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.