Thursday, February 23, 2017

the colonial mask on a modern australia

"I could live here."

That was Roy yesterday as we traveled around Perth on a hop on - hop off tour bus. He was almost ebullient about the place.

Perth should not be too complimented. Roy has said the same thing about 80% of the cities I have visited with him. The big exception was Brazil. None of the cities there received the Roy Miller Seal of Approval.

But Roy had a point with Perth. It is one of those cities that has the magical mixture of just enough colonial charm combined with the energy of urban possibilities to make it feel comfortable. Even with a population of over 2 million, it has retained a small town charm where small business owners seem to know everything that is going on -- even the arrival of strangers in town.

And that is what the three of us are. Strangers in a strange land. And we love its strange feel.

Part of that feel comes from Perth's location. Perth is the capital of Western Australia, Australia's largest state. To put that in perspective, imagine that Austin was the capital of a Texas that constituted one-third of the United States.

It is one of the most isolated capitals in the world. On one side is the Indian Ocean. On the other is the Great Victoria desert. If you strike off to the east on the highway, you will drive 1300 miles before you arrive in Adelaide -- the next city of any size. Perth is closer to Singapore than it is to Australia's federal capital of Canberra.

The city has the feel of a colonial outpost. Because that it what it once was -- an integral part of the British Empire. The old city retains some of  that heritage. Very British buildings built by convicts. Often punctuated by parks and gardens that are about as English as anything you would find in London.

We are here at the height of summer. That is one factor that feeds Roy's residential fantasy. The weather has been perfect. The humidity runs about 40% with temperatures approaching 100 degrees in some of the clearest skies I have seen in a city this size. The daily breezes undoubtedly help to keep the pollution level down.

As a western American, Perth feels vaguely familiar. That may be because of its history.

It became a boom town in the 19th century when gold was discovered in the state. Most of that is now gone, but Western Australia still churns out natural resources. Mainly iron ore these days -- primarily exported to China.

Perth may have been built on gold, but it now lives off of iron ore. And in that sentence is the seed of realistic geopolitics that makes Australia very leery about interfering with Chinese hegemony.

Our journey disclosed a few impressions about the city. Its setting is beautiful. The core of the city is quite compact. Its mixture of old (and the old is quite young) and new rests comfortably on the bank of the Swan River.

King's Park is the largest urban park in the world. It is beautiful in its own right with trees and birds found nowhere else in the world but here. But it also provides commanding panoramas of Perth at its best.

And, yes, the place is provincial. The parks of filled with statues of imperial heroes with their faded glory. And there are tales of the local miners whose exploits make Perth what it is today. It is almost like visiting a young San Francisico before the city dons its sense of hubris.

But, I am not going to get a feel for the city by sitting here. I need to get up and get out there to enjoy what promises to be a beautifully hot day.

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