I met Pieter earlier this year during my Amazon trip, and was fascinated by his strategies to reduce unpleasant work and maximize time for his personal projects and travels. As opposed to anti-employment strategies, Pieter not only manages to have a secure job, but also to follow his passions. By knowing the rules and bending them, he is able to take several months of vacations each year, while perfectly fulfilling his duties on the job. For me, Pieter’s approach is a great example of real-life lifestyle design. He does not care about fame and money, but about broadening his horizon and helping others. Without further remarks, let’s jump into the interview we did during the last weeks by mail.
Pieter, thanks for sharing your experiences and strategies with the readers of The Friendly Anarchist! First of all, a quick question about your pay job: What are you doing to make money?
I have a 9-5 office job in a government department, but in contrast to a lot of younger colleagues I don’t have a career plan or great ambitions to work myself up to a higher position. I participate in courses and tests, but I don’t feel like joining the rat race of making career, paying a mortgage for a house, having a big car, etc. My ambition is to create opportunities for other people and to make a small diffirence in this world with my projects.
So while being a full-time employee, how many weeks of vacations did you have in the last year, and how did you use them?
In 2009 I had 18 weeks of vacation and 3 months of sabbatical leave. In Belgium, the latter can be taken for a minimum of 3 months and a maximum of 6 years during your career. In that period you still get paid some €335 each month.
I like to use my time for traveling. In 2008, I went one month on a trip to Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, 2 weeks to Ghana and 1 month to Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. From November 2008 until January 2009 I spent my sabbatical in Ghana to start with the construction of a Community Center with an NGO I co-founded.
After that, I spent one month of 2009 traveling in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and one month in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. Apart from that, I also took several city trips within Europe.
As far as I know, you are not a millionaire. So what’s your secret to be able to finance these large vacations and travels?
The most important thing is the way of traveling. I search on the internet for cheap plane tickets, and I travel just with a backpack and look for cheap places to stay and eat. For example, during my last trip to Central America I spent an average of €36 a day for sleeping, eating, drinking and transport.
Another reason is that I saved a lot of money during the years that I didn’t travel. Also, since a few years, I live temporarily back in the house of my family. That is giving me the opportunity to save a lot of money. In Europe it is not very common to live like that. I am taking advantage of my current situation to travel, because in my opinion “to travel is to experience life” and I understand it as my walk to destiny.
This sounds really intriguing. I think it’s what happens to a lot of travelers – once you’re out there, you don’t wanna stop anymore. As for your “walk to destiny”, where did it lead you? You are very active in a lot of ways: Apart from your full-time job, you’re involved in local politics and in development aid. Could you talk a bit about that?
I don’t know what the destination of my walk will be, but one thing that changed my life is my encounter with Africa and the project that was the result of it.
In 2005 I was traveling through Ghana when I met Natty Johnson, a rasta guy who was making drums. At the bar, with a view at the Atlantic Ocean, we talked about a lot of things and about business. The guy had a lot of ambition but didn’t have the chances, so I decided to try to sell drums in Belgium for him. I created an opportunity and from that moment the project was started.
In 2006 I began importing drums and other musical instruments to Belgium. In 2007 we got the idea to connect the business with a social project. I made the plans and in march 2008 we bought materials and the first stones of what will become a Community Center in Ghana.
In November 2008 I went for 3 months to the country – already my fifth visit – and launched the construction of the foundation of the Community Center in the village of Adoteiman (northern Accra). The goal of this project on the one hand is to provide medical first-aid material, mosquito nets for malaria, and contraceptives for AIDS prevention. On the other hand the center is aiming to become a meeting point for children and young people who want to develop their artistic, dance, drum and sport skills. Besides that we want to give young people the chance to do volunteer work in the villages and schools. It’s all about creating oppertunities.
In January 2009 I registered my own NGO in Ghana, The Bimbi Foundation. Bimbi is the village in Congo were my grandparents lived in 1957 for 3 years. Also my mother went to school over there. It’s a symbolic gesture and a link between Africa and my family. In the last week of my stay in Ghana I organized the visit of a member of the Belgian parliament, Rudi Daems, a television-crew and some newspaper reporters concerning the illegal e-waste dumping. Because it’s a long story to tell it is better to watch the documentation “E-waste from Antwerp to Ghana”.
My political commitment started when I was 18 years old in 1997 as president of the young liberals. In 2000 I was elected as the youngest member of the City Council and re-elected in 2006. In 2003 and 2004 I worked for the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Development Cooperation.
What are you fighting for in Belgium politics?
An important cause in my political career is the local heritage. In 1998 I gathered 2000 signatures to stop the construction of a big building in the middle of the city center just in front of an ancient little castle and its park. The protest didn’t help. The majority pushed through and the building is now spoiling the heart of the town. This year I was successful and could prevent the destruction of an old brewery. The government declared it a historic monument and now the City Council has to renovate it.
Recently the majority in the City Council called me a communist. I tried to save an other old building from destruction because of the historical value. But the building is private property and it’s not very liberal to ask for government protection for a private building but my opinion is that you can’t build a future if you don’t respect the past. These old buildings give the city a soul.
And what are the next steps on your “walk to destiny”? Any clear plans yet?
My next step on my “walk to destiny” is to connect my project with another project in Latin America and one in Asia. I am sure one day I will find that connection. It’s only a matter of time.
As for traveling, I will make some trips to Cuba, Ghana, India, Nepal and maybe Colombia, Syria and Jordan.
Some people believe in coincidence but I am not. Everything has a meaning and nothing happens like that. Some people are crossing your path of life and some people travel with you on that journey, sometimes for a while and sometimes they stay.
With so many activities in addition to your pay job, what are your plans in relation to that? Do you want to stay employed as long as possible, or are you thinking about leaving your job one day and focus entirely on the other issues?
I have been given civil-servant status in my current job and thus can work for the government until my pension. I can change my department if I want to. But you never know what the future will bring. In my current position I still can take more than five years of paid and two years of unpaid sabbaticals. So, there are still a lot of opputinities to do and for me the present is important.
Most people spend so much time focusing on the future that they forget that their life is happening right now. It is like Mark Twain said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Thank you very much for the interview, Pieter, and all the best for your current and future projects!