Willem Dieleman / Pancake Adventures
"By trusting in people your inner wealth grows."
When a Bachelor's in Language and Culture and an internship in New York failed to yield the satisfaction or sense of direction he had hoped for, Willem Dieleman, then aged 27, bought an open ticket and took off on a journey that he imagined would last no more than six months. Two years later and the left-handed, dyslectic, vegetarian had couch-surfed his way around the world. His pancake-baking gesture of gratitude to hosts evolved into Pancake Adventures, a vehicle for spreading joy everywhere. "It's not about the pancakes; it's about the message," says Willem, whose coda to his remarkable journey is his forthcoming book of travel writing.
Interview Daphne van Langen Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
What’s your favourite pancake topping? Cheese — melted in the inside, burnt on the outside — and syrup. Not terrible adventurous, but I prefer pancakes the traditional way.
Where did you grow up, what was childhood like, and what were you like as a kid? I grew up in a warm family in Middelburg, with my brother, two sisters, and parents who loved each other very much. I was both a happy toddler and a sad child: I had epilepsy, frequent headaches, and cried a lot. This ceased when I was about 12, but it made me a bit of an oddball; then again, perhaps I was simply odd.
What do you mean by odd? I wasn’t bullied, but I was different from the other kids, and certainly not the most popular kid in school. I wasn’t into football, did my own thing for the most part, and was always the odd duck in whatever company. I remember that in my teens we had this youth centre in Middelburg where minors could drink and smoke under the watchful eye of a youth worker; it’s where we all hung out. My friends would come dressed like preppies or “thugs” — this was the Eminem-Limp Bizkit era — but I’d turn up in my punk gear, all multi-hued hair and homemade clothes.
You’re considered a bit of an adventurer. What does adventure mean to you? Not knowing whom you going to meet that day, what you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep. Utter uncertainty, and just going with the flow of this uncertainty, handling whatever comes your way when it does. The randomness of fate inherent in this uncertainty appeals to me: if you hadn’t spoken to person A, you wouldn’t have ended up in place B, and as a result wouldn’t have met person C.
Does wanderlust run in the family? No, not at all. When my dad came to visit during my three-month internship at a literary agency in New York, it was the first time he’d ever left Europe. I was never much of a traveller myself. I visited a friend in Thailand once, when I was eighteen, and I apparently concluded at the end of my two-week visit that travelling didn’t really suit me.
What did your parents do for a living, and what were they like as people? My mum teaches Dutch, and my dad’s a lawyer whose clients are property developers and psychiatric patients. They’re lovely people, my parents, and we’re very close as a family, but not cloyingly so. For instance, when I went on my open-ended trip, we said our goodbyes at the front door and I left to catch the train to Schiphol on my own, which sounds impersonal, but it wasn’t at all. Nor did they ever pressure me to come home when I was in Pakistan. It was only later that I discovered they’d been worried.
What’s the one thing they taught you that you’re most grateful for? Self-reliance — taking responsibility for your choices. My mum comes from a strict Protestant family, and saw how much her brothers had to struggle to free themselves from the dictates of the church, and I think it was because of this that she allowed me to make my own choices. I was allowed to become a vegetarian when I was three, for instance. I’d asked what beef was made of, and burst into tears when my mum said it came from a cow. They never tried persuading me to try meat again. And they taught me that as long as you treat your fellow man with love, everything will be all right.
How would people have described you in your youth? As someone who felt comfortable being different.
To what extent does this still hold true today? Completely. I absolutely do not want a 9-to-5 job, and I strongly believe there’s more to life than the conventional settled life. My friends with corporate jobs all read self-help books like The 4-Hour Workweek, but they don’t live that way at all. I practice it rather than read about it.
You’re slightly dyslexic, yet you chose Dutch Language and Culture at uni (UvA). Why? My dyslexia never bothered me; in fact, I considered it a badge of honour, and a nice complement to my other attributes: left-handed, epileptic, vegetarian. I considered art school, film school and advertising, but chose Dutch because I loved stories and wanted to move to Amsterdam. It was actually my worst subject at school, but when the teacher described it as “a brave choice”, I decided to prove myself.
You followed that up with an MA in Editing, and wrote your thesis on “The future of the bookshop”. Why that topic, and what insights did you glean from your research? That internship mainly involved reading pulp manuscripts. So, for my master’s, I wanted to look at where the really good books end up: bookshops. I analysed my findings and identified five pillars on which the bookshop could rest, and how it could function as a hub for the community. The perfect example of this is De Drvkkery in Middelburg, which in my opinion is the most beautiful bookshop in the Netherlands: they’ve got a café in the middle of the store, around which runs an art gallery; they carry a wide selection of non-book items (such as high-quality stuffed animals); and they hold literary and non-literary events. My thesis was well received, and completing my studies was one of my greatest sources of pride and accomplishment.
After which you travelled from Turkey to China. Why? I ran a blog after graduation, developed creative projects, worked in a bar, and held down a job at a start-up, where I did mind-numbing administrative work. I was twenty-seven, seeking answers, and deeply unhappy. So I decided to go travelling, opened up a world map and spotted the Silk Road. It was very naïve of me. I spent the first month in Turkey, questioning and hesitating over my plans, not daring to carry on; I eventually decided to take a night bus from Istanbul to Kabak, and got into conversation with a man who invited me to meet his family, with whom I ended up staying for three days. That was the event that pried my eyes open and made me begin to see travel as an adventure.
What did you hope to get from the journey? Some sort of plan or goal, something I could build upon once I got back, perhaps in the form of a blog or vlog, or as a travel journalist. I planned to get to China in six months, but ended up travelling for more than two years. I kept it so low budget that I was able to keep travelling for much longer than I’d calculated.
And you could keep it low budget because you were able to rely on the kindness of strangers. What was that like in practice, and how did it feel? I took advantage of the international couchsurfing network; sometimes the invitations happened spontaneously, and it was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever experienced: complete strangers offering shelter, or a lift, or chocolate ice cream, or conversation. The man on the night bus, for instance, was really keen to talk to someone who wasn’t from a conservative Islamic village, especially about sex. Not in a vulgar way, but in the spirit of curiosity and open-mindedness. He saw me as someone free-spirited with whom it was possible to speak candidly.
At some point you started making pancakes to thank your hosts for their hospitality. Why pancakes? I was being shown the beauty of receiving, so I wanted others to receive something, too. I chose pancakes because I consider them the Dutch symbol of cheerfulness and the embodiment of the atmosphere of children's parties. And when one of my couchsurfing hosts remarked on how interesting it was that I was travelling the world with a crepe pan, all the pieces suddenly fell into place, and I understood that that was what I needed to do: make pancakes not just as a thank you or payment in kind, but also for people who could use a little joy in their lives.
And thus began Pancake Adventures. What does it mean, and for whom exactly does it exist? Pancake Adventures is about making authentic contact with people, using pancakes as the medium on which to hang all elements of interaction. It’s the crystallisation of a creative idea I’ve been trying to define for a long time. I registered the brand name immediately, and had a logo made. My travels now had an objective: to be an ambassador for joy. I usually make the pancakes for groups that typify a society in some form: construction workers in Dubai, Sikhs at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. But sometimes I’d simply make pancakes at an open market in Pakistan or for kids in a mountain village.
Why do you think you’re able to trust strangers so easily? I’m actually quite down-to-earth by nature, and even somewhat cynical, but when everyone you meet from Turkey to Iran is happy to help in any way they can, it changes the way you see the world. Your life becomes richer, and safer, when you trust people. Those that wish to protect you far outnumber those that wish you harm. I did get ripped off and mugged, but what I lost in cash was practically insignificant in relation to what learning to trust has given me.
Where and for whom did you make the first pancake? In Dubai, one of the most awful places I’ve ever visited. A soulless capitalist paradise, a golden veil over a pile of crap. There I was on an escalator in a luxury shopping mall, watching people spend hundreds of dollars on Chanel neckties while just outside the building were construction workers labouring in appalling conditions. The contrast was staggering, and it reminded me of the film Metropolis. I did some research, bought my first pan and started making them pancakes, in the sweltering heat.
How did they respond? They were grateful, but it also became clear that pancakes didn’t have the same significance everywhere. Some equated it with flatbread, which in some countries is the equivalent of a sandwich. I could probably have made some of the men much happier by grilling them some meat instead.
Do get any negative reactions to your Pancake Adventures social media posts? Yes. Some have accused me of having a white saviour complex, travelling the world to boost my ego, and that’s given me pause. It’s useful feedback, because I need to ensure that I don’t lose sight of the core idea. I think it’s okay for the act to be one half of a transaction. I don’t believe in pure altruism, and I recognise that I’m doing this not only for the joy others derive from receiving, but also for the sense of fulfilment I get from giving, and for the purpose it gives my travels. But I mustn’t do it from a place of ambition or for social media “likes” — I need to guard against that.
How are you funding this? Do you have a business model? I have some savings and travel very cheaply. I was against having a business model when I started, but I'm slowly coming round to the idea that I need one. Having all these interesting experiences has given me a reason to write a book. If that does well enough, it would justify new journeys and a second book.
Friends have said they’d like to open a Pancake Adventures Restaurant, which could be part of the business model. I wasn’t keen on the idea when they floated it; I don’t want to run a restaurant myself. But if it has the potential to foster social cohesion wherever it’s located, and if its implementation feels like a natural extension of the core idea of Pancake Adventures, then it could be quite a lovely idea, and I think it’d be okay to earn money with it.
Which pancake-making episodes will you stay with you forever, and why? I have fond memories of Cambodia. I remember that my adventure stopped being fun at one point. I’d begun stressing out over things, was distracted by instructing the volunteers, and was becoming easily irritated whenever a video recording of a pancake making session didn’t go well. That all changed once I got to Cambodia. I worked with three volunteers, making and handing out pancakes to poor families on the street. People were so grateful that I stopped thinking about video recording. It was a very emotional experience, and from that point onwards I was able to carry on with a sense of inner peace.
Solo travel can sometime uncover unexpected personal strengths and weaknesses. Which ones did you discover? That I’m very self-reliant, and give off positive, disarming energy. I hitchhiked in Australia, and was picked up by someone with schizophrenia, by a drug dealer, and by others on the fringes of society, yet I always got along with whomever I rode with, and they always wanted to tell me their story.
My shortcoming is that I sometimes worry too much about making Pancake Adventures work — this was particularly so in the beginning. On the one hand I want to travel freely and without premeditation; on the other hand I keep fretting about “likes” and followers and what my friends must be making of me. Why do some Instagram accounts filled with nothing but sunsets and superficial stuff have hundreds of thousands of followers while mine doesn’t? I sometimes have to remind myself to stop seeking external affirmation and to keep believing in the merit and potential of my idea.
Would you agree if a brand were to offer you a role as its influencer? Yes, I’d like that. I have a message and a vision. But first I want to write my book.
Was writing always a personal ambition? I’ve always written, but never had the confidence to publish anything. I remember that during our very first lecture at uni, someone said that 80 per cent of students who enrol for a Dutch Language and Culture degree dream of becoming writers, but 80 per cent end up as teachers. Nonetheless, I found as I travelled I needed to describe all the things I was experiencing in writing before I forgot the details. Once back in the Netherlands, friends began dropping hints about getting a job, which irritated me, and it occurred to me that if I wrote a book, it would have the added bonus of shutting everyone up. I eventually found someone I’d been at uni with, who was now at the Ambo Anthos publishing house, and sent some material. They responded enthusiastically and offered me a contract. So, the book is happening. It will launch in June 2018.
What advice would you give the publisher regarding its publication and publicity? We must have pancake-themed events at the bookshops to go with the readings. And I think it’d be nice to display all my crepe pans with my backpack. Whatever we do, it should be different and more creative than standard book signings and presentations.
Has traveling changed your view of the world and, if so, in what way? What I learned during my travels is that people everywhere have dreams, make plans and experience heartbreak. I ended up with a group of friends in Pakistan that in terms of interests, world views and so on were almost the mirror image of my group of friends back home. I also came across the biggest hipster I’ve ever seen, and he was shooting a documentary with a camera crew, but this was happening on the other side of the world. There are creatives everywhere, not just in the rich West, and you can have wonderful conversations anywhere in the world. Very naïve of me not to have known this, but I didn’t until I went travelling.
What character traits are necessary for a nomad? And which of your traits are a hindrance? You need to be flexible, patient and not too demanding with respect to comfort and privacy. The greatest hindrance has come from my inability to let go of the need to demonstrate what I’ve been up to and have it validated. I had to return to the Netherlands to fashion my experiences into something concrete, because you don’t have the structure necessary for that when you constantly have to think about where you’re going to sleep that night.
You’re now known as the pancake man. How does that feel, and what would you like to add to the description? The advantage of the label is that it allows you tell your story very quickly; the disadvantage is that talking about pancakes all the time can be tiring. I’m not a chef, yet interviewers typically ask me about nothing but pancakes, whereas that’s not even the point of the project. So now I often add the sub-label: ambassador of joy.
Is there anything else that people overlook about Pancake Adventures? There’s a lot more to making pancakes on the streets than meets the eye. You need volunteers, you need to find a location, source ingredients and set up a kitchen, establish rapport with the locals, show respect for people and don’t just start filming indiscriminately, and so on.
You’ve gone off the beaten track to do your own thing, which wouldn’t suit everyone. What advice would you give to someone who, like you, would like to travel the world for a good cause? Don’t be afraid to approach people. If you ask for help, you will almost always be offered as much help as people have to give. And have faith in the skills of the locals. I realise, though, that I’m very open and sociable, and can imagine that a more introverted person might not find it so easy.
What advice do you wish you’d been given before setting out? Everything I just said. And if I’d known how wonderful this project would turn out to be, I’d have set out much sooner.
You have been traveling since 2014, you’re now 31, and have on your website a map of the world indicating the places you’d still like to visit. Is that what you really want? My new plan is to travel from Middelburg to Johannesburg via St. Petersburg under the banner of the Pancake Adventures, and to document the journey as a travel programme. I think that would wrap up the project. I hope by that time to have earned the authority to inspire people to travel in authentic ways, seek genuine connection or work with local charities. Other than that, I’d like to keep writing, perhaps as a travel journalist. I’d like to travel for half the year and spend the other half at home. Because though I made lots of profound connections on my travels, nothing beats the familiar warmth of friends and family.