'Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, The Happiest Kingdom on Earth'
Author: Lisa Napoli
Published: Crown; Feb. 2011
Genre: Memoir; Travel
Synopsis: When Napoli met the handsome Sebastian at a cookbook party in New York City, she was intrigued by this man who traveled to Bhutan regularly. And when the accomplished L.A.-based journalist (MSNBC, CNN, public radio's Marketplace) researched the country about which he spoke so enthusiastically, she became entranced with Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom that sits between India and China. This country--dubbed "the happiest on earth" because of its focus on environmental and social progress--is hard to get to, with its remote location and governmental deterrents to tourism, like a per-person, per-day tourist tax. But a friend of Sebastian's needs help with startup radio station Kuzoo FM, so Napoli leaves L.A. and goes to Bhutan for six weeks. She writes, "After more than two decades of reducing even the most complex issues to 1,000 words or less, I was tired of observing life from a distance." While the author turns an eye on her own motivations (nothing further developed with Sebastian), she refrains from tortured navel-gazing and instead shares and reflects on Bhutan's people, history, and customs (from painting phalluses on houses to repel evil spirits to Buddhism's role in daily life). Napoli's adventures at home and abroad, in nature and career and spirit, will delight readers.
My Take: I am sure by now you are well aware of my love for travel memoirs. I have read quite a few. If I can't travel much then I will do so from my armchair as they say. I also love learning about places I have never been, and from the sounds of it after reading this book, most likely never will (not because I don't want to, just because it's too expensive!).
First of all, am I the only person who missed the news bulletin about Bhutan being the 'happiest place on Earth'? I had never heard that before. I read the news every day, I watch the Today show while I am getting ready. I feel like I would have heard this at some point. I had no idea this was a 'thing'. Oh well.
For those of who don't know, Bhutan is this tiny country in between China and India and is very remote and likes to keep it that way! For thousands of years the terrain and the culture kept people out and they were fine with that. Everyone was happy and self-sufficient. However, times change and people come in and want to check it out. So you can visit, but you will have to get a visa and pay a tourist tax upwards of $250 a day! So it's an elite person that can visit there which again is probably good to retain the pristine quality of this place.
Our intrepid memoirist, Napoli was your average worker-bee. Toiling away for years at different news and radio stations around the country and upon reaching 40, single and childless was finding herself having something of a midlife crisis. I get it. We all examine our lives. I personally am about to hit, gulp, 30, in a couple of weeks and with each major milestone it's a time to reflect. Have I achieved what I wanted? Am I where I thought I would be? Am I happy? Happiness is what Napoli is struggling with. To put it quite simply, she isn't. Very. She knows she should be. But she isn't.
However, a chance encounter of a handsome man named Sebastien who mentions a far-flung location, Bhutan, gives her the chance to take a 6-week break from work and travel there to help a fledgling radio station become more modern. It sounded like just the change she needed and it was. It was just a chance and it turned into so much more, it was a big change. It flipped her life into a whole different momentum so she could analyze it from different angles and that was very inspiring.
What I really appreciated in this book, and I don't believe this is giving away the ending, is that the happiness and contentment Napoli eventually finds is, for once, not in the arms of a man as so many female memoirs have to be. She finds it within herself. What was missing for me, and it didn't detract too much from my enjoyment, was that the momentum of the story was off for the first 100 pages as the tangent of the story was drifted into the history of Bhutan. Fascinating on its own but I don't think whole chapters needed to be devoted to it move Napoli's own journey along.
Cover Lust: It's cute, but ultimately the final art they went for the hardcover (out now!) is far more compelling!