In Defense of Ugly
Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. Although it may be indefinable and indescribable, it is also undeniable – certain things are beautiful. And others aren’t. The Taj Mahal: beautiful. The city dump: not. Sure there are the artsy among us who find beauty where it isn’t, but I’m talking about cheerleader shallow pretty; the things that smack you as gorgeous the moment you meet. They are the pristine snow topped mountain peaks that show off on the covers of travel blogs. They’re the magnificent old architecture that makes Paris Paris and London London. They may be interesting. They may be historical. Above all they are beautiful.
So what about the ugly things? What good are they to us? Why hang out with the zitty adolescent of travel destinations when you could be with the prom queen? Is there any value to ugly?
This past weekend I met a real beauty. The 72 foot Buddah who overlooks Da Nang, Vietnam is a stunner – and a she. Buddette, as I now call her, looks staunchly intimidating from afar, but magnificently feminine up close. Despite her size, she has delicate waves in her robe and a lovely calm face. She stands on a hill covered in lush green trees and overlooks beautiful blue ocean. The girl knows how to live! So I was surprised to find that it was free to visit her and her temple. I was even more surprised to see that no one else was there. Surely Buddette should be a major tourist attraction?
As I walked around the temple grounds I noticed piles of rubble here and there. Stray dogs slept in the shade of buildings that could stand for a wash. Nothing had been done to hide a nearby construction site from view. Surely they could clean this place up a bit, I complained to my friend. For as gorgeous as Buddette and the natural scenery were, it seemed a coat of fresh paint would be welcome.
But then I stopped to think about what that would really mean for Buddette and her home. They could make the entranceway more elaborate, but then more overcrowded tourist buses would find it. They could make the walkways prettier, but then they might soon be mobbed by throngs of people. They could shoo away the sleeping pups, but would it spoil the serenity of the place? I was suddenly grateful for that little bit of ugly working its magic to keep Buddette just as she is.
We left the temple to explore the mountain. A few turns later and we’d stumbled on to one of those strikingly beautiful scenes found in cheesy 80s movies. There was several little thatch restaurants set up on stilts over a perfect turquoise bay. It was paradise…until I went to use the bathroom. Standing over the long drop without a door that closed properly I had a momentary pang for something sleeker. Why couldn’t the restaurant step it up a notch and splurge on, say, a toilet? But while the bathroom may have been fugh-tastic, it meant that local families could afford to eat there. It meant my gourmet lunch of shrimp and clams cost a whopping four dollars. It meant that I shared the beach with five other swimmers instead of fifty.
In an area of the world as ripe for overdevelopment as Southeast Asia, a little ugly goes a long way. The annoyances that keep a place from being perfect, also keep it authentic. Da Nang could stand a makeover here and there. But once the beauty treatment was done the miles of empty beaches would be covered in towels, tourist traps and tacky Tiki Bars (well done, Alliteration!).
It seems it’s often the ugly places that let us appreciate the beautiful ones. With almost no ego, the ugly invites us in, keeps us entertained and shelters us from inflated tourist prices. Da Nang hangs on an interesting point between Undiscovered and Tourist Destination. Although there might be prettier bathrooms in Phuket, I’ll take the long drop any day, and I think Buddette would agree. She seems like the type of gal who understands the price of beauty, and the value of a little ugh.