The travel essay is by its nature a hybrid form which can incorporate, among other things, the author’s observations about the place visited, factual background information from other sources, and philosophical and psychological ruminations on the author’s own life. At their best, travel essays allow you to visit a place vicariously while also making a fascinating new acquaintance: the author who acts as your tour guide. At their worst, they are self-indulgent exercises in personal aggrandizement in which the locations visited and the people living there feature only as they facilitate the author’s personal growth or serve as virtual possessions in a cooler-than-thou bragging match.
Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth comes down somewhere between those two extremes. On the plus side, it provides a look inside Bhutan, a country which until recently deliberately isolated itself from the rest of the world and which still erects stern barriers (the most obvious of which is a $250/day tourist tax) ensuring that most of us will not be visiting there any time soon. Napoli has an eye for the telling detail and the quirky background story and her writing style is engagingly informal.
On the minus side, much of the book is actually about Napoli rather than Bhutan, and her story is neither particularly rare nor particularly interesting. Stop me if you’ve hear this one before: a privileged Western person is dissatisfied with life, visits a poorer country, and comes back transformed—but not so transformed as to be unable to capitalize on the experience by writing a heavily-promoted book about it.
In 2007, a chance meeting (with a handsome male stranger, not the last to appear in this narrative) at a party leads to an invitation for Napoli, then a reporter for NPR, to travel to Bhutan to help develop the country’s first radio station, Radio Kuzoo FM 90. She has a good job and a nice life in Los Angeles but is vaguely dissatisfied with it all, and so decides to take the plunge in the hopes of curing her mid-life angst. Her status will be intermediate between a tourist and an employee: Napoli pays her own airfare and works for no pay, but the tourist tax is waived and the Bhutanese provide her with room and board.
Journalistically speaking Napoli hit the jackpot in terms of timing, because her trip to Bhutan (the first of several) occurred during a period of dramatic national change. Until the ’70s the country was closed to foreign visitors and remained largely aloof from the modern world, with few roads or schools and not much in the way of public media. Even into the ’90s television was outlawed (although the more affluent had satellite dishes), phone service was rare, and a quarter of Bhutanese households had no electricity. It was a kingdom governed, according to the king himself, by considerations not of Gross Domestic Product but of Gross National Happiness.
Things began to change in 1999 when the king issued a decree aimed to bring Bhutan quickly into the modern age through improvements to the nation’s only airport, construction of roads and bridges throughout the country, creation of national television and radio broadcasting services and by permitting access to the internet. An even more drastic change took place in 2008 when the first general national elections were held and we are privileged to observe the results of these changes through Napoli’s narrative.
Radio Shangri-La reads like an extended NPR feature full of well-chosen quotations and anecdotes, colorful characters, and personal reflections crafted into a neat package which leaves the reader feeling a little smarter in return for their time. That’s not a bad formula for a three-minute radio spot, but for a 300+ page book it is disappointingly insubstantial. Her portraits of the various Bhutanese Napoli meets—they include Perma who loves Burberry handbags, Rinpoche the crafty guru (one character advises Napoli to not trust monks just because they are monks), and Sir Tenzin who loves chewing doma (tobacco, lime paste and areca)—remain superficial. with the exception of Ngawang, who acts as Napoli’s first guide to Bhutan and eventually visits her in America. The latter episode is more interesting because for once Napoli isn’t entirely controlling the narrative and the fact that the visit doesn’t go entirely as planned illustrates just how difficult it can be for even the best-intentioned people from different cultures to understand each other.
Napoli tells (rather than shows) us she had a life-changing transformation as a result of her trips to Bhutan. Rather than being obsessed about planning out her life or focusing on measurable achievements, she has learned to savor the present. When a friend asks about her plans for the future she says what she wants in five years is “to feel as great as I do, as strong as I do, right this minute.” She further explains that she is no longer “waiting for something to fall into place so that life could get started. Life was brimming all around me.” It’s a good philosophy, although not one which should require repeated trips to Bhutan to maintain.
Sadly, this new life philosophy has not made Napoli more sensitive to Americans whose life experience is different from hers or stopped her from making comparisons. She repeatedly harps on people who have more money than she has (whether they spend it on a different style of travel or better living quarters) without reflecting that to many Americans (to say nothing of people in other countries) she is wealthy. At the same time she looks down her nose at people who haven’t enjoyed the same opportunities she has, speculating that a friendly McDonald’s employee couldn’t even imagine a country without fast food. If that’s enlightenment, I’ll pass, thank you very much.