’s doors to help run a fledgling radio station – coined Radio Kuzoo – created by Bhutan’s prince.

Staffed by young adult Bhutanese, Radio Kuzoo casts a host of characters quite similar to America’s brand of young adults. There’s Ngawang, who dreams of America and having a baby, and who becomes a kind of little sister to Napoli; Pink, the DJ who moonlights at night clubs in the capital city, and whose marriage is falling apart; and Pema, who is a Burberry-loving, pop-culture maven. The station’s staff becomes our view into the world of Bhutan’s youth.

Bhutan, Napoli says, is beautiful, quirky, complicated and in flux. Economic achievement in the country is measured by gross national happiness. (“Economic progress at any cost, went the thinking, was not progress at all,” she summarizes).

The people are poor – a quarter without electricity. There are no traffic lights. The country is framed by the Himalayas, and paintings of giant phalluses adorn buildings. (“[P]eople will be too ashamed to look and covet what they don’t have,” Ngawang helpfully explains.).

But roads are being constructed. The monarchy is switching to democracy.

Television and the Internet were allowed by the king in 1999. The newest generation, which is staffing Radio Kuzoo and which will lead the country’s change, is growing up on text messages, hip-hop, and “Desperate Housewives.”

As we discover Bhutan through Napoli’s eyes, we find in her an authentic storyteller. With a refreshingly even keel, Napoli allows us to see something truly amazing: a country in the midst of massive transformation.

“Radio Shangri-La” offers a rare gift. As Napoli attends a party hosted by the country’s future foreign minister, and later shares tea with the leader of the new democracy’s opposition party, it hits us: How often does one get a front-row seat to a country switching from monarchy to democracy? From being isolated to inundated? Whether the transformation of Bhutan is depressing or inevitable – or both – it is a miracle that Napoli was even there.

We’re drawn to Napoli in “Radio Shangri-La,” which is a good thing, since the book isn’t heavy on characters. Ngawang makes a mark when she visits Napoli in America, Sebastian swings by a few times, and some other foreigner friends are introduced – but not many people stick.

Part of what makes Napoli so charming is her reaction to her first trip in Bhutan and the way she quietly steps away from her midlife crisis. Instead of moving to a small mountain town, quitting her job and changing her life, Napoli endeavors to change herself. (“There was no better place. There were no better people. All I really needed was here inside me,” she explains.)

Nonetheless, the book isn’t without flaws. Some plot points never come full circle: Though Napoli recognizes the paradox of disliking broadcast media and yet helping a country develop its own broadcast media industry, this hypocrisy is never fully examined. And Napoli isn’t the type to deeply question the locals about their way of life and beliefs – so while her take on Bhutan is revealing, it’s not as illuminating as it could be.

Nevertheless, Napoli’s work provides a window to a world we may never visit ourselves. As many of us can attest, certain places or people have that magical ability to throw our lives off-kilter and cause our paths to irrevocably change. For Napoli – and for readers of “Radio Shangri-La” – that place is Bhutan.

Kate Vander Wiede is the managing editor of the South End News (southendnews.com), a weekly community newspaper in Boston’s South End.

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