Vardavar

Last Sunday was Vardavar, aka my new favorite festival. It’s been celebrated in Armenia since before Christianity was declared the state religion in 301 A.D. I don’t know when it started originally, but that puts it at a minimum of 1700 years ago which is kind of insane.

Pre-outside dryness. Me, Arin, and Ruth

Back in the country’s pagan days, Armenians were sun worshippers. Originally, the Vardavar festival was dedicated to the goddess Astghik. For those of you familiar with Greek/Roman mythology, her closest equivalent would be Aphrodite/Venus. She was the goddess of fertility, love, beauty, and water, and the legends said that she brought love to Armenia by sprinkling the land with rose water. To celebrate her, people would release doves and sprinkle water on each other for good luck.

Like so many other things, after the country became Christian, the tradition remained, and the reason was modified to fit the new state religion. Now, it’s celebrated 14 weeks after Easter and is a celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ, when Jesus became divinely radiant on top of a mountain, was joined by the prophets Moses and Elijah, and was claimed by God as His Beloved Son. Don’t ask me what connection that has to people dumping water on each other’s heads… Some say that it’s a celebration of the end of the flood from the days of Noah which seems to make more sense considering the water connection, but either way, it was an attempt to fit new beliefs into old traditions.

Ruth, creeping on unsuspecting passersby

It’s celebrated all over Armenia, and I joined the fun in Yerevan. I’ve heard that things get pretty crazy in the villages too, so I’ll have to check that out if I’m ever in Armenia for Vardavar again. Yerevan, especially in the central part of the city, turns into a bit of a water war zone. Don’t even think about leaving your house if you’re not prepared to get wet! It seemed like, outside of the city center at least, people were a bit more discriminating when it came to picking victims. Older people, people with kids, and people clearly not interested in getting wet were mostly left alone from what I saw. As soon as you look like you’re participating in the festivities, though, you’re a target (though even there,  I had people considerately ask me if my phone case was waterproof and if they could get me wet. Super nice!).

Craziness. Note the fire truck

The fountains in the city are the main war zones, which makes sense because that’s where it’s easiest to refill your bucket/bottle/water gun/etc. I spent the day with my friends Arin and Ruth, and we decided to meet up with some other volunteers who were planning to go to Republic Square (the fountain where there’s the nightly light/water/music show). First though, we spent a little time chucking water out of Arin’s window at innocent passersby (but only the ones that we deemed acceptable targets). If he was in a location with more foot traffic, I would have just said that we should stay there all day. It was hilarious! But no, we had to leave to get the full experience.

Refills from our new best friend

For our makeshift buckets, we cut the tops off of some big water jugs and then filled them up and hit the road. Ruth and I literally got one foot out the door of the apartment building before we were spotted by a bucket-wielding group of guys, and like I said, as soon as you’re holding a bucket, you’re a target. We managed to dodge the worst of it but also threw away all of our water in the first 15 seconds of being outside. Luckily, we passed a man soon after who waved us over and refilled us from a secret water supply. Back in business.

I felt like a spy walking down the street. You couldn’t trust anyone! I started to perfect the technique of walking past someone, letting them think they were safe, and turning around to drench them from behind. Once we got to Republic Square, it was a whole different game. There was a fire truck spraying people with the fire hose. Arin and I decided to just go for it and jump into the fountain because getting completely soaked was inevitable, and when else were we going to get the chance to go into that fountain? We hung out there for a bit before deciding to hit the streets again in the hope of finding some still dry people to attack. Okay, that sounds bad, but that’s the way it works!

My main emotion for the entire day

We passed some parents holding their babies up under those misters that some restaurants have. I thought that was hilarious. Baby Vardavar!

I started perfecting my water dumping technique… I would creep up behind people and pour just a little bit of water down the backs of their necks. It made everyone jump, and then they’d whip around, see me, and give me the “yeah, you got me” laugh and shrug. I thought it was perfect because I wasn’t trying to make anyone mad, and who can get mad about just a little water like that?

Swan Lake chaos with gross brown water

We stayed far away from Swan Lake, one of the other big pools in the city center. Apparently things get kind of violent and especially not fun for girls, so I wasn’t really interested in finding that out for myself. Some of our friends came out with unpleasant stories which is too bad… it stinks when people take a fun, innocent thing and make it into something else. I was just content to roam around and gently pour water on people.

After some time in the streets, we decided to head back to Republic Square because it was much easier to refill our buckets with a fountain in the vicinity. I stuck with my same strategy of sneaking up behind people and pouring water down their necks, but I started doing it with a full bucket. I perfected the dump-and-turn technique. It’s a protective strategy because sometimes after you gently pour water on someone (males especially), they choose to retaliate by throwing water knives at you (my made-up terminology for “whipping water as hard as possible in an attempt to make it hurt”). Another case of people trying to ruin a fun thing. I was happy to have Arin and a couple other guys with us who could yell at people in Armenian if they were getting too aggressive.

I luckily had a waterproof case for my phone, so I didn’t have to worry about keeping it dry. That case is seriously the best thing I own.

Proof that we were in the fountain!

Loving life

Post-fun drenched

For the last hour or so of our time outside, we found ourselves a quiet corner of the fountain and mostly battled with little kids who, like us, were just trying to dump water on people and have some fun.

All in all, the day was super fun. A couple days later, I found out that I got an eye infection probably from the water getting trapped behind my contacts, so that’s good. Souvenirs from Vardavar! No regrets! Except maybe my one regret of not taking out and throwing away my contacts right after. Live and learn, I guess.

Khor Virap

Sarah looking awkward in the metro

Sarah and I are basically public transportation pros now. We’re all about economical travel which means things are never easy or straightforward and always weird and memorable. The goal of the day was to make it to Khor Virap, a monastery about 30km south of Yerevan. The trek started with a walk from our apartment to Republic Square (the central square in the city) to catch the metro.

The metro here was built when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. Cities with at least 1 million residents were granted a subway, so even though a population of that size wasn’t in the original plan for Yerevan, the quota was reached, and a subway was built. There’s only one metro line and the route is kind of random, but if you’re starting and ending somewhere close to the line, it’s actually very nice. The stations are way cleaner than any other subway I’ve ever been in. A ride costs 100 drams (about 20 cents), and to pay your fare, you buy these little plastic tokens that look like someone cut them out of a sheet of plastic using safety scissors.

The ride back to Yerevan. Spot the Sarah.

Our metro ride was uneventful, and we made it to the bus station quickly and without any trouble. The next part of the trip was taking a marshrutka (that’s the Russian word for it… I’m sure there’s an Armenian word too, but this is the one that I’ve heard used) which is basically the exact same thing as tro tros in Ghana and combis in Peru. They’re minibuses that (generally) look like they’ve seen MANY better days, and everyone packs in like sardines. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with a strong need for personal space.

It was easy enough finding the right one to take. I let Sarah think that my Armenian reading skills were really good, but actually the sign also said “Khor Virap” in Latin letters too. Shh, don’t give away my secrets. Actually though, I can read at least well enough to make sure we’re going the right way. I didn’t realize how big of a help that was going to be.

The bus left exactly on schedule which impressed me. Is “Armenian time” just an excuse that people use in the States to justify being late, but it’s actually not a thing in Armenia? Or maybe the public transportation is just on point here. I’ll have to get back to you on this.

Khor Virap from afar

We made it to Khor Virap in maybe 40 minutes, and the driver took us all the way to the parking lot even though the route is supposed to leave you off about 1.5 km away. That was fine with me! He saved us 20 minutes of walking each way, and we used that time for extra adventures. The first stop though, obviously, was the monastery. There are two reasons why this monastery is extra cool. Reason #1: you get an awesome view of Mount Ararat. Reason #2: legend has it that St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned by the king for 13 years in a “dungeon” (aka a creepy underground room or a “khor virap” – a “deep well”) in the monastery. He was left there to die and was even forgotten by the king, but he was fed and kept alive by a woman from a neighboring village (I’ve heard this a couple ways though… one is that it was one woman under the influence of a strange dream that compelled her to bring him food. The other is that it was a few Christian women who secretly fed him. The length of the imprisonment also seems to be up for a bit of debate with some sources saying it was only 13 months, not years, but we’ll go with years because that’s a better story).

Sarah looking excited about coming down the ladder into some random hole. Why does one monastery need so many holes?

The random hole, purpose unknown (by me, that is. I’m sure someone knows).

The ladder out of the imprisonment hole. It smelled nice and musty down there, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Surp Astvatsatsin Church in Khor Virap

Eventually St. Gregory was freed when the king went mad, and his sister had a dream that St. Gregory could cure him. And that is how this story goes from being just about St. Gregory to being the story of how Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity the state religion in 301 A.D. If you know any Armenians, then you know how proud everyone is of that fact, which by association makes Khor Virap kind of a big deal. Wow. Sorry, that story ended up being much longer than planned (and I cut out a LOT of details, trust me). Anyway, the takeaway from this is that Armenian legends are great, and who knows what’s true and what’s not quite. I’m going to count them all as completely factual because that’s way more fun.

Check out that view! Hi, Mount Ararat!

Us with Gervorg

After exploring all of the nooks and crannies of Khor Virap, we still had some time before our return bus. We headed out on a pilgrimage to a statue of Gevorg Chaush, a guy who I think would be best described as a freedom fighter (correct me if I’m wrong). We thought it was funny that there’s a statue of him basically in the middle of nowhere, so we made the trek out to give him a little company.

Thankfully, we made it back just in time to catch the bus which was, once again, EXACTLY on time. Incredible. We got back to Yerevan and spent some time at the Armenian History Museum. Here’s the quick summary: The Armenians have been around for practically forever (they say that there’s been a geographical region called Armenia for 2600 years). There’s a LOT of history to go through. You can see the oldest shoe in the world that’s dated back to about 3500 BC (that’s even older than the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the ice man). If you go, you should do the tour because there’s so much to look at, and if you try to understand it all on your own, your head will explode. Even with the tour, your head might explode. Sarah and I are filled with a whole lot of Armenian history knowledge now.

The Armenian History Museum. Apparently it was used as an orphanage at one point.

We also visited Vernissage, a big souvenir market, and went back to Republic Square at night to see the fountain music/light show. I won’t say too much about that except that it’s awesome. And then we came home and passed out.

Vernissage from across the street

Roaming Vernissage

Fountain music/light show!

So cool!