Eddie Zaldivar is a highly successful marketer who specialises in creating data architectures and online optimisation tools. He has led major projects for the likes of Unilever and Cisco, and travelled throughout South America giving talks at Google Offices in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.
His life was set on a remarkable new path when, as a publishing analyst and aspiring producer, he took the opportunity to work on a documentary about the Honduran soccer team’s quest to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
A few days before setting off, by miraculous coincidence, Eddie was contacted by his long-lost sister – and the trip took on a much bigger significance. Being in Honduras would give him the chance to reconnect with his paternal family. He arrived in the country in the aftermath of a military coup, and what began as a week-long production trip transformed into an 18-month journey through Central America rediscovering his roots.
In this interview, Eddie discusses how reconnecting with family through travel brought new meaning to his life and equipped him for a successful career.
What was your life and work situation before you took a long travel break?
I was single, living in Miami, working as an analyst in the publishing industry for a national magazine. I was starting to get into digital too, having talks with my clients on their social media strategy back in the Myspace days.
I had lost my mother a few years before the break, and it left me devastated and alone. Holidays were the worst, with no one to call or share them with.
I didn’t have the best relationship with my mother, and not having her around left many unresolved issues. In this time, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and my health became an escape. I would get up and lift at 5am, go to BJJ after work and then run home and up 37 flights of stairs to my condo.
How did the trip come about?
I have a good friend who is a sports journalist. I had a life-long fascination with TV production and told him to think of me if he ever needed any help with his assignments, and he jumped at the offer.
After a few gigs, he told me about his idea of making a documentary on the Honduran soccer team. It was the year before the World Cup, and Honduras was on the precipice of making it there after a 27-year hiatus. There had just been a political coup where the military kicked Mel Zelaya out of the country. My family is from Honduras, so I requested leave, got a new passport and off I went.
What was it like to travel in Honduras during the aftermath of a military coup, and what did you learn from the experience?
The military coup was front and centre in everyone’s lives. They had recently removed the 6pm curfew when I arrived, and I felt everyone really needed Honduras to make it to the World Cup. There were military checkpoints all over the place with guys dressed in military fatigues and M-16s; it felt like a war zone.
The game we had flown to see was the Honduras versus USA World Cup qualifier. I don’t remember the exact details, but I think Honduras had to either win or tie to make it to the World Cup. USA was already in and just needed to win to secure the first seed.
It was a surreal experience being in the tunnel with Landon Donovan and Tim Howard as they were pumping themselves up prior to stepping on the field. Honduras ended up losing that game, but they had one more chance and it was a long shot. Not only did they have to beat El Salvador, but the USA would need to avoid losing to Costa Rica that same night.
My journalist friend was disappointed and flew home thinking that there was a slim chance Honduras would make it. To cut a long story short, I convinced him to leave me the camera, and I took a bus to El Salvador.
Honduras narrowly beat El Salvador 1-0. Even though they won, there was a long silence in the stadium as everyone was on their phone trying to figure out who won in the other game. Then, boom! The crowd goes wild when the news breaks, with the USA scoring a corner kick in the final second of the game, knocking Costa Rica out – and Honduras was in.
I was right there on the field in Honduras’ biggest sporting moment trying to dodge the players as they went nuts celebrating.
Where else did you travel on the journey, and were there any stand-out experiences?
I travelled to Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala.
I became involved in the martial arts community in Honduras. By that time, I had over ten years of studying and competing in BJJ and 16 years of wrestling. I quickly made a name for myself and started getting invited to give seminars.
Word got around that someone from the States was teaching BJJ. I visited dojos and academies introducing BJJ to pupils. I was even lucky enough to train with the Honduran Olympic judo and wrestling team.
Some guy who hosted Honduras’ most popular radio show, who was also a martial artist, came to one of my classes. He invited me to be on his morning show the following week. My appearance went so well that they asked me to come every Thursday.
Then I was invited to compete in the largest regional MMA organisation in Central America, Black Out, in Guatemala City. I fought in front of several thousand people.
I got to travel through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica. There were so many locations I could talk about, but if I had to pick one, it would be San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.
San Juan del Sur is about 15 kilometres from the border of Costa Rica. It’s this beautiful little fishing town with a big population of expats from Canada, the US and Europe. I ended up going to this virgin beach about 12 kilometers on a small dirt road from there. There was a burger shack called Lug’s run by two Canadians out in the middle of nowhere (Lug was the name of their Great Dane).
“I slept on a hammock under a little tiki hut for about a week and half where I practically had this virgin beach to myself.”
We quickly became friends and they invited me to stay as long as I wanted. I slept on a hammock under a little tiki hut for about a week and half where I practically had this virgin beach to myself, eating coconuts and boiled eggs. I’d spend hours, just me and Lug running around this beautiful beach.
When I crossed the border to Costa Rica, I had this moment of panic when it hit me that I really didn’t have a plan of where I was going next. What was I going to do? Then it hit me I could go wherever I damn well pleased. If I wanted to take a boat to France, I could. Anything was possible.
You were able to reconnect with family on the trip after many years without contact. How did this happen?
Four days before I flew to Honduras to shoot the documentary, my half-sister, Rosie, who I hadn’t seen since I was 11, hit me up on Facebook. She had been looking for me for years.
I knew her as Rosie, which I didn’t know was her middle name, but now that she’s grown she goes by her first name. I changed my name legally at the age of 14 taking my stepfather’s last name, so we were both in the same boat looking for each other with the wrong name.
She said she wanted to see me, and when would it be possible for me to visit Honduras? I told her “I already have a ticket, I’ll be there in four days”.
What impact did this reconnection have on your life?
This was huge for me. I had felt so alone, and to finally have a family again was amazing.
My father and brothers picked me up from the airport. I remember arriving at my father’s ranch in the middle of the night, and when he pointed up to the sky and named all the visible planets and major constellations, I felt home.
Growing up, I had been the oddball of the family. I was a book nerd who built his own video games. My family was the opposite, extroverted, and would never leave a party until the host would push them out.
I felt so at home with my father and brothers. It was like that time in Kung Fu Panda where the panda realises he’s a panda not a goose. Yep, that was me, happily and lovingly getting destroyed by my father at chess.
I’ve become very close with my paternal family. I flew my grandmother to Tennessee to spend the summer so we could watch the big Solar Eclipse that happened a few years ago. I went to Mexico City with my brother and his wife. I call my aunt for advice all the time. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away last year but I always looked forward to video chatting with her every week.
What did you learn from your travel experiences that you would never have learned otherwise?
When I was working for big advertising agencies and was in charge of handling the onboarding of one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, I was just two weeks in and constantly had important meetings working hand-in-hand with our CEO, when a coworker asked me if I ever got nervous being in this position. It’s like I had a flashback of all the things I experienced in Honduras. I replied, “I’m just happy I’m here”.
Getting to know my father and the rest of my paternal family made me realise where I came from. My paternal family were born in poverty and became very wealthy through hard work and determination.
“I came back hungry and desperate to conquer the world.”
My grandmother was clearly the source of this. Her entrepreneurial spirit at her age was inspiring, and explained why her children did so well in life. Her tenacity and ingenuity even so late in life was inspiring to watch, and I noticed the same traits in my father and his siblings. The fact that these people could succeed in a place with so few opportunities destroyed any excuses I could ever make.
I came back hungry and desperate to conquer the world. I felt so lucky to be born in the USA, the land of opportunity, and my family constantly reminded me what they could do if they were as lucky as me.
How did you pick up your career again after the trip?
It was 2011 and the economy still hadn’t recovered. My friends were gracious enough to let me stay on their couch for a few months until I could get back on my feet.
For a year or two after my return, I still hadn’t given up hope on TV production and was an assistant for sporting events, documentaries, music videos and short films. But those gigs were sporadic and not something I could rely on.
Eventually, I started focusing on paid media, which eventually led me to work with one of the biggest agencies in the world. It also brought the opportunity to travel constantly all over South America to cities like Buenos Aires, Bogotá, and Mexico City, where I would give talks at the local Google offices.
This would not have been possible if I hadn’t gone to Honduras. My Spanish prior to the trip was horrible, and my time in Honduras was paramount to the success I had.
How have your travel experiences influenced your life and career since returning home?
My time in Honduras helped me better understand my mother and the context that she grew up in, which may have been a factor in our rocky relationship. It helped me fill that empty spot left after she died, and heal any pain I may have had.
I was also no longer alone and had people to call and check up on me. It’s great. I have nephews and nieces I get to teach how to fight. I have a family I can spend Christmas with. I have a brother I can play chess with and toss business ideas back and forth with (he was actually recently admitted to South America’s largest startup accelerator).
When I came back, I knew what I wanted; my own family, and to have a family like my father did. This desire motivated me to work through endless nights, sometimes sleeping at the office so I would eventually be able to provide the lifestyle my father was able to provide for his family.
If he could do it in Honduras, I could definitely do it here in the USA.
Do you still travel at all, and if so, how do you balance this with your career?
I’m now married with a one and half year-old girl so travelling takes way more coordination and planning. My wife is also a travel junkie having backpacked through Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and other Asian countries.
We travel often. We travelled to Holland, France and Spain when she was four months pregnant. We did a cross-country trip from Tennessee to Southern California when our daughter was about six months old. We travelled to Mexico City and climbed to the top of the Sun Pyramids when she was about to turn one. I recently took them to Honduras so that my father and the rest of the family could meet them.
Fortunately, working in tech has given me the flexibility to travel. Many companies offer either unlimited personal time off or flexible work from home. We spent two weeks in Honduras last year, and I don’t think I have ever been so productive, working in my grandmother’s garden in a beautiful valley in Honduras.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
A side project I have with my wife is homebirth.com. After having a beautiful experience delivering our daughter at home, we’re building a web portal where women can learn more about having a safe home birth and connecting them with professionals to do so. I’m also heavily involved in data science and engineering where I create data lakes and optimisation tools for online marketing.
We have dreams of spending long periods of time in Spain, France, Colombia and Argentina. We dream of exposing our daughter to all these wonderful cultures and giving her the life we could have only imagined. Anything is possible, right? So why not paint the life you want to lead?
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a travel career break?
Taking the initial leap is the scary part but have faith in yourself. You will figure it out, and when you come back your career will still be there.
You’ll have a new perspective and you’ll be richer for it. My trip helped fill holes I didn’t realise I had, and when I came back I was ready and grateful for the chance to start again. Anything is possible.
Travel can be transformational for your life and career. Our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break will help you make it happen. You can also find more inspirational stories in our series of career break interviews.
Love it? Pin it!