by Lisa Napoli, March 4, 2011 11:23 AM
Mid-life malaise is a luxury, but if you're reading this and you're over the age of 30, you've probably experienced some version of this, the nagging questions of What if?
, If only
, Why me?
, What next?
I realized as I was experiencing and working through my bout with the What am I going to do with the rest of my life?
wails that everyone else had them, too... whether they were married or not, super-rich or just doing okay, had kids or not, had been super-successful in the career of their choice or just kind of found their way. Neither are these questions, I discovered, confined to a particular gender.
Now, these universal mid-life feelings are something you can entertain only if you aren't struggling to put food on the table or keep a roof over your head; like boredom, they're a conceit of the well-to-do, which, if you're reading this, most likely you are. (You have an internet connection, time to browse, buy books, etc.) If you're struggling to survive, you probably don't have the inclination to be existential and self-pitying. Even though I knew this, and even though I knew I was very fortunate, I had these questions fall on me like an avalanche, and it was by accident, when I was 43, that I met a man who got me connected to Bhutan, which was sort of the beginning of the end of my dance with these questions. This attitude shift could have been inspired by myriad other experiences or encounters, but in my case, it took flying half a world away to volunteer at a start-up radio station in a little known kingdom to push it along. (It was also helped by an exercise called the Three Good Things, a gratitude journal of a sort, where each night you write down the best things that happen each day. Over time, you realize — little things are the most gratifying, and also, how much goodness you probably have in your life.)
Prayer flags hang in improbably high locations virtually all over the country.
You never know who you might meet, or where they may lead you, but you can only know if you're open to it, and I'm grateful that I was. And, that I was able to take advantage of the offer put before me. You don't need to fly anywhere to have a moment of enlightenment or transformation, though. It's really about reframing how you look at the world around you, and that's in part what I wrote a book about — how being in a new place allowed me to change my perspective. Whole fields are developing around these ideas, positive psychology, the study of the brain and effects of meditation on depression, etc. I'm no expert in these things. But I do know this: Volunteering at a radio station in a little Himalayan kingdom at just the right moment helped me make that shift, and helped me clear a path into my forties, so I could imagine and work towards a productive future.
I hope I get to visit the real Powell's and not just the virtual one some day to talk about it. In the meantime, I leave you with these links: To an excerpt of my book, and to a series of videos I made about Bhutan. Thanks for reading!
Excerpt from Radio Shangri-La
by Lisa Napoli, March 3, 2011 3:58 PM
There's a lot of irony in the title of my book, Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth
, which of course doesn't get conveyed if you take it at face value or haven't read it. Bhutan, of course, isn't Shangri-La (whatever that is), nor is it the happiest place on earth. (My boyfriend says that's Costco, but I believe that Disney lays claim to the actual trademark on the phrase.) It's a complicated, dimensional, ever-changing place that happens to offer pristine natural beauty. But it's in no way perfect.
Anyway, because of the title, I invariably get two types of questions: People who want to unlock the mystery of how they can be happier like the Bhutanese...and people who lambaste me for what they assume is an unfairly rosy picture of Bhutan, given the largely unreported story of the Bhutanese refugees who have languished for 20 years in camps along the border of Nepal, unclaimed by either country, and are just now being resettled around the globe.
|A stretch of the Bhutan National Highway somewhere in the Bumthang district. Built and maintained by Indian laborers, many of whom died in the creation of the road when it was first created forty years ago, this highway traverses the entire nation.|
Neither of those questions come from people who have read my book. Radio Shangri-La is partially about another largely unreported dark side of Bhutan — the perilous effects of modernization, globalization, and the media, as well as the fact that (as is the case in many other developing countries) many young people are willing to do whatever they can to get their feet on US soil, for they feel in doing so they will get rich, even if it is at the expense of their family life or cultural values. (The difference with Bhutan is that this phenomenon is relatively new — in part because Bhutan was secluded for so long, and because TV only came in ten years ago, unleashing for Bhutanese the sense of lack that TV and commercialism are designed to create.)
A monk visiting the US for the Smithsonian FolkLife Festival in DC in the summer of 2008, which featured life in Bhutan. One of the favorite past-times of the visiting Bhutanese delegation was shopping.
I didn't focus on the refugee situation in Bhutan, not because I find the situation uninteresting or unimportant or because I wanted to ignore it — it just wasn't the subject most relevant to my experiences there. Nor, was it a subject I was best-equipped to address. I make a point of mentioning it whenever I can, particularly when I speak to groups about it, because intolerance for outsiders is discordant with the Buddhist beliefs that underlie Bhutanese culture. And because the refugee problem in Bhutan is super relevant and evocative of other situations unfolding around the world, as borders erase and people migrate.
For the record: Some accuse Bhutan of ethnic cleansing by forcing out the Nepalese who were brought in to help build roads and infrastructure as Bhutan was beginning to develop forty years ago, claiming that people who weren't "purely Bhutanese" weren't welcome to stay. The official Bhutanese response is that their system of free health care and schooling couldn't handle the extra citizenry, and that the Nepalese weren't forced out. There's an excellent web documentary about the subject if you want to find out more about it: Bhutanese Refugees: The Story of a Forgotten People. Perhaps you live in a community where the refugees have been resettled; many local papers have been chronicling their integration into their new worlds. I also highly recommend Jamie Zeppa's beautiful book (Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan) from 1989 about her time as a teacher in Bhutan during the beginnings of the refugee crisis. She addresses it too; she saw it as it happened. Like me, she feels great love for the people there, while being confused at the situation unfolding around her.
Like Jamie Zeppa, I fell in love with the people of Bhutan, not the country's policies or politics; and, like her, I was privileged to spend time there (from a completely different perspective, at a completely different moment in time), and was moved to share those stories and observations, and have tried to articulate how the experience of living in a world not my own changed
by Lisa Napoli, March 2, 2011 12:34 PM
It costs a lot of money to get to Bhutan. You've got to get to Bangkok or someplace in India, and then catch the Druk Air flight into Paro, currently Bhutan's only airport (and Druk Air is the only airline). Then there's the $250 a day tourist tax, which isn't really a tax but rather the minimum you can spend while there.
Headline news: I can save you thousands of dollars and jet-lag. You can just go to El Paso, Texas instead. Okay, you think, that's kind of like going to see New York and the pyramids and Paris and Venice clustered next to each other in Vegas. Besides, what the heck does El Paso have to do with the last Shangri-La?
All kinds of interesting facts about Bhutan turned up in my research as I wrote Radio Shangri-La, which is a travel memoir about how, in the throes of disenchantment with my work in public radio here in the U.S., I went to Bhutan to help start a radio station. But probably the most curious and wonderful is the connection between this border town in the U.S. and the kingdom of Bhutan.
Well it has to do with this issue of National Geographic from April 1914:
Long before the vast, wonderful interconnectedness and lightning-speed of the Internet, a National Geographic subscriber named Kathleen Worrell in El Paso read the first-ever dispatch from the Kingdom, which was published in National Geographic in 1914. Written and photographed by a British political officer named John Claude White, this nearly 100-page travelogue was based on his trip several years earlier, which included being the only Westerner present at the coronation of Bhutan's first king.
I won't give away the whole story here, but let's just say that Mrs. Worrell's fascination with Bhutan as described and shown by Mr. White (whom she never met) gave way to this: from 1917 on through to today, every single building on the campus of the school now known as the University of Texas El Paso is built to evoke the Himalayan Kingdom. (Everything but the football and basketball stadiums, that is.)
Here's a picture of the majestic administration building at UTEP, alongside a picture of a dzong (government and monastic headquarters) after which the school's buildings are modeled. (This dzong happens to be in the capital city of Thimphu and this photo was taken on the day the Constitution of Bhutan was signed.)
Dzong government and monastic headquarters
University of Texas El Paso administration building
There are artifacts aplenty around campus, too, from authentic Buddhist thongdrels (embroidered enormous scrolls), to archery bows and arrows, and prayer flags. Now there is a growing number of Bhutanese students, too.
How UTEP got to look this way is an amazing part of the story of Bhutan, which is a part (but only a part) of what's in my book, Radio
by Lisa Napoli, March 1, 2011 10:35 AM
I think I got a bit ahead of myself, talking here yesterday
about media and democracy in Bhutan. You are probably wondering: Where the heck is this Bhutan? I had no idea when I was first asked to volunteer there at a youth-oriented radio station. I mean, I knew it was in Asia, and that it was supposed to be the happiest place on earth, and that it didn't have television. (I assumed those two last qualities were indelibly linked.)
When I accepted the invitation to go, and after my boss at Marketplace consented to an unpaid leave, I of course did my research. Bhutan, it turned out, is considered the "last Shangri-La." It is surrounded by India, Tibet, and Nepal. It is about the size of Switzerland and has only 650,000 residents. Its mainstay occupation is subsistence farming; per capita income is $1300 a year, but its people aren't living on the streets. The family unit is strong and people are cared for. Medical care and schools are free. Until 40 years ago, outsiders hadn't been allowed in; now their numbers are controlled by a high entry fee to keep the place from being overrun. Roads and planes are relatively new to the kingdom, so is hard currency. And TV (along with the Internet) was allowed in just a decade ago.
The reason Bhutan is considered the "happiest" place is because in the seventies its King had casually declared a commitment to "Gross National Happiness" over pursuit of GDP. To me, as a reporter covering unbridled capitalism each day, this ideal had particular resonance. I valued quality of life; I'd chosen to live across the street from my job so as to avoid an onerous commute, had an open house each week so I could create community for myself (I was single, and didn't have family in Los Angeles), and made it a point to swim each day.
Famed for being the only Asian capital without a traffic light, Thimphu boasts a live traffic cop who directs the growing number of cars in the country the old-fashioned way.
Today, the philosophy of Gross National Happiness is perhaps Bhutan's greatest export, albeit a virtual one. And in an effort to sate outside demand, Bhutan has created a commission to study and quantify a personal, largely immeasurable concept. Governments around the world, from Brazil to Germany to England, are currently studying it as they seek ways to offset the disastrous financial crisis. In fact, Seattle's just launched a movement rooted in the fundaments of GNH, which, it turns out, aren't about some paternalistic measure of happiness being foisted on you by the leaders. It's about well-being, balance. What good is making lots of money if you don't have time for your family, commute hours each day, or if the money comes at a cost to the environment?
So that's a bit of Bhutan 101 for you. Tomorrow I'll share with you the strangest and most wonderful bit of Bhutanese trivia that I've stumbled upon. It'll save you a pricey trip to the Kingdom, if you were thinking of making one, or enhance any trip you have taken
by Lisa Napoli, February 28, 2011 3:36 PM
Recent world events have shown the power of Facebook and Twitter to disrupt the status quo in places that needed disruption. As these technologies have been lauded as key tools in a revolution, I've been thinking about the power of an old-fashioned medium, one that seems almost retro in the face of the new, digital tools: radio.
That's because a chance encounter at a cocktail party a few years ago led me to a ringside seat to a quiet yet substantial change in the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, where I went to help at the start of the first youth-oriented radio station, Kuzoo, in early 2007.
The studio of Kuzoo FM, perhaps the only station in the world with a studio in...a former kitchen.
Just a few weeks before I arrived in this Himalayan nation that bills itself to tourists as the "last Shangri-La," the sitting king of Bhutan announced that he would abdicate the throne. His eldest son would rule in his stead, and prepare the country for its first democratic elections, to be held at a date to be determined by the royal astrologers.
A bumper sticker in advance of the first democratic elections, held in 2008.
A constitution had been in the works for several years, it seemed, and in it was a guarantee that press would be free. Suddenly, the radio station I was headed to volunteer with while on leave from my job at Marketplace took on a different cast.
Three copies of the Constitution of Bhutan, signed by the King and newly elected Parliament shortly after those first elections in 2008.
New newspapers cropped up to challenge the long-standing mainstay publication, the Kuensel Newspaper. Political parties formed and candidates stepped forward, and all the while Bhutan's citizens protested that they didn't trust themselves to elect a parliament. (Still, nearly 80% of them showed up at the polls.)
There are now seven newspapers published in the Kingdom, some of them daily.
Not since the King had allowed television and Internet in ten years before had there been such energy and excitement in this long-sequestered country improbably wedged between India and Nepal and Tibet.
Now, a tiny, mostly peaceful kingdom in the Himalayas led by a man generally adored by his people bears pretty much no resemblance to the situations that have gripped us in the Middle East of late. But given the situations in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, it's interesting to consider what's gone on in Bhutan, and how media were seen as key tools in making democracy work. Certainly for me, as a journalist watching meaningful coverage from the news profession shrink each day and our governments go unchecked, it did.
A lama consecrated Bhutan's newest and now seventh radio station, Radio Wave, which launched in October, and gave the inaugural broadcast.
I'll be back tomorrow to talk more about it. If you've got any questions feel free to send them to me at [email protected] And if you'd like to check out the first 30 pages of Radio Shangri-La, here you go.
Thanks to Powell's for having me here, and thanks for