Emperor of the Universe
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The Man Who Spent 11 Years Walking Around The World
And The Woman Who Waited For Him To Return
On his 45th birthday, Quebec native Jean Béliveau went out for a walk. He crossed over Montreal's Jacque Cartier Bridge in Montreal, where he originally dreamed up the idea of escaping his life as a neon sign salesman nine months before, and kept going for 75,554 kilometers through 64 countries. He burned through 54 pairs of shoes but somehow managed to maintain his relationship with his wife, Luce, who stayed at home while Jean spent 11 years walking around the world. But when he returned to Canada, some criticized the walk as a self-indulgent escape from a midlife crisis since it wasn't done for a specific charity.
Seven months after returning home from what is believed to be the world's longest uninterrupted circumnavigation on foot, Béliveau is being courted by publishers who want the rights to his story. We caught up with Jean to find out more about his motivation for taking an 11-year walk, how he pulled it off without losing his wife and what he's up to now.
Why take a walk around the world?
Jean: I owned a small neon sign factory but when Quebec had a terrible ice storm in the winter of 1998, we lost power for weeks. We had to close the factory and then my wife had to move to Montreal for her job. I had a midlife crisis in the meantime. I began to sell neon signs but I wasn't making much money. I said, 'My God, what happened with my life? I'm throwing my life away.'
I felt like I was working just for money and giving my soul away, and for what? I ran over Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal one day and thought, 'I wonder how many days it would take to get to New York. And how many weeks or months or years to get to Mexico, South America, the rest of the world.'
What did your wife say when you told her you'd be buzzing off for a decade or so just three weeks before your departure?
Jean: She said, 'Will you be back on the way?' and I said 'No, but you enjoy travel, you can come if you want.' But she couldn't because she's a social worker and was working towards her retirement. Finally she said, 'Is it finished between us?' I took a big risk, she could have said, 'Go on your way, mate.' And she took a risk too. She said, 'I will support you, we'll try it.' She's the one – a great lady.
Luce: I asked why he didn't tell me about it sooner and he said 'If you have a very special dream, you better not talk about it to the people who love you, because they might try to convince you to abandon it.'
Had you traveled much before?
Jean: I never really traveled. I'd only been to Florida and Las Vegas.
Luce, you agreed to stick with him and help support him financially. Did your girlfriends and relatives think you were crazy?
Luce: Everybody said, 'He's leaving you and you'll have to do everything by yourself.' All my friends and relatives, especially the girls, said they wouldn't put up with this and they didn't know how I could stand it. They thought he was selfish.
How did you pay for this trip?
Jean: I took $4,000 Canadian, which was about $3,000 U.S. at that time. It wasn't enough, I knew that, but for me I had to escape. I had to go. I needed to make a big pilgrimage. To see who I was and where I was in life. I preferred to be eaten by the lions in African than by the society. I probably spent about $50,000 or so for the whole trip. Some people spend the same amount for a two-week trip.
Luce: I had to make some financial sacrifices to help support him along the way, but I was so taken with his project it didn't mean anything to me to go without some things.
How do you pack for a trip like this?
Jean: I had everything I needed in a three-wheeled stroller – a sleeping bag, tent, a pad, only a couple changes of clothing, a pillow, a First aid kid, some food and water.
How much ground does one need to cover to walk around the world in 11 years?
Jean: I averaged about 20 miles per day over 11 years, but I didn't walk every day. It took about six months to cross the U.S., about 8 months for Mexico and Central America. Then I had to skip Colombia because back in 2002 it was considered very dangerous. I spent almost two years walking through South America and then I ran out of money. I didn't want to call Luce and ask for her to pay for my flight to Africa. Eventually, a Brazilian guy offered to pay for my ticket to South Africa and the trip continued.
(Click here to see a video of his route)
Where did you sleep during this walk?
Jean: People invited me into their homes, they fed me, they phoned people 30-40 miles ahead to help me. Some people gave me money, brought me to the supermarket and filled my buggy with food. I stayed with about 1,600 families in 64 countries, but in general I'd say I spent roughly one-third with families, one-third camping and the rest being invited to sleep in churches, temples, mosques, schools and even prisons. I stayed with criminals, killers, extremists – all kinds of people.
How did you maintain the desire to keep walking? Didn't you want to go home at some point?
Jean: You're in a state of permanent culture shock. You get to the point where you become saturated; you can't even see the beauty. In 2004, I was in the middle of Africa somewhere and decided that I wanted to go home. I felt like I was a prisoner of my dream. I had to finish the walk. I felt like if I went back home I would fail because the spirit of the walk is just one shot, no going back. I sent Luce an email telling her I was too tired and I couldn't go further.
Luce: I told him I loved him but that everyone wanted him to continue, because if he cut his walk, it's like he didn't accomplish anything.
How did you maintain your marriage with him gone for 11 years? Didn't you feel jealous that he was out seeing the world while you were helping pay for his adventures?
Luce: I wasn't jealous, not at all. I started his website and answered all of his emails. I was writing newsletters for him. I couldn't have gone with him, I can't eat everything like he does and I would get fed up with staying in tents and other strange places. I enjoy my comfort too much. I visited him for a few weeks each year and we were like normal people on vacation. These were his little breaks from the walk.
How were you perceived on your walk? Did people think you were a beggar in some places?
Jean: In Europe and Japan a lot more people treated me like I was a homeless person or a beggar. You feel the rejection; you can tell it in people's eyes. I was someone apart from the society. I was in Latin America and Africa for about four years, where I was welcome. In Europe, people would back away from you. You say hello to people and they think you're crazy.
Were there moments of danger for you on the trip?
Jean: Not many. I was woken up by a puma in the night in Chile while I was in a sleeping bag, but thankfully it went away. I was almost robbed in South Africa. But there were so many more occasions where people were good to me. I needed prostate surgery in Oran, Algeria, but had no money. They said, 'Don't worry, we want to support you.' I was in the hospital for six days and they paid for everything. Even in Iran, they were amazing people. There's a difference between the regime there and the people. The people there are beautiful.
How did your feet hold up?
Jean: They were fine until I got to Iran. I walked in whatever shoes people gave me along the way, and someone gave me sandals in Iran. Those were terrible to walk in. I went through 54 pairs of shoes. Each year, Luce would take some pairs home with her, so we still have some of them.
What was the most physically demanding part of the trip?
Jean: I spent three months crossing the desert in North Australia. It was 45 degrees (Celsius). I was drinking 10-12 liters of water per day but it was brutal. It took eleven months to cross the whole country. But then I got lucky. I went to New Zealand next and Air New Zealand offered to fly me back to Vancouver and then I crossed Canada to get home to Montreal.
How did you avoid going crazy?
Jean: I did go crazy. You go deep in your own mind, you just have your imagination, you go far away in the universe, because you can't calibrate yourself with other people. Then when I'd see people, I'd be careful to talk to them to make sure I wasn't too far-gone, too crazy.
What was the homecoming like?
Luce: I met him on the last day and walked with him for about 12 kilometers and got tired so I had to take the metro home to rest. Later, I went to join him again when he was closer to home and there was a ceremony for him. And then the two of us walked the last 1.5 kilometers to our home, just the two of us. He was fine – he was full of adrenaline – not tired at all.
How did he transition back to home life?
Luce: The transition was hard for both of us. He kept leaving the doors of our condo unlocked and he had no idea where anything belonged. He got depressed after being home a few weeks.
Do you plan to ask Guinness to verify your walk as the longest on record?
Jean: No, but if someone else wants to submit it they can. I didn't do it to set a world record. There are totally unknown people who might have walked farther than me. There is a guru in India, he walks naked and with bare feet. He's probably walked 200,000 kilometers in his life, but just in India. In my walk, we can say it is the longest walk around the world without returning home in between.
You received some criticism in Canada after returning home. Some said your walk was self-indulgent.
Luce: We did read the negative comments. Those people would like to try something like this but don't have the guts to do it. Jean was in a situation where he could do it – our children were grown. We were not wealthy at all. All the free money I had was needed just to keep him on the road. The negative comments came only in Canada. Canadians are more critical; we don't appreciate people who do things. Look at Celine Dion; she wasn't appreciated here at all when she started.
What's next for you?
Jean: I'm writing a book. So far, we have offers from 16 publishers. Hopefully, it'll be out next year. I won't go back to selling neon signs. My past is another life. I'm on a new path now until I die. (Update: The book will be published by the Flammarion Group in February 2013.)
You've said that you did this walk for peace and for children, but you didn't raise money for any charitable cause. What do you think you accomplished?
Jean: You want to do something before you die. I figured I had maybe 30 more years on this planet and I wanted to do it. I think we helped raise awareness for peace but I left with a humble spirit. My goal is to learn not to teach. The walk was about everyone I met – people's humanity, their desire to explore the world. So many people supported me so it wasn't just my walk; it was theirs too.
I bet people will read the story you are doing and it will make an impact on their lives. Some people will decide to change their lives when they read this.