Last updated on March 5, 2023
The Nepali New Year dawned bright and early during my third week of living in the small village of Pharping, Nepal. Amrit, the charming man running our guesthouse, invited the volunteers staying at the guesthouse to celebrate the New Year with his family. The plan was to hike a nearby hill for views over the Kathmandu Valley, and once there we should share in revelry and food. My cousin and I were both teaching at local monasteries, (and I’ve been documenting the details in a Nepal Travel Guide if you’re planning a trip); both of our monasteries were closed for the New Year festivities. Without Amrit’s invitation, we would have been just four lost souls living in a fishbowl. Heh. Or rather, four painfully obvious foreigners wandering on the periphery of the familial New Year festivities taking place all over Nepal.
Instead, Amrit, Carna (the guesthouse’s cook), and a team of Amrit’s Nepali family members descended on the guesthouse kitchen. They took the day’s task seriously and the family spent hours cooking a small feast. Amrit handed us a slapped-together breakfast and shooed us from the guesthouse just as the spicy scents of our picnic lunch wafted through the rooftop patio. Amrit wanted us gone until the hike, so he handed over a hand-drawn map of the path up the hillside to the huge picnic area overlooking the Valley.
We set off on the walk and were soon met by Amrit’s younger cousin who indicated that he would lead us through the dry rice paddies and up the steep hillside. About a quarter of the way up the hill, I freaked out and turned around. Breakfast was just a piece of small fruit and with my serious hypoglycemia, I wasn’t doing well. I hadn’t planned my food intake for a strenuous 45 minute vertical hike. It’s not the first time I’ve had to abort situations because of my blood sugar, but I was disappointed that I would miss the gathering.
Luck prevailed, however. I was halfway to the guesthouse when Amrit pulled up on the motorcycle to zoom me up the dirt pathway that snakes upward to the topmost monastery on the hill.
Once everyone was settled, Carna dished up the freshly cooked food. And being a holiday, the food was different from the usual. For the first time ever, Amrit ate a meal that didn’t include dal bhat! Our meal consisted of puffed and pounded rice, lightly curried veggies, potatoes, a pav bhaji type mix of crunchy toppings, and an ice-cold beer in a tiny plastic cup. Dal bhat is the main food staple here in Nepal, and people throughout the country eat this lentil and rice dish usually twice a day. It’s hearty and affordable, although the tastiness depends on the cook.
The food was tasty, but our luck didn’t hold. The overcast sky unleashed its fury in a sudden downpour that sent us all huddling beneath thin covering provided by an anemic outcropping of tall trees. After minutes of standing and wondering about a next move, Amrit led our group further up the hill. The rain changed to a light drizzle so we decided to seek shelter at the large hillside monastery, hoping to escape the full downpour moving toward us. We made it to the entrance gate of the monastery before another 10-minute downpour trapped 30 of the picnickers under a small awning.
One Nepali guy saved the day by pulling out his guitar. He serenaded our group with an eclectic mix of highly weather appropriate English songs like Have you Seen the Rain, as well as and patriotic Nepali songs, like Nepali Ho by 1974 A.D. My fellow volunteers and I latched on to the Nepali Ho song—which translates as “I am Nepali”—with a devotion that was only overshadowed by the passionate belting put forth from every single Nepali person in the vicinity. They deeply, deeply love this patriotic song. The locals joined the guitar strummer by shouted the chorus and finishing with an emphatic, “Nepali ho!.“
In the fun way of travel, this song would become a bonding experience and a trump card when we bargained the locals selling wares in Thamel and Pokhara. If they wouldn’t lower the price, or if my Nepali language skills started to falter, my cousin and I would bust into the chorus of this fiercely patriotic song. We would be sure to put a lot of passion and conviction to the end, where we would pronounce to the vendor—and the entire street—our inner “Nepali-ness.” And it worked! They ate it up and always joined in for the chorus. Their demeanor would often change, they’d invite us to share a chai tea, and they’d give us an “expat” discount.
The rain eventually lifted and our ragtag group left the shelter of the monastery to rejoin the main group. For all the weeks we lived in Nepal, my cousin and I were both committed to improving our Nepali. It’s a fairly easy language to learn when using the Roman Alphabet and I was obsessed with becoming proficient. One phrase my monks had helped me assemble was a rough guess, but I wanted to try it out on Amrit, who had a great sense of humor. Even so, we took him by surprise by busting out with the phrase tapaai:laai pagal ho. Pagal is a Nepali word with many different meanings, apparently. Urmila, our Nepali language teacher in Kathmandu, indicated that we could use this phrase to tell a friend that they were being silly. The monks confirmed this was a general meaning.
Amrit was floored when we told him what we thought translated as “you are silly.” He processed the phrase and then keeled over in uncontrollable laughter. Although pagal can mean silly in some circumstances, it actually means crazy/mad/insane. When I told Amrit, tapaai:laai pagal ho, he heard “You are going insane.” Or in Amrit lingo, he translated it as, “You are going to the mad.” This little video clip is Amrit’s reaction to our little display of Nepali language ignorance:
All in all, it was fun. We didn’t let the rain stop us from having a pretty rocking time, and it was an intriguing way to celebrate the Nepali New Year. Unlike the way we ring in the New Year in the U.S., this was a family day. There were no fireworks nor partying, and beyond our picnic lunch, the day was chill and relaxed. It centered on spending quality time with friends and family. At least, that was the way of things in our neck of the woods, a small village an hour outside of Kathmandu. There was talk that the Kumari (more on her here) made one of her 13 yearly appearances in the courtyards around Durbar Square. We were away from all that madness however, and enjoying the isolation of our remote valley town.