In the wilds of the most diverse nation on earth, while she copes with crocodiles under the blackboard and sorcery in the office, Trish Nicholson survives near-fatal malaria and mollifies irascible politicians and an ever-changing roster of bosses – realities of life for a development worker.
With a background in anthropology and a successful management career in Europe, five years on a development project in the remote West Sepik province of Papua New Guinea more than fulfils Trish Nicholson’s desire for a challenge. In extreme tropical conditions, with few only sometimes-passable roads, travel is by a balus – an alarmingly tiny plane, landing on airstrips cut with grass knives and squeezed between mountains. Students build their own schools, babies’ weights are recorded in rice bags and women walk for days, carrying their produce to market.
Physically tested by dense jungle and swaying vine bridges, Trish’s patience is stretched by nothing ever being what it seems and with ‘yes’ usually meaning ‘no’. Assignments in isolated outstations provide surreal moments, like the 80-year-old missionary in long friar’s robes revealing natty turquoise shorts as he tears away on an ancient motorbike. Adventures on nearby Pacific islands relieve the intensity of life in a close-knit community of nationals and a cosmopolitan mix of expat ‘characters’. Local women offer friendship, but their stories are often heart-breaking.
More chaos arrives with Frisbee, the dog she inherits when the project manager leaves, along with other project expats. Tensions increase between local factions supporting the project and those who feel threatened by it – and stuck in the middle is Trish. Her emotionally engaging memoir Inside the Crocodile is full of humour, adventure, iron determination and... Frisbee the dog. It is beautifully illustrated with colour photos of Trish’s time there.
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This account of Dr Trish Nicholson's five and a half years in Papua New Guinea in the late eighties and early nineties is absolutely fascinating. Using her extensive diaries as the basis of her narrative, she takes us from a chilly wind-blown Scotland to her arrival and consequent culture shock in tropical, humid Papua New Guinea. Nothing daunted, however, she uses her great people skills plus the help and friendship of fellow expats such as Jim, PNG colleagues like the marvellous Clarkson, Vero and Martha, and Frisbee the Hound Dog to find her way in the maze of PNG life and bureaucracy. Her job was to reorganise, restructure and give training to the Department of Personnel Management in Sandaun as part of a project financed by the World Bank. However, this was not a challenge for the faint hearted. So many personnel lived in remote areas, and the records were such a mess, it even involved paying staff who were already dead!
In her task, I was often amazed at her ability to survive the mind-numbing procedural complexities combined with the sometimes petty and anarchic disregard for truth and transparency of those entrenched in the system. Fighting ongoing Malaria, dramas such as pay-back killings, vengeful jealousies and corrupt practices, it took more than Trish's strength to cope. Towards the end of her stay, she became dangerously ill with Malaria. Nevertheless, she builds wonderful friendships with her PNG colleagues and earns immense respect for her courage and pluck in tackling almost anything that comes her way. This includes a three day hike through dense and inhospitable bush that would have sent me scurrying for home about one hour into it, particularly the idea of crossing bridges made of rotting rope or vine over deep river gorges.
There are delightful side characters, such as Sebby, who gate-crashed seminars and scribbled on blackboards intended for training notes. Frisbee the fly-everywhere dog also adds a special canine touch to the story.
The book is quite long and very detailed, but this serves to underscore the chaotic situations Dr Nicholson, or rather 'Tris' had to unravel. I found it completely absorbing and was easily able to transport myself there into the time, period and place. I was also glad she provided a glossary of Pidgin terms at the end and enjoyed the photos that gave visual reality to some of the characters and situations. All in all, this is a wonderful journal, a great memoir and a riveting read.
by Valerie Poore
‘A thoroughly fascinating story. I have never visited that part of the world but now I’d love to. The writing style was perfect for a book of this nature: light with an excellent balance of pace and descriptive prose.’
by Female reader, aged 45
‘By far the best book in this year’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards. An intriguing look at life in Papua New Guinea from the POV of a development worker. The author’s love of the cultures and the characters she meets shows in her writing. I’d recommend this to anybody interested in travel and understanding life in a different and often difficult country.’
by Male reader. Aged 38
‘The book starts so well with the crocodile and talks of sorcery. And, from there on, it keeps getting better. I was sad at the end when she left but the last line of the book made me smile. A lovely read, warm and packed full of cultural richness.’
by Female reader, aged 57