Astudy of life in Bhutan
As humans go, especially in this increasingly fluid world of self-isolation and evolving personal and professional relationships, we are all entitled to a midlife crisis. While a midlife crisis in itself is as common as a common cold, surely, it comes custom-designed in each individual’s life, and is perhaps more pronounced if one happens to be a workaholic, forty-something single woman in the disillusioning world of media in a big city like Los Angeles.
And such and so is a near description of the phase author Lisa Napoli, a LA-based public radio journalist was stuck in – that is until a chance meeting with a handsome stranger took her packing half a world away to the tiny kingdom tucked away in the Himalayas – Bhutan. The result: Radio Shangri-La: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.
Whoever heard of Bhutan anyway… especially on this side of the Atlantic? Which is why, when Napoli volunteered to help launch the country’s first youth-oriented radio station, she found her journey gave her much more than unprecedented access to a culture largely unknown to Westerners – it proved to be personally transformative, taking her back to that magical place again and again.
It starts with the possible cynicism of helping bring the modern media to a country that measures its success in terms of “Gross National Happiness” rather than in GDP. Although conflicted, the author goes with an impressively open mind (perhaps aided by disillusionment with her own space in her part of the world). What the reader gets, as a consequence, is a wealth of information woven around human stories about a country that was shielded from the world until recently and its transition to democracy after a century of monarchy when its beloved king abdicated the throne.
Napoli’s adventure – whether it was understanding the profusion of phalluses as decoration (to ward of envy!), the Bhutanese love of spicy food, their resistance to have their country become a democracy as much as their zealousness in preserving their cultural heritage; or understanding her own role in the creation of a free press as an essential tool for a nascent democracy – is a feast of sights, colors, senses and warmth that make the reader want to take the next flight into Bhutan or at least have a midlife crisis-busting adventure of one’s own.
Bhutan was considered to be the “the last Buddhist Kingdom”, cut off from the world until television was introduced in the country for the first time in 1999. To this day, Bhutan manages to keep unwanted outsiders away by charging a minimum $200-a day tourist tariff, that makes it a destination for only the most dedicated and discerning travelers.
In a promotional conversation, Napoli says of why the radio station was launched in Bhutan that she helped build. “After years of monarchy, the country was transitioning to a democratic form of government. A radio station was an essential tool for democracy, especially since its focus was the youth, who comprise the majority of the population. Which is funny, because as our media infrastructure crumbles here in the US, who knows how that’ll impact our own long-standing democracy? I think about this all the time as I watch my chosen profession go through a major meltdown.”
The irony of being fed up of the American media, but going to another country to help launch a media outlet is never lost on the author.
For Napoli, the profoundness of the Bhutan experience, she says, had to do with her own state of mind, her hunger for a change; but partly also, because it was a fascinating time of development for Bhutan. “As a former technology journalist and a devoted student of early 20th century US history, I find what’s happening in Bhutan a merge of my favorite subjects: the impact of technology and development on how we live. But there’s also something about the openness of the people I met there, and the rhythm of life there even as media and technology encroach.”
Perhaps the most significant transformation that country brought in her was the realization that she couldn’t sit behind a desk and file 60-second stories all day anymore.
But what she wants the readers to get out of the book most is to learn about Bhutan and all its strange and wonderful quirks and charms; to look at Bhutan’s stage of development today and think about what’s happened socially and technologically in the US over the last 100 years, its impact on our lives and how we relate to one another; to think about how small the planet really is, how connected we all are, and to encourage them to experience it, if they choose.
“But mostly what I hope a reader sees is how many exciting things there are for them to do in the world, right where they live, to help others, to make the most of our days. Isn’t that what everyone craves – meaning, purpose and connectedness?”
Before reading the book, one is inclined to unfairly wonder if this is yet another ‘Eat, Pray Love’ kind of privileged-American-looking of ‘happiness and meaning’ in the obscurity of a third world getaway. But mercifully, Napoli gives us more than just insights into her existential crisis to understand a contemporary geo-political revolution that is at once a result of modern technology and a people’s aspirations.
[Radio Shangri-La: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth, Crown Publishers; 304 pages, $25]
India Post News Service