One of my last trips before the Covid19 pandemic was to Cairns, Australia. Actually, my real destination was the Great Barrier Reef; Cairns was just where I went to, to get to the reef. After all, what other bucket list destination is better for a marine ecology-philic person, than the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world, hosting the kind of biological diversity that merited a UNESCO World Heritage Site classification?

What I hadn’t expected, was that Cairns itself was interesting. How can a tourist town be interesting, you ask? Well, it’s because Cairns felt like the most diverse place I’d been.

View to along the Cairns seaside esplanade towards the ferris wheel
Cairns Esplanade

Arriving in Cairns

My first clue was Cairns International Airport. If Cairns had been the first place I visited in Australia, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. But it wasn’t. I had first gone to Sydney, and then to Melbourne. In successive trips to the Pacific, I had generally chosen to transit at either one of those cities, because I have friends there. So I noticed the difference when I finally landed in Cairns.

For starters, arriving in Cairns felt like transiting through Auckland. The border officers went through the same procedures as the other Australian airports, but it had a more laidback vibe. I felt like I was just any other passenger.

For another thing, the airport had Aboriginal art in parts of it. And it was only then that I realised, that Melbourne and Sydney did not.

Sea wall artwork | Aboriginal engraved art at Cairns esplanade
Aboriginal art plate at the Cairns Esplanade

The diversity of Cairns

I spent about three weeks in Cairns. Now, I wasn’t in the town for the entirety of those weeks. Some of it was spent on a liveaboard out in the Coral Sea, and I was busy with a volunteering program for much of the rest. So it took me some time to figure out why Cairns came across as unusually diverse in my head.

After all, Australia has a lot of different ethnic communities. Certainly Sydney and Melbourne can be considered diverse. And I myself come from a notoriously multi-ethnic country. Surely, a diverse place would feel merely normal to me, and not stand out. Was it only because of how much more visible Aboriginal people are in Cairns, compared to the other cities? Surely that was not all it was.

And then I realised it was the kind of diversity in Cairns that was different. It wasn’t so much the sheer diversity of ethnicities. It was more that there were no clear patterns that correlate to them. And my brain is very strongly attuned to pattern recognition; it noticed. Fashionably dressed businesslike people could be Aboriginal. People in long clothing usually described as ‘modest wear’ could be blonde. The usual groupings were very weak here, the exceptions too many.

A dark-skinned child might be picked up by an East Asian or Caucasian relative. They shop the same, and they picnic side by side – but in different cultural styles. Mixed couples were common; most often a Caucasian man with a non-Caucasian woman, but not always. Nor are these unequal partnerships, for there was a Caucasian man in the market eager to practice the Chinese language of his wife with a merchant of Chinese ethnicity.

Aboriginal heritage in Cairns

It was also in Cairns that the ubiquitous Indigenous acknowledgement signs in Australia made sense to me. (In a previous story about Cape Otway, I had pondered this.) At the esplanade, where I spent a lot of time in the first couple of days, there was an exhibition about the history of Cairns. There, unlike my earlier experiences in Australia, I was told which Aboriginal nation was custodian of that country, and even learned something of the Yidinji clans.

And there as well, the history of Cairns was told from both Aboriginal and Western perspectives, as a long and combined history of an old place. And it’s not just at the exhibit either. There was the prominent Aboriginal shield sculpture right within the shopping area.

Now, of course, I don’t know much about Aboriginal issues in Australia. But this exhibit felt normal and authentic to me. Like, I think this is the way you’d talk about yourself if you feel that the combined history is your history.

And I couldn’t help but wonder at the unexpectedly familiar fish sculptures at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, for they were shaped like they were woven from palm fronds, which is a craft of Austronesian people across the tropical Indo-Pacific. Here, they did not seem out of place, even though the setting isn’t Asian. Was it something we had in common with Torres Strait Islanders? After all, one did call out to chat with me, curious about the similarity of our appearance.

Why I did not expect diversity in Cairns

I was actually a little bit apprehensive when I planned this trip. I think people have probably forgotten, since our world has gotten significantly more eventful in recent times. But in late 2019, there were a few reasons why, as a Muslim traveller, I chose to travel even more low profile than was already my habit. For one thing, in an earlier trip I had an experience that reminded me that Islamophobia is still alive in these parts. And then, early that year a white supremacist from Australia rampaged through mosques in New Zealand.

So I looked up Queensland beforehand, to assess my travel risk. The search results weren’t encouraging. From online sources, it was supposed to be the most Islamophobic state in Australia. But I thought, ok, Queensland is very big. It didn’t matter. I really only needed to know about Cairns.

The information about Cairns itself was less clear. The only related news I could find at the time was on a local butcher who took heat from some fellow Australians because he stocked halal-certified meat in his shop. But the story was about him standing his ground so… it cancels out? And, usually no news is good news. Probably.

In the end, I figured, Cairns is a tourist town. Surely this meant it had to be ok with diversity at least from tourists. And that was good enough for me. After all, as someone who works across the breadth of Asia, I knew well that what are issues to local citizens do not always translate to visitors and vice versa.

But Cairns was actually diverse.

To begin with, Cairns was probably the most food-diverse town I’ve been to outside of Malaysia. This extends beyond the restaurants, to speciality grocery stores. There were stores for different cultures’ cuisine ingredients and they were really diverse. I saw grocery stores for Chinese cuisine, Indian, even South African. There were pre-mixed packets for Malaysian and Indonesian sauces, including our Nyonya niche cuisine.

You can find fresh ingredients for tropical cuisines in the Cairns market, including obscure condiments like daun kesum, which Malaysian home chefs abroad often have to do without.

The market itself felt like an amalgamation of the region. The produce was local and decidedly tropical. There were crafts from the Pacific, which I recognised from my previous trips to Polynesia – cultured South Sea pearls, and red seed jewelry. There was a kiosk selling Indonesian batik, and many others.

As if that wasn’t enough diversity, it was also easy to eat out in Cairns as a mixed group. There was usually something on the menu for most dietary needs. And if there isn’t, the restaurants usually have a sign inviting you to ask them to make one. It makes dining out as a group of friends very easy. Clearly the restaurants are used to this as well, since they can typically also handle split bills, eliminating the math at the end of meals.

Yet I didn’t test the diversity.

The pro-diversity vibe in Cairns wasn’t limited to the locals. Maybe Cairns’ natural diversity subconsciously rubs off on you. Or maybe it just draws a certain type of tourist. But the tourists looked for diversity too.

At an Indonesian cafe, which is slightly outside the most touristy part of Cairns, a European tourist family stopped for lunch. It was not by accident; they had purposely sought out the cafe because they missed Indonesian food from a past trip to Indonesia. That was also partially why I was there.

The other reason was because Bagus Cafe displayed the halal sign on its menu and I admired their daring. There were actually restaurants within the tourist centre with halal items. Which is not that surprising, considering that beef in Australia, for example, is often certified halal because of the export market. But no restaurants in the tourist zone displayed the sign, even when they have halal items, and I did wonder why. But I didn’t feel like asking.

Menu display for Bagus Cafe in Cairns with halal logo | Indonesian cuisine
Indonesian cafe advertising halal food

Indeed, I only dared to ask Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants if they had halal meat. I figured, that demographic would at least know what I meant. Otherwise, I simply avoided meat because I wasn’t sure if the question itself would be offensive to the restaurant.

I still wonder if I should have risked testing Cairns’ commitment to diversity more. I might have, if I had come for Cairns itself. Would I have had more tales of Cairns as an unexpected beacon of non-uptightness, if I had? But I was there for the reef, and it was my birthday. So I took no such risks.

Diversity since the beginning

There were even more signs of Cairns’ diversity than just the food and the people you see around. For example, you have church services there in several Asian languages, and they were not intuitive either. I wouldn’t have guessed it: Korean, Japanese, and Bhutanese.

I say that like it’s remarkable, but actually it’s not. You see, when you consider Cairns’ history from its founding in 1876, it was already a diverse settlement then. According to the esplanade exhibit, the Europeans were only 50% of the population, and even they were diverse: Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Irish. The rest were Chinese and South Sea Islanders, and that’s not counting the indentured labourers from various Asian nations.

This revelation intrigued me enough that I decided to visit the Pioneer Cemetery on McLeod Street, after I was done going out to the reef. For you see, these pioneers were buried together in one cemetery, the oldest in Cairns.

Panorama photo of the McLeod Street cemetery grounds, Cairns Australia
Cairns Pioneer Cemetery

At some point, somebody had decided to compile the names of the pioneers buried in the cemetery. There were some whose names are lost to history, but the list was still illuminating. Reading it, I felt a kind of admiration for Cairns, for choosing to retain the identity of its diverse origins despite everything. They seem to remember until today, that these different races belong in Cairns.

Real diversity is unconscious

The kind of diversity in Cairns, you’d almost miss it. People there don’t make a big deal out of it. And that’s why, even though I can think of many other places that are diverse, Cairns felt emotionally comfortable for me. Because the social groupings felt weak, it felt like there isn’t a way that you ‘have’ to be. There was suddenly a lot less pressure to read social signals, which is a big deal to me. If it wasn’t because of the travel experiences just before this trip, I might not have worried about Islamophobia either.

I am in favour of diversity, as travellers usually are. I believe there is strength in diversity, because of the richness in worldviews, as much as I am in favour of biodiversity as a measure of ecosystem resilience.

These days, when well-intentioned people try to support diversity, it can feel inauthentic. It comes across as controlling and harsh. Sometimes, the mistake is to disown your dominant identity, thinking that this somehow gives others theirs. Unsurprisingly, this approach is often resisted.

But authentic diversity is comfortable and easy, and I wondered what it was that makes it so. And it occurred to me, that I felt something like this before, in Annapurna Base Camp, where your differences didn’t matter. There, it was because everyone was oriented to the mountain, united in our awe, its majesty larger than us. And in touristy Cairns, where every street seemed to urge you to the sea, the reef seemed so much more significant than us, that our differences seemed manageable by comparison.

I heard that astronauts feel something like it, united in having seen the Earth as a mere marble in space.

That’s the paradox. Diversity requires first owning your identity, and then afterwards caring only little about it, against something larger and more worthy.

Quote on a footpath in Cairns

Carbon offsetting information to Cairns, Australia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Cairns via Singapore produces carbon emissions of approximately 4,383 lbs CO2e. It costs about $22 to offset this. 

14 Responses

  1. Shelbs says:

    Such an interesting guide – we have been places too that felt like forced diversity. Glad cairns was able to leave a positive impression on your before seeing the Greta barrier reef!

    • Teja says:

      Yeah, deciding to visit the cemetery was a good decision. I was really surprised by what I learned. I think I decided to go because the Kuranda railway onboard narration told me what the pioneer cemetery is. So I’m glad I went on that side trip too. That day trip will probably be my next article.

  2. Heather says:

    I love being pleasantly surprised by new places. I was in Cairns years ago but don’t recall all that you’ve mentioned and explored. I will have to return!

    • Teja says:

      I am a staunch proponent of making every trip your own, because I do believe no one sees a place as only you can. But I have to say, I surprised myself for discovering this about Cairns. Not to mention the mango trees in a couple of spots. You know those video shares on social media asking why don’t we plant more fruit trees in public spaces? Well, Cairns kind of does that a little bit already. I’m surprised people didn’t bother simply taking the mangoes off the ground more. There’s just a bunch of little banal things like that which I liked very much.

  3. Krista says:

    I like that you took a different perspective on Cairns! I would love learning about the history and culture of the area the most I think – loved reading about it from a non-touristy perspective!

    • Teja says:

      Awesome! I don’t think of myself as someone particularly oriented to culture when I travel, but somehow when I look back to what I actually write on this blog, there sure is a heck of a lot of history and culture for a travelling scientist!

  4. Alma says:

    How interesting! Although I’ve been to Sydney and Brisbane I have not been to Cairns. Such a great way to learn about its diverse history.

  5. Angela says:

    I didn’t get to Cairns when I was in Australia, but I was really pleased to hear that they told the story of the aboriginal culture and origins of Cairns. I didn’t find the aboriginal culture was celebrated in Australia as the Maori culture is in New Zealand, and I really wanted to find out more than what I had read in books. I am glad there were references to history in Cairns.

    • Teja says:

      I felt exactly the same as you! I also went to New Zealand first, too.
      Cairns is not as glamourous as Australia’s biggest cities, but I got the sense that they’re more at peace with their history.

  6. Sue says:

    This is really interesting. I have stayed in Cairns a couple of times, both with a focus on diving & never even noticed this aspect of the city. I guess I just spent my time in my own little world but yours is a fascinating perspective, as is your discussion on authentic diversity. Thank you for sharing.

    • Teja says:

      It’s so easy to miss. I think the feeling grew on me, enough to investigate, because I spent a fairly long time using Cairns as a base to do different things around the area. So I actually walked the same streets and areas over and over, and that’s when you start noticing patterns.

  7. Annie H says:

    What a fascinating and interesting view of a place. I think I’ll be looking at places in a different light from now on.

    • Teja says:

      I definitely didn’t expect my trip to Cairns to have people stories at all! I went for the Great Barrier Reef, and was quite focused on the nature & conservation aspects. But I liked this discovery.

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