Aid worker Brett Pierce reveals the beauty, horror and humour of life in new book

Writing a travel memoir involves having a unique experience to share with your readers. And in this regard, Australian author Brett Pierce had no shortage of material when he came to writing about his adventures as an aid worker around the globe.

Hi Brett. So, your book is called Beyond the Vapour Trail. We’re going to assume it has nothing to do with airplane toilets, so can you tell us what it's actually about?
Beyond the Vapour Trail is written from my experience as an overseas aid worker, finding myself constantly off the tourist map, up close with some of the world’s most vulnerable people. While I was still figuring out what I was doing, and in the midst of some of the world’s horrors and lonely places – I discovered treasure there – learning from the people I encountered. The beauty of the cultures, the inspiration of sheer tenacity and generosity amongst the vulnerable. I slowly found a way to make a meaningful contribution – all the while still longing for home. But mostly, I discovered that the best stories don’t make the news. They are hidden there, among the poor.”

So what compelled you to turn your aid work experience into a book?
“Someone suggested that I write about my travels, and I had no interest in doing so. There are some ideas, though, that fall among good soil and begin to sprout of their own accord. This was one of those. Over months, different incidences emerged from my memory, and grew into stories that I wanted to tell, had to tell. Months later, stuck in a hotel in South Africa over a weekend, I sat and wrote the first 15,000 words in a burst.”

Wow, just a lazy 15K. Nice work. So you write, “A two-year-old girl is abandoned on the streets of Ulaanbaatar with a bag of clothes and a note pinned to her: ‘Please take care of me …’” What happens when you are faced with so many situations like this?
“Every time we shut down our capacity to respond to another person, it makes us a little more cold, a little less human. But how can we possibly respond emotionally to every need we see? In development work, needs are prioritised as part of a strategic response, as objective decisions.”

You can't help everyone, so how do you choose who you help and who you don't help? And do you become de-sensitised to some extent?
“In my personal journey I discovered a way to keep my heart open, even to random strangers, without having to respond to every single need. I no longer have a pre-automated script in my head that says no. I respond when I feel the urge. Or not. It’s that simple.”

The work itself certainly sounds challenging. But can you tell us what the most challenging thing was about writing Beyond the Vapour Trail?
“I did wonder how to unify the many separate events into a single work. I didn’t want chronology. In the end, the links emerged naturally. My longing for my wife and my home. The girl who was kidnapped. The opportunity to transform child sponsorship… And I began to realise that those emerging threads were major themes in my life, in how I was being shaped as a person. Thus the process of writing became – unexpectedly – a spiritual reflection.”

So people may be surprised to hear that your book covers inspirational, beautiful, and even funny stories. Why do you think people have the misconception that the developing world is all bleak hardship? And are you aiming to challenge that with this book?
“I remember coming home from Uganda after an encounter with a rebel army, and realising – life in Melbourne feels so flat, so uneventful, so routine. It lulls us to sleep until we catch ourselves saying, is it Christmas already? Over there, against the backdrop of struggle, life seems amplified. The people are often inspirational, the laughter is all belly laughs, the joys are spontaneous. I felt more alive there and it taught me how to break the routine and be alive to the moment here in Melbourne.”

Wow. And when you’re writing, what's your typical day like? Do you have a writing routine?
“Well, my life is pretty busy. So it’s … stuck in a rural hotel one week with no generator and fading laptop; writing interrupted by meal services on long flights; recovering from jetlag … No routine, no typical day. I would just feel the story in a section for days until words began to emerge, then I would write. My writing is built on years of public speaking. This is such a brilliant teacher as it gives a wonderful immediacy of feedback. If I don’t feel it, if it doesn’t make me wonder or laugh, if it doesn’t matter to me, I don’t say it.”

Okay, so what's next for you? Do you plan to write any more books? If so, will they be in the same vein as Beyond the Vapour Trail or something completely different?
“Yes, a novel, based in Australia. It’s not across cultures, yet I began to realise that the people I focus on in my story – searching for belonging, meaning, identity, love – reflect my observation of the absence of rites of passage in our own culture. In Australia we see the, ‘restiveness in man; a dissatisfaction of a universal sort… Like a man who is hungry, gets up at night, opens the refrigerator door and doesn’t see exactly what he wants because he doesn’t know exactly what he wants. He closes the door and goes back to bed.’ (Quoting the late Robert Ardrey) Yes. This.”
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