Radio Shangri-La Virtual Book Discussion

Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli. Published in 2011.

Synopsis: Unsatisfied with her job with a major media outlet, and seeking greater meaning in her life, Lisa Napoli is given the opportunity to travel to Bhutan for 6 weeks to help start the country’s first youth-oriented radio station. This landlocked Himalayan country for thousands of years has resisted colonization from the outside world, politely said “no thanks” to Christian missionaries, and only allowed as many as 27,000 visitors into the country in a given year due to it high tourist tax. Part memoir, part ethnography, part historical account of a rapidly transitioning country, Napoli’s book will leave you enthralled about this magical kingdom.

About the Author: Lisa Napoli is a journalist who has previously worked with CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC and National Public Radio. She has covered the Clinton campaign, Waco standoff and Internet revolution. In the winter of 2007, she took a leave of abscence from her job to volunteer for 6 weeks in Bhutan, and country to which she has since returned several more times. A native of Brooklyn, she currently resides in Los Angeles.

My Initial Reactions to this Book

I’ll admit that I’ve been intrigued with Bhutan since seeing slides of this majestic country at a Sierra Club meeting over 10 years ago, and especially after learning that they have a Ministry for Gross National Happiness. Yes, you read that correctly. Rather than measuring the success of the country in Gross National Product (GNP), the government measures success in Gross National Happiness, and has even developed tools to quantify and monitor this.

While reading this book, I also began making a mental list of all the other things I liked about Bhutan: (1) they have banned plastic bags, and television was banned until recently as well; (2) spicy chilies are their staple food; (3) greater emphasis on human connections rather than consumerism; (4) giant penises predominate the architecture; (5) Buddhist monks and astrologers in Bhutan predicted the 2009 global finanical collapse, even though high-paid and well-educated economists could not; and (6) for their New Year’s celebration, drinking more alcohol was seen as encouraging greater happiness in the coming year.

That being said, I really enjoyed this book. For those of you who have read Eat, Pray, Love, the concept is similar: a single, childess, middle-aged woman travels across the globe in search of herself and getting more out of life. However, I enjoyed Radio Shangri-La far more. Napoli seemed to be more humble in her story-telling than Elizabeth Gilbert, and nerd that I am, I really enjoyed all of the background information on Bhutan that she provided.  (To read my review of Eat, Pray, Love and the reader discussion that ensued, click here.)

One of the things that intrigued me the most about Radio Shangri-La is Napoli’s discussion on a country in transition between near-isolation to modern democracy. Cell phones and televisions are now commonplace, banks and credit cards have recently become available, and in 2008 Bhutan elected its first-ever democratic government. I am in no place to judge the development of the country, as clearly it has been welcomed by the people. However, it makes me wonder if the new-found focus on commoditizing the country will lead to a nation similar to what’s been spawned by pursuit of the American Dream, like Napoli so eloquently describes on page 42:

I was tired of sleep-deprived, stressed-out, too-busy people who shirked downtime in the service of making money so they could buy more stuff; tired of it taking months to see dear friends who lived across town because traffic and overcommitment made it impossible to coordinate a shared meal. It felt like some people stuffed their calendars full so they could seem important, or at least, not have to face themselves during unplanned moments. In Bhutan, I suspected, human connections were more important than how many digital pals you racked up on Facebook. Rather than passively consuming depictions of the world pumped out to them on various screens, the Bhutanese, I imagined, must savor their lives, really live them, thoughtfully and yet spontaneously.

Have you read Radio Shangri-La, and if so, what did you think of it? Feel free to post in the comments section below to further the discussion…

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