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.”).