Tag Archives: radio shangri-la

Bhutan, Tex-Mex style: Himalayas cast a wide net in El Paso

Prayer wheel behind UTEP's Centennial Museum

Prayer wheel behind UTEP’s Centennial Museum

This morning around dawn, on Veteran’s Day, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of the fourth King of Bhutan, I turned an authentic Bhutanese prayer wheel in an unlikely place: on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso.

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not Bhutan

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not the Himalayas.

The entire school is built in the distinctive style of the Kingdom’s architecture.   If that wasn’t strange enough, the connection dates back to 1914, long before anyone from Texas could have imagined stepping foot in Bhutan (since the tiny country wasn’t officially open to outsiders until the 1970s.)

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby.  At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around El Paso

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby. At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around town.

I’ve written about this surreal connection in my book, Radio Shangri-la, and before on this blog, so I won’t detail the interesting history here, but my fascination with this bizarre and wonderful bit of pre-globalization globalization never ends.  This week, I’m on the campus of UTEP to speak to a number of classes and to deliver a talk at the museum tomorrow night at 5pm.

Here are some photos (and if you’d like to see some videos, please click here.)  The first one below is of an authentic Bhutanese temple that was constructed on the National Mall in DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2008, and was recently “re-incarnated” here on the campus in El Paso.  Surrounded by dozens of examples of the Tex-Mex interpretation of Bhutan’s architecture.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC.  It's being readied for public view in UTEP's plaza.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC. It’s being readied for public view in UTEP’s plaza, which as you can see is under renovation.

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

IMG_4239And if you share my fascination with all of this and would like to know more, there’s also this short story available on Amazon.

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My personal year-in-review (is less about me than others)

photoAs so many of us are contemplating what we want out of the new year that’s dawning, I found myself making a list of what I managed to get accomplished over the last year, which happened to be my 50th.

While I didn’t do anything that by conventional standards was notable or headline-worthy (no bestsellers, no blockbuster deals, no gorgeous bouncing babies, house purchases, etc.) I was happy to see, in review, that it’s been productive–and more importantly, productive in a way that helps other people, my own personal mandate.

(Note: Only one of the things on this list involves making money.  Also note: This list is not in any particular order.)

Women of the DWC bake for their coffeeshop

Women of the DWC bake for their coffeeshop

1. The cooking group I lead at the Downtown Women’s Center (for women in need) helped them win a $25k grant from the Halo Foundation. We can’t solve homelessness by making dinner for people in need, but we can feel a part of our community and provide a healthy meal for those who don’t have access to what most of us take for granted.  Even better that we stoked their coffers, too.

2. I researched and spearheaded a movement that led to a rent abatement for over 100 of our neighbors due to the loss of our beloved swimming pool and other services here on my beloved Bunker Hill.  (I also managed to keep swimming, elsewhere.)

3. Working with another neighbor, we managed to clean up a deteriorating area of our community and involve/alert local officials, as well as draw media attention to the problem.

4. I’ve been working with Bhutanese refugees to help them with their all-volunteer media service that chronicles their resettlement around the world, a fascinating experience for me and important work for them.  Very interesting counterpoint to what I encountered while in Bhutan volunteering at a radio station there.

Academy of our Lady of Peace goes to Bhutan

Academy of our Lady of Peace examines Shangri-La

5. Of all the interesting places where I am fortunate to be asked to talk about the themes in my book, Radio Shangri-La, an all-girls Catholic school in San Diego and a gathering of hundreds of youth at the Kroc Peace Center were two highlights.  Love talking to kids.

6. I interviewed Deepak Chopra and his brother Dr. Sanjiv in front of 500 people at an Episcopalian church.

7. I interviewed Michaela Haas, the author of a compelling book about female Buddhist spiritual leaders, at a meditation center.

Vince at the gleaming Marlins stadium

Vince at the gleaming Marlins stadium

8. Along with my brother and boyfriend, we wrangled my parents and elderly aunt to a baseball game (a dream of theirs to see the new stadium in Miami.)  Later in the summer, we corralled my boyfriend’s infirm mother for a fun outing that involved ice cream and “freaking unbelievable hamburgers.”  Seeing her laugh was worth the entire trip.

9. I’ve read a lot, lot, lot, partially for my research on my Joan Kroc book but partially just because, which makes me happy especially when I hear people complain they don’t have time to read; I feel lucky that I do make time for this.

10. My part-time paying job, at KCRW, allows me to meet and talk with incredibly interesting people doing incredibly interesting things, usually having to do with art, usually mostly underfunded and otherwise unpublicized. Being able to share those conversations with the radio-listening and Web-viewing public is an honor and a delight.  It’s a rewarding (to me) application of my media background–which I resolved to put to better use after my book sold and allowed me to “retire” from daily news back in 2008.

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The power of media: All-volunteer Bhutan News Service, run virtually, keeps refugees up on the diaspora

The all-volunteer Bhutan News Service is hosting a training session in Pittsburgh this weekend.  Exiles from Bhutan make up the largest population of refugee newcomers to that city, so it’s a logical location.


About 83-thousand refugees, resettled from camps along the Nepali border in a dispute that dates back over 20 years, are scattered around the world, but the majority (70-thousand) have been brought to the US in the last several years.

BNS is an online-only concern, with contributors sending in reports from around the world.  (Its current editor, Buddha Mani Dhakal, resides in Kentucky.)  The idea is to keep the refugees connected as they’ve been resettled, both with news of what’s happening inside Bhutan, as democracy takes root there–and with information about what the refugees are facing as they build new lives.  Suicide, for one thing, is high among the relocated refugees.

Of course, the information exiled Bhutanese are most interested in is whether officials in Bhutan will engage in discussions to resettle them in-country, or to even acknowledge their existence.  (Most Bhutanese dispute that the people in question were ever actually citizens.)  That kind of news is rare.

ImageImageSince I first went to Bhutan to volunteer with the first non-governmental radio station Kuzoo FM in January 2007, I’ve slowly unearthed the previously little-told story of the southern Bhutanese.   Just as I felt privileged to volunteer with young journalists at the dawn of democratic rule in Bhutan, (as the media landscape was just beginning and a newly drafted Constitution guaranteed freedom of the press,) I feel lucky to be in touch with the refugee population, too.

Today, in a session we held via Skype, I had the curious responsibility of explaining to the group (from my home in Los Angeles) what media are like today in modern Bhutan.  See, many of the younger contributors to BNS have never set foot in the country–they were born in refugee camps.  None of the constituency has been there since long before 1999, when TV was first introduced into Bhutan. I felt an awesome weight on my shoulders, for having witnessed and experienced what I have as a third party.

After 30 years in journalism, I’m often cynical about the state of the profession.  But knowing this group of people, who take the incredible responsibility of informing the world about their situation and using media as a glue to hold them together, makes me feel the incredible power of communication.  I believe that power will yield some sort of resolution to this long-standing dispute, hopefully sooner rather than later–as Bhutan changes, as the world changes, as we all change.


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The power of books and reading

2013-09-29-Bhutan1aI love libraries. I use them all the time.  A young friend last week saw the library book in my hand and kind of sniffed at it, as if it were weird.

But he hasn’t been to a place where books are rare.  He can buy books whenever he wants on his iPad.  And even if you’re like him, I hope you’ll consider the power of libraries, too.

Like a supermarket, a community’s library tells you a lot about a place.  One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had was visiting a READ Global library in Ura, Bhutan–the first library built outside the nation’s capital city, 11 hours from it, in fact.  Kids in this beautiful farming village drank up the library from the moment the doors of the creaky converted farmhouse opened.  One boy told me proudly that he had a small stack of books of his own. They all couldn’t wait to show me their favorite books.

Somehow my infectiousness for the place trickled over to a little girl named Claire, who subsequently helped raise enough money to build another library there.

Here’s the story about her wonderful feat, from adventurer and explorer Richard Bangs on the Huffington Post.

You don’t need to raise enough money to build an entire library.  And the library you support doesn’t have to be half a world away.  But I share this in the hopes you’ll be inspired, like Claire was, to share the power of books and reading.

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Not about happiness

ImageWhat’s this, you might ask? The newly elected prime minister in Bhutan, the articulate, social-media-sophisticate and Harvard-educated Tshering Tobgay, has already declared that he doesn’t see it as his job to promote the Gross National Happiness thing to the rest of the world.

The recently exited last prime minister made a big show of the happiness discussion, appearing at the United Nations and other places to discuss the benefits of Gross National Happiness.  (Which, by the way, was simply a term bandied in an offhanded remark by the then-Kingsome 40-odd years ago in response to a reporter’s question about his planned economic growth strategy.)  He was roundly criticized by educated Bhutanese for doing so, while economic and social problems swirled and grew around him.

This seeming shift isn’t really a surprise.  This new prime minister has long decried the shiny, happy thing (see the paperback edition of my book, actually, where we meet during his service as opposition leader) and realizes there are other deeper issues in Bhutan to be addressed.

Many intellectuals in and around Bhutan hate the “happiness” thing.  (Less educated people there aren’t really aware of it; they’re too busy tending the land and surviving.)  One reason some snipe at my 2011 book, Radio Shangri-La, is because they assume from the title that it’s all about celebrating Bhutan and tra-la-la happiness.   (When in fact if they bothered to read it, they’d learn that it’s all about how media and globalization–and the promise of making piles of money–are making Bhutan unhappy.  Which is why some other people dislike the book!)

Of course the irony is that media headlines (like book titles) reduce complex issues to slogans and soundbites–which is another theme I tackle.)

Tshering Tobgay is to Bhutan like Barack Obama was to the US back in 2008, a powerful and thoughtful steward of promise and change. It’s going to be exciting, these next five years, to see how he tackles issues like rising unemployment, alcoholism and corruption, among other problems that Bhutan sadly faces along with most of the rest of the world.

And maybe, just maybe, he’ll even address the refugee issue….

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Travel to Bhutan with us: March, 2014

Travel to Bhutan with us: March, 2014

Champaca Journeys’ John Leupold is an experienced tour operator who has been co-leading trips to Bhutan with his ‘man-on-the-ground’ Dorji Khandup for years now.

I’m honored that they’ve asked me to partner with them on a “Radio Shangri-La tour of Bhutan.”

Want to join us? Click on the photo for more information, or write to me and I’ll send you the itinerary.

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NY Times: “Bhutan is no Shangri-La”

A strong piece today in the NY Times op-ed section today about Bhutan’s refugee situation will bring widespread attention to an issue I write about in Radio Shangri-la that’s been ongoing for over 20 years. 

I’ve tried hard to get mainstream media to write about or talk about the refugees, particularly as they’ve resettled in the US, and particularly as debates have swirled in this country over immigration*, but to no avail.

To be sure, it’s a complex issue and my hope has long been that as the refugees integrate into US culture (as they have by the tens of thousands in the last few years) and their stories get heard that Bhutan will at the least open up a dialogue.

 *The issue stems back to a time when there were more porous borders around Bhutan and people of Nepali origin were brought in to help built modern Bhutan.  As their numbers grew, fears grew that Bhutan’s cultural heritage (not to mention control of Bhutan by “pure” Bhutanese) would dissolve.  Please refer to the final chapter of the paperback edition of Radio Shangri-La, Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth and Hutt’s Unbecoming Citizens for more thoughtful distillations of the situation.

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A humble request from the author

Thanks to the good folks at fefifolios, I’ve got a spiffed up website.  

Since I’m in spring makeover mode and as I immerse myself in a new book project, I have a request.

If you’re a fan of Radio Shangri-La, would you consider writing a brief review on Amazon?  I’ve never asked before, but with the Bhutanese elections fast approaching on April 23d, it seems like time to freshen up the reviews, too.




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“Just walk into that cloud:” Books and films about Bhutan

ImageI’m not eager to advance the clock, but I do hope when I’m a very old woman, Radio Shangri-la will still pique the interest of people curious about the birth of the information age in Bhutan.

Since we’ve got time for that: Here’s a new story on the website Popmatters that rounds up books and films about Bhutan–some of the usual suspects, and some that aren’t.  I’m honored to be included.

And of course you can find more in the bibliography of Radio Shangri-La, which I’ve got posted online.  Lots of self-published tomes on the “land of happiness” have appeared since my book came out two years ago.  A couple other books by established publishers, too.  Before recently, there wasn’t a huge body of work about the Kingdom–and much of it was very, very old.

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Radio Shangri-La now out in #Korea

Radio Shangri-La now out in #Korea

Released today by Sui Books. I’m told the literal translation of the title is “Happy Radio.”

My publisher says the Koreans are as eager to learn about happiness as anyone. Of course, this book is about finding happiness within yourself, with a dollop of adventure. It’s also, mostly, about how media impacts our happiness…

This marks the country in which RSL has been released in addition to the US: Brazil, the Netherlands, New Zealand, India, China and Germany.

Thanks for your support!

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