Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Peruvian Politics 101

On Sunday 9 April, Peru will go to the polls to elect a new President and Congress. Since there will almost certainly not be a clear majority for any candidate, a second round of voting for president is expected to take place on 7 May.

It's a significant time for Peru; after all the turmoil of the last twenty years, it will be a substantial achievement for the process to run calmly, produce a clear set of results, and deliver an orderly handover of power.

Beyond that, the election will have a major influence on how the country develops over the next five years. There are fairly stark political differences between the presidential candidates, and the eventual outcome will give weight to one of the competing visions of the overall political and economic direction of South America.

The presidential candidates in Peru and their parties are:

Lourdes Flores Nano

The candidate for the Unidad Nacional party, Lourdes Flores is hoping to follow the example of Chile's Michele Bachelet and be the second woman elected president of a South American country. Described by some as a "right-wing conservative", she is in truth more of a pragmatist and a social liberal. Her policies and even some of her language appear to be modelled on those of Alvaro Uribe, the popular centre-right president of Colombia.

In congress since 1990, Flores distinguished herself by being among the staunchest opponents of Alberto Fujimori's constitutional coup in 1992 and a consistent critic of the Fujimori administration. In the last five years she has generally supported the neoliberal, trade-oriented policies of Alejandro Toledo.

Though she was a clear leader in polls as late as December 2005, Flores has gradually been overtaken by Ollanta Humala (see below). The latest poll shows her second, on 27 percent. However, on a head-to-head basis with Humala - likely to be the case in the second round of voting - polls have her preferred by 53 to 47 percent.

According to a poll reported by Peruvian TV station 90 Segundos, of those who say they will vote for Lourdes Flores, only 7 percent are motivated by a belief that she will combat corruption. Twenty-one percent say they will vote for her simply because she is a woman, while 39 percent favour her proposed policies.

She promises to modernize the armed forces, create 650,000 jobs per year through mixed public and private investment, and lift tourism from 1,200,000 to 2 million visitors per annum. Her contribution to the obligatory rhetorical bashing of traditional enemy Chile has been a call to beat Peru's southern neighbour at its own game by strengthening commerce and "winninng the war of globalization".

Her campaign to date has focussed on an exhausting schedule of streetside meet and greet sessions in different parts of Peru. She danced the marinera (the national folk dance) in a visit to the north coast, and got down to reggaeton in the jungle city of Pucallpa.

Despite these efforts, and her clear, concrete policies, critics say that she is struggling to shake off her image as the "candidate of the rich" and to connect emotionally with majority of poor, marginalised Peruvians.

Ollanta Humala

Formerly a lieutenant colonel in the Peruvian army, Humala is head of the Partido Nacionalista, but for the election he and his candidates are running under the banner of the liberal Union por el Peru.

Along with his father Isaac and his brothers Antauro and Ulises, Ollanta Humala is a founder of the "etnocacerist" movement, which combines promotion of power for indigenous people with economic nationalism.

Widely described as a "left-wing populist", Humala sees himself as being in the mould of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and newly elected Bolivian leader Evo Morales. In January he attended the visit of president-elect Morales to the presidential palace in Caracas, where both Chavez and Morales pledged their support.

He promises to "stamp out" corruption and restore dignity to the Peruvian armed forces, which he says have been corrupted by involvement in drug trafficking and domination by graduates of the CIA-influenced School of the Americas (where he himself trained). He opposes foreign control of economic resources in Peru (especially by Chile) and proposes renationalization of key industries, beginning with the most recently privatized.

However, he has stressed a commitment to South American integration and "brotherhood", and boasted of his meetings with Chavez, Morales, Kirchner (Argentina) and Lula (Brazil) - pointedly, of course, leaving out Chile.

Humala has a chequered military and political history. In 1992 he commanded a unit near Tingo Maria during the struggle against the Shining Path, where it is alleged that he involved in human rights abuses. Investigations into this matter are ongoing.

In 2000, he led an "uprising" against Fujimori in the sierra of the Tacna region, along with about 60 other soldiers. Hugo Chavez recently called this a "quixotic" effort, but others have suggested that it was a piece of grandstanding, at a time when Fujimori's government was already crumbling.

Antauro is currently in jail, after his own abortive "uprising" in Andahualylas in January 2005, which I wrote about at the time (there's also some further background on etnocacerism in that post), in which four policemen and one rebel were killed.

Ollanta, who was at the time a military attache in South Korea, gave a rather extraordinary interview to the BBC (here, in Spanish), in which he appeared to both distance himself from the actions of his brother and also justify them.

His campaign has involved many large public rallies, at which he rouses the crowds with stirring rhetoric.

As he has developed his candidacy, Ollanta Humala has been at pains to distance himself from some of the more extreme pronouncements of his family. His father Isaac openly embraces a racial politics, promoting power for "the brown race", and has called the childless Lourdes Flores "an old maid", while his mother Elena has made violently anti-gay remarks. Antauro has contented himself with suggesting that the current president, his wife, and the prime minister "should be shot".

Ollanta has reportedly told his parents to stop making public pronouncements, and groaned at a press conference that "sometimes I wonder if Antauro is actually an enemy".

However, Antauro was today (6 April) recorded as saying from his jail cell that the distance established between himself and Ollanta is "strategic" and that "[their] objective is the same".

The Lima-based media views Humala with fear and loathing. News and current affairs outlets openly warn of his authoritarian tendencies and his "threat to democracy". They reacted with some horror to the perceived subtext of Humala's suggestion that, under his presidency, media would be enlisted as "allies in the battle against corruption".

However, this is all rather counter-productive, as it simply cements the reputation of Humala as an outsider who is distinct from the traditional political class.

Neither the finger-wagging of the Lima elites nor the human rights abuse allegations have defused the visceral response of Humala's supporters, who simply see an underdog that shakes his fist on their behalf at the rich, white, and poweful. His appeal is especially strong with voters who are poor, uneducated, and male.

The 90 Segundos poll found that of those who would vote for Humala, the most popular reason was "because he will address corruption" (29 percent), while all of 1o percent would vote for him simply because he is ex-military.

Alan Garcia

Former president of Peru, 1985-90. Garcia, known to all and sundry in Peru simply as "Alan", is the the leader of the APRA party. Founded in 1924 by Victor Raul Haya de la Torre, APRA is the oldest of the Peruvian parties. Originally Marxist, now turned social democratic, it was periodically banned up until 1979.

When APRA and the fresh-faced, 36 year-old Alan Garcia were elected in the 1985 polls, there was a wave of optimism, and he began his term with the support and hopes of a large proportion of the population.

Instead, his term was an unmitigated debacle, characterized by hyperinflation of a cumulative two million percent, the intensifying of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorist insurgency, human rights abuses by the military, a 20 percent fall in Peruvian GDP, and an estimated additional five million Peruvians dropping below the poverty line.

Among other achievements, funding allocated for a desparately needed mass transit system in Lima "disappeared", and the project has only recently recommenced.

Meanwhile, Alan Garcia managed to enrich himself. Some allege that during the 1990 elections he and APRA clandestinely backed Alberto Fujimori in the second round of voting against the first-round winner, author Mario Vargas Llosa, whose party had promised to investigate allegations of corruption against Garcia.

But following Fujimori's auto-coup in 1992, charges were re-opened against Alan Garcia. He escaped to Colombia, where he remained until 2001, when the statute of limitations was deemed to have run out. Forty-eight days after arriving back in Peru, he ran as a candidate in the presidential election, where he won 48% of the vote (Peruvians being tigers for punishment) and was narrowly defeated by Alejandro Toledo.

This time around he has averaged around 21 percent in the polls, consistently in third place, though in a late surge there's a chance he could push Lourdes Flores out of second spot. Most polls show that in a run-off between Humala and Alan Garcia, Humala would win easily.

His greatest claim to fame in recent times was when during a protest march he allegedly kicked the backside of a poor homeless man who got in his way. This was siezed on by many as a truer representative of his personality than his stirring oratory, and "la patada (kick) de Alan" is frequently referred to in discussions of Peruvian politics.

Though the media tends to present him as a failed and petulant buffoon, he is definitely viewed as the lesser of two evils when compared to Humala. Not only is it assumed that he and his party learned their lessons from the disasters of the 80s, but more importantly he is a known quantity, a stable and predictable part of the political establishment.

In my next post, I'll look at the possible influence of the minor candidates, and the legacy of the outgoing president, Alejandro Toledo.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

South America Again

Casual readers of this blog might wonder why it's called "South America Bidsta". Ok, so actually it's a bit of a dumb name and I should probably change it at some stage.

"Bidsta" is me; one of those blokey monikers your friends give you. Originally I called the blog "Bidsta Blog": back in 2003 I was still among the first few million early adopters of blogging, so it still seemed like a less than completely lame idea to put "blog" in the title.

Then, when I was in South America (where I spent a year from April 2004 - April 2005), I decided to add Google's Adsense code to my site, in the hope that I'd get a few visitors who'd click on the ads and make me a few cents from my blogging (yes, I should have known better...). It then ocurred to me that if I added "South America" to the title of the blog, Google's robots would figure that my posts were mostly about SOUTH AMERICA and post appropriate ads - probably about travel to said continent.

People who visited my site would then be so intrigued by my fascinating tales of life in Peru and elsewhere, they'd probably want to think about going there. Aha! - they'd look to the top of the page to find a travel agency offering adventure tours. Click! And I make nineteen cents US.

A nice, naiive theory, spoiled by the fact that Google seems to have made a big experiment out of how it applies ads to people's pages (my posts on South America now have ads for travel there - many months after anyone might have read them). In addition, about 1 percent of people visiting a website tend to click on the ads, no matter how relevant they might be. And finally, at that stage I hadn't figured out how to publicise the blog to anyone but my friends and family (most of whom had forgotten who I was by late 2004), and had got a bit sporadic with my posts amidst my commitments to romance and adventure amidst the towering Andes etc etc.

With the results that my insightful updates on Peruvian politics and dashing tales of trekking im the wilderness were read by a total of about three people. Which kind of cut down the percentages at ad-click time.

Now, I've been back for about a year and have posted (ranted, perhaps) on all kinds of things, with a recent trend towards complaining about getting woken up in the morning. Though my AdSense clicks are a lost cause, my average traffic has gradually climbed, thanks to my links into Technorati, a handful of regular readers, and oh, all of about three people who have been so kind as to exchange links with me. I should be refining my position as a boutique pundit on New Zealand affairs.

But, at this pivotal moment, it turns out that I'm actually going to South America again. Yes, on the 18th of April I fly out from Auckland, bound for Lima.

This will be quite a different trip from last time. Then, I spent a year with the general goal of meeting people, making friends, learning something about the culture and history , and ticking off as many tourist highlights as possible.

It worked out pretty well. Like many before me, I was enchanted by the beauty and joie de vivre of the city of Arequipa in southern Peru, which I ended up making by base and my home for about six months.

I walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and did the Death Road and Salar de Uyuni in Boliva. I climbed 6,000-metre mountains and trekked though the remote back country of the Andes. I went rafting and horse riding in Argentina, visited the coffee-growing centre of Colombia, and explored the ruins of the Lambayeque, Moche, Chimu, Wari and Nazca cultures on Peru's desert coast. I compared the nightime carrete, juerga and rumba in Santiago, Lima, Cali, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I met the taciturn natives of Lake Titicaca and the staggeringly beautiful girls of Cordoba.

At all times I stuck strictly to the moutains, deserts, canyons, coasts and cities. Although if you look at a map of South America you will see an enormous green swathe which takes up almost a third of the continent's land mass, I did not once set foot in the Amazon. In my total of eighteen months spent in Latin America I've never yet been into the jungle. I admit, I'm a little squeamish about it.

But this time I'm biting the bullet. After a week to ten days catching up with friends in Arequipa, I intend to head back to Lima and then make the arduous and mildly dangerous trip across the Andes and into the lowlands, all the way to the frontier town of Pucallpa, which is the end of the road.

From there, it's by boat, four days down river to Iquitos, a city of 500,000 people - the world's largest with no road connection. This, I understand, is a trip you probably want to do once; most people who can afford it take the plane. Hot, dirty, crowded, terrible food, surrounded by beggars and thieves, I'll almost certainly suffer, and will probably regret ever deciding to do it.

Jungle tours can be arranged from Iquitos (and I understand it has quite a nightlife), but you're still not fully in the virgin Amazon. So I plan to take another boat even further downriver, to Leticia. This is small town, actually in Colombia, but right at the point where the borders of Colombia, Peru and Brazil meet. If you were really motivated to do so, this is probably a spot you could disappear and erase your identity.

Leticia is a backwater with almost mythical status; a kind of lost Macondo in the steaming jungle. I've read a bit about the area, and am eager to see it for real.

From Leticia there really is no way back unless you want to spend a week plugging upriver. So, assuming I've got that far and haven't been struck down by malaria, I'll grab a spot on a local plane into Bogota. What Garcia Marquez derided as a grey and serious city should be very welcome after my sojourn in the insect-ridden Amazon. From there I fly out to Santiago (ci-vi-li-zacion! as the bus driver called out when we crossed the Bolivian frontier into Chile on my last trip) for three days, then finally back to Enzed.

There's a lot I want to achieve on this trip. Just for a start, to properly record some of the many colorful, larger-than-life stories my friends and acquantainces from Arequipa tell so eloquently. And to finally get hold of a decent selection of CDs of the huaynos, chicha and tecno-cumbia that, for me, makes Peru Mexico's rival in richness of musical culture and its superior in originality.

In addition, I want to push my comfort boundaries a bit and dig a bit deeper into learning about people's lives. Last time I thought I figured out quite a lot about what makes Peru tick, but I didn't really scratch too far beneath the surface. This time I will be attempting to tear myself away from another round of pisco sours and flirting with the cute girls dancing merengue, and do some of the possibly difficult, tiresome and unpleasant work of understanding the place better

It's the Peruvian elections on the 9th of April, and what will almost certainly be a second round of the presidential vote in May when I'm there. This will be a fairly pivotal moment, not only for Peru, but for helping define the overall direction of South America and its political future for the next five to ten years.

I'll try and post on that while I'm there, as well as providing regular updates on my trip into the jungle (and apologies if I'm making it sound like Heart of Darkness). In the meantime, in the next few weeks expect a couple of (possibly rather serious) posts on South America, and in particular that strange bundle of contradictions and absurdities which is Peru and its political life.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The "Man Drought" Strikes Back

Last August I posted on the so-called New Zealand "man drought". Uncovered by an opportunistic Australian who had read off some numbers from the 2001 census, this "drought" involved an apparent demographic gender imbalance in the 20-49 age group.

It was quickly seized upon by the print media, TV, watercooler chatter, and people like my flatmate's 24 year-old friend who rang her up and asked anxiously: "Did you hear? There's a man drought in Wellington!" (with a tone that might have been suitable for "earthquake" or "bird flu epidemic"). [Postscript: I saw said friend at a party a few weeks later, surrounded by at least four eager and jostling males].

Though I had some personal perspectives and theories on why the "drought" was becoming an instant cultural myth, my initial priority was to post on its lamentably dumb, credulous treatment in the media. I was going to do a follow up, but as time went by, figured it was maybe too silly a topic to waste the effort on.

But now the man drought is back in the news. "New Zealand women settle for less" shouted the headline in last weeks Christchurch Press. Supposedly a trend has been identified of women "marrying down", by choosing partners of lower educational, and sometimes economic, status, because of a lack of eligible men.

The resident expert is again boffiny Wellington economist Paul Callister, who appeared in print and on TV last time around spouting off about the future dynamics of relationships.

He has been contracted by the Department of Labour to investigate the demographic imbalance. Among his findings are that, surprise surprise, the "man drought" has been overhyped. The gap in women and men in the 20-49 age group is actually more like 33,000 rather than the 53,000 depicted by the 2001 census.

But he thinks he has uncovered a drought of sorts - one of smart blokes:

Callister said the most significant finding of his research was a 10 per cent increase in the past two decades in highly educated women marrying men with fewer qualifications and, in many cases, lower-paid jobs. This had happened largely because of a lack of eligible partners of equal educational or economic status, he said.

The Press article eagerly extended the metaphor of scarcity , talking of "slim pickings" for women. Predictably, Michael Laws got uncouthly in on the act in the Sunday Star Times, commenting that "the man drought...has had the effect of single women searching out any male with a pulse in an attempt to copulate and breed".

But as appealing as the idea might be to some of scores of frustrated women casting around for well-educated men (someone point them out, please), I just don't buy it.

Assuming that the statistics actually have the significance that's claimed, how's this for an alternative interpretation? Maybe New Zealand women, increasingly likely to be well-educated and with independent means, are simply indulging their existing inclination to partner up with the rugby players, farmers and tradespeople who our culture constantly tells us are the only really acceptable Kiwi blokes?

But in fact there is reason to suspect that the meaning of the stats has been twisted. To know what the significance is of 10 percent more highly educated women "marrying down", you'd have to know some other facts, including what the overall increase has been in highly educated women over the last two decades. If, as is likely, this has increased by more than 10 percent, the number of women "marrying down" might have increased, but not the proportion.

In other words, highly educated women are no more likely to "marry down"; there are just more of them. So it's not about a paucity of men at all - but the fact that there's more girls with degrees.

Seen this way, the discussion appears to be less about what is still a dubious and poorly quantified gender imbalance, and more a somewhat sexist insecurity about disturbance to the natural order of things.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kiwi towns

Apparently, John Cleese trashed Palmerston North on his website, describing it as "suicide capital of New Zealand" after his recent visit here.

While Manawatu luminaries naturally feigned surprise and outrage, NZPA columnist Belinda McCammon thought it an opportune moment to dredge up all the nasty things that celebrities (from Charles Darwin on) had said about NZ (I don't know; you try and be a smart ass, and find that you've actually taken a literal tone...)

Cleese was hardly being original, anyway. PN is the currently accepted whipping-post for NZers wanting to dump all their fears about being provincial and backward onto a single place.

I forget exactly who was the recently returned NZ author, exiled in Europe for many years, who wrote in a column in the Dom Post that: "Those who grew up in Palmerston North dreamed of escape. Those who gew up in Fielding dreamed only of death".

Invercargill, immortalised by Keith Richards as "the asshole of the world", has now been rehabilitated somewhat. It seems you can't stay rock bottom for too long before you become edgy and avant garde.

A litle while ago a fashion-conscious friend of mine even suggested it could be a hidden gem. "Study journalism at the tech nearly for free; do a diving course; fresh oysters; great walking tracks on your doorstep; Queenstown and Central Otago just up the road", she listed with growing conviction. Mind you, she did grow up in AshVegas.

It's all put me in the mood to make a new "best and worst list". New Zealand is a country where urban development often seems to have been treated as an afterthought, and NZers and foreigners alike have long written off particular places as unbelievably dull, sterile and provincial (until recently, foreign travel writers often did this to NZ towns and cities en masse) . Yet it's not all bad - there have always been spots with some charm and flair. And other places with potential that sadly hasn't been realised.

Having travelled around most (though not all) of New Zealand in several tours with a folk-rock covers band, I've also been a keen observer of how the atmosphere and character changes from place to place.

Here are my picks and special mentions:

Ugliest town: Very hard to go past Huntly. Kind of Hull-on-the-Waikato ambience. Has a depressed and slightly creepy feeling. There was a fuss a couple of years ago when a motorway extension was being built in the area and local Maori claimed that a taniwha was being disturbed. Not hard to believe. Drive past the area aptly known as Long Swamp, not far north of Huntly, and you get the distinct impression that several mean-spirited taniwhas lurk nearby.

Honourable mention: Blenheim - I haven't been there for a few years, and people tell me that all the sauvignon blanc money that's poured in has changed the face of it a bit. But it would be a slow process prettifying a place which seemed to have made a serious study in defying the surrounding natural beauty by being as featureless and dull as possible.

Most attractive town: no obvious winner. Of course, New Zealand is full of diverse and dramatic natural beauty. Some of the urban spots which haven't squandered the benefits of their settings, and have even added to them, include: Paihia and Russell, Picton, Akaroa, Arrowtown, Clyde, Lyttelton, Oamaru, Hanmer and Martinborough.

Most underated: 1. Cromwell - before it became Pinot Noirsville, there was an austere charm to Cromwell, nestled in its desert setting under the Pisa Range. Most of the old stone town centre was drowned when the Clyde Dam created Lake Dunstan, but some of it is still preserved. Less well acknowledged, the new town was innovative (for NZ) with its "greenway" which ensures swathes of green public space between the residential crescents and cul-de-sacs.

Summers are actually hotter than in neighbouring Alexandra, and the general atomsphere is much nicer. There's a lazy rural feel and people are open and extra friendly. Though I'm still not sure about those giant fruit...

2. Westport - walk down Wesport's main street and it feels like you're stepping back thirty, or even fifty years. It has an uncontrived nostalgia, almost a sense of being forgotten. With almost everywhere these days featuring compulsory snappy cafes with fusion cuisine and latte, there's something comforting about heading down to the tearooms for a greasy mixed grill with shoddy filter coffee. The fact that, since its heyday, change has always come slowly to this remote spot, gives it a lingering sense of history. It's got a lush, mild feel, and is on the doorstep of some wild, beautiful scenery.

As a touring band, it would have to rank among the top few places we ever played. At the Black & White pub, gigs were genuinely wild, as locals and folk in from the bush mixed with backpackers sensing this was one place they could throw off their inhibitions and have a truly good time.

Most overrated: 1. Nelson. Don't get me wrong, the natural setting is absolutely outstanding, between the sea and three different ranges of mountains. The layout of the town is attractive enough as well, with its greenery, cathedral set amidst gardens, and the white hospital on the hill. But the cold, snobbish ambience is exactly what you'd expect if you took Christchurch, with all its stratified reserve, and shrunk it to one seventh its size.

2. Motueka - again, the sun and scenery flatter to deceive. This is Timaru with grapefruit. Stay around too long and you start to hear the banjos being plucked.

Biggest failure to take advantage of natural attributes: Napier and Hastings - the only real natural drawback of the twin Bay cities is that they're a bit isolated. In their favour is a decent port, perhaps the best climate in New Zealand, historic wealth from the hinterland - now with international prominence for its Bordeaux-style red wines - collective population great than Dunedin, and the silver lining of having to start afresh after the 1931 earthquake.

Yet Napier and Hastings have divided themselves rigidly along class lines, carried on internecine squabbles over infrastructure, and ended up creating a rather dull place which has little cultural, economic, educational or political impact on the New Zealand scene.

Honourable mention: Whangarei - warm, lush, surrounded by unique mangrove swamps, native bush and bird life, and island-dotted bays and beaches so beautiful they make you weep, you'd think the town could have been inspired to do better. But again, class differences and poverty are the strongest impressions.

Please post your own views of the best and worst of NZ's towns. I realise there's a distinct South Island bias in the ones I've mentioned here. Some parts I haven't really visited at all include Southland, Eastern Bay of Plenty and East Cape. And some of my judgements are based on more fleeting impressions than others, so feel free to vehemently disagree.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006


I spent from Tuesday evening to Friday afternoon last week in Melbourne on work-related business, and it was my first visit there. What a great city! It's a place which comes close to living up to the platitudes from the tourist brochures.

The first thing you notice, coming into the city centre from the freeway which sweeps in from the airport, is the mix of grand, aspirational architecture, Victorian and modern. Walking around at ground level, you then discover the generous areas apportioned to well trimmed and watered parks and gardens.

Trains and trams loop around the central quadrant and out to their suburban spokes with what seems like unflappable logic, leaving the inner-city traffic thin and tolerable. Wandering through the CBD, you find both shady Old World backstreets with little cafes, and futuristic multi-level plazas and galleries hedged between skyscrapers.

The weather was great, too: clear and sunny all four days, and heating up later in the week. It hit 34 degrees on Thursday and 35 degrees on Friday. I find genuine heat invigorating; it speeds up the blood and makes you feel more alive. If Wellington could manage just a few weeks of such hot weather every year it would be a much more atractive place.

When visiting a new city, I can't help trying to find points of comparison with places I already know. My first impressions were that the generously broad sidewalks shaded by drought-resistant oak, maple and plane trees had touches of Argentinian cities like Cordoba and Mendoza. Something of Toronto, too, in the evidence of forward-thinking urban planning to integrate the historic and the modern, plus the wide choice of excellent food.

Later I saw little old pubs that would fit seamlessly into a London street, and 19th-century apartment blocks which gave a distinctly Parisian feel to some areas (part of Collins St in the eastern CBD is actually known as the "Paris end").

People have often told me that Melbourne is "like Wellington", both in ambience and weather. Well, maybe it's the obvious trans-Tasman comparator, if we assume that Auckland chases after Sydney. And both places have a good standard of coffee. But beyond that, I don't really see it.

The overall feel is more like how Christchurch would be in its wildest, most grandiose dreams - if only it had the imagination. As for the weather, Melbourne is known to be fickle by Australian standards, but let's face it, they're not quite the same as New Zealand's. Suffice it to say that if Wellington ever had a minor heat wave like Melbourne last week, it would be unprecedented.

Of course, there wasn't enough time to get a real feel for the ambience and personality of the place, but as far as I could tell it had a confident, friendly vibe. The conference dinner on Wednesday was a small but riotous affair at a cheery Greek taverna which rolled out Atkins-sized quantities of meat, fish and cheese, tempered by lashings of artery-clearing red wine.

On Thursday evening I went out with some fellow conference attendees for dinner and what we thought would a quiet drink or three in an inner-city Irish pub.

About 10:30pm the place was invaded by an entourage of orientation-week students from Monash University. They had a theme of "the Commonwealth Games" for their party, and there were many risque variations on athletes, netballers and hockey players.

For the next couple of hours the students swarmed through the pub indulging in flesh-baring, cross-dressing, and gratuitous public displays of canoodling, while we all sat there feeling old. Apart from the fact that some of the students didn't look a day older than twelve, I was a bit perturbed that they seemed to be having the kind of uninhibited, decadent fun that we dreamt about, but never quite managed, during my time at university.

Is this generation more liberated and in touch with their hedonistic impulses? Or do Australians just have a better time?

With most of Friday free, I had a chance to wander further. I walked down Flinders St to Flinders St station, cavernous and painted in creamy yellow, preserved in its Victorian pomp, and with a palpable aura of nostalgia despite the throngs of people which still pass through it.

Across the road I admired the rather daringly Cubist buildings of Federation Square, which include the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. I crossed the Yarra River, looking upstream to the floodlight towers of the MCG, and walked a little way into the Alexandra and Victoria gardens in the "Yarra Green Belt". I strolled a way down the riverside promenade of glass towers, nouveau riche bistros and boutiques on Southbank and crossed the bridge back to Flinders St.

I didn't make it far out of the central city area. The tourist guide (as well laid out and coherent as the city itself) and acquaintances had suggested a trip either north to retro Brunswick or south to trendy St Kilda. But there wasn't really time.

My one indulgence was a free guided tour through the Victorian Parliament. I thought it might give me some insight into a city which gives the strong impression of never having been short of money, nor afraid to spend it.

The Parliament buildings form a broad, slate grey-edifice fronted by a row of Doric columns. They are made of Grampian stone, named after the hills in eastern Victoria from which it is sourced. Inside is a rather breathtaking opulence; ornate vaulted ceilings are lined with genuine 23-carat gold leaf.

Our tour guide Tony explained the sweet irony which accompanied the establishment of the colony of Victoria. On July 1, 1851 the state gained its independence from New South Wales, which had been "robbing us blind". Six days later, gold was discovered, the start of a forty-year rush which pumped wealth into the region.

The houses of Parliament were started in 1856, and this year is their 150th anniversary. The original design was even more grandiose, and called for the eventual replacement of the vaulted ceilings by huge glass domes. But by the 1890s the gold was running out, and further construction was canned. In fact, the buildings have never been completed to design. Apparently, Premier Jeff Kennett had a plan to finish them off in 1996, but balked at the $300 million cost in an election year.

I left thinking that Melbourne was well summed up by the name of the state of which it is the capital. As far as I could tell on my brief acquaintance, it seemed to have grown up in accordance with distinctly Victorian philosophies. Conservative in the sense of wanting to preserve tradition and believing in a hierarchy of values, but embracing progress and modernity. Materialism tempered by a strong sense of the public good.

I'm not sure that any New Zealand town has consistently struck that balance - though I also suspect that none has been quite so rich.

Maybe Melbourne doesn't have the "edge" and sense of excitement of the few truly great cities. And I've no idea what kind of job you need to be able to live anywhere close to the centre. But with its strikingly cheap public transport, along with everything else going for it, my impression is that it's close to the most complete and liveable city in Australasia.

NB - will add photos to this post later in the week.

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