PARIS (Reuters) - Two years ago, Raimundo Querido worked in a bank in a poor Paris suburb. Now he earns a living jumping off roofs, climbing up towering walls and somersaulting into flowerbeds.
Starring in commercials or working as a stunt double for cinema actors, the 26-year-old has become a celebrity in the ethnically diverse housing estates north of Paris, hit by riots two years ago.
Querido and his stunt partner Daniel Girondeaud are “urban acrobats” who make a living from “Parkour” — “the art of moving” made popular by Frenchman David Belle more than a decade ago and now a widely practiced extreme sport worldwide.
Seeking a new challenge, the pair set off on Thursday to trace the over 6,000 km-long (4,000 mile-long) route of the Paris-Dakar car rally — but they will travel on foot.
The trip takes them through France and Spain, a hop across the sea to Morocco and then roughly down the west African coast. From the Senegalese capital Dakar they will then take a boat or plane to Querido’s birthplace on the nearby Cape Verde Islands.
“The message is that nothing is impossible, no matter where you’re coming from,” Querido said, adding he still found it hard to believe he had managed to convince local authorities and private firms to sponsor the trip.
“I not only wanted to do something for all those kids here who see me as an example,” he said, sitting on a wall in a black shirt and tracksuit trousers beneath towerblocks in the suburb of Gennevilliers, as Girondeaud jumped into a handstand.
“I also want to show the kids in Cape Verde that you can succeed.” Querido came to France at the age of 12.
Inspired by athletes, from prehistoric hunters to martial arts experts, Parkour is about getting from A to B as fast and directly as you can, using just physical strength and dexterity to overcome obstacles such as walls, buildings or fences.
In the 2006 remake of the film Casino Royale, James Bond played by Daniel Craig chases a terrorist played by a Parkour artist across a construction site. The sport has featured in numerous advertisements and video games.
Querido and his friends from the group “Adrenaline” first tried out tentative somersaults and jumps in the concrete maze of Gennevilliers’s housing towers, but now travel as far as Hong Kong and Chile to star in films and advertising clips.
Still, one reason the pair are heading on the trip is that despite his celebrity, Querido still feels discriminated against at castings.
“Many advertising agencies prefer a European type. They say it sells the product better. I’ve heard that five or six times. It’s very unnerving,” he said. That experience made him keen to take on an independent project.
Querido and Girondeaud plan to walk 50 km (30 miles) a day and reach the Cape Verde Islands by February. They might be tempted to somersault off the occasional dune but expect largely to walk straight ahead without too many acrobatics and will record the journey online at www.paris-dakar-a-pied.skyrock.com.
Unemployment and discrimination remain major problems for youngsters in Querido’s neighborhood, many of whom are descended from immigrants from north and west Africa. Unemployment in Paris suburbs often runs as high as 40 or 50 percent.
In 2005, youngsters angry about discrimination and unemployment burned thousands of cars in run-down districts outside big cities, and the issue of suburban violence recently returned to the headlines when shopkeepers were beaten up in their stores. One died.
But Querido and his friends say they do not want to be seen as the “kids from the rotten neighborhood”.
“Ever since the riots, we have heard so many stereotypes,” said Girondeaud, 27, now squatting on the wall and balancing his body weight on his hands. “One TV channel wanted to mix pictures of us with images of burning cars. It’s ridiculous.”
“Of course you see violence here, but people also lead normal lives,” Querido agreed.
During his election campaign earlier this year, President Nicolas Sarkozy promised more help for jobseekers in poor neighborhoods.
The law-and-order hardliner surprised many French by naming as secretary of state for towns Fadela Amara — an activist of Algerian origin who made her name as founder of an association for girls in the suburbs.
Another reason for the trip is for Querido to show his French stunt partner his birthplace.
“I know the country Daniel was born in. So now I want to show him mine,” Querido said.
Girondeaud said he was looking forward to the role reversal, although he was already used to being the odd one out in Gennevilliers.
“For 27 years, I have known what it’s like to be the only white kid on the block,” he said.