Under Foreign Skies: Annelie Hendriks

This programme is part of the series Under Foreign Skies
Annelie Hendriks
Annelie Hendriks (©Eric Beauchemin)

“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable work abroad.

Annelie Hendriks has always been a globe-trotter. At the age of 17, she travelled to the Middle East and then on to the former Soviet Union and the former East Bloc States. She went to China over 70 times, as well as to numerous other countries. Suddenly, despite a very successful career, Hendriks became burnt out at the age of 48. But now, “when I’m on my Dutch bicycle here in Thailand’s rice fields, I think I’m the happiest person in the world,” says Hendriks. “It’s paradise here every day.”

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: June 28, 2006


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Under Foreign Skies – Portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable work abroad”. The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.

When I’m on my bike, my Dutch bike, and I’m biking here among the rice fields, then I think I’m the happiest person I can be. And really it’s heaven. It’s paradise here, every day.

Annelie Hendriks moved to the northern city of Chiang Mai in Thailand over five years ago. Before that she had worked at Holland’s Royal Tropical Institute, where she was the director of the department of cross-cultural training. The department essentially prepares businessmen from multinational companies, development aid workers as well as World Bank and European Union officials to go work and live abroad. The training goes beyond when and with whom you should shake hands or when you should kneel. The Royal Tropical Institute teaches these future expats about the differences in the conception of time, hierarchy, making appointments, making decisions, and a wide range of other issues.

Annelie had always been a globe-trotter. At the age of 17, she traveled to the Middle East and then on to the former Soviet Union and the former East Bloc States. And at the age of 23, she went to China, a country she would visit over 70 times in a period of 10 years. She traveled to numerous other countries also while working for the Royal Tropical Institute. And then suddenly at the age of 48, despite a very successful career, Annelie became burnt out.

Yeah, I got burned out and that was no so surprising I think. I was always on the road, travelling, visiting many countries for my work, did all kinds of things in my spare time which cost also a lot of energy and at a certain moment the energy was gone. That means for a year I could not do anything even not do the dishes or picking up the telephone or seeing more than one person at a time. And my husband got a very nice job in Paris at that moment. First I went with him that year and after that, I decided to go to Asia to Thailand to build a house there. And four years after that he followed. EB: Why did you decide on Thailand? There are two things. Why leaving at that moment? We always wanted to go to Asia around 57, but in the end, I was only 48 that I left. The reason for that was I think, I was in a kind of therapy to get me back to the job and it was a very nice one I have to say. And I could not manipulate that at all. And I have to make all kinds of choices and I have to make the choices, so I could not keep all the balls in the air, and so my last, last really choice was what I really, really, really wanted was a view on the rice fields. So not to earn my own income, not to have my career, not to do all the things I wanted to do. No, a view on the rice fields. So in fact, that was the most important thing I really, really wanted. So that was just one month before the turn of the century. So I decided, OK, why not follow that? I did not do the therapy for nothing.

View from Annelie Hendriks’ house
View from Annelie Hendriks’ house (©Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Why a view on a rice field? Because that makes me really feel at ease, I think. I think the view on the rice field means the climate, the people, the culture, the colours, which all goes with that. EB: So it symbolises something else. Of course, it symbolises all that. Yeah. So I looked for rice fields. Well of course in Asia there are many rice fields but some rice fields are in countries that are not political stable like Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia. I always wanted to go to Indonesia but that’s maybe now not such a good idea. Bali was a good idea in the past but luckily I didn’t chose that. China, I mean political, I mean you also have to put all your money into that country, so in China you don’t have that many rights as a foreigner. Some countries they have too many people or the climate is not OK. The north of Thailand, in my opinion, is quite perfect. It has seasons. I don’t need the snow and the rain but it’s nice that it gets colder here also in our winter time. The leaves of a lot of trees are falling, so you have another kind of view, even on the rice fields. EB: But did you know Thailand before you came here? Yes, I had friends here, not so far from the place I live, and I visited them maybe 3, 4 times and of course, I travelled like I travelled all countries in Asia, I travelled to Thailand. So I was able to compare Thailand with other countries. And of course there are many other lovely places, but it’s different if you really want to live there, not only for now but when we get older. You need the hospitals and that kind of thing. Chiang Mai is a university city with perfect quality hospital and all that kind of thing so that’s nice. EB: You were showing me your house earlier and it is absolutely magnificent. It’s got beautiful views everywhere and it’s one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen in my life.

Inside Annelie Hendriks’ house
Inside Annelie Hendriks’ house (©Eric Beauchemin)

Yeah, I think too. EB: And you designed it yourself. Yeah, well mostly and of course then I had problems because I have no knowledge about this. So the balance was not completely there. So I went to a local architect here and he put everything what I gave to him together and in two days he had his design. And I told him, yes, exactly, that’s it. Yeah, I just started building which now sometimes when I look back to it, it’s quite amazing. I started one month after I arrived in this country, still unloading the truck with the furniture from Holland. And I learned 200 words which has to … Thai words… which has to do with building a house. I couldn’t order one dish in a restaurant, I’m afraid, but at least I could tell them this is what I want, this is what I don’t want. Not this, yes, this. The words for roof and window and door and brick and sand and all that, very useful afterwards, so I’m very happy now that a friend asked me to build a house nearby so at least I can use those words again. So, that’s how it all started and in 5 months it was done. I mean, I’m quite good in organising and I had a contractor who really could organize his work very well. So, it was fun to do, I think. EB: Was it a major decision to come here or was it simply because you were burnt out and you needed to do something else? I think there are many things. Of course, I didn’t want to go back or in the same job or in the same kind of work with the stress and the working in time schedules, although now I set my own time schedules anyway. But that I didn’t want to do anymore. So it took out my breath only thinking about that. When I thought about moving here, it gives me a feeling of freedom and here I still have that feeling of freedom. You can do here a lot of things by yourself. I mean you really can start things here. I can tell later about all the projects I do for children in the mountains. If you ask people they can come the next day. You don’t have to wait another 6 months before your mattress arrives in your house like in Holland for instance. So all that kind of things I like. It’s quite direct in that way. Of course, the culture is not, but the way of working it is.

Annelie Hendrik's backyard garden
Annelie Hendrik’s backyard garden (©Eric Beauchemin)

EB: You talked about the projects that you are involved in. What exactly are you doing? Before I left, I set up a foundation, Foundation Sansara, to raise money by individuals or companies or by other foundations in Holland like Wilde Ganzen… EB: Wild Geese which is a programme to raise money for projects in the Third World. Yes, so we raised money by that foundation and while I was here, I was looking for projects. So that started quite coincidentally: I went with a neighbour boy. I taught him English and Dutch to his father’s village in Mae Sariang, which is 250 kilometres northwest near the Burmese border, where all the mountains are and all the hill tribe people live. So that was a festival of the hill tribes, so minorities there and all the schools, represented themselves at that festival. So I started asking, so what’s the situation at your school? Do you need something? Well, I was thinking if I have some money I can do something. So I found out that one needed batteries and one needed a water purification machine, so that were my first projects. Now, 2.5 years later, I’ve built 40 dormitories, 9 canteens, 7 libraries, 40 water purification installations. I give 20 schools books. I built many toilets. And so on and so on. So those schools, high in the mountains, they’re small schools, most of the time with an average of 90 students, primary schools. Sometimes they just started the first years of the middle school. They’re really extremely poor. The government is providing them the classrooms, sometimes very simple and the teachers, the salary of the teachers. That’s what we are not doing, and I still think that’s the government’s task. But for the rest, they don’t have anything. The children have to stay at school. They cannot go back home because their home is not just around the corner. They have to walk often more than a day. So they only go back at mid-term and at the end of the school term back home. That means they need dormitories. Well, the places they sleep in are appalling, really appalling, made of bamboo with teak tree leaves, because of the leaking in the rainy season are fixed with newspapers which is really not that much help and so it’s really quite appalling. That’s the same thing for the canteens. They are eating outside. Well that sounds very picturesque in the dry season when it’s beautiful up in the mountains, but in the rainy season, which is six months, especially up there or in the extreme cold – it can be 2 degrees in winter time – it’s not so nice to eat just outside. So for that reason we built canteens. Children has to share one plate with six children. I mean, we give them plates and forks and spoons. They have to share one book with 10 children on average. So they need libraries to put the books in. It’s all quite simple but sturdy, sustainable, as it’s called. So that’s the buildings we are building. They often are very ill because of the quality of the water. So we built water purification installations and often schools don’t have water at all during 5 months a year, so for that reason we built concrete cement tanks to collect the rain water in the rainy season, so that they have water during the dry season. I work together with the Educational Department of the Ministry which is in Mae Sariang which is a small village and there are 160 schools, so we did a lot for 40 schools and still 120 to go for for the next years. So I will be busy and I still need to raise a lot of money for that. You don’t need much money by the way. For building a whole dormitory, including everything, toilets, sinks, beds, mattresses, whatever, is a maximum of €2000. Scholarships are €100 annually. So you can do a lot for not that much money. We are all volunteers so we only have 3% overhead so that means that the money goes to the children. It really goes to the children.

EB: You’re doing all of this because you befriended this person here in Chiang Mai. Well that was only the lead, how I started. Now he is already for many years in Australia, studying. Why I do this? Well, there are more reasons, I think. I do this one thing. I can live here maybe like a queen or something like that because they let me to live here in this country. So this is also a way for me to give something back to the country. Well, that’s the ideological reason maybe. Other reasons are the children are really extremely poor and I can organise, I can do these kinds of things. I’m able to raise money. They are not. So I can really add value for them. That’s the second reason I think, and the third reason is extremely beautiful up there. So to work with them and to go there, to monitor the projects, it’s for me it’s holidays. [laugh] And you can visit them without being a tourist and being an outsider. So that’s perfect. And I can do all the projects…the projects I always wanted to do in development aid, and all the criticism I had often on development aid, I can do now on a small scale of course, and that’s much easier, but I can try to do that in a better way. So without a large overhead, with the involvement of the people themselves, so the teachers and the parents of the children, they built most of the buildings. Only very skilled labour we get from outside. So they have a feeling of ownership of the buildings.

EB: So the requests come from them and then you’re the one who gets the money to actually implement things. Yes, that’s for me very crucial. If there’s no demand, what should I do there? I mean, why should I force it upon them? So that’s often also the discussion I have like this Emilie we are most of the time foreigners, we also have to involve ourselves in the management of the library. I said no: they can do that themselves, and they can ask for help. I mean if they want to be on a course, a training course, whatever that’s OK, but I’m not the one who is going to tell them how to borrow and lend books for a very small community. They can find their own system and they have their own system. Maybe it’s not the most efficient one, but that’s their development. So that’s fine. But what they don’t have is money. Schools don’t have one cent. So you have to take care if you deliver for instance water purification machines, the screens, they have to be changed every 2 years. That’s 600 baht, that’s almost nothing, a few euro, but even that they don’t have the money for that. You really have to think, OK, if I deliver a library, it has to be including bookshelves or cupboards and books. If it’s a canteen, it has to be including kitchen equipment or plates. You often see a nice building built by a foundation, but then the children are still on the floor and eating with six children on one plate. And I mean the money is not going into the plates. That really costs nothing cups and plates, but you have to deliver it because they have nothing. So it has to be turkey project on a small scale. Well that’s what they like. And now I manage to build up relationships with the teachers, the people working in the educational department and now it’s more and more easy. Now I get the requests just by standing there. I always say behind every tree there’s a teacher waiting for me so that they can deliver their requests, and they need it. So we just did an inquiry to 140 schools what they really need and that’s still a lot. A lot of work to do in the future.

You’re listening to Under Foreign Skies from Radio Netherlands. I asked Annelie Hendriks if she felt the same type of personal satisfaction with her current work as she did when she worked at the Royal Tropical Institute.

EB: How does the personal satisfaction of the work that you are doing now compare with the work that you were doing at the Royal Tropical Institute? At the Tropical Institute, the content of the work was very nice, I think. It was more a challenge of your brains and how to deal with those businessmen and visiting all those different cultures. That was very interesting, I have to say. But it also has to do with the phase in your life, I think. I would never, never miss the whole period I had at the Royal Tropical Institute which was a very interesting institute because of all the cultures coming together and also what I said, the challenge to think about what companies need and what local factories need and how you can match that. So that was a very interesting period and I traveled a lot and I saw a lot and I got a lot of experience. And I still think that all that experience I can use now. The work is of course more simpler in a way. It’s just building a dormitory and it’s not helping a big factory developing themselves but in principle all the things are how to make the decisions, how to deal with the people there, what to let them do themselves, what you have to provide. That kind of experience was very useful that I got that by my former job. What is more satisfying here is I think here it’s more to the real, real basic needs. Those children are so extremely happy and the businessmen, and I cannot blame them, I would do the same I think – but they take it for granted. Oh that was a nice course, or it was not such a nice workshop. But I mean here they have nothing and suddenly they are able to go to school. By going to school you know that there will be a future. You don’t know exactly what. It depends how they will follow the next education, but at least they can go step by step and earn a small income and provide that to the families in the mountains, which at this moment they have an income of €150 a year, the whole family. So that will contribute to those people. And that’s another kind of satisfaction in the work, I think, that you really know that you do things that are really needed, not invented that we needed it or not the luxury which, of course, we need. I also need a TV. I’m clear about that. And I also love my yogurt with muesli, so I need that too, but it’s not a basic need. I can survive without of course. But it’s really lovely to work for them and to see that the money goes to the projects and to those children.

EB: So it means that you often go back to Holland to raise money. No, because actually I don’t have the money to go often back to Holland. But I have a board. I cannot be in the board because I emigrated to Thailand but the board members of the Foundation Samsara, they do that and I write and you can send that by e-mail and I still have a lot of relations and people who are visiting me, are doing things, which was really very nice. One of my friends, she is a teacher at a school in Amsterdam. She visited in January and also the projects, and this last October, they organised 6 weeks focused on Thailand at the school and raised money by organising marathon and selling things, second-hand things. They made things themselves which they sell to the parents, and they raised a lot of money, more than €10,000 in that period. So one of the children was with his parents in July here. So they visited me too and he visited some of the schools, so he was really the boy of the school because he had really experience himself. So that’s really very nice, people who really see those projects. They want to do something. So with those relations, I can build more relations and I can raise the money. EB: So you’re basically a conduit between money and actually getting things done. Yes, yeah, because that’s my philosophy. The construction has mainly to be done by the people themselves and the money has to be raised in the countries where the money is, like Holland, but now I’m writing up project proposals for people maybe in the west of the United States, the Rotaries. Wild Goose Foundation we mentioned, they have matching funds or matching grants, so that means if we are able to raise money in Holland by private persons, by individuals, they will match it three-fold. So we really can do something with that money. So next week I will go back to Mae Sariang and then we start building 10 new dormitories and 10 water installations.

EB: Has this work also changed you as a person? I think I’m more quiet now [chuckle], maybe more at ease. I still do a lot of things, but I think I’m more at ease. I’m much less stressed than in Holland. I can do it in my own time or my own pace. It’s the same like farmers in a way. I work according to the seasons. In the rainy season, I cannot go to all those villages. They are not accessible at all. So that means I can only go there and build in the dry season and that’s 5 months of the year. That means in the other months I can raise the money, I can write project applications, I can do the book-keeping and all that kind of things. So it’s not just rolling, rolling, rolling, every day of the year. And that suits me better at this moment. I’m less forcing the time, so to say. I still do that sometimes, but not so much. You also know that they cannot do things too fast. You cannot force that. It makes no sense. So that makes me more quiet and the same, just being here always in the countryside with only greenery around you makes you… EB: The sounds of the birds and everything else… Indeed, yeah, makes you really feel at ease. And the people, I love the people here. The people in the village, they really take care about me. My husband is now here for a year but for the four years before I lived here on my own and they took care. When I was in Mae Sariang, the gardener without even knowing, took care of my house. He was sleeping somewhere under the house taking care of it. And I only found out 6 months later, somebody told me about it. So, he did not receive money for that because I didn’t know. Only now of course I’m paying him, but he did that just because he liked to work here and he thinks he has to take care about that. So I think that’s wonderful. That’s what I really like. I know a lot of Thai people, of course also foreigners, farang as they are called here. But especially in the beginning I only knew Thai because with Thai you have to do all this. You have to build this house, you have to settle in. You have to get your insurances and all those kind of things that you need to set up your new life. EB: Do you plan to stay here? Yes, yes. I don’t think I will ever move back to Holland, that’s for sure. Only when this small village now we’re 20 kilometres outside of Chiang Mai will become a busy, crowded suburb of Chiang Mai, like Bangkok with flyovers over the house, I think I move a little bit further [laughing], but only then. And I’m not going to learn another language any more, that’s for sure. So then maybe even a more quiet place in Thailand. Could be, but not for the moment. There’s no reason to do that. EB: How long do you plan to continue doing the work that you are doing? Well for the first time in my life, I’m not sure about that, so I don’t mind not to be sure about that. So it’s not so organised in that way any more, the development of my life or career path or whatever. Well as I said there are still 120 schools left, so when I still have the opportunity to raise money and to do something so as long as that is the case, I will continue. It also depends on how things are developing in Thailand, how the Ministry of Education and the whole thing there is developing. Maybe other things will come on my path. I don’t know yet, but then we will see. I don’t think I will be bored. There will always be something else to do. But before I came here, I would never, ever think that I in the period of two years, I was building dormitories and canteens and water installations in very small, poor villages, 250 kilometres from this place. I would never ever dreamed about that. When I came here, I was still in the final end of my burn out and I didn’t know what to do. I just decided, OK, I have to do something else. So I start but where it will end, I had no idea and in that time I was still like I always was, and I think many people in Holland, I had a whole list with all kind of things I could do. But now I think, OK, if this job is finished or changed that I cannot do it in the same way, something else will come up, I’m for sure.

EB: Listening to you, you sound happy, you sound enthusiastic. It’s not that it’s rare that you hear that in Holland, but you sound truly, truly passionate about what you are doing. Yes, that’s true, but that was also always a part of me. I’m always passionate about things I do; otherwise I don’t do those things. So I’m a kind of person, when I studied political science, I only want to learn the things I really liked, and for instance statistics I didn’t like, so that was the last, last, last points I still had to do. And I think it even slowed down the whole process by four months because I just don’t want to do it. So I think my whole life, I do the things I want, and I try to set up, and that’s why I think I got the burn out. There was suddenly a moment when I was stuck. I could not change myself. I could not bring myself to step out and to do something else or change it on the spot or whatever. So that was also I think the main reason that I got the burn out, analysing it. But most of the time I do the things I really like. EB: Do you think you found happiness here? Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I’m really very happy here. When I’m on my bike, my Dutch bike, and I’m biking here among the rice fields, then I think I’m the happiest person I can be. And really it’s heaven, it’s paradise here, every day. So that’s why I love it.

Annelie Hendriks in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. Under Foreign Skies is a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.

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