“Radio Shangri-la” Author at Library

Erica White

The term “stranger danger” is one Lisa Napoli is unfamiliar with.

“I’ll go anywhere with you,” Napoli said, recalling her response to a handsome tea importer she met at a cocktail party who asked her to go to Bhutan with him.

Little did she know this chance flirtatious encounter would change the course of her life.

Napoli, a former back-up host for American Public Media’s Marketplace, spoke to a modest audience at the Glendale Public Library May 4. Napoli read excerpts from her new book “Radio Shangri-La”, a story of her decision to move to Bhutan and help start a youth radio station.

Disillusioned with her job and lamenting her missed opportunity at motherhood, the Brooklyn-born Napoli was looking for an escape.

“I was working for Marketplace. I was 43 at the time and had a pretty good life up to that point, but I was feeling stuck and couldn’t imagine how I was going to move forward. I couldn’t see myself doing my job for another 40 years. It was very treadmill-like,” Napoli said.

“How did I get to this point in my life?” Napoli thought, and then she met a handsome man. He was cheeky and forward. He told Napoli he was going on a tea sourcing expedition in Bhutan and asked if she’d like to go.

“Of course I couldn’t go,” Napoli said. “I had this job, at least, the responsibility to go to work every day.”

They exchanged emails. A couple of weeks later Napoli received an email from the handsome man asking her if she’d like to come to Bhutan and volunteer helping start a youth radio station.

“I thought, ‘wow that’s the best pick-up line ever! Of course I’ll do it,'” Napoli said.

Napoli spoke to her boss who had just laid-off a couple of people due to budget cuts. He let Napoli take a brief unpaid leave of absence.

“He was eager to let me go so he’d at least be able to bring some people back as freelancers during my absence,” Napoli said. “He asked that I bring my tape recorder so I could do stories on economics while there.”

With her job secure, Napoli was ready to go. Only one problem remained: where was Bhutan?
Bhutan is a small country in Southern Asia nestled between China and India. It’s about one-half the size of Indiana with a population a little more than 700,000. It had been sequestered from the outside world for most of its existence. The country didn’t have roads or a hard currency until the’70s and only imported television in 1999. Most Bhutanese are poor, making only $1,300 a year.

One thing Napoli did know about Bhutan is that the country measures its citizens’ wellbeing with something it calls Gross National Happiness.

“As a business reporter it was thrilling. We deal with Gross Domestic Product, numbers and corporate earnings reports, things that aren’t sexy. The idea that there was a government that was interested measuring the people’s wellbeing, that sounded kind of cool,” Napoli said.

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist country. From birth, Bhutanese are taught to tread the middle path, live responsibly and not covet, Napoli said.

In the’70s the Bhutanese King saw the way Asia was quickly developing. He didn’t want that to happen to Bhutan and implemented Gross National Happiness as a reality check. Yes we want to grow, yes we want new economic opportunities, but not at the expense of the environment, Napoli said.

Throughout the course of the evening Napoli told stories of getting accustomed to life in Bhutan, and the meaning of the painted winged penises on the buildings.

“The Bhutanese believe it’s wrong to envy what someone else has. When you have a phallus painted on the house, people will be too ashamed to look [at the house] and covet what they don’t have. In this way the phallus wards off evil spirits,” Napoli said.

The audience oooed and awed when Napoli presented a slideshow of pictures from Bhutan. Pictures of vast emerald valleys and aurora borealis skies speckled with images of weathered old men on cell phones were among the array.

Napoli said since the emergence of television in Bhutan the National Gross Happiness has gone down.

“Before the people hadn’t realized what they were missing out on. Now they can watch TV and see what other countries are doing and they want that,” Napoli said.

The youth radio station that Napoli help started is still ongoing.

“Now they play crappy pop music” Napoli said.

Napoli said the station is changing peoples lives. She said on days when the radio station was down they would get phone calls from locals crying asking when the music would be back on.

“Imagine never hearing the radio for the first time, and then hearing it. That’s a powerful experience,” Napoli said.

The younger generation is becoming more and more educated and westernized.

“They don’t want to work on the farm any more. They want cars and when they get a car they want a bigger one,” Napoli said.

Napoli told a story of one of the girls coming to Los Angeles to visit her. She warned the girl that she didn’t live a lavish life.

“She wouldn’t believe me. She kept saying, ‘I’ve seen Desperate House Wives. I know how you Americans live’,” Napoli said. “She was shocked when she came to my one bedroom apartment and saw that I had no servants.”

Napoli said life in Bhutan is changing and faster than the people had imagined. She said monks in the most remote mountains can be found using cell phones or computers. here is not much left that has been untouched, Napoli said.

There goes the neighborhood.