Tony van der Veer / Traveller: "Your self-belief grows when you step into the unknown."
It’s been said that the journey is what's important, not the getting there. That’s certainly true of the solo Amsterdam-to-Marrakech moped journey taken by filmmaker Tony van der Veer. A journey of unexpected moments, tears and personal insights. "The biggest step was making sure I didn't let fear get in the way."
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Does the spirit of adventure run in the family? For me it does. My father lived in Thailand before I was born, which sounded exciting to me as a kid, and my parents built two houses almost completely on their own. I remember spending weekends at the summerhouse during one particular period. I wasn’t always thrilled to be away, as it meant missing football, but those weekends were definitely an adventure. Fishing at the lake, catching salamanders, building huts with my dad.
Can you tell us about your childhood? Where did you grow up? I was born in The Hague, but moved to a small town called Sassenheim when I was seven and lived there till my 21st. I worked one or two days a week at my parents’ business, a natural stone supply company. I led a pretty pampered life; I was allowed long lie-ins on Saturdays, and was always given pocket money when heading out. My friends, on the other hand, had to work 15 to 20 hours a week at a supermarket or warehouse.
So your parents are both entrepreneurs. What were they like as people, and how do you think they shaped you? My parents had a huge role in making me who I am, but they also gave me lots of freedom for self-discovery. They created the basis of my self-confidence. I still talk to them about almost everything in my life. I consider them very good friends and reliable sources of support.
How would people have described you as a child? Quiet, serious, sweet and smart. I didn’t really have my troublesome teens, and I might only now be experiencing some of that.
Your career in film begins in 2007, first as runner, before working your way up to assistant director. Why film? I see film as a means to tell stories, and stories as vehicles for entertaining people and enriching their lives. I love the energy on film sets, the excitement, the euphoria, the team spirit, new locations and the balance between control and letting go that creating a film requires. These are the ingredients that get me back on set time after time.
You’re also an actor, and have performed in numerous TV shows and films. How did this come about? I’d dreamt about being an actor since I was a kid. I went to film and theatre school before getting into film, to get a better idea if this was something for me. I was 21 when I enrolled. I quite enjoyed acting but it wasn’t as great as I had imagined. And when I got the chance to work as an assistant director, I found that I took to it like a duck to water.
You took a break from film four years ago (2013) to do something completely different. You rode to Marrakech, Morocco, on an old moped, on your own. When did you get this idea? I was between jobs when I began writing a screenplay for a short film about a woman who dreamt of travelling, but couldn’t realize her dreams because it would have meant abandoning her responsibilities as someone else’s caretaker. I soon realised I was writing about myself. That’s when the idea took root.
Contemplating a trip like this must have aroused some anxiety. What doubts and fears did you have to overcome? Oddly enough, the biggest step was making sure I didn’t let any fears about missing out on work or not having a job to come back to get in the way. I don’t think that’s an easy fear for most people to overcome. It can appear insane to step knowingly into the unknown, but once you actually do so, your self-belief grows. You find the capacity to say: I’m going to approach this with trust, not fear; everything will be okay. An assignment came up during this time, and I took it, but told them immediately that someone else would have to complete it as I had a trip planned. I didn’t allow myself any room for doubt: I was going travelling and that was that. It became a necessary blind spot.
A lot of people travel not only for the experience of seeing somewhere new, but also to reconnect with something that they feel they lost touch with somewhere along the way. What did you hope to get from your journey? My main desire was for adventure and solitude. I can handle this better now, but I’m quite sensitive to my environment, and having people around me can sometimes be a bit tiring; it can also make it more difficult for me to recognise my own needs. So the trip was a gift to myself.
You had a limited budget, which meant depending on the kindness of strangers for lodgings. This demands faith in humanity and trust in the world. How did that go? That was one of the most difficult parts of the trip. I craved adventure, but I also thought, okay, take it one step at a time. So once I crossed into Spain, I decided to give up my reliance on standard campsites. I’d still rely on hostels in the big cities – for the conviviality and companionship – but otherwise I’d simply ask strangers if I could pitch my tent in their garden. And people were often willing to let me do this. Some even allowed me to sleep in their living room or spare bedroom, or even in the same room as them.
Did that always work? No. And this was harder on the way back when it was cold and every day felt like an ordeal. I think those two weeks were the most demanding of my entire life. I experienced the greatest peaks of happiness during that period, but it was also dotted with hugely emotional moments. It really hurt then when people refused to let me stay in their barn or garden while it was clear they had plenty of room and I was in a state of utter exhaustion and on the verge of hypothermia. Those rejections felt personal because of the circumstances.
In contrast to that experience, the hospitality in Morocco was out of this world. I met with nothing but warmth and curiosity.
Solo travel can sometime uncover unexpected personal strengths and weaknesses. Which ones did you discover? I discovered three things: I have a terrible sense of direction, I have a sensitive antenna for detecting people with a good heart – whom do I feel safe with and whom not – and I found unexpected wells of perseverance within myself, which was a surprise as I’ve never considered myself particularly disciplined.
You set up a website called: morgendoeikhet.nl where people could follow your journey. In the introductory video, you said you were taking the trip to inspire people to go after their dreams. What is your ultimate dream? I’m still in the process of discovering who I am and what I want, but right now it’s to feel physically and mentally fit and in balance. It's a journey in itself, but an interesting one. I’m becoming ever more aware of the connection between the mind and the body.
Due to the demands of your trip, you had to abandon your second objective, which was to film interviews with people who were following their passion, regardless of the financial sacrifice. How do you feel about that? Oh, I’m completely fine with that. Besides, the idea is still very much alive, only it might find expression in another form. What is happiness, who is happy, which sort of people manage to sustain their happiness, how do they do that, etc. It's a fascinating subject.
What was the most bizarre episode of your journey? It happened in France, on the way back. I’d been turned away a few times that evening by people who didn’t fancy having me in their barn, garden or house. It was snowing and freezing cold. I was physically spent, and sat there gazing at trucks as they zipped past on the highway, trying to spot the ones with Dutch license plates. My motorbike was acting up: the chain kept coming loose, which was a chore to fix, and the throttle kept jamming at speed, which was obviously dangerous.
Finally, I found a farmer who was happy to let me sleep in his barn for the night. I had my laptop with me, so once I’d had something to eat, I decided to treat myself to a film, and chose a beautiful one called Il y a longtemps que je t'aime. I don’t want to give too much away, but the film's climax hit me like a ton of bricks. I shut my laptop, and five minutes later I broke down in tears. I completely lost it and began to howl. This must have gone on for about 5 to 10 minutes; I couldn’t stop myself. It felt like the release of an enormous amount of tension that had been building up for months, or maybe years. There I was, alone in a tent, in a barn in the middle of nowhere, weeping and howling.
In what ways has the journey changed you, as a person and as a filmmaker? When I look back on that journey, I realise I wasn’t always honest with myself. It was an incredibly exciting trip, but I also found it quite tough sometimes. Yet when I watch the clips on my website, I’m aware that I left out much of the latter, which I now regret. But admitting how difficult it was might have made it even harder to continue, and that’s the last thing I wanted. On the other hand, I did have moments where I got a sense of what it might feel like to be really free. I also discovered that I could experience true happiness with nothing but a bike, a tent and money for food and fuel.
As a filmmaker, it changed me in the sense that if I were to ever do something like this again, I’d reveal more of myself. Vulnerability is beautiful. And perhaps I’ll team up with someone else next time.
You met lots of complete strangers. What did you learn from that experience? That the default position of 99% of people is to be welcoming, loving and curious; only a tiny minority have things out of kilter, which sometimes results in questionable behaviour or choices, but which also doesn’t mean they couldn’t be loving if their circumstances were different.
What do you do differently now? I have a lot more respect for people who do their own thing, whatever that is.
You’re working as an assistant director again, after experiencing complete freedom? Did it take long to readapt? It was quite tough in the beginning. I wanted everyone to comprehend the experience I’d just had, to understand how intense and difficult a journey it had been. But I’ve had to accept that no one else can ever really understand that. One of the people I did tell said: “This is yours forever.” I like that thought. It captures the idea that my journey was an invaluable gift to myself.
What would surprise someone who knew you as a 10-year-old if they saw you today? The older I get, the less seriously I take myself. I'm more comfortable with the idea that I’ll make mistakes. Other than that, nothing that I can imagine as I probably haven’t changed at all☺
You did it. But what do you think is the biggest open secret that separates those that only dream of doing something from those that do it? Impatience; if we don’t get want we want immediately, we give up. But the ones that do go after their dreams have a heartfelt desire to do so. We simply have to enjoy the baby steps and trust that we’ll get where we want to be. My trip taught me this. One can’t ride to Marrakech in a day, so I had no choice but to be patient. It’s the only way to make the entire journey fun.
What advice would you give someone considering taking that step? Your main goal is already clear: you know where you want to be or what you want to do. So break it down into very achievable steps. Again, exercise patience, and don’t lose faith in your “crazy” idea. Everything begins small, like a seed that two decades from now will have grown into an imposing tree that is so well rooted it’s unlikely to ever be blown over. Plants that grow quickly often die quickly, too. I made that up, but I think there’s some truth in it.
Say you eventually made a documentary from your experience of this trip and it won an Oscar, who would you thank in your acceptance speech, and why? My parents, my sister and my close friends. Everyone needs support to achieve great things, and they’ve been mine. My parents have always made time to listen to me and offer advice when I’ve needed it. And they’ve always had faith in me and trusted my judgement. They, along with my sister and close friends, have also never shied away from telling me some frank truths when necessary, which is something we all need.