Finding Joy on Unpaved Streets

Posted on July 5, 2011

Radio Shangri-la: What I Learned from Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli

Consider this: there is a country, situated precariously between India and China, that didn’t allow television until 1984. Whose king gave up power in 2008 in favor of democratic elections because he thought that was the best thing for his country. Where, until a couple years ago, not even the capital city had a stoplight. In fact, there is still a region without paved roads. This place, dear reader, is Bhutan, a country that measures success not by its GDP, but by it’s Gross National Happiness.

Now, imagine that you are an unmarried female, 42, and are seriously reconsidering the path in life you have taken. At a party, you meet a handsome stranger who, after a long e-mail exchange, secures an internship in this faraway land helping teenagers start a radio station. This is the premise of Radio Shangri-la and is the true account of Lisa Napoli as she takes time off from her public radio job in downtown LA and goes to the middle of nowhere, Bhutan.

As with any good book, there are several stories at play here. First and foremost is Napoli coming to grips with everyday life in one of the most remote countries in the world. Her stomach responds to the chronically spicy food. Like many Americans abroad she has to a adjust to a lifestyle that is not quite as particular about appointment times. She’ll come to understand the different types of Buddhist monks and how deeply (sometimes ironically) religious this country is.

On top of that, we have the story of a country that is just now coming to grips with the modern era. We are talking about a capital city that, if you had visited in 1961, you would not have had to look far to meet someone who had never seen paper. Now they are just getting their first ‘real’ radio station.

The real joy of this book is the 20-somethings of Kuzoo, the radio station named after the traditional Bhutan greeting, and how enthusiastic they are to bring news, music and quality radio programming to their small, proud country.

In short, though, this is a book about how Napoli falls in love with Bhutan. It’s hard to blame her. The people are friendly and hard working. There are landscapes there that will blow your mind away. But most striking is how important their relationships are. In a country where happiness is the most precious commodity, your personal network is what keeps you rich when faced with new technology and democracy.

Think you’re too old, too set in your ways, too white bread to change yourself or your lifestyle? Read this book. Radio Shangri-la is enough to make you want to drop it all and find a special place where the people and landscape inspire you to focus not on acquiring material wealth, but on cultivating the things that are truly important.

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2 Responses to “Finding Joy on Unpaved Streets”

  1. Dave Stultz on July 8th, 2011 11:57 am

    I heard an interview with Napoli on NPR a week or two ago about this book and her experiences and Bhutan in general. I am really concerned for Bhutan. On the one hand, Western influence is pretty much inevitable and can only be postponed by oppressive restrictions on travel and communication. On the other hand, they have something really beautiful and healthy and happy going on and Western culture will fundamentally change it. And frankly, I think it is going to be a change for the worse.

  2. Heath on July 8th, 2011 12:02 pm

    It’s very easy for us to sit and say what is better or not for a country. The idea of impermanence is central to the Buddhist ideals. Food for thought. I’m sure the country of Bhutan appreciates your concern.

    One thing to think about is that they are lucky that they are changing at their own pace. Change is not only coming from within the country, but one of the things that I got from the book is that a lot of our generation is still maintaining ties with a good amount of the ‘old’ traditions. Compare this to Tibet, Iraq or Brazil which all became ‘modern’ countries the hard way.

    Change will happen slowly in Tibet (relatively) and will probably never happen completely. It had a good run.

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