Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth

Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth

by Lisa Napoli

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Lisa Napoli was in the grip of a crisis, dissatisfied with her life and her work as a radio journalist. When a chance encounter with a handsome stranger presented her with an opportunity to move halfway around the world, Lisa left behind cosmopolitan Los Angeles for a new adventure in the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan—said to be one of the happiest places


Lisa Napoli was in the grip of a crisis, dissatisfied with her life and her work as a radio journalist. When a chance encounter with a handsome stranger presented her with an opportunity to move halfway around the world, Lisa left behind cosmopolitan Los Angeles for a new adventure in the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan—said to be one of the happiest places on earth.
Long isolated from industrialization and just beginning to open its doors to the modern world, Bhutan is a deeply spiritual place, devoted to environmental conservation and committed to the happiness of its people—in fact, Bhutan measures its success in Gross National Happiness rather than in GNP. In a country without a single traffic light, its citizens are believed to be among the most content in the world. To Lisa, it seemed to be a place that offered the opposite of her fast-paced life in the United States, where the noisy din of sound-bite news and cell phones dominate our days, and meaningful conversation is a rare commodity; where everyone is plugged in digitally, yet rarely connects with the people around them.
Thousands of miles away from everything and everyone she knows, Lisa creates a new community for herself. As she helps to start Bhutan’s first youth-oriented radio station, Kuzoo FM, she must come to terms with her conflicting feelings about the impact of the medium on a country that had been shielded from its effects. Immersing herself in Bhutan’s rapidly changing culture, Lisa realizes that her own perspective on life is changing as well—and that she is discovering the sense of purpose and joy that she has been yearning for.
In this smart, heartfelt, and beautifully written book, sure to please fans of transporting travel narratives and personal memoirs alike, Lisa Napoli discovers that the world is a beautiful and complicated place—and comes to appreciate her life for the adventure it is.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“ [an] affectionate portrait of life in a slower-paced, high altitude society…absorbing, often touching memoir”--The New York Times Book Review

“[An] affectionate portrait of life in a slower-paced, high altitude society…[an] absorbing, often touching memoir.” --The New York Times

"From the moment she walks off the plane, Ms. Napoli knows she's a universe away... [She] is infatuated with Bhutan, and...has an eye for a good story."--Wall Street Journal

“Joyful….You’ll close the book wishing you could head to Bhutan on the next plane.”--Toronto Star

"A rare gift....Radio Shangri-La is much more than just a story of a midlife crisis. It’s the chronicle of a country barreling toward change, and a woman’s search for what happiness really means at any age."--Christian Science Monitor

"Napoli's wry voice and honest insights create a thoughtful, engaging narrative...[she] avoids romanticizing Bhutan while capturing the country's unique charm."--The Globe and Mail

"Comparisons to the wildly popular Eat Pray Love,’ Elizabeth Gilbert’s international travel romp through meals, meditation, and men, are easy to see...In a refreshing twist on the female travel memoir, Napoli stands brilliantly apart from [Elizabeth] Gilbert in that, in the end, she chooses herself and not another man."

"Lovely and fascinating."--Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Mesmerizing."--Portland Oregonian

"Radio Shangri-La reminded me of Deborah Rodriguez’s 2007 bestselling Kabul Beauty School. Only better, if for no other reason than the writing here is just so sharp and terrific…Journalist Napoli writes stylishly about physical and spiritual renewal. Part travel memoir, part crossroads handbook, Radio Shangri-La is unforgettable.—

"Fascinating."--Spirituality & Practice

“Radio Shangri-La  has shades of Pico Iyer and Bruce Chatwin and a similar genius for parachuting the reader into a strange land and culture.  Bhutan has long fascinated me and Radio Shangri-La is the perfect vehicle to get there."– Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

"Radio Shangri-La is a beautiful, touching and deeply compelling memoir by a well-known public radio reporter who arrived in the tranquil kingdom of Bhutan to help establish the nation's first radio station and, as important, to further her own mid-life assessment of a life that felt full of missteps.  The book is delightful reading--honest, moving and quietly spiritual as it offers both an intimate portrait of a country only halfway to modernity and a soul in quest of meaning."--Scott Turow, author of Innocent

"Radio Shangri-La grabs you by the heart and takes you on a winding dual journey -- into the self and into a fairy tale kingdom known for measuring happiness as its gross national product. Charming, illuminating, and often ironic, this memoir is a continuous discovery of myths and realities in finding deeper personal meaning."--Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and Saving Fish from Drowning

"Bummed out in midlife, [Lisa] Napoli went to Bhutan to volunteer at the country's first youth-oriented radio station...She reveals the truths--and, yes, happiness--she found there. Perfect for everyone who loves finding-yourself-through-travel memoirs."-- Library Journal

"Enjoyable memoir about ex-journalist Napoli’s search for wholeness and spiritual renewal. A refreshingly uplifting book."--Kirkus Reviews

From the Hardcover edition.

Joshua Hammer
…[Napoli's] affectionate portrait of life in a slower-paced, high-altitude society…[an] absorbing, often touching memoir…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
When Napoli met the handsome Sebastian at a cookbook party in New York City, she was intrigued by this man who traveled to Bhutan regularly. And when the accomplished L.A.-based journalist (MSNBC, CNN, public radio's Marketplace) researched the country about which he spoke so enthusiastically, she became entranced with Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom that sits between India and China. This country--dubbed "the happiest on earth" because of its focus on environmental and social progress--is hard to get to, with its remote location and governmental deterrents to tourism, like a per-person, per-day tourist tax. But a friend of Sebastian's needs help with startup radio station Kuzoo FM, so Napoli leaves L.A. and goes to Bhutan for six weeks. She writes, "After more than two decades of reducing even the most complex issues to 1,000 words or less, I was tired of observing life from a distance." While the author turns an eye on her own motivations (nothing further developed with Sebastian), she refrains from tortured navel-gazing and instead shares and reflects on Bhutan's people, history, and customs (from painting phalluses on houses to repel evil spirits to Buddhism's role in daily life). Napoli's adventures at home and abroad, in nature and career and spirit, will delight readers. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Nestled between India and China, Bhutan is known as the last Buddhist kingdom and Land of the Thunder Dragon. The story opens with fortysomething journalist Napoli's dogged pursuit of happiness by documenting "three good things" each day. By chance, the Los Angeles-based author is persuaded to take a midlife journey to Bhutan. Taking place in 2007, this six-week sojourn's purpose is to help improve Kuzoo FM, the nation's fledgling radio station. Bhutan's monarch promotes "Gross National Happiness," restricts tourism, and imagines the radio station as a way to prepare Bhutanese young people for impending parliamentary elections. Over the course of the next two years, Napoli returns to Bhutan a few more times. Predictably, the author learns a great deal about herself and her life's choices and revels in the growth experienced by the young radio jockeys. VERDICT Napoli's fluid, elegant, and vivid prose draws readers into this special geographical place and illustrates the value of soul searching. This compelling story will inspire readers interested in other cultures and the spiritual side of world travel.—Elizabeth Connor, The Citadel, Military Coll. of South Carolina Lib., Charleston
Kirkus Reviews

Enjoyable memoir about ex-journalist Napoli's search for wholeness and spiritual renewal.

The author provides a readable account of her life-changing decision to leave the comforts of her cosmopolitan Los Angeles life and serve as a volunteer at Kuzoo FM 90, a radio station for young people in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Disillusioned with her love life and fed up with her job as a public-radio commentator, Napoli took a chance on a mysterious stranger's offer of unpaid work in a country where "[b]eing, not having" and "[h]appiness above wealth" were the prevailing national philosophies. For six weeks, the author immersed herself in an ancient but vibrant culture just emerging from centuries of self-imposed isolation. During her time there, she experienced endless fascination, but also sadness, caused by the Bhutanese obsession with television and all things Western. At the same time, Napoli discovered the beginnings of a joy and personal healing that had eluded her at home. After her first visit, she returned to Bhutan two more times. Knowing she couldn't stay for long, she decided to "bring a bit of Bhutan to me" and sponsored a young female radio jockey, Ngawang Pem, to come to Los Angeles. In search of a way to stay in the United States and explore her version of the American dream, Ngawang eventually disappeared to New York before going back to Bhutan, marrying and inviting the author to become godmother to her unborn son. Napoli ably avoids the first-person trap of self-absorption through memorable depictions of the people and places in her narrative. She also skirts clichés about the world-weary Westerner who finds renewal in a short-term encounter with the exotic through the open-ended story of intercultural exchange. Although she ended the journey unmarried, childless and uncertain of her future, the author gained the hard-won conviction "that what I gave was more important than what I got."

The author's authentic voice and light, pleasant cultural insights make for a refreshingly uplifting book.

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Read an Excerpt


The Thunderbolt, Part One

Harris said he’d be at the cookbook party by 7:00 p.m., which gave me an hour to hang out with him there before I headed uptown to have dinner with another old friend and his family. The party was a bit out of the way, and I almost skipped it, but since I was only in my hometown, New York City, on rare occasions, I figured I might as well get out and see as many of the people I loved as I could. What had brought me here from Los Angeles was the chance to fill in for a month at the New York bureau of the radio show where I was on staff as a reporter. I bolstered my energy for a busy evening of flitting around the city in hyper–social butterfly mode—a way of life I rarely indulged in anymore.

The walk from the office on East 47th Street to the party on 66th Street filled me with wonder and made me wistful for this place I loved so dearly. In early autumn, twilight in New York is magical; the sky glimmers and there’s energy in the streets. You feel powerful, invincible, as if every gritty bit of the city is yours. I found myself doing a mental trick I hadn’t done since I’d moved away: reciting the address of my destination while I walked as if it were the lyrics to a song. Two-three-four / East Sixty-sixth Street, I sang to myself over and over again this September evening, the clunky tune mingling with the click-clack of my bright pink “comfort” high heels. Inevitably, after all that repetition, I would muck up the street number, and I did this time, too. But there was such a crowd in front of one particularly gorgeous old brownstone, I didn’t need to check the little slip of paper in my purse to know I’d arrived.

Crazy busy. Some swanky food magazine editor was debuting a new cookbook. Harris had long been a foodie, and in the last few years had broken into writing about all things gourmet. Good for him to be mingling in such well-fed company. Now it seemed I’d have to fight a dreaded crowd to find him. How could I be a city person and hate mob scenes?

As I made my way to the front door, I took a look up the staircase. It was packed with a crush of people. In the thick of it, facing in my direction, was the most handsome man. He had a shock of brown hair and big brown eyes to match. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in that instant, the mob seemed to disappear. Much to my surprise and delight, I saw him looking right back. Not just in my direction, but at me. Our eyes locked, and, even from a distance, I could swear a sort of chemical reaction erupted between us.

I’d read about these celebrated coup de foudres, thunderbolts, where people met and fell in love at first sight. I knew from experience that an instant attraction could be intoxicating—and dangerous. As was the impulse to imagine that a momentary connection was something larger. But this thunderbolt felt different. This was a beautiful, instant intensity I’d never, ever experienced.

Practical me prevailed: I had to find Harris. Time was tight. I peeled my eyes away from the handsome stranger and pushed through the thicket of people. After a series of wrong turns, I spotted him holding court in a corner of the room, smiling and gesturing as if he owned the place. Harris was so good at making people feel welcome, connected. Everyone clutched goblets of wine—no disposable plastic cups for this crowd. My friend did a round of introductions, and as he got to the end of the group, I was happily surprised to see the man from the staircase.

“Lisa, this is my friend Sebastian I’ve been telling you about, who I’m going to Asia with next week. You know, for that story I’m writing for Gourmet magazine. And Benjamin, this is Lisa, my friend who works in public radio out in L.A.”

He was better looking now that I could see him up close, and there was a warmth about him, an easy friendliness. I felt a bit self-conscious and suddenly a little off-kilter in my pink shoes.

Long ago, I’d been one of those kids who hid under her mother’s armpit to avoid looking at strangers. Then I went into the news business. Earning my living posing questions to people I didn’t know had cured me of my innate shyness. Confidence was a good quality, one I was happy to have cultivated—especially now faced with this handsome man. Right at this instant, though, I found myself feeling unsure about how to proceed. I wanted to say something clever and prophetic, but I couldn’t find the words. So I stuck out my hand, and he stuck out his, and we shook. Sebastian asked if I wanted a drink, and I said yes, and he said he’d get me one from upstairs, and I said I’d go with him, and there we were, presto, in our own conversational bubble. We talked a bit about public radio—always reliable upscale cocktail-party chitchat. With everyone captive in their cars, and smart programming in short supply thanks to budget cutbacks and media consolidation, the public-radio audience tuned in with almost cultlike devotion. Personally, I was sick of the news, and tried to avoid it as much as possible. At the same time, I appreciated the attention those commuters paid our show, and was grateful to have a job at a news outlet that had such an enormous, attentive audience. Better than having no audience at all. I’d been out of work a number of times, and underemployed, so I knew well what that was like. I also was very aware that in situations like this one, my profession converted into useful social currency.

Once we had my wine and a refill for him, I started plying Benjamin with questions about his upcoming trip to Asia. He ticked off the itinerary: a swing through Hong Kong, a few provinces in China I had never heard of, two places in India whose names I knew simply because of their tea—Assam and Darjeeling—and, for a few days, the tiny neighboring Kingdom of Bhutan.

“Ahh. The happiest place on earth,” I said. I hoped my being dimly familiar with one relatively unknown country in all of Asia—and knowing the factoid that it was purportedly filled with blissfully happy people—might impress him. Although I’d never come anywhere close to the continent. I wasn’t even certain just where on the continent Bhutan was.

“Yes,” he said smiling. “Exactly.”

“I’ve always been curious about this happiness thing and Bhutan. It has to have something to do with the fact that television is banned there, right?” I’d now exhausted the extent of my knowledge about the obscure little nation.

“Right, although His Majesty did let TV in a few years back,” Sebastian said, his smile broadening and his eyes intense. “But it’s still a very happy place. Hey, get a visa and come with us. Harris and I will be your guides.”

What I wanted to say was that I would have driven to the airport and boarded a rocket to another galaxy with this man, whether or not my dear old friend Harris came along as chaperone. We kept talking, but I really don’t remember what we said. I was lost in Sebastian.

Then, a sort of internal alarm rang and jolted him into remembering he was looking for quarters for the parking meter. After I dug a bunch out of my purse and handed them over, I asked the time and discovered that the clock was ticking for me, too. I needed to head to the other side of town for dinner.

A quick good-bye, and off I ran. The friend I was meeting turned out to be running very late; I sat at the restaurant with his family as he called every five minutes with updates from the traffic jam. Ordinarily this would have annoyed me, but not tonight. Just knowing Sebastian was out there in the world improved my disposition immeasurably.

The next day, I sat in our midtown offices trying to motivate myself to research a story about rich young couples who were trading the plush suburbs surrounding New York City for a new crop of multimillion-dollar kid-friendly condo complexes being built right in the heart of Manhattan. With enough money, you could now have a family without disrupting your metropolitan lifestyle. Among other luxuries, like on-staff dog walkers and a wine cellar, these buildings offered concierges to assist the nannies. An email popped into my inbox and saved me from my internal rant about conspicuous consumption and the decline of civilization. The very sight of the man’s name made my heart beat faster.

Dear Lisa:

It was great to meet you last night. I owe you a drink for all that change you dug up for me. When can you get together?


Sebastian and Harris were leaving on their journey in just a few days, and by the time they returned, I’d be back home in Los Angeles. I could find a way to see him tonight. My calendar was totally open after work. I liked it that way, and this invitation reinforced why: The most interesting experiences seemed to happen spontaneously—just the opposite of how most everything worked in New York City, where every moment had to be planned by the quarter hour, lest you felt as if you might be “wasting” a bit of your precious time.

And yet I found myself hesitating to accept this invitation. I’d witnessed many a friend as they sabotaged or just plain avoided opportunities out of some sort of unexpressed fear that success or happiness might result. They became riddled with anxiety and self-loathing before they’d even sent in that cover letter or gone on that date. Now here I was, similarly paralyzed.

The voice of this other me politely declined. It was easy to justify not seeing him. We lived on opposite sides of the country; launching into a relationship that was destined to be long-distance was preposterous, a mistake I’d made in the past that I’d vowed not to repeat. My, I was getting way, way ahead of myself.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

LISA NAPOLI is a journalist whose last staff job was on the public radio show Marketplace. An early chronicler of the dawn of the World Wide Web as a columnist at the New York Times CyberTimes, she has also been the Internet correspondent at MSNBC. She began her career at CNN, worked in local news in North Carolina, and has directed several documentaries about Southern culture.

From the Hardcover edition.

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