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 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.


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, 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:

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

  1. rhroutjr says:

    Yowza! I think this dispatch alone would serve your crisis hotline very well! I wouldn’t call myself a jingoist by any stretch but this seems like it could be enough to make almost anyone living in the US feel like things might not be quite as bad as they may seem.

    Is that steam/smoke coming from the old factory? If a bombed-out house can serve as a stable, I have to assume that structure is being put to some use.

    This is fantastically eye-opening stuff, Ward! (And I’ve seen some eye-opening stuff!)

  2. Keep your head down, Ward. And when that sniper fire comes, remember one word: serpentine.

  3. Pingback: Armenian Vodka | Notes of a Spurkahye

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