"Nothing but opals and fucking plastic kangaroos for as far as the eye can see," said my wife. We are in Cairns, tropical north Queensland, Australia. Tourist hub for this land of perpetual summer, rainforests, white sand beaches, the Great Barrier Reef...and the deadly saltwater crocodile. My wife had just had a dispiriting look around the area immediate to my gig at the Cairns Reef Casino, and what she saw was a town designed from the ground up to further the belief that a Japanese tourist and his money are soon parted.
I wondered, though.
It seemed to me that the bones of another town lurked beneath the sanitized, corporate nowhere that much of the place had become. So I went exploring. I bought cuban cigars from a dusty tobacco shop. No tourist dare show his face around the motley gathering of weathered locals therein. Sandwiched between the chain tchotchke emporiums and gleaming high-rise hotels I saw the few remaining places where the weird folks gathered. I saw weatherbeaten old buskers and beach bums...ghosts of Cairns past. A ragged-but-right reggae band played by the sea, and there is no more glorious sound on a sunny humid afternoon. There are still nude bathers on the Esplanade. And at dusk, a vast squawking colony of bats fanned out across the golden sky, in search of sustenance; an ancient ritual unconcerned with our little lives on the ground.
I'm guessing that the fate of this place mirrors that of Key West. It was once an out-of-the-way tropical backwater where hippies and eccentrics and boat fisherman who ran a little dope during the off-season could flourish peacefully among the live-and-let-live locals. And just like Key West, it was all over once the moneychangers stormed the temple.
The ernest well-scrubbed boosters and the Chamber of Commerce will crow that everyone is better off now that all this dough is coming in. But there are a few people with their souls intact who know better. If it had happened more slowly, you probably would have seen some "Keep Cairns Weird" bumper stickers. But I think it happened too fast for that.
And once the weird is gone, you can never get it back.