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Blissful Transmissions: Book review of "Radio Shangri-La" by Lisa Napoli

Melanie Kirkpatrick

There have been many contenders for the real-life location of Shangri-La, the fictional utopia of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Hilton’s mythical Shangri-La is a remote Himalayan valley home to perpetually happy people.

Enter Bhutan, a tiny country wedged between China and India and famous for a national philosophy of “gross national happiness.” Unlike gross national product, gross national happiness is based more on Buddhist spiritual values and cultural traditions than on modern measures of economic success. If there is a modern-day Shangri-La, Bhutan is it.

Bhutan’s isolation is more than geographic and applies to many other aspects of life there. Television and the Internet did not reach Bhutan until 1999 and even today do not extend to every corner of this poor, largely agrarian country. The Bhutanese, who are required by law to wear national dress in most public settings, even look like they belong in another century. Men wear the gho, a kind of knee-length robe, and women wear a full-length dress called the kira.

The country enjoys diplomatic relations with only a handful of nations, an honor that does not extend to the world’s superpower, which must conduct what little business it has with Bhutan through the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. And since the Bhutanese government sharply limits the number of tourists who may visitand requires a minimum expenditure of at least $200 a day per person—the picturesque country attracts well-heeled travelers, in contrast to the backpack crowd who favor Nepal, another pretender to the Shangri-La crown.

The 21st century, however, is slowly beginning to encroach, including in the person of Lisa Napoli, a radio journalist from Los Angeles. As she relates in Radio Shangri-La, Ms. Napoli landed a job in the faraway land after receiving a tip from a handsome stranger whom she met at a party. Taking a leave of absence from her post at a public-radio show, she heads to the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu, where she spends six weeks helping to professionalize a new youth-oriented radio station called Kuzoo FM. The book is an account of this and later visits.

From the moment she walks off the plane, Ms. Napoli knows she’s a universe away from La-La Land. The young woman sent to greet her addresses her as “Madame Jane.” The “Madame” is in deference to her seniority—she is in her 40s—and “Jane” is because that’s her middle name, which the Bhutanese, who do not have family names, mistakenly think is hers. On the ride from the airport to the apartment where she will be staying, everything is strange and exotic. Madame Jane’s eye is caught by the paintings of giant phalluses that adorn the sides of many of the houses they pass.

At Kuzoo FM, a government-owned station, Ms. Napoli is enchanted by the enthusiasm of her co-workers and even more by the enthusiasm of the radio’s listeners, who drop by the office to say hello to a popular disc jockey, request a song or offer words of advice. It “was all so radically different from the big media universe in which I’d been dwelling for twenty years,” she writes. “The media here seemed pure, neat, a public service.”

Ms. Napoli is infatuated with Bhutan, and she has a tendency to gush. But she also has an eye for a good story, and the best parts of Radio Shangri-La are the tales she recounts of Bhutanese life. There is a zany incident involving a handsome rinpoche—a reincarnated lama—who tries to extort $100 from the seemingly gullible Californian. The burgundy-robed rinpoche looks like “a hipster thirty-year-old, with spiky black hair and a confident strut,” she writes. He tells her that she faces obstacles at work back home in L.A. and offers to put everything right by hiring seven monks and a lama to say prayers on her behalf for three days. She politely declines the offer. As a savvy Bhutanese friend tells her later: “You can’t trust all the monks just because they’re monks.”

Also interesting are her descriptions of ordinary life in Bhutan. Guests walk into people’s homes without knocking. Marriage is a casual institution, with couples deemed to be wed when they move in together and unwed when one person moves out. Not every aspect of life in Bhutan is so different from life in L.A.

She is also good at capturing the longings many young Bhutanese have for a more modern way of life and the often skewed notions they have of the West, courtesy of “Sex and the City” and “Baywatch.” In 2007, the year of Ms. Napoli’s first visit, Bhutan is in the midst of a political transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, and the democratic changes are confusing and scary to many Bhutanese. Near the end of the book, when a young Bhutanese woman comes to visit her in L.A. and then refuses to go home, Ms. Napoli deftly describes how America appears to the visitor from afar. UPS deliveries are “magic” to the woman from a country with no street addresses.

Unfortunately, Radio Shangri-La is also the account of Ms. Napoli’s personal quest for happiness, and she warns in the preface that this is the story of her mid-life crisis. Her observations about Bhutan are framed by musings of the sort that are better kept private. To give just one example: “I longed for a way of life in which people made it a priority to look into each other’s eyes and communicate, soul-to-soul.” If only an editor had made it a priority to save her from herself.

After her initial visit in 2007 to volunteer at Kuzoo FM, Ms. Napoli makes several more trips to Bhutan and considers moving there permanently. She ultimately decides to stay in Los Angeles, which, given the wisdom she says she found in Bhutan, is beginning to look more like her personal Shangri-L.A.

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