Jean Béliveau's 11 years on the road

Jean Béliveau has spent the last 11 years walking around the world for peace, and now he is back in Canada to complete the final 5,400 kilometres.
Jean Béliveau walks down a highway near Lujan, Argentina, on March 10, 2003. He has been walking for more than a decade. ((Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo))

In July 2003, Jean Béliveau woke up in a South African jail, which he'd entered of his own accord to get a good night's sleep.

The Swellendam police chief had let the Quebec man stay overnight, but now the guards on the morning shift wouldn't let him out. They wouldn't listen to his claims of innocence or his story about walking around the world. 

Béliveau had walked 21,000 kilometres by then. 

"I'm not a prisoner," he yelled. "I'm the Canadian guy walking around the world. Come, please. It's time to go. I'm ready to go."

Finally, another inmate — an actual criminal — joined in the shouting, and the guards came to investigate. Soon, they were apologizing to Béliveau and sending him on his way. His long, long way.

For 11 years, Béliveau has been walking around the world, trying to draw attention to children who suffer violence. His walk coincided with a UN initiative that began in 2000 and ended last month, but he still has much of Canada to cross.

Béliveau pushes a three-wheeled stroller that carries little more than a tent, sleeping bag, First Aid kit, food and a journal. Nothing in the way of high-tech gadgets or GPS. Just some maps, to go with the advice he picks up along the route.

64 countries, 4 Nobel laureates

Béliveau meets Nelson Mandela in Durban, South Africa, on Oct. 14, 2003. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize told him, "The world needs people like you." ((WWWalk Foundation))
He has covered 76,000 kilometres, worn out 49 pairs of shoes, passed through 64 countries on six continents, slept in hotels, churches, jails and the homes of thousands of strangers.

He has danced and sung with children in Malaysia and met four Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Nelson Mandela in Durban, South Africa. That brief October 2003 meeting was one of the most memorable moments of Béliveau's years on foot.

"It was very short," Béliveau recalled. "He said, 'The world needs people like you.' [They] were very great, inspiring words to give a good push."

Béliveau set out from Montreal. He walked down the eastern side of the United States and the western side of South America, flew to South Africa, and from there walked north along the eastern coast of the continent, then west across the top. 

After flying over Libya when he couldn't get a visa, he headed north from Morocco into Europe, reaching England in 2006. As winter approached, he dropped his plan to cross Russia and headed to the Middle East instead.

He forged on through India, up through China and, in August 2008, into South Korea. Next, came the Philippines, Malaysia and Australia. At the end of 2010, he was walking in New Zealand. 

Now, he's in Canada. On Jan. 30, the intrepid traveller landed in Vancouver to complete the final leg of his journey. His wife, who hadn't seen him in more than a year, was at the airport, along with a live band and a handful of supporters.

"It was amazing … strange, surreal a bit," Béliveau said of the encounter. "This is a great, great moment."

'I couldn't stop the idea'

Béliveau and his three-wheeled buggy go through the Atacama Desert, on the western coast of South America, in 2005. ((Glenn Arcos Molina))
Béliveau says the idea of the trip came to him in November 1999 as he walked across the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal. He was suffering a mid-life crisis and had recently sold his neon-sign business. 

He needed a change. On a world map, he marked out a rough route, estimating it would take him 10 years, with no trips home. Next he started training, at first walking, then running, and felt his spirits rise. 

"I think my depression was over, it was done," he said. "I had the dream now, the plan of life in front of me. I couldn't stop the idea."

The hardest part was telling his wife, Luce Archambault, which he did less than a month before his start date of Aug. 18, 2000, his 45th birthday. She got behind the adventure.

"I was lucky, I'm still lucky, to have Luce," he said. "She's the one who kept the guy on the road. "

Archambault helps organize the trip from home, maintains a website devoted to the walk and, most important, provides emotional support.

She and Béliveau have seen each other once a year since he started out, meeting along the route for three weeks in winter. Those vacations have been his only extended rest. For the most part, he's walked 30 kilometres a day.

While he was away

A lot can happen in 10 years, he says. He became a grandfather twice and lost his father in 2006 while in Belgium. He met his first granddaughter that same year during a family reunion in Germany but has yet to meet his second.

Béliveau has a supply of uplifting anecdotes about the kindness of strangers, the constant offers of hospitality, including food and shelter. He received dental work in Egypt and Australia, a pair of glasses in India and emergency surgery in Algeria — all for free. 

He has also encountered his fair share of challenges, including a feeling of isolation that nearly ended his trip in 2004. He was walking through Ethiopia, surrounded by children, but couldn't find a way to communicate. The children could only mimic his offer of  "Hello."

The many cultural differences he had encountered along the way, and the loneliness, became too much. He describes it as "accumulated culture shock" and says he couldn't go on. "Maybe I was saturated."

Béliveau and his wife, Luce Archambault, spend time together in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 15, 2009. The couple's once-a-year reunions were his only extended breaks from the walk. ((WWWalk Foundation))
A phone call from Archambault changed his mind and put him on the road again. But the low point in Ethiopia served as a valuable lesson that would keep him going for the next seven years. 

He decided to try harder to engage with the people he met and to soak up as much of their culture as possible. He also made a more concerted effort to learn languages.

"We should develop a big sense of tolerance, open minds, we should learn [from other cultures]," he said.

Béliveau managed to learn English, Spanish and Portuguese and has a nearly unending supply of ways to say "Hello, how are you?" — which he says goes a long way with strangers.

Escorted by soldiers

Security was a problem in a handful of places. He required a police escort in nine countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Macedonia.

In the Philippines, he was accompanied by at least 30 soldiers - all with large bandoliers of ammunition strapped across their chests. He wondered if it was right to accept offers of security.

"I don't know if I can use the word shame, [but] I'm walking for peace," he said.  "Imagine the image: the guy walking for peace, with the army around."

Béliveau is trying to raise awareness about children, not money for a particular charity, although a few organizations along the way have joined him for local fundraisers.

On Jan. 6, 2007, he reached the 40,000-kilometre mark — roughly the circumference of the Earth at the Equator — in Rakoczifalva, Hungary. Around 300 townspeople turned out to raise money for a children's charity. A similar drive occurred in Manila, Philippines, but this time more than 1,000 showed up. 

Just 5,400 km to go

Béliveau and Archambault have created the WWWalk Foundation so they can keep working for children around the world after he gets home.

But there's still a lot of country to cross. On Feb. 20, Béliveau will lace up his 50th pair of shoes and start the eight-month journey to Montreal. He expects to finish the 5,400-kilometre stretch in mid-October.

Béliveau is greeted by a live band, his wife and supporters after landing in Vancouver on Jan. 30. He will start the 5,400-kilometre walk to Montreal on Feb. 20. ((Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press))
In the meantime, he is curious to see if Canada is the way he remembers it, and if Canadians are as accommodating as others he's met around the world.

"If in through the Rockies, the Canadians don't keep me warm, I will tell them the Australians and Kiwis were much better than you," he joked.

Remembering his first weeks walking through the U.S., Béliveau says he didn't do enough planning. He packed the barest of essentials into his buggy and left home with only the rough map of the route he'd created months earlier.

But he made it work, and it didn't take long to get into the rhythm of constant change. He says anyone considering a similar adventure should know that the first step is the most difficult.

"Just go, make your first steps," he said. "You will build your way on the road."

A map of Béliveau's 11-year journey.