Unparalleled Armenian Television: ‘Janapar’—The Road Less Traveled

The 'Janapar' Travel-Food-Discovery-Reality-Ecotourism Series Premiered This Fall on Armenia’s Public TV

Picture breathtaking, sweeping views of Armenia. Visualize panoramic landscapes of an historic place populated for more than 6,000 years. Imagine drone camera footage, a bird’s-eye view of the country’s diverse and colorful geography, its mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes.

Buckle your seat belts now. You’re about to journey to parts of a homeland that have never been this comprehensively filmed before. Your front-row seat to an unparalleled, first-person audio-visual experience is right in your living room or office.

“Janapar” («Ճանապարհ»/“Road”) is an engaging documentary series on Public Television of Armenia (Graphic: Armenian Public TV)

Point and click your way to the Public Television of Armenia website or YouTube to enjoy a new series called “Janapar” («Ճանապարհ»/“Road”). It’s an engaging documentary series captured by multiple body-mounted, handheld, and stabilized cameras. Turn up the volume to hear her ancient, salt-of-the-earth people, the villagers, her farmers, and her youth.

 

Multi-Platform Content for Millennials

The “Janapar travel-food-discovery-reality-ecotourism television series premiered this fall on Armenia’s “First Channel.” Many fans say it’s by far the best reality television show produced in Armenia to date.

Roffi’s journey captured the amazing and diverse natural beauty of mountainous Armenia; here he is climbing toward Gogi Lake on the border with Nakhichevan (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

The inception of “Janapar” was prompted when its protagonist, an American Armenian, found himself in an existential angst many first, second, or third generation diasporans are bound to confront. Like thousands of other immigrants and refugees or the progeny of displaced peoples, the 35-year-old, blond, blue-eyed star of the show confronted the mystery for the archetypical, often-hyphenated diasporan. He wanted to know what it meant to be an Armenian. He wondered how others connected with the homeland decades or hundreds of years after they or their ancestors emigrated or were forced to leave.

Before heading to his ancestors’ birthplace from his native U.S. state of Washington, Roffi Petrossian had always pondered how to explain the origins of his name to others. He wondered how a diasporan could teach his or her children to be Armenian and feel like an Armenian? He wanted to know what it was like to live in that place, experience its modern civilization, taste its foods, and get to know the land and its people.

“I originally came to Armenia to see the country with my own eyes, to better my Armenian language skills, so that I can continue the traditions and culture,” said Roffi. He found himself wanting to tell the story of Armenia when he met new people in Seattle, but he heard himself repeating the stories he had been told by relatives, who themselves had not been to Armenia.

“The catalyst was going to an Armenian wedding in California and realizing I could not understand what people were saying. I couldn’t be part of the dinner-table conversation. I saw wedding traditions that I didn’t know existed,” he said. The wedding celebration made him wonder what else he didn’t know about his people and his ancestry. The experience prompted him to think about traveling to Armenia and getting involved somehow.

 

Birthright Armenia

A few months after his “aha” moment at the wedding he attended in Glendale, Roffi was on the ground in Yerevan, courtesy of Depi Hayk, Birthright Armenia. Depi Hayk is a volunteer organization, created by Edele Hovnanian, that offers part or full travel reimbursements for those of Armenian descent who are at least 21 years old. The amount of reimbursement is between 50 to 100 percent, depending on how long a participant volunteers in Armenia.

With his map and tent always by his side, Roffi checks his day’s route for the upcoming hike (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

“I purchased a one-way ticket, not with the intent to stay permanently but to have the freedom to go back when I was ready, or my money ran out,” said Roffi. “After one year of volunteering, I wasn’t ready to go back. Luckily, I found work straightaway as the chief gardener at the Boghossian Garden in Yerevan.” Known as Lovers’ Park, the 18th century park had been left in disrepair and was renovated and reopened in 2008, thanks to Swiss-Armenian philanthropist Albert Boghossian and Armenia Fund, the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund.

After Roffi started his job at Lovers’ Park, he was also tapped to be a development adviser to the Clean Energy and Water Program, administered by USAID, the U.S. agency responsible for distributing aid money to foreign countries. “I was also Chief Gardener at Nairian Cosmetics, at which point I was working nights managing the indoor rock climbing gym, Boulder Town.

Spelling Roffi, Explained By His Mom:

“The reason your dad and I named you Roffi was that you were born when the first movie from the Rocky film franchise was released. We enjoyed it so much that we thought about the strength of that name. We decided the Armenian name Roffi was so close we’d name you Roffi, but spelled it R-O-F-F-I rather than R-A-F-I. We didn’t want you to go through school with Americans pronouncing it wrong, emphasizing the ‘ah’ sound.”

 

Media Celebrity

“Back in the States, I was a horticulturalist and a gardener. I never dreamt of performing or being a media personality,” said the star of “Janapar.” “In all honesty, I shy away from the spotlight, from attention, and to this day I always feel a certain performance anxiety whenever I have to go in front of the camera.”

Roffi said he has been working since he was 16 and has done everything from waiting tables to tending bar and even telemarketing. He earned his bachelor’s degree in design and technology and worked as manager of videography for a consumer-research firm. He was tasked to work alongside anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists to understand people’s food-purchasing habits. Those years of travel around the U.S. filming interviews and making short documentaries for clients paid off when he landed in Armenia.

As Roffi ventured from border to border, he ventured into the extremes—from dry barren to verdant green (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

After the global financial meltdown, Roffi lost his job at the consumer research firm. It was then he decided to return to school to earn a second degree in environmental horticulture. Contacts he made at his university lead him to a job in his new field.

“I did landscape design for the city of Seattle, designing and building rain gardens, special gardens using a mix of special soil, and plants adapted to tolerate both extreme wet and dry soil,” he said. “I designed systems that redirected rainwater that would normally fall onto impermeable surface to the garden, so that it can slowly infiltrate the soil profile and not overwhelm the water treatment facilities during periods of heavy rain.”

The star of “Janapar” never imagined he would become a coveted celebrity when he decided to repatriate to his ancestral homeland. His journey toward stardom began slowly when he started hosting a show called “Homesick at Home” on the Van radio station.

“I started doing some voiceovers in English, here in Yerevan,” said Roffi. “Someone heard me speaking and said I had a great voice. So, I was recorded reading translated Armenian books for an international audience.”

Roffi laces up his traditional Armenian trekh shoes, a replica of the recently discovered “oldest one-piece leather shoe in the world” (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

Soon, Roffi found himself doing commercials on the radio and on television. Dozens of organizations and agencies tapped his voice and his image for their media and advertising campaigns. He said he was gardening at Lovers’ Park during the day and shooting commercials and films at nights and weekends.

“One day at the Sharm Holding studio, a casting director saw me standing in the hall and asked me to act as Jesus for an upcoming show,” he said. “From there, another casting agent at another studio saw me, and so on and so forth.”

 

On the Road with Roffi

Roffi’s avocation soon became his vocation when he decided he would commit fulltime to shooting a documentary exploring Armenia with Bars Media founder and filmmaker Vardan Hovhannisyan.

“Armenia is approachable, warm, inviting, genetically and culturally homogenous, and yet naturally diverse and rich,” said Roffi. “There was no better way to show Armenia than to get out of the capital and roam around through the countryside.”

Cameraman-director Hrayr Sargsyan and cameraman Khachatur Chobanyan took turns as part of the rotating production crew that filmed Roffi throughout his journey (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

Janapar” is a work of art and a work of love, a collaboration between Roffi, Bars Media, and Public Television of Armenia (Հ1).

“In May of 2016, Vardan and I sat down to discuss the filming of me walking through Armenia,” said Roffi. “We waited for confirmation from H1 and started filming last June.” He said he hopes his new series will make Armenia-natives, Hayastantsis, proud of their country, and “to make Spyurkahays (diasporans) want to visit. And to make everyone else aware of the country and the natural beauty, both of the people, culture, and land.”

Roffi walked on dirt roads, through fields, climbed mountains and met Armenia’s salt-of-the-earth people, who opened their homes to him. Roffi said meeting people of Armenia was the best part of the journey. (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

Roffi, a rotating crew of 3 producers, 3 directors, and 12 cameramen shot the first 12-episode season of the show through late October. As Roffi walked from the republic’s southernmost border to its northern, he and his crew had a support vehicle in case of emergency.

Producers in Yerevan kept abreast of his travels and contacted villages and cities he traveled through ahead of his arrival. Roffi and his team spent a night in a villager’s home every 10 days to recharge their batteries, record Roffi’s narration of the footage, and upload their work to Bars Media in Yerevan.

 

Behind the Scenes

The biggest takeaways from his journey around Armenia were about people’s generosity and the feeling of belonging. “I often felt like a long-lost relative who finally came home,” Roffi said. “Everyone wanted to talk with me, sit down with me, share a story over food and drink. Everyone wanted to help however they could. This kind of generosity is something that I’ve only found in Armenia, even though I’ve traveled and lived in England, Canada, Australia, Norway, and all of Western Europe.”

Footage for the show was recorded by cameramen following Roffi, as well as personal cameras mounted on Roffi’s body to capture more candid shots (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

Roffi remembers his time in Kalar, a small village in the southern Syunik region. “I stumbled into a hidden and faraway village with no plans. I was greeted by the entire village. They were all telling me how to climb the tallest mountain in the region, even though each of their directions to the same mountain were different.”

Two young men from the village drove Roffi to the peak, where they collected edible herbs before returning home to eat homemade cheese, fresh greens, and tea. “We sat in their humble village home, laughing, joking,” he said. “Then I fed their pigs and took selfies with the family.”

As he continued on from Syunik, the family he broke bread with sent him text messages, asking about his wellbeing and how much of his journey north had he completed. “To this day, we still talk,” he said.

Roffi overlooking a valley after reaching the highest peak of the hot dry, southern region of Armenia (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

“I think the most difficult aspect was the fact that I always had a camera filming me for four months,” he said. “Physically, it was no problem. I’m relatively young and healthy. I’ve been hiking and camping all my life, and I have no problem sleeping on the floor or eating bread all day. But emotionally sharing every moment and being surrounded by people all the time, that was different, draining.”

Roffi said he’s a private person and seeks alone time. Midway through the shoot, he and his team took time off for rest and recuperation. The break during his border-to-border walk also meant he could spend time with his future wife, a woman he met and fell in love with in Armenia.

 

Family Reaction

Roffi said his father is proud of what he’s doing here in Armenia, how he repatriated with no connections and no family, and how he has not just survived but thrived. “I know he would love to be in Armenia too,” he said.

These women living in the mountains outside of a village for the summer herding season taught Roffi how to make bread in the underground oven called a tonir. They also offered him fresh-made cheese to eat with the bread. (Photo courtesy of Roffi Petrossian)

Roffi’s mother is also proud, he said. “She loves seeing what I’m posting on Facebook. She follows my adventures online. I don’t think it matters for either of them that it is in Armenia or anywhere else. They are proud of my accomplishments, happy to see me happy, even if it means being far away from them.”

Petrossian Family History Explained by Roffi:

“My father is full Armenian, born and raised in Tehran, Iran. At the age of 18, he moved to Seattle, Washington, to attend university. He held a number of jobs to pay his way through school, studied engineering, and began a career in the aerospace industry.

“My mother has British and French roots. She grew up in Virginia. Her father was an insurance salesman who quit everything to move the entire family out to Washington state, build a farm, and live off the land. My parents met in university. My mother learned Armenian for my father, and after they were married my father brought his entire family from Iran to America. There were 10 of us living in one house, only speaking Armenian.

“There is a very small Armenian community in Seattle that my father helped in bringing together in the 1970s. They met once a month at the agoump, the clubhouse, in a rental building near the city of Bellevue. I did not go to Armenian school, but I always knew I was Armenian. I identified as Armenian, but I was clearly an American and really too different to fit into either.

“My grandma would walk me to elementary school holding my hand. My lunch would be dolma and rice. It was nothing the other kids wanted to trade. And all I wanted was to be like them and eat a non-nutritious, store-bought Lunchable. I would come home to my grandma’s home-cooked macarone. My family would drink coffee and read fortunes from the dried grounds collecting at the bottom of the cup.

“At Armenian barbecues, newcomers would ask who the blonde-haired blue-eyed kid was; I stood out. It was this dichotomy, these differences that always made me appreciate the strange, the misunderstood, and to treat all with respect, and to live with a constant sense of curiosity.

“But I think these differences were difficult for my family, the old world and the new. My mother was a progressive American woman, with a poster of Rosie the Riveter on her wall. She worked like my father, and the expectations everyone had of what happy families look like were never met.

“After years of arguing behind closed doors, my parents divorced. My father moved to England, and I went with him, having just graduated from high school. My brother, who is two years younger than me, stayed with my mother near Seattle. That was the end of childhood and adolescence. I’ve been on my own for the most part, since then.”

The Road Less Traveled

Roffi Petrosian, the modern-day adventurer, said the hardest moments in shooting the series were as he was close to the border and getting ready to film the last shots of his journey: “I knew I was close to finishing, close to being free. The seconds just kept ticking away, and I knew I had to film that one last shot. That was the hardest moment.”

For each 30-minute episode, the team shot about 15 hours of raw video, which included interviews Roffi conducted with people he met on his way through the countryside or in villages where he stayed.

Roffi’s narration came from journals he kept in English. The first airing of the series is in Armenian with English subtitles, but the team is preparing an English version for mass distribution.

Watch Part I of “Janapar” below.

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Connect with Roffi and Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @RoffiRoadTVshow and @dohaPAUL

 

 

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Paul Chaderjian

Paul Chaderjian is a broadcast journalist at Al Jazeera. He has worked for ABC News in New York, at the ABC station in Hawaii, and at the NBC, CBS, and FOX affiliates in Fresno. He may be reached via Twitter @dohaPAUL.
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6 Comments

  1. “Nakhantsely” How wonderful, challenging and beautiful. Even though my age may not permit me to indulge myself in such a challenging expedition in our own country, nevertheless, Roffi and his kind of young people from the Diaspora will give the right message to the Diasporans that we have a beautiful country, beautiful and very hospitable people and worth visiting her and encourage visiting others to visit. Good work Roffi and the team.

  2. Armenia to Western Diaspora: Visit for a while. Never criticize the oligarchy. Don’t ask too many questions. Travel around a bit. Enjoy the country’s sights and sounds. Build on your nostalgia and leave.

    • What nostalgia? The Diaspora Armenians remember the century old Armenian Genocide (1915-1923), Adana Massacre (1909). and Hamidian Massacres (1894-1896), don’t see it as a happy memory. In the century old genocide, the Western realms of our ancestral homeland were looted, historical landmarks deliberately destroyed, and a whole people obliterated to perish in unmarked graves.

      The survivors made homes in distant host countries, with little but true grit to make themselves again wealthy, after all material things were taken away. Now, they come back to see what it see the untarnished cultural landmarks of the homeland (unlike what has happened in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia (notice that Iran isn’t on the list).

      So, maybe I fear that neighboring Turks and Azeris will try to exploit its weakened Armenia, when the people bicker among themselves; maybe, I fear that economic impoverishment can be a tool for Turkish and Azeri internet propaganda; and maybe, I want Armenia to be more unified like it was during the Karabakh War (1988-1994). I know that Armenia has serious problems with their economy, and political infrastructure.

      There are problems with Armenia’s political infrastructure; fine, just remember that the most dangerous enemies are right across the borders, in Azerbaijan and Turkey. And, remember the historical circumstances that led to Armenia’s current situation, as a landlocked country.

  3. I was blown away by Part 1 of “Janabar”. although I have been to Armenia and Artsakh three times (the last in 2004) I have never seen such breathtaking countryside firsthand like Roffi can walking all the way! The hospitality of the people he meets reminds me of many such visits I had with strangers. You are never a stranger in Armenia!!! I hope to see the next episodes of Roffi’s journey. He is doing a great service by spreading the word about our people, culture and country. Bravo Roffi!!!

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