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“I bought a one-way ticket to Sydney and took off”

“I bought a one-way ticket to Sydney and took off”

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Alumni about their dreams: did they come true?

International Business alumnus Arjan Tiessen

This interview with wine importer Arjan Tiessen (37) has been about a year and a half in the making. It all started when Arjan, who lives in Tanzania, replied to my request for an interview on Facebook Messenger. “I’d love to, man! That article from sixteen years ago, I still think about it from time to time. How are you?” “Good,” I replied. “I’ve been at the hospital since six thirty today. My girlfriend is currently giving birth to our third child. Today is going to be a long day.” Months later, when he was in the Netherlands to visit friends and family, we met at a restaurant in Amsterdam. One and a half hours later, we were nowhere near finished. “We’re only halfway through my life,” he sighed when I asked for the bill. I promised to visit him in Dar es-Salaam, but the COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Our attempt to talk on Skype just before he got on the first flight to the Netherlands failed because I didn’t get my children to bed in time. I apologised a thousand times, but he waved it aside: “This is Africa, relax!” We ended up finishing our conversation in his parents’ garden in Heiloo, North Holland, where he was self-quarantining for two weeks. I left knowing that 800 words would never be enough for this article. And that Riki, Observant’s editor-in-chief, wouldn’t be pleased with me.

Adventure story

After interviewing Arjan sixteen years ago, I couldn’t have known that the story of his life was the one that would end up reading like an adventure story. Sure, he wanted to see the world, meet new people and experience other cultures, but he wasn’t the first to tell me that. Besides, he also wanted five children (“three boys and two girls. It’s quite difficult to play football with just two boys”) and a job to be able to pay for their swimming lessons. It all sounded quite ordinary and that’s what his life was like, too, at first.

He obtained his degree in International Business (“not very interesting, a paint-by-numbers study programme I just had to get through”) without too much difficulty. In hindsight, his thesis Optimizing Social Presence and Trust in Virtual Teams was far ahead of its time. “I could’ve made money out of it in these times of working from home.” While he didn’t manage to find a job immediately after graduating (“It was 2009, the height of the financial crisis. I spent some time making sandwiches and orange juice at trade fairs”), he eventually started working as a trainee at Rabobank. He seemed to be right on course for an ordinary, white-picket-fence life.

“But I went raving mad. I was forcing myself to live a life that wasn’t for me at all. A thousand emails per day, sending Excel files back and forth, endless meetings. Help!” He fell into a deep depression because “my environment didn’t suit me”. The return-to-work process also led nowhere. “At one point, preparing for a therapy session my employer had arranged for me, I even briefly considered ticking the box that said ‘suicidal ideation’.” Not until his contract was terminated by mutual consent did his adult life truly begin. “I needed space and I wanted to see the world, so I bought a one-way ticket to Sydney and took off.”

John and Mary

Arjan ended up at a ranch owned by John and Mary, his temporary surrogate parents who helped him get back to his feet. “I felt like I needed to be there on my search to find myself. I spent the days mowing the grass, milking the cows and painting sheds on the prairie.” After three months, he bought a Land Cruiser and took off in a random direction. When his car broke down, he found himself stranded in the town of Alice Springs.

He enjoyed it there, in the heart of Australia. When an employment agency asked him to run the local nursing home for a while, he thought, “Sure, why not?” Working there brought him even more peace. “I met all these beautiful people with beautiful stories. One day, an Aboriginal man would tell me about the gold rush; the next day, his neighbour with dementia and I would spend hours silently watching a beautiful bird together.”

At the campsite where he was staying at the time, he received an offer to become a canoe guide in a village 3,000 kilometres away. Again, he thought, “Sure, why not?” His car had been fixed by then, so he set out for Albury, where he spent several months canoeing on the local river, making pizzas and painting houses. Anyone who asked him to do something for them received the same answer: “Sure, why not?”

Aunt

And then his aunt called. Her friend needed help with a lodge in Tanzania. Was Arjan interested? He was, and so he promptly moved halfway across the world to fix up the hotel. While working there, he picked up some Swahili and befriended the chief of a nearby Maasai village, who offered Arjan his 12-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage during a monthly circumcision ritual. Arjan respectfully declined the offer.

Somewhat disillusioned

After a year, it was time for a change again. Arjan started working for an orphanage. “Two kilometres away, we drilled a well of 180 metres deep, built a pump house and laid the water pipe along the river.” The project was a great success and he was asked to repeat it in Botswana. “It wasn’t quite as successful, to say the least. I soon realised that the drilling had failed. It was a lost cause.” He tried in vain to dig the well with his bare hands and a shovel.

More experienced but somewhat disillusioned, Arjan eventually returned to the Netherlands. “I applied for a couple of jobs, but I soon began to wonder what I was doing here. The projects were stuck in old-fashioned development aid thinking. Their idea is that it helps to send a hundred emails per day from an office and, every once in a while, send a white person to Africa to tell people what to do. It’s useless and not hands-on at all.” When an old friend from Tanzania called him about a job at the largest wine importer in the country, Arjan didn’t need a lot of time to think about it. He bought another one-way ticket.

House on the beach

Now, he is a specialist in European wines and lives in a small house on the beach in the north of Dar es-Salaam. It sounds more idyllic than it is. “The beach is gross and full of plastic bottles and syringes.” He loves his job, but the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works here, too. “We focus on the premium market – lodges, hotels and restaurants. They’ve had no guests for the past few months. We have 200,000 bottles slowly wasting away in a warehouse in the 30℃ heat.” His future has become uncertain.

“My work visa will expire next year. Applying to extend it is always a long and bureaucratic process.” He doesn’t like this culture and can’t talk freely about it. “In business, you’re always walking on eggshells. It’s unpredictable, to put it mildly.”

Vulnerable

It’s time to ask the inevitable question: will his life continue to be an adventure story or is he ready to settle down? “You mean a wife, 2.2 children and a Volvo? I can’t picture that.” He wouldn’t mind being in a relationship, though. “But it’s difficult to find the right person. The pool of interesting women is very small here. Most women in Tanzania work on the land. I don’t have a lot in common with them.” He also admits that he isn’t the easiest person to be with. “I find it hard to let people get close to me. It’s difficult for me to be vulnerable. I’m scared of rejection and commitment. Of being unable to get away. It doesn’t help me in my search for a white-picket-fence life. But life is unpredictable. Maybe I will be taking my son to football practice a few years from now. Sure, why not?”

Niels van der Laan

 

(Un)fulfilled dreams

In 2003 we interviewed UM students about their dreams for the future. Now, in this academic year, we checked in with them and saw where they’re at. Did their dreams come true? Former student journalist Niels van der Laan, who wrote the majority of the interview articles in 2003, wrote a fair share of this year’s articles as well. In addition to the previously interviewed alumni, we were interviewing former Observant student journalists about their fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams. This interview with Arjan Tiessen is the last part of the series.

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