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August 19th, 2012

Back from Cairns

I am in the US again, for two days, following the annual Meteoritical Society meeting which was held this year in Cairns, Australia. It's midnight-thirty in Los Angeles, but afternoon in Cairns (and in my head). Since I will be leaving in less than 33 hours for Beijing, I have no interest in trying to switch my internal clock to LA time.

Cairns was a very odd place, a small town on the northeast coast of Australia mostly used as a jumping-off spot for trips to the Great Barrier Reef and the northern rainforest. I saw the reef only from the air, flying in; we did have an afternoon trip to a rainforest park so I got a glimpse of it, at least. 

"How many people do you think live in Cairns?" I asked my fellow meeting attendees. ("With or without tourists?" they usually asked. Without.) Guesses came back ranging from five thousand to thirty thousand. It struck me, staying in a hotel a mile from the convention centre and thus at the far end of the town, that Marquette Michigan (population 21,335) felt significantly bigger. According to Wikipedia: the population of Cairns is 150,920. Where are all the people? Where do they live, and shop, and work?

As happend during my time in Adelaide a few years ago, Australia reminded me over and over of living in Kenya, 30 years ago. Australia, outside of the Sydney and Melbourne, has a certain frontier/third-world feel to it that is very surprising. I don't mean that the people are unsophisticated, but there is a basic level of the physical development and look-and-feel to the towns that reflects a certain lack of economic development. The switches in the light fixtures; the plumbing in the hotel room (the most basic of hot and cold water taps, like something that might have been installed in 1920); the (lack of) sophistication in the signeage on the shops. 

One saw basically only three sorts of shops in town: Restaurants; backpacker/diver/trekker suppliers; and tattoo parlors. I am not sure I would want to go on a hike into the middle of nowhere with someone whose tattoo-covered body proclaims to the world, "I am a person in the habit of making bad decisions that cannot be reversed." (This will no doubt irritate all my younger friends whose ideas of personal adornment are utterly baffling to me.)

On the other hand, the Cathoic Cathedral was a remarkable surprise. The building itself is a modern barn, but inside is the largest single-series stained glass window set in the world, depicting Creation with images ranging from familiar Hubble shots to kangaroos and aboriginal peoples. The Peace Window in the back of the church was equally effective: above, beautiful blue underwater scenes; below, the bottom of the ocean covered with wreckage from World War II. The images on the internet do not do them justice; it was a remarkable experience praying inside them, every morning. 

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