Gerben Hartskeerl: “With me, everything has to be a spectacle.”

MAHAHUAL – ,,I actually wanted to start all over again. No sea for a while, just as far away from everything. My fantasy was to start something high in the mountains. Chiapas, for example. But yes, then Carolien called and I couldn't resist helping out.” Gerben Hartskeerl (56) grins painfully and talks in a deep, smoky voice. His tanned skin and slightly haggard face betray an adventurous life. Here in Mahahual, he takes a break, while of course, he continues to work. Despite that detested sea.


Gerben is waiting for me in the restaurant of hotel-restaurant Maya Luna. I traveled here to interview Carolien van Santvoord but this Dutch waiter immediately catches the eye. The friendliness itself, with a playful, cheeky appearance. A waiter who plays no role, but is as he is. And yes, he is open for an interview and invites me to come back later that evening, when the last guests have left. Because they always come first. He has a surprise for us: a real Dutch cake. Homemade and on the house.

Once later that night, he gets two beers, one for him and one for me. He starts telling his life story right away. In principle in a chronological, structured, logical order, he soon goes off and on. There is also so incredibly much to tell. So many incredible adventures, where the question regularly arises: did this really happen?

Gerben is what you call a servant. A man born as a waiter. Someone who cares. Pampers. A hospitality animal, who masters all facets of the profession. He knows how to serve, but also how the cook prepares the food. He knows which wine, and which cocktail goes with which meat. At any level. "Isn't that so? You must know everything. Everything. You are the face of a company, all guests communicate with you, so you have to know everything. This is a profession, it is such a shame that it is seen as a student job.” 

Gerben is a wandering adventurer, who is there where he is needed. Who is there where he can make money. After many years in the Caribbean. Bonaire, Aruba, Mexico. Gerben is a loner but of the extremely social kind. A man who has friends all over the world, who gets his foot in the door with apparent ease everywhere. “Now I want to relax. That is possible with Caroline. Actually, I think everything is fine at the moment.” Is he paid here? He's not even sure. That's okay, it's not important.

Ik Vertrek (I leave)

In 2006, Gerben achieved modest national fame in The Netherlands. He took part in the TV program Ik Vertrek (I leave),,The most boring episode ever", Carolien shouts with pleasure from a distance. 

And its true. Where the program normally follows people with a dream, but without experience or even knowledge of the language, this does not apply to Gerben. The plans had already been made. Together with his then-wife Elke and daughter Michelle, he leaves for Mérida, Mexico. Determined to start a hotel or restaurant. Gerben speaks excellent Spanish, their entrepreneurial spirit is enormous and his skills in the hospitality industry are ample. No guarantee of success, of course, but it certainly didn't promise to be a total failure.

Gerben Hartskeerl
Gerben Hartskeerl on the beach at hotel Maya Luna in Mahahual

Gerben and Elke buy a large property in the port town of Progreso, on the Gulf of Mexico, and turn it into a hotel-restaurant. “Many snowbirds come to the area; seniors from the US and Canada. They have their fixed tune, which is difficult. You can't just get in there.” It means that he has a full tank on Saturday evening, for example, but it is empty the following days. He has a big backyard, with a swimming pool. Set up several stands, and organize fashion shows and performances, but it often happens that no one comes. Nevertheless, good sales are being made. The family leads a good life. Hard work, but still.

But then things go wrong. His wife Elke secretly has another relationship, with an American. When Gerben finds out about this, he immediately puts her outside. “It had been going on for two years. A hard slap in the face”, it still sounds furious.

Gerben Hartskeerl

It is the beginning of a turbulent life, which Gerben takes from north to south within Mexico. And from east to west. He takes anything that brings in money. He tries everything that seems to have a market for it. He starts businesses and loses businesses. He becomes a manager and is manager-off again.

“I made Dutch pies and gave them away to restaurants, just to see if there was a market for them. Maybe they wanted it on the map? I went to the markets. I switched to a cupcake tin, and started making pudding rolls. Certainly, I was able to sell a lot of them, they were absolute hits ”, it sounds militant. Only: it is not enough to live on. 

We have to go back in time to get to know Gerben better. He starts working in the hospitality industry as a young teenager. Soon he has a strong inclination to go abroad, to adventure. It is a way of life that his parents do not approve of, but Gerben follows his own route.

When he is 18, he spontaneously books a ticket to Bonaire. Without money, but with a smooth chat he manages to get jobs there too. He gets a work permit by simply going to the ministry daily and charmingly keeping officials off work. “That's how my whole life has been. I suck at everything. Didn't fall on my mouth, so I also have friends all over the world." 

Gerben serves breakfast for two French tourists

At the same time, he does not linger anywhere for long and regularly leaves with problems or quarrels. But he always finds something new, he always manages to reinvent himself. It comes across as if everything has to go the way he wants it to. And if not, he will simply look elsewhere. 

He works everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes he cooks for 80 guests, sometimes he is responsible for six rooms in a hotel. On Bonaire he meets Elke, who is an intern with him. They get into a relationship and have a baby, Michelle. When she is four years old, the couple will return to the Netherlands. They stay there for a while, though the adventure constantly itches. “If I don't have a job, I go crazy. I started to get bored in the Netherlands.” 

The Netherlands

They buy a house in Weert, which needs a lot of work. After a few years, they want to go back to Mexico. “It was in my head, it didn't go out. I wanted to go to Puerto Morelos, a village between Cancun and Playa del Carmen.” Once there, in 2005, Hurricane Dean arrives and throws a spanner in the works. The hurricane destroys everything. The family goes to Mérida and from there to the northern coast. “Water is beautiful. You feel spacious. That gives me peace of mind, I really wanted to have 'something' by the sea. Then the Gulf of Mexico is also beautiful.”

That's Progreso, that's the prelude to that TV show. That is also the beginning of a life full of wandering, full of adventures. A life full of stress, full of disappointments. A life in which he discovers all of Mexico. From the narcos in the north to the Maya in the south. With a strong character, he always knows how to fight back and conquer or recapture his position. He needs this rest now. Until he gets tired of it and goes on an adventure again. “Everything has to be spectacular for me.” 

Steven van Beek
Steven van Beek
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