If you walked into any village in all of Bhutan and shouted "Karma", a quarter of the heads would turn. There are only about fifty names in the whole country... There are no familial surnames, and most names are unisex. So it is entirely possible that a family could be made up of a mother named Karma Wangdi and a father named Karma Lhamo, a child named Karma Choden, and another named Lhamo Wangdi.
When I was first offered to review this book, I spent a while thinking about Bhutan, the country which is the focus of this travelogue memoir. The first sad thing I realized was that even in spite of having stayed for eight years in India, and having grown up on a steady diet of news regarding the southern Asian peninsula, Bhutan very rarely featured in any flash news from that region. Although I knew plenty about Bhutan, there was still a lot I didn't. That, as well as the real reason why news about Bhutan rarely invaded my living room couch, was revealed to me in this book. Radio Shangri-La
is about Lisa Napoli's rediscovery of self through this remotely tucked away country in Asia. The book started out typically - a mid-life crisis bringing about a yearning for travel - especially to a little known country shrouded in mysticism and full of a promise of spiritual awakening. Warning flags immediately started popping up in my antenna - I haven't still forgotten the debacle that was Eat, Pray, Love
. Luckily though, Lisa Napoli is very practical, and doesn't start off with dumping all her issues on us. In fact, it is many pages later that we really know what her troubles are. If not for the candid admission in the Preface that this is a story of her midlife crisis, I might have taken her for any one of us.
By the end of the book, I've learned enough about Bhutan to wonder which planet this country was in. Bhutan's monarchy made a conscious decision not to be "corrupted" by outside influences. It's unbelievably hard to get into this country - $200 per head per day! (Even if that hefty pay serves to keep most potential tourists out of the country, and thus not turn Bhutan into yet another country that serves as the world's spiritual ground, it's not a policy I approve of.) Lisa vividly describes the many customs of the country and its geographic characteristics that I could picture the place so well in my mind's eye. Too often, I find travelogues focus on only some particular aspect of a country. Not Lisa's, though. She doesn't stick to exploring only one facet of her favorite place in the world - instead she easily delves into other political and commercial news, and shares them with us.
I liked the second half of the book better than the first. The first half was way too descriptive for me, while the pacing of the second half a lot faster. The first half is really the exploration / rediscovery / change part of the author's life, and consistent with that, she shares a lot of what she learns during that phase with us. It has whole chapters that show what makes Bhutan the way it is -- resilient, incorruptible, paradisaical. I appreciated how well she made a case for it. But the second half, which is the acceptance / moving on part shows the reverse culture clash -- of her returning back to the states, completely transformed; and of one of her favorite people from Bhutan, who comes to visit her in LA.
Moreover, the first half of the book focuses on the "good" side of Bhutan. I may not have visited Bhutan, but there's a lot (esp the customs) that sounds similar to me because of the way of life in India. The author's initial perspective about the good virtues of Bhutan left me asking - where's all the bad stuff and the bad people? Even in a country so isolated, where radio broadcasting is received with the same gusto as Apple's iPads are in the tech world, and where everyone absolutely loves the king, there should still be the odd person indulging in bad politics or something about this mystic place that feels too ancient. I was rewarded in the second half with all those answers. The author presents a well-written case of why some things had better not be done in Bhutan, and what some changes can mean to the country and the rest of the world.
While I didn't agree with the author on everything, I loved that this was a very honestly written account of what she benefited from Bhutan. She didn't believe in superstitions or prayer rituals to make her life better but if that option was provided to her, she didn't denounce it or jump into it outright - instead she had a very practical response. That practical approach, her candidness and matter-of-fact tone in making any decisions are what make this memoir work very well.