The Legend of Santiago, Who Either Lost or Found Something Somewhere Beyond the Horizon

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On certain summer nights in Hanoi, the rain forces people to take cover. Some slink off into bars, ushered in by watchful doormen ready to yank the metal drop-door shut should any police pass by (in Hanoi, bars stay open long after curfew, hiding their patrons inside clumsily like kids kicking toys under the bed). Other people find refuge under the canopy at the bar by the Water Puppet Theatre, drinking beers as the motor-scooters speed through the drenched Old Quarter streets. Then there are the folks who dart into the overpriced coffee shop that sits on the lip of the Hoan Kiem Lake, where they nurse every sip out of a Café Latte and watch the rain beat down on the water outside. The city loses its signal right before your eyes, drifting in and out of a warm fuzz like a television channel disappearing into static, and on nights such as this, the local people of Hanoi huddle together in their homes, safe from the rain, and talk in whispers about a tall Spaniard named Santiago who set foot there just over a year ago.

Actually, they don’t do anything like that. I’m sure nobody there knows who the heck Santiago was. I spent a decent amount of time with the guy, and even I can barely remember him. I’d like to think of him as something of a legend, though, a mythical figure that appeared out of nowhere and then vanished again. He’s really my own celebrated apparition, but since I met him in Hanoi, I’d like to pretend that he’s theirs too.

It was a rainy night in August. Perkins and I found ourselves eating pho at a little restaurant in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We’d vowed to eat pho every day we spent in Vietnam, and we were hell bent on sticking to that. Off to our left, a guy sat by himself, eating his own bowl of pho. He obviously wasn’t Vietnamese. Since I don’t talk to people, it must’ve been Perkins who invited him over to join us. His name was Santiago, and he had just arrived from Spain earlier that day.

“I’m so happy to be here,” he said, glowing, taking the spring roll I offered him (I had also eaten spring rolls every day too). “This place is amazing. It’s been one of my dreams to come here.”

From out of his pocket, he brought a folded piece of paper. There, he had handwritten a plan for the two weeks he’d be spending in Indochina. I liked the look of it. By that, I don’t mean I had any idea as to what his plan was, exactly, but I liked the visual aesthetic of a two week agenda scrawled down in pencil on a lone sheet of loose leaf paper. We all finished our pho and Santiago invited us to join him for a beer, and since he seemed like an interesting character, we went.

After a few drinks, Santiago started talking non-stop. This was fine with me, because it meant I only had to nod and pretend I was listening. “This is freedom!” he shouted. “Look at us all! We’re young and free. Other people have houses and kids, and here we are, having drinks together in Asia.”

In truth, you have to be kind of a selfish person to travel a lot. You make plans with only yourself in mind, spend all your money on yourself, and congratulate yourself for doing it. Santiago was celebrating that selfishness. He’d broken up with his girlfriend of several years in order to come. “She wanted me there,” he said. “She said I had to be there. I wanted to go see the world and she said I couldn’t…so I broke up with her…and two days later I jumped on a plane and here I am.”

“Does she know you came to Vietnam?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “She doesn’t know. Maybe she tries to contact me. I don’t know.”

I’m not the type to try and psychoanalyze people, but Santiago seemed a little sad. I could relate. In 2009, I made my first trip outside of the USA. It was with my wife. We had made plans to live in South Korea for two months, together, to share the experience. When those two months were over, I wanted to see so much more. She couldn’t wait to get back to our house in the States, our two cats, and all that jazz. I couldn’t do it. We separated. I think she still has the two cats.

Santiago drank more and the more he did the more he pulled out his piece of paper with the pencil-written agenda on it, looking over it and remarking about how remarkable it all was. The freedom of it. But with each beer, he also seemed a little more bummed out. Maybe that’s why he kept yanking that piece of paper out of his pocket.

He had clearly gone Beyond the Horizon, if you will. I read that play, written by Eugene O’Neil, back in 2009 when my wife and I were drifting apart. In brief, there are two male characters, two brothers. One goes off to sea and the other stays home. In the final act of the play they reunite. They find that each of them is filled with regret and envy, mournful, in his own way, at having chosen what he did. The one who had stayed wishes he had gone, and the one who had gone wishes he had stayed.

It’s a bit more meaningful than simply saying ‘the grass is always greener,’ because it’s about traveling, about seeing the world for yourself, and really it’s about how painful that can be. Every time I leave to go see a new place, I’m leaving somebody, some form of a home, and whatever semblance of stability I’ve made for myself. It can feel childish. I want everything. I want to have a girlfriend who loves me, and I also want to dash off at a moment’s notice to go jaunt around whatever place I feel like exploring. I want a home and a family, but only after I see Africa. I want to be an old man who has stories, and I also want to make sure I’ll have somebody to tell those stories to. Santiago knew, with every sip of beer, how rough it was. The feeling is difficult to describe. I’m sure he thought about the girl he had left, and I’m sure that when he did, those thoughts didn’t pull him back, but instead somehow propelled him forward, sadly.

At the end of the night, Santiago threw up, politely apologized, and left. We never saw him again. To me, he is a legend. He is the embodiment of the young man who can’t stop looking beyond the horizon. It’s hard to stop once you’ve looked. I suppose he isn’t really a legend back in Hanoi, where surely many other young men like him have passed through, stopping to taste the pho, talk to some strangers, and take cover from the rain when it comes down so hard the city itself gets lost.

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21 thoughts on “The Legend of Santiago, Who Either Lost or Found Something Somewhere Beyond the Horizon

  1. I guess it is like that. You can’t have everything. And in choosing one thing, you are denying yourself or you are giving up a lot of things. As I have said, it is a choice so it goes with the consequences and complications that comes with that choice.

    I like this part –> “Every time I leave to go see a new place, I’m leaving somebody, some form of a home, and whatever semblance of stability I’ve made for myself.” I have felt that, I have experienced that. :)

    • Hey Jep! Yeah, isn’t it a shame we can’t have everything? I mean, being able to have everything would make life so much easier! In a way, I envy people who are very content with what they have. I think some people can go through the standard motions (get a job, get a spouse, have a kid, get a house, etc) and they love it, and then I’m over here like, “But wait! I have to go to India!” It’s a curse.

      Peace Jep!

      • It’s not just you who’s envious topicless. I want a husband and kids. The rest can work it out themselves, I think. But I was thinking, I need to get a stable job before I want to get married. Waaaa…. It’s a choice. :(

      • Yeah, and not a fun one. Stupid jobs. Maybe if you have a kid soon enough, you can put him to work and thus avoid having to work yourself. Just a thought. : D

  2. AFBsax

    I’ve always wanted to travel somewhere, and this post made me think about it more deeply than before. But still, like you said about when the man thinks about his girlfriend, I want to go more now.

    • Yeah, I think you really should go someplace – it’s such an interesting experience to go traveling. That doesn’t mean it’s always good, but you’ll learn a lot about yourself. When I was in the Netherlands, it actually was kind of a dismal, depressing experience and I felt like I got sucked up into myself; conversely, going to Brazil was brilliant and maybe one of the more important times of my life. Anyways, enough about me! Where you wanna go, AFB? Start saving that cash and get out there!

      • AFBsax

        Well I don’t really know, but I do know that I’m going to be an aviator, so everywhere. Note the “going to be” because I’m still going through high school. :D

        I have been to Peru though, since my family is from there, and that was definitely what made me decide that I wanted to go somewhere far away. I guess I made this decision because I felt like I was more at home in Peru than in America. And I’ll keep in mind to not to go the Netherlands. :)

      • That’s a great goal – don’t screw it up by getting anyone pregnant! Sorry, that’s the old guy part of me speaking. I’m sure Peru is amazing. It’s one of the many places on my wants list. The Netherlands are fantastic! Don’t get me wrong – Amsterdam is a wonderful city. My head wasn’t in a very good place at the time, that’s all. So go party in Amsterdam, man! Don’t knock anybody up though haha.

  3. Junbi

    I feel a bit like this every time im getting ready to head out again – i want to go, but i dont want to leave.

    • Yes, exactly! I think that’s why I wrote this. In a few months, I’m heading for a month and a half long trek across Europe, and although I’m excited, I’m also filled with immense anxiety. Will I have a job when I come back? Will my girlfriend be okay? etc etc.

      Glad you can relate, Junbi! Take care. : )

  4. That’s an interesting way to look at wanderlust! But, whatever we do, aren’t we all ultimately selfish? I mean don’t we all choose to surround ourselves with people and things that give US happiness?

    • To an extent, yes…I suppose even having kids is done because the person is looking for something more in life and thinks kids will give him/her that. I was thinking about my life in particular the other day, and it dawned on me how ‘selfish’ my expenses are: I have no kids, no house payments, I don’t even pay rent, I have no car or car insurance payment, no cable or Internet bill…basically, all my expenses are just sort of me and the money I spend on what I feel like doing. I dunno – made me feel a little less like a grownup.

      I like your perspective, though. Your right – nobody chooses to be unhappy, and if they do…they’re masochists or something. Later girl!

    • Haha – Hi Judith! Well, who knows, maybe he’s dead. Speaking of which, thought you were dead for a little while there. Glad you’re back in the bloggin’ world! Keep on keepin’ on, Judith!

      • judithsmarkworld

        Hi… Bill? I am not sure if I got your name right…
        I am still around. I was just going through a few personal things… but the sky is clear again… I am inspired! Be ready to be flooded with my upcoming awesome blogs!
        Always a blogger! :-)

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