Not long ago, I arrived at the conclusion that an important and too-little-appreciated dimension of travel is the pursuit of beauty. By beauty I do not mean Hagia Sophia, or Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s, or the azure Aegean off the shores of Hydra.
I mean beauty in the sense of Bo Derek in 10. That artifact of schlock cinema and male chauvinism formalized both a superficial ratings system and a slightly embarrassing but nonetheless core truth of tourism. Naturally, we all hope when we are away to find fine hotels and good food and clement weather and merry encounters with charming locals. But we also, secretly, want the strangers in the places we visit to give us something good to look at. If not flat-out beautiful, we want them to be comely or stylish or to have something about them to please that most promiscuous of organs, the eye. At any rate, that’s what my eyes desire.
This approach may seem politically incorrect, at its worst, and baldly superficial, but getting to know inner beauty requires intimacy. And intimacy takes time to develop, and travelers generally have little time to spare.
Thus snap judgments are rendered and, not rarely, they become historical truth. Throughout his comprehensive and fantastically gory narratives of hard-won kingdoms and bloody battles, the Greek historian Herodotus seldom misses a chance to lay on the juicy descriptions of hot-bodied locals. If he unconsciously favored those who were beautiful, like the fabled Amazons, I myself do so fully aware that it is an ignorant vice to be guarded against. But then I land in a new place, another airport—Aimé Césaire International, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, say—and instantly fall into old ways.
I do know, of course, that the palms are swaying, the ocean breezes caressing, and the limitless shield of blue sky is a postcard of Infinity. But I scarcely notice the vistas in new places because the first things I look for on my sightseeing rounds are the finest examples from the local gene pool. In Martinique, for example, the high cheekbones and attenuated limbs of the best-looking locals are, it seems to me, set off by a distinctly Gallic flair for style and the kind of upright carriage that modeling schools once taught by making young women balance books on their heads.
I fall in love (or not) with a place through its people, and that act is useful in taking the edge off a reality no honest traveler can avoid: a lot of the planet is monotonous and dull. I fall in love, as the novelist Robert Stone did on a pothead bus tour, with the startlingly handsome citizens of a place like Salt Lake City—the most beautiful people in America, as Stone wrote in Prime Green, his memoir of the 1960’s. (If, as he added, “Nordics are what you like.”).
Since I don’t favor a type or a gender when it comes to the consumption of beauty, I fall in love equally with the Dravidian men of South India, lean and with eyes set deep in their skulls; with the Scandinavians, who tend to rank at the top of most lists of the world’s comeliest, their sturdy, even-featured faces incontestably lovely if occasionally stolid and bland; and with the Brazilians, whose history of racial interbreeding, encouraged by the Portuguese to suppress slave uprisings and enshrined in national integration programs of the 1930’s, led to Europe and Africa converging through a matrix of Indian DNA, with the supermodel Gisele Bündchen as the end result.
This love is strictly platonic. You’d have to be a fool or a criminal to follow the lead of beauty hunters like Flaubert or Gauguin, who traveled with the idea of gratifying organs other than the optic ones and with fairly predictable results. Instead, I come alive in the solitary act of observing other humans, of keeping an eye out for examples of beauty going about its daily affairs.
There is something to learn from how cultures view themselves, from noting the various ways that beauty is valued, presented, and, yes, assessed. It is a psychic corrective, for instance, to embrace in Hawaii the deep-rooted cultural affection for humans of ample form; to explore, in strictly observant Muslim countries, your own unease with religious restrictions that nevertheless direct one’s unconscious attention to what is seen—to eyes and hands, to the choreography of fragile measured gestures.
It is a commonplace that the grittier scenes from travel jolt one into sharpened awareness, that they tilt one’s consciousness. It is less often noted how beauty does the same. But all this is a fancy way of avoiding a confession: I like to watch.
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.