A chance encounter brought Lisa Napoli to Bhutan in 2007. Napoli, a Los Angeles-based journalist, was invited to the Himalayan kingdom to help develop a new radio station, Kuzoo FM. A gift from the then-crown prince (now fifth king) to the youth of Bhutan, Kuzoo was not the first radio station in the kingdom - the country has had radio since 1973 - but it was certainly the first of its kind, staffed mostly by young, enthusiastic volunteers, broadcasting 24 hours a day out of a studio in a former kitchen, and airing a lot of illegally downloaded Akon.
Over three working visits during 2007 and 2008, Napoli observed the country in its continuing transition from an isolated, agrarian monarchy to a wired young democracy. In bright, easy, uncluttered prose, she explores some of these changes, as well as her own attachment to the country and her worries for it. How well will democracy work, what will Sex and the City reruns and hip-hop do to the country's traditions, and will the development policy of gross national happiness be crushed by economic forces?
Napoli's wry voice and honest insights create a thoughtful, engaging narrative. She works her way through uncomfortable situations (such as when a lama diagnoses her with generic obstacles and recommends a $200 remote-prayer cure, or when she has to convince two radio jockeys that they can't win the Idol-like contest they are hosting) with tact and humour.
Occasionally, her observations feel a little disconnected from Bhutan's 50-year history of modernization, as when she links urbanization to the arrival of television in 1999. Young people were leaving their family farms to seek work in urban centres long before TV was turned on, largely because of the success of Bhutan's education system.
Radio Shangri-La is also a memoir of a life on the cusp of change, as Napoli searches for deeper meaning and connection: "This is the story of my midlife crisis," she writes in the introduction, "and how I wrestled with and then transcended it." Funnily enough, Napoli's life was already a lot like the life she went to Bhutan to find: She walked to work, shopped at farmer's markets, hosted weekly dinner parties and opened her home to a steady stream of guests. According to Bhutan's development philosophy, she already had the recipe for happiness: a compact, connected, mindful life.
So why look elsewhere? If we can all eat, pray and love at home, why go anywhere at all? As Napoli points out, the shock of the unknown is often essential to kick-start transformation. She calls the chance encounter that sent her to Bhutan a thunderbolt. It takes being immersed in a new and foreign world for her to return home and really know the place for the first time (to sample some T.S. Eliot).
But what is new and striking to an American - the glorious vistas of Bhutan, the phalluses painted on the houses - is ho-hum ordinary to the Bhutanese, and so it is not surprising that the young Bhutanese woman who comes to visit Napoli in Los Angeles doesn't want to go home. Like Napoli, she is seeking her thunderbolt experience elsewhere.
Title aside, Napoli avoids romanticizing Bhutan while capturing the country's unique charm. The cultural changes and exchanges she describes in Radio Shangri-La reinforce the Buddhist view that the world is in a state of constant flux, and that happiness, whether it's of the own personal or gross national sort, is only possible if we embrace this realization.
As for why Kuzoo FM is playing Akon instead of traditional music, I'm not convinced this is cause for concern. The same go-forth-in-order-to-come-back principle applies to artists. Soon, some young Bhutanese musicians will lay some Dzongkha rap over a long-lost folk song sample and post it on YouTube. It's probably already there.
Jamie Zeppa is the author of Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan. Her novel, Every Time We Say Goodbye, has just been published.