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UvA Graduate Travels the World Making Pancakes: Here Is What He Has Learned

March 05, 2019

By CARA RAKER

Willem Dieleman, 32, has just published his book, Pancake Adventures: How I Traveled the World Making Pancakes and What I Got in Return. Sitting on his roof terrace in the heart of Amsterdam, he kindly agreed to tell his story, which started in the summer of 2014. After Willem graduated from the UvA with a bachelor’s in Dutch language and literature, followed by a master’s in publishing, he entered the working world and quickly realized that it was clearly not for him.

Willem Dieleman shares pancakes at a temple in Ho Chi Minh City. Courtesy of the Amsterdammer

“I thought I could go to Thailand for two weeks – sit at the beach. But then I thought, wow, that is super shallow and it won’t change anything. I’d just come back to this office and be even more tortured. So then I… made a dramatic choice.” This was the moment when he quit his job and chose traveling the world instead. “I looked on Google Maps to decide where I should go. And I decided that I wanted to go as far east as I could,” Willem continues. He booked a one-way ticket to Istanbul and his 2-year journey began.

Why pancakes?

“Pancakes are the only thing I can do… culinary-wise. So the pancakes were threaded through my culinary experience. I would always make them for friends or girls who stayed over.” He laughs. In fact, it’s his grandmother’s recipe, Willem says. “You realize that pancakes are a very nice dish to share. Everybody likes pancakes – it’s easy.” Using couchsurfing as one of his main means of traveling, Willem soon made a habit of showing appreciation to his hosts for the free lodging by preparing pancakes for them.

That pancakes could be more than just a gesture of gratitude to his couchsurfing hosts occurred to him in Dubai. “I was always looking for this project… A project that would bring me further, would make me keep up with my peers here, in the Netherlands, who were all getting jobs and… families and stuff. I was feeling that I would miss out if I came back and had done nothing.” When a girl mistakenly concluded from the pictures on Willem’s couchsurfing profile that he always carried a frying pan with him to make pancakes, it occurred to him that this could actually be a great idea.

Dieleman flips a pancake for construction workers in Dubai. This was his first adventure. Courtesy of the Amsterdammer.

The first pancake adventure

It became super big in my head. It seemed like the best thing ever. But it wasn’t, of course,” Willem admits and smiles. His first official pancake adventure took place on a construction site in Dubai, where construction workers do their job under extreme conditions. “They are actually like slaves, modern slaves… Their passports are being taken away when they arrive so they have no freedom… So I thought I would give them some relief by making them pancakes.” That warm pancakes might not make the best snack in 48 degrees heat only crossed his mind later on. “They appreciated the… gesture,” Willem recalls laughingly. But the idea stuck. He registered the brand name, created an Instagram account and launched a website. Pancake Adventures was born.

Cover of Willem Dieleman's book "Pancake Adventures".

What about the book?

The book describes the first six months of his travels: how he went into the world to seek fame and recognition, which he didn’t get, but what he got instead is Pancake Adventures. “They marketed it a bit like the Eat Pray Love for millenials. It’s kind of the spiritual inner journey but not as cheesy.” After Willem’s return to Amsterdam, it took about 6 months for him to find a publisher and another 9 months to finish writing the book. “It’s the same thing that happened when I started the Pancake Adventures during my travels. I thought now everything is gonna happen and then… nobody cared.” He laughs. “It takes time.”

The book is so far available in Dutch and will soon be published in German. According to Willem, some Icelandic and Japanese translators have been interested too. Despite that, he is already thinking about a second book, which will talk about his time at home. Discussions with a TV broadcaster are also on the way, and these might result in the production of an online show. If the idea is declined, Willem says he’ll just do the filming himself. He has already planned the trip which would take him from St. Petersburg to Johannesburg.

What is the main thing you have learned from your travels?

“Trusting people. Trusting humanity. There are so many good people,” Willem says, when thinking about what traveling has taught him. And that “when you give something you always receive more than what you give. So it’s always good to give.” Willem emphasizes that this does not have to be pancakes but “it can be a lot of things. I knew a girl who was into drawing and she gave drawings to people.”

So what actually goes into these magic pancakes?

“My sweat, couple of hairs, love. Besides that: One kilogram of flour, one litre of milk, one litre of water and eight eggs.”

Willem Dieleman poses with a school during his travel around the world to make pancakes. “Pancakes are the ideal dish to share. Everybody can make a pancake”. Courtesy of the Amsterdammer.
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