Wearing two coats: writing, vulnerability and preparing for Cambodia

Antique Compass and Map

I’m going to Cambodia next week. On Monday I’ll board a plane and head east, far beyond anywhere east I have been before. I have been south, to Africa a couple of times, and West to the US and Canada on one trip. That may make me well travelled, especially when I add in the multiplicity of European destinations I’ve clocked up, but I feel like a novice.

I’m heading to a new part of the world, a place I am unfamiliar with, a place new sights and sounds. But also a place that is not as far away as I might imagine. It took me 12 hours to drive to the Highlands of Scotland, in less time I’ll have flown from Heathrow to Bangkok. I’m not planning on working while I’m away, but I could. It’s a cliché to say that the internet has made the world smaller, it has in that I can travel far away and maintain contact, but the world is as large as ever when I think about the differences I am sure I will encounter.

The thing that has made the world smaller is why I’m going to Cambodia. And the fact that the other side of the world is still far away from the life I inhabit, the places I walk, the people I meet, the work I do, that’s why I’m going there to write about what I see.

And I am more uncertain about writing than I’ve ever been before. I’ve written vulnerable posts I’ve had to wince as hitting post, I’ve written complicated pieces where I have struggled to articulate clearly the points I want to make. But recently I’ve struggled to write at all. Yesterday I reminded myself I can write to demand when a piece needs conjuring up at minimal notice.

But this morning, as so many recently, the words won’t flow.

I’m travelling across the world to write, to tell of what I see, to be a story teller, and I switch between three different devices as though that will make the writing any easier. The irony of a wealth of technology to communicate the effects of poverty and the need for assistance does not escape me. But it is also a distraction. I could probably write eloquently about the digital divide, I could postulate about the rise of technology in a country still haunted by poverty. And maybe I will.

But that would be to avoid admitting that I am afraid of not having the words.

Vulnerability come in layers, there are the ones we are willing for the world to see, and those we wear and disclose in order to avoid having to expose the vulnerabilities that are closer to our skin.

It struck me recently as the clouds rent and the rain poured, I went into my bag and pulled out the waterproof I stash there semi permanently, at least these past few months I have. I was only going to get some lunch but the coat I already had on wasn’t made for this job. It stops the wind and keeps me warm, and it can cope with a little rain. But this wasn’t a little rain. It was a torrential downpour, and anyway, my regular coat doesn’t have a hood.

I didn’t go to the trouble of taking off my coat and replacing it with the waterproof, also, I would have had to cram the bulk into my bag. So I pulled one coat on top of the other. And yet I realised this was a silly thing to do, so as I approached the office on my return I took the waterproof off once again as the wind howled and the rain fell so fast it hit me twice – on the way down and as it bounced off the pavement. I returned it to the pouch in the bottom of my bag so I only had one coat to take off, the normal thing to do, the usual shield of protection we are happy for the world to see.

There’s respectable Christian Sin. The sort of things you’re happy to confess at small group, where you’re willing to accept you don’t always live up to the standards, you, or God, would have you live by. You don’t read your Bible often enough (disguising the fact you don’t read it at all). I don’t have a regular prayer slot in my day (disguising that the last time I prayed with any passion was when one of my family was ill). You struggle with greed, I suffer with control freak tendencies. I work too hard, you’re too busy with church activities.

These sorts of things, the sort of confessions and vulnerabilities it is useful to have up your sleeve and combined with sufficient empathy to engender openness from others following demonstration of your own.

It’s when vulnerability is a fraud, when it is a device. Even writing this, about my fears of going to Cambodia as a writer, could be seen as an exercise in expectation management. Like when Leo McGarry is worried he’ll crash and burn in the Vice Presidential debate in the final season of the West Wing, he lets it be known how bad the prep is going, and that takes the pressure of him, and when he does well he wins all the plaudits.

And yet. And yet taking off that next skin is not easy. I almost wrote final skin, but I could not be arrogant enough to think there are no more layers I still shield behind. This is a skin that I wear because it protects me. I am precious about my writing and when it provides affirmation it reinforces its importance. When it seems hard that affirmation seems missing.

When writing is a side-line, a hobby, an extra, it is dispensable, if I struggle I leave it to one side for a couple of months. But with this trip, this bloggers trip, writing is integral, and the expectation mounts.

While I’m out there, I’ll be posting here and in various other places, but you can follow my and my fellow travellers’ writings all at www.tearfund.org/bloggers

Cambodia – seeing beyond Indiana Jones


Aged fourteen and on a ferry to France I was upgraded to Club Class to ensure this unaccompanied minor didn’t get up to any mischief. Instead of mischief, I sat with my complementary papers and cup of tea and read about the funeral pyre for Pol Pot splashed on the front page.

Now I want to travel to see the country, hear from the people and learn how you and I can make a difference.

That ferry journey was when I first heard of Cambodia. I later learnt of the Vietnam conflict which spilled across borders and read accounts of the killing fields, where grass was turned red as up to two million of Pol Pot’s countrymen were killed under the command of Brother One. Twenty three years prior to his death his Khmer Rouge fighters took Phnom Penh to, as the Chicago Tribune described, turn his ideology into bloody reality.

And nearly two decades on in a country with an economy growing, the poor are being left behind.

Pol Pot dreamt of recreating the glory days of Angkor Wat and the Khmer empire of the twelfth century, instead he left a country crippled by civil war, a population haunted by poverty and a nation that nobody noticed. Twenty years after the start of his atrocities his death brought the country back to the front pages for those like me to hear of for the first time, and after a brief flirtation with the public interest it faded from view again.

Apart from the occasional photos from a friend’s travels through south-east Asia, usually posed before the stunning temples from an era belonging more to Indiana Jones than the present population, Cambodia remains an enigma. One of those places far away where dreadful things happened by one of the last great dictators of a twentieth century haunted with a litany of figures robbing humanity of their own.

The present is further away than the past.

The past can be accounted for, it can be condemned and it can be denounced, it can be labelled an aberration when man killed man for nothing but a misplaced sense of national glory. The present is with us. It is a mother left caring for children when a father dies. It is an eldest daughter looking after her siblings when HIV robs a family of its parents. It is poverty ingrained in community life, a norm that should be anything but. A status quo which must be questioned, condemned and dealt with, denounced with as much force and far more action than the slaughter of innocents decades before.

It is something you must do and I must too.

The effects of poverty, the lack of clean water, the unceasing hunger, the paucity of education that stumps development at its root. It can all seem too much. It can stun us into inaction, blinded by complexity, blinkered by politics, blanked out by poverty so vast it seems almost normal. The tyranny of grand problems block us from acting even when the step we can take is small and very achievable. It doesn’t take much but it takes something.

The coffee I drunk as I wrote this is all it costs to support their work each month. If you gave £3 to Tearfund each month it would enable them to work with local churches and community organisations. By doing this communities are able to support themselves, help feed each other, access resources and help put families beyond the reach of poverty that rips families apart and takes lives without care for the cost.

I am going to travel the thousands of miles across continents to see how the help helps. To see the work work. And to see what your support would support. To see the lives that Tearfund are already helping transform, and those it could affect with the cost of your coffee each month.

I am not a fundraiser, I am not a particularly good at self promotion. I even stopped blogging for the past few months. But I have my words, and I want to hear the stories from Cambodia and tell them to you. I want to bring them to life so that you can help Tearfund sustain life in places where it too often hangs by too thin a thread.

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I’m thrilled to have been chosen by Tearfund to travel to Cambodia in March as part of their bloggers’ trip. Along with Anita Mathias and Rich Wells, I’ll be telling stories of what we see on the ground and the work that Tearfund are doing to give a helping hand up out of poverty. Stay tuned for more!