I have a soft spot for travel memoirs, especially ones that involve quirky, fish-out-of-water scenarios. Lisa Napoli's Radio Shangri-La documents the author's many trips to the country of Bhutan, the self- proclaimed "Happiest Kingdom on Earth."
Bhutan is a country that is not accessible to the average tourist. It's difficult to obtain a visa and if you are allowed in, there is a heavy daily tax levied on visitors. Napoli managed to gain entry by way of her career in radio and arrived to help the nations first station geared towards Bhutanese youth, radio Kuzoo. Radio Kuzoo became a phenomenon in Bhutan, as it allowed the citizens in a very closed culture, access to the outside world, When Napoli was visiting in 2008, the country was beginning to let in the modern world and changes were happening rapidly.
The book is as much about Bhutan's changes, as the changes in Napoli's own life. It is very reflective, especially with regards to Napoli's younger Bhutanese friends. Napoli is in her forties and reflecting on the decisions made in her youth and focused on how to spend the second half of her life. This is especially profound in the last half of the book, when Napoli befriends Ngawang, a young adult, who is trying to carve out her own future and in the process makes life altering decisions.
The contemplative tone of the memoir, also has a lot to say on the idea of happiness and what it means of different people. Bhutan claims to be the "Happiest Kingdom on Earth" and when Napoli first arrives, she goes in with a rather, western, hippy notion that it's because the people are unplugged from modern distractions. Bhutan does eschew many of the trappings of modern society, but it's more deep rooted cultural priorities of family and belonging that give the citizens a sense of happiness. If Napoli write another book, ten or twenty years from now, it may give us a very different view of Bhutan, as the outside world becomes a bigger part of daily life. However, at this junction, it doesn't seem that any negative affects have invaded.
The afterword could have easily been a jumping point for a new book. It was actually quite surprising. Napoli met with a family of Bhutan refuges in Tuscon, Arizona, who told their story about being forced out of the country twenty years ago. Bhutan made it very uncomfortable for their ethnic Nepalese citizens to live in the country, forcing them to flee Bhutan and find safe havens in other countries. This happened to approximately 1/6th of the population of Bhutan, many of whom, wish that they could return home despite being unwated in their home country. Reading about this, made the whole "Happiest Kingdom.." bit sound like even more P.R. nonsense than it did initially.
This being said, the idea of whether or not it is the Happiest Kingdom is irrelevant. Napoli's book is about herself and the individuals that she encounters. It is a micro, not a macro view of her experience of the culture of Bhutan. In the end, the concept of Happiness is vast and impossible to define. It is an individual feeling and absurd to apply to an entire country.