Travel literature review: Radio Shangri-La (what I learned in Bhutan)

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by David Gorvett

If you’re looking for a decent book to delve into next, something charming, informative yet light-hearted – a quiet achiever – the autobiographical Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli certainly hits the spot. Having spent the last 20-something years of her working life chasing deadlines for an impressive list of news corporations (among them a little-known start-up named CNN), Napoli finds herself running headlong into a self-confessed mid-life crisis. An experimental workshop in positive psychology, a chance meeting at a cocktail party in her former hometown of NYC, and the slightly clichéd desire to ‘find herself’ all conspire to catapult the author into a volunteer role for a fledgling radio broadcaster in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan.

Napoli is tasked by the manager of Bhutan’s first ever youth-oriented radio station, Kuzoo FM, with professionalising and nationalising the outfit; having initially been attracted, however, to the kingdom by its self-imposed isolation from industrialisation and modernisation, and having grown increasingly weary of her media and technology-saturated homeland, the author is quick to recognise the irony of her task. Thankfully for her, Napoli appears to spend the majority of her time at the station acting as a simple sounding board for the young volunteer DJs, correcting their English pronunciation and providing motherly words of encouragement.

The author manages to strike a happy balance between her examination of the self and her exploration of this land-locked, yet isolated, Himalayan nation. The insights she provides into Bhutan’s people, traditions and political awakening are fascinating and intriguing, and had me reaching more than once for further reading on the Web (there’s also a helpful ‘selected bibliography’ at the end for interested readers).

At times witty - such as Napoli’s description of the first ever Bhutanese elections where, despite educational initiatives ahead of Election Day, 'not everyone understood how [they] worked. A seventy-eight-year-old woman confessed, "I pressed the first button. Did I vote for the right candidate?"' -  and at others, enlightening, Radio Shangri-La is slightly reminiscent of Eat, Pray, Love, but manages to avoid the pitfalls of becoming overly self-involved. Overall, it is a quietly captivating, gently inspiring read.

David Gorvett works for Lonely Planet and has been a keen traveller throughout much of South America, Europe and Asia-Pacific – Bhutan is now on the list.

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