Ar-Mania (part 4) — The Unlucky Sheep and Lots of Water

I walked out of my apartment on a recent Sunday morning and noticed three teenage girls approaching me. They were giggling and seemed to be sharing an inside joke. As we got closer, they suddenly veered toward me and splashed me with water from bottles they were carrying. Then, they started laughing like crazy and walked away.

What the hell???

Actually I knew exactly what was going on. Today was Vardavar, a big holiday in Armenia where kids (and adults) douse each other with water all day long.

I was looking for gangs of kids with buckets, so the girls caught me off guard with their non-descript water bottles. Luckily, I had wrapped my phone and wallet in a Ziploc bag before heading out that day just in case. This precaution seemed like overkill because I honestly didn’t think I’d be a target. I was wrong.

The Vardavar tradition goes back centuries to pagan times. It originally celebrated Astghik, the goddess of water. Now, it’s just a good excuse to throw water around on a hot summer day.

Coincidentally, I had planned to go visit the Temple of Garni this day. This ancient temple was built about 1,800 years ago. What I didn’t put together until we got there was that Vardavar is a pagan holiday, and we were heading to the most famous pagan temple in Armenia.

That made Garni a hotbed for Vardavar activity. This become clear as we walked down the only road leading to the Garni temple. We saw a gauntlet of kids with buckets. How to get through? As we stood contemplating our options, a shiny BMW came down the road. This target caused a frenzy among the kids, and provided a perfect distraction that allowed us to sneak by and stay dry.

When we got to the temple it was a free-for-all. A nearby stream provided a constant supply of muddy water. We took refuge on the steps of the temple and watched the action below.

Suddenly, though, we were shooed off the temple steps. It seemed like they were getting ready for some event. The next thing I see is a wheelbarrow carrying a sheep with its legs tied and a pretty red bow around its neck.

This doesn’t look good. Then a guy appears on the steps of the temple with a long robe, a big knife and some fire. I realize things are looking worse for the sheep.

Of course, this is a modern pagan ceremony, so there’s a guy with a camcorder getting all the action.

Then they head down to the sheep.

Eventually, the crowd blocked my view, and that was fine by me.

But I did see the knife come up with some blood on it.

Then, the blood was smeared on a girl’s cheek.

Then were was some chanting and more fire.

I have no idea what this ceremony was all about, but once it was over, I was no longer safe from the water warriors. I tried several strategies to minimize my chances of getting doused:

  • First, I tried to follow behind another good target and let the kids exhaust their water supplies on them.
  • The element of surprise seems to be a big part of the attack, so I tried to make eye contact as much as possible.
  • If it looked like they were still heading for me, I offered a stern “che, che” (no, no)

But these tactics only worked part of the time. Being 6’4”, it seemed like I represented a target that was too big to ignore.

It was a wet bus ride home, but I eventually dried out. Of course, I got nailed a couple more times on the walk back to my apartment, including water from windows above.

After I got back to my apartment, I suddenly realized I had:

  • A balcony that overlooked one of the busiest streets in Yerevan
  • A tree that provided great cover
  • And a big bucket

I hesitated for a minute. Am I that petty and immature that I need to get some revenge? Absolutely.

I only targeted kids who were already wet and armed with buckets. All innocent pedestrians were spared.

And I have to admit it was a blast. To be able to pour a bucket of water on unsuspecting people and have them just start laughing is a great experience… especially when they looked up and saw that it came from an American-looking “grown-up.”

That seemed to get them laughing even harder.

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In case you don’t know, I’m in Armenia because I’m doing a fellowship with Kiva.org (a person-to-person lending website).  If you’ve never made a loan before, there’s a great promotion going on. Thanks to an anonymous donor, you can make a $25 loan, and it’s totally free. Here’s the link:

http://www.kiva.org/invitedby/ward7057

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Ar-mania (part 3) — Homemade Vodka and Snipers: Life on the Border

Although I’m living in Yerevan (the capital city), I get to travel around Armenia meeting with borrowers as part of my work with Kiva.org. These visits definitely take me way off the tourist track.

A recent trip took me to the northeast corner of Armenia — one of the poorest sections of the country. Besides the poverty, they also have to worry about things like sniper’s bullets — but more about that later.

I started out by meeting with the staff of the local branch of Kiva’s partner.

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As you can see, I was dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt… trying to look like the American professional. But I soon learned I was overdressed for the occasion. One of my jobs is to get video and photos of Kiva borrowers, so here I am following a farmer up a hill as he feeds his livestock.

Then I was climbing into the stall as a farmer cleaned out the cow manure.

As we drove around the region, it seemed totally rural, but then suddenly we came across a hulking, shutdown factory.

When Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, factories like this were opened up around the country to employ nearby residents. The size of the gates on this one gives you some idea how big these places were.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did demand for the production from these plants. Now they sit idle, and most residents try to make a living off the land.

This farm I visited had three generations all working together.

Despite some tough living conditions, I was still welcomed with traditional Armenian hospitality… coffee, sweets, and my first taste of homemade vodka.

I think this bottle keeps getting refilled as the new supply of vodka comes along. The farmer showed me the still where it all comes from.

As you can see, it’s a pretty basic operation. They put in whatever fruit is lying on the ground, and out comes the vodka.

I managed to get my shot of vodka down in one gulp, but it wasn’t easy. They offered me a glass of tan, a local drink made out of salty-sour yogurt, to wash it down. I’d already tried tan before and would rather have taken another shot of the vodka.

This visit also took me very close to the border with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s neighbor to the east. In fact, my cell phone kept picking up the Azerbaijan cell phone signal.

Most of the view from this local farm is actually Azerbaijan territory.

The problem is that the entire border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been closed for about 20 years. These neighboring countries are at odds over a disputed territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh. I’m not going to try to explain all the history, but suffice it to say that things remain very tense on the border. And it doesn’t seem like this dispute is going to be resolved anytime soon. Just a month ago, eight soldiers were killed in a battle between Armenian and Azerbaijan troops.

The dangers hit home when we got to one farm. After we parked, the farmer came running up and motioned to park further down the road alongside some trees.

There had been some recent sniper shooting from across the border, and he thought our car would make an easy target if we left it out in the open.

Uh-huh. Let’s make this a quick visit.

But I have to say these farmers are resourceful. One had turned this bombed-out building into a stable for his livestock.

 

 

 

 

If you don’t mind the bullet holes, it’s a great place to store hay.

That’s all for now. My next post involves a very unlucky sheep and lots and lots of water.

By the way, Kiva.org has got a great promotion going on right now if you’ve never made a loan before. Thanks to an anonymous donor, you can make a $25 loan, and it’s totally free. Here’s the link:

http://www.kiva.org/invitedby/ward7057

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Ar-mania (part 2) — Home Sweet Home

One of my first tasks after arriving in Armenia was finding a place to live for the summer. I’d been told there were a lot of furnished apartments in Yerevan (the capital city), so I wasn’t too worried. The tough part was deciding how authentic an Armenian experience I wanted.

Here’s the first place I looked at…

Rundown apartment blocks like this are an unfortunate remnant of Armenia’s time in the Soviet Union. As I approached the building, I had a feeling this was a little too authentic for me. Here’s the unlit entry way…

This photo really needs to be scratch-n-sniff for you to get the full effect. Also, you need to imagine a dozen flies buzzing around.  The inside of the apartment was definitely nicer than the outside, but still just a little too Soviet. The most unique feature was something that looked like a glass aquarium (minus the fish) above the bathtub.

[This was the picture the popped up when I Googled “tank above shower”]

Apparently you’re supposed to fill it, then turn on the heater. 30 minutes later you can take a hot shower. Thanks but no thanks.

So the other end of the housing spectrum are the new apartment buildings that dot the city, but these seemed more like Yere-Vegas than Yerevan.

There are plenty of places that put the “noveau” in “nouveau riche.” Check out the gold windows on this bad boy.

As much as I imagine myself an oligarch-wannabe, I decided I wanted a place with more character. Luckily, there’s a compromise. There are older buildings, built in the 1940’s, that have character but are solid.

I checked out a few places and found one that’s actually renovated on the inside with fairly standard furniture.

Compare this to some of the more Soviet furniture options I saw in other places.

But my place still has character. I’ve got my own dark entryway (minus the smell and flies).

And check out the broken window on the outside of my landing.

And all the broken window frames piled on the inside of the landing.

My landlord seemed very proud of the wallpaper in the bedroom. It had little inlaid stars but I didn’t see the big deal.

Until I turned out the lights the first night.

My camera’s not good enough to do this justice. The stars are glow-in-the-dark, covering the walls and ceiling. So I’ve got my own indoor Milky Way every night.

And then there’s my special shelf full of ceramic figurines. Hard to say which is my favorite.

My place is right on Mashtots Avenue, the widest boulevard in the city. So I had a great view of the Flag Day parade.

I kept wondering why they were chanting “High-yes-tahn” over and over again… until some clued me in that “Hayastan”means “Armenia” in Armenian.

Although the apartment has been renovated, it still has it quirks. I couldn’t get the stove or oven to work. The landlord kept telling me he was working on it. Finally, he admitted that the gas was never hooked up to the apartment. Good thing I’m not a big cook.

Then, there’s the washing situation. I cannot figure out how to get the Russian-made washer to do a load of laundry in anything less than 2 hours.

Only 1 hour and 48 minutes to go…

And there’s no dryer, so it’s off to the communal clothesline in the courtyard. This is a lot harder than it looks, but I finally got everything on there.

I managed to drop two clothespins and one pair of boxers into the courtyard below. Rookie mistake.

The guys who play cards in the courtyard every day seemed bemused by my efforts.

I get the feeling that real men in Armenia don’t do their own laundry.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of “Ar-mania” where I head out into the country. Highlights include tasting truly homemade vodka and being warned about snipers.

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Ar-Mania — My adventures in Armenia (part 1)

Welcome to the first post of “Ar-mania: My adventures in Armenia.”

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I’m spending the summer in Armenia as part of a fellowship with Kiva.org. I’ll be blogging about micro-finance on the official Kiva website, so this blog is more about my personal travel experiences and observations in Armenia.

[Full disclosure: I’ve always thought bloggers were self-absorbed egotists, but this seemed like the easiest way to keep family and friends updated.]

When I found out in late April that I would be assigned to Armenia for the summer, I had heard of the country, but frankly knew nothing about it…. so here is a quick primer on my temporary home.

I quickly learned that Armenia has had a turbulent and sometimes tragic history, but through it all, Armenians have maintained a strong cultural identity. Armenia has been an independent country since 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart.

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About 3 million people live in Armenia, and they speak Armenian. It’s a unique language with its own alphabet. About 8 million people of Armenian heritage live outside Armenia. They’re known as the “diaspora,” and they have a big impact on Armenia even though they don’t live here.

Armenia is a relatively small geographically – about the size of Maryland. It’s a landlocked country, bordered by Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran.

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Some famous Armenians include:

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Cher (who was born Cherylin Sarkissian).

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Financier Kirk Kerkorian

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Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian

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And (unfortunately) Kim Kardashian

Here’s a hint – if someone’s last name ends in “ian” or “yan,” there’s a good chance they’re Armenian.

I was surprised to learn that Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion – way back in 301 AD.

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Armenia is also world famous for its apricots, and I’m lucky because they’re just coming into season.

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Ok. Ok. Enough random facts about Armenia…. This blog is about me in Armenia. Stay tuned for the next post where I navigate the local real estate market and look for an apartment.

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