December 29, 2016 lia

The deceptive safety of beauty

We instinctively trust pretty people more than ugly people. In my first few weeks on sabbatical I realised this also applies to places.

Pretty familiar

I live a life of pretty things. I live in a beautiful apartment in the most picturesque part of Amsterdam, which is one of the world’s prettiest cities. There’s a lot of work that goes into keeping it pretty — from seasonally organising all of the flowering pots that line the canals to shaming neighbours who put their rubbish out on the wrong day. Crime (except bicycle theft) is also very low — I’ve never met anyone who has been robbed, had their house broken into, or witnessed any act of violence. It’s a pretty safe place.

The ugly duckling

Our first week on sabbatical was ugly. The sky in Anilao was dark, and the place in a decaying state. Even the coconut tree that hung next to our room looked half burnt. Sounds were also ugly. We were sandwiched between motorbikes streetside and motorboats seaside, and constant firecrackers and the healthy big dogs barking at firecrackers.

Our first morning two puppies died of an epidemic that was sweeping across the region. Another dog had broken his foot and was in a sorry state, and the remaining two puppies were on the brink of death.

We didn’t take any photographs our first week. We slept under impregnated mosquito nets, we washed our hands fanatically and we told our daughter not to play with the dogs. One sleepless night I faced a feeling that had been growing inside me: I felt unsafe in this place.

The handsome devil

Our second stop in the Philippines was a stark contrast — a quiet island paradise in a bird sanctuary on Olango Island, just off the coast of Cebu. We arrived directly to the resort’s pier by boat and didn’t see another motorised vehicle until we left. The reef shielded us from motor boats and the bird sanctuary from motorbikes.

Our delightful two bedroom bungalow impressed at first sight with its high ceilings, warm lighting and grand porch. It seemed the essence of a sabbatical — I could lay in the hammock on our front porch while my toddler played in the pool 5m away and my baby slept on the netted rattan day bed in the screened front room. The beds were draped in romantic mosquito nets and the owners had put thought into details like lighting fixtures and pillow cases.

We felt instantly safe and at home. But within an hour the varnish began to crack.

The mosquito nets were just for show and had huge gaps in the front and there are way more mosquitos here than there were in Anilao. Our first night we found four huge cockroaches. There wasn’t enough power for warm water or air conditioning. We were charged heavily for drinkable water and other things that were common courtesy in Anilao. And we were the only ones who didn’t lock our door.

What was influencing my sense of safety? The deceptive pretty varnish.

Rationality check

The big healthy dogs were far more of a threat to my toddler than the sickly puppies, but I had warned her to stay away from the sickly dogs. Our biggest danger in the Philippines is probably Dengue Fever, which we were far more likely to contract in the pretty resort than in the ugly one. And we were just as likely to be robbed on a sunny day than on a rainy day.

Is my trust in pretty places something that is instinctive? There are lots of studies worldwide indicating that we assume pretty people to be smarter, kinder, more generous and more trustworthy than plain people. ‘This tendency, referred to as the “what’s beautiful is good” stereotype, affects men and women; adults and children; people of every race, religion and ethnicity.’ Do the same instincts apply to places?

What makes a place beautiful? What makes people beautiful seems to be relatively consistent within and often between nationalities and ethnic groups: symmetry of facial and body structure, hormonal indicators such as square jawlines on men and smaller chins on women. But in my experience there is a wide range of diversity in what places people find beautiful. In the Netherlands, people find uninterrupted wide views, such as a big lake or the sea beautiful. In Ghana I traveled with two Ghanaian friends who were eagerly photographing new hospitals and football stadiums while I was photographing busy markets and green landscapes.

Or do we interpret familiar places as beautiful and safe? Where would a poor Filipino feel safe? What places would a rich Filipino find beautiful?