Interview with Lisa Napoli: ‘Radio Shangri-La’ in Bhutan
Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the author about her memoir and how the Himalayan kingdom changed her
04.10.12 | 11:16 AM ET
Lisa Napoli was working as a radio reporter in Los Angeles, and not entirely happily. She’d seen counselors and had “navel-gazed a giant gaping hole in my belly button, dissecting my own personal history the way a Proust scholar did ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’ And yet,” she writes, “I still found myself swirling in a vortex of despair.” That’s when a chance encounter in New York led to an invitation to Bhutan, to help launch the country’s first youth radio station. She’d never visited Bhutan and didn’t even know exactly where it was. But soon she found herself in the capital city, Thimphu, in the modest offices of Kuzoo FM 90, where faded Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls posters hung on the walls. Her memoir, Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth, offers a fascinating look inside the country as it opens to the modern world—and an equally fascinating look at how the experience changed Napoli. The paperback version just hit bookstores—you can read an excerpt here. I caught up with Napoli via email.
World Hum: You write: “Occasionally, a shakeup in location, or in the company you keep, can touch you in just the right way, awaken something inside you. At precisely the moment you need it.” Can you talk about how moving to Bhutan shook you up?
Lisa Napoli: Stepping out of my comfort zone is what did it. Being in a place where I was the minority, where I wasn’t surrounded by familiar people or things or even a way of life that was typical for me, was what rattled me—in a good way. Some people get that by going to the beach or a hike in nature. For me, being in a culture and being surrounded by such a different landscape from a large American city jolted me.
Suddenly my problems and concerns shrank in importance and I was overwhelmed by a feeling that we are all connected on the planet, as big and as disconnected as it can seem. It was a giant thunderbolt that’s completely changed how I live my life. I started to see that it wasn’t about what I didn’t have or hadn’t achieved, but that there was a lot I could do to help other people.
Bhutan is going through big changes as it continues to open to the world. In the book, you meet a number of Bhutanese who watch American TV shows, for example. Kuzoo plays some Western pop music. How do you think the Bhutanese are faring with all this outside media flowing into their once-closed country?
TV is a beautiful and destructive force. It unites us and gives us common reference points, and lets us see the world beyond our own. But it also homogenizes us. And it makes us feel as if what we’ve got probably isn’t enough. Bhutan existed without TV about a decade ago, and people were happy with what they had. TV created a consumer culture that didn’t exist before in Bhutan. Same thing with movies, music, and visitors from afar. We are curious and our eyes are opened by all those things, but our impressions of our own world changes. That’s not necessarily bad. But it can be.
Local media has also developed quickly in Bhutan since I first went there in 2007. And they are great tools for expression—there’s a booming artistic movement in Bhutan with film and TV shows and newspapers and radio stations. People are speaking out more, and they’re analyzing more. But with that comes the menacing forces of consumption. And the dissolution of community. Even on my first trip, a civil servant in Bhutan lamented that he no longer stopped at a friend’s house on the way home for tea, but rushed to his house to watch TV.
Right now there’s an enormous financial crunch in the country that’s ultimately connected to the growing desire to buy more things. And rural to urban migration is high—people flocking from the villages in search of a better way of life, which is often code for more stuff, more money.
We tend to worry about the outside world’s influence on Bhutan, but it seems that Bhutan is influencing the outside world. Among other things, other countries and organizations are starting to adopt policies inspired by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness principle. Do you think the West, with its emphasis on GDP and material wealth, can really learn from Bhutan?
Sure. How many people are aching to simplify, to find meaning in their lives? Look at all the books with “happiness” in the title! The growing movement for artisanal products, to buy local, to think about the impact of what we are consuming and how we live our lives—they’re all good. And they’re all rooted in those GNH principles. The idea that a government says, “Hey it’s not all about money, but whether you have time for your family, to take care of yourself, to be part of something bigger than your narrow world,” how can that be bad?
Of course, desire and action are two different things. Will people change their ways?
You went to Bhutan not as a regular tourist but to work on its youth radio station. Your experience was very different from the average tourist’s—far richer, I suspect. Has the experience changed the way you see travel? Does it make you want to travel differently in the future?
I’ve never been a tourist, really. I couldn’t afford to be. Plus it’s not my style. When I’ve traveled, it’s mostly been for work or to visit friends. Holland was a place I’ve been many times, first on assignment when I was at the New York Times and then to stay with people I know there. You see a much richer picture of a place if you go to a grocery store and gather your own food and see how local people live day to day.
So Bhutan was an exaggerated experience, for sure—especially grocery shopping! I’ve been there six times for varying lengths of time, and always to volunteer or to visit friends or to research. If someone gave me a big pile of money and said, go meander around, I’m not sure how I’d do. I like going somewhere with a mission.