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.