Jean-Christophe Rufin: Walking your way to happiness – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Two thousand people packed the ASB theatre at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday to hear Jean-Christophe Rufin (co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and former French Ambassador to Senegal) talk about walking.

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Jean-Christophe Rufin, Image supplied

He loped on stage – tall, slim and packed to the gills with a kind of laconic Gallic charm. They are rare these men, but I have met one or two in my life, and what distinguishes them is their seamless fusion of Science and the Arts. When praised for his phenomenal CV he shrugged and said:

I am a doctor who writes, that is all.

Being the French Ambassador in Senegal is a bit like being the Queen in the British Isles. When his three year ambassadorial stint in Senegal ended, he found himself without all the trappings of a very high profile job. He had a reduced social status, no social calender, no servants and no idea what to do next. His life seemed to have become very pared down. In a fit of pique he thought to himself, so I will pare it right down. I will walk. I will walk a long way. I will walk the Santiago de Compostela. And you should try never to have that thought he said, because once you do it is like a virus, it will never let you go, you are entirely at its mercy.

The Santiago PilgrimageBut first you must pack your bag. That backpack will be your world. At the start everyone has huge bags. The weight of the bag represents your fear. Some people pack several raincoats. They are afraid of rain. Some people pack much water. They are afraid of thirst. What you pack in your bag will tell you a lot about yourself. When asked what he was afraid of on the walk, he jokingly replied – the snores of my fellow travellers.

But, one week from the end of the Pilgrimage, when he met up with his wife (they wanted to walk the last part together), he looked at their two bags. Hers was massive – packed full of beauty products and accessories. His was tiny. He had walked off his fears.

What do people talk about when they meet up as pilgrims on the Compostela? There are three main questions that get asked:

  • Where did you start The Way?
  • When did you start?
  • And most importantly: How are your feet? You meet people, and you love them, and it all starts with the feet.

That is all. No one ever asks: Who are you? What do you do? These questions are superfluous on the Pilgrimage. But sore feet will be lifted on to the table and viewed by all, like they were the maps of the soul.

And of course, he shrugged, he would love us to read his book – The Santiago Pilgrimage.

But he is adamant. You can gain no real benefit from reading about walking the Santiago. You have to do it. One painful step at a time, until you fall in love with the world again, and you find that you are happy.

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