Losar is the Tibetan New Year, and is ushered in on a Friday night with the whole family gathering for Thukpa, a thick noodle soup with meat, vegetables, dried cheese, and a total of nine traditional ingredients. We slurp it from our bowls without spoons, until each of us reaches the one large dumpling that has been served with each of our bowls. Each dumpling has a different ingredient in the center that is supposed to represent something about your character. We bite them open, and take stock of each others’ fortunes. My Pala has salt in the center of his, signifying laziness. My Amala gets a tuft of cotton; she is pure at heart. My Popola (grandpa) has a chili (he has a foul-mouth). They cannot wait to see what I will bite into. An onion?…Everyone dies laughing. Apparently it means I fart a lot. Oh traveler’s diarrhea!
To keep with tradition we all save a few teaspoons of thukpa in the bottom of our bowls. This we pour into an offering tray that has been assembled out of kapsa (fried dough) and stacked log-house style. My Amala tears a ball of raw dough off and has us roll it all over our bodies to remove the aches and pains of the year. Then we rip a string from the hem of our clothes and press it with a thumb into the dough ball. This gets added to the offering with our cold soup. My Amala scatters a trail of flour down the hall and lights a broom on fire. She chases my Pala, who runs with the offering down the hall and out into the street where he will place it at a three-way crossroads. Back in the house we pour mugs of rice chang and prepare the altar. We line up bowls of dried fruit and nuts, hang garlands of dried cheese. There are pots of live barely sprouts, apples, even boxes of mango juicy juice. Fifteen days following the New Year, all the food on the altar will be carried into the street and given to beggars.
Saturday is the first official day of Losar. We begin the day with a breakfast of hot chang: rice beer mixed with fruit, nuts, and dried cheese into porridge. It tastes like a cross between oatmeal and wine. After eating, families from other floors of our apartment building carry offerings of sampa (toasted barely flour) and chang (rice beer) up the steps. We were expected to pinch the flour and caste it over our shoulder three times, take three drinks from the cup of change. Pinch, sip. Pinch, sip.
As the visitors taperoff my Amala dresses me up in one of her traditional chupas: a lavender-colored silk shirt and the heavy, tapestry-like dress with golden thread woven into the fibers. She braids colored tassels into my pigtails and then presents me to the family. All dressed in our finest, we parade through the dirt streets of Kathmandu to my Pala’s monastery where he teaches English to monks… walking over road-killed monkeys, dodging motorcycles. My Amala chortles with delight at seeing me in her chupa. I felt like a spectacle as we pass other Tibetan families, those on their rounds to the monasteries.
In the main room of my Pala’s monastery, we offer katas (traditional white scarves) to the Buddha and fruit and crackers we have brought. My host family prostrates on the floor and the lama of the monastery, blesses us and knots red thread around our necks as we bow at his feet. Downstairs in the monks’ mess hall, we are served cookies and foil plates of sweet rice with dried fruit and nuts kneaded into it. We sip cha narmo (sweet tea with milk) and then walk Kora, circumambulating the monastery in a clockwise direction before heading home.
In the evening the entire apartment building spills out into the little concrete courtyard with the spray-painted graffiti, “Born to be wild! Free Tibet!” One of the men brings down a traditional Tibetan guitar and another, a solar-powered bulb that we hook to the wall. Thunking out a simple tune, all the women and men still dressed for Losar, form a circle and start dancing. They knot arms and the air fills with the trilling sound of traditional songs, flipflops and sneakers scuffing across the concrete. The dance step itself is a complicated rhythmic shuffle, with ragdoll swaying arm movements. An old Tibetan grandpa pulls me into the circle and I move with them, stumbling awkwardly under the stars. After two hours of traditional songs, one of the young men brings out his speakers and starts playing Hindi music and western hip-hop music. Everyone is laughing like crazy as all the Tibetan grandparents join in and bust dance moves to Rhianna and Lady Gaga. Happy Losar!