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Finding Comfort in Non-Home Surroundings : On the Road with Andres Zuleta

This is a travel hacking case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

When I discovered the happy accident that was Andres Zuleta’s company, Boutique Japan Travel Company, which allows him to travel and work on the road (without a smartphone!) I had to hear more.

Introduce yourself!

My name is Andres and I am a 34-year-old traveler-entrepreneur who started Boutique Japan Travel Company last year. I travel the world with my lovely partner, Christina, and together we’re launching The Cancer GamePlan in October.

Over the past year we’ve lived and/or worked in San Diego, Tokyo, Kyoto, Bali, Cebu, Hong Kong, San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca. Later this year we’ll be living and working from Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Saigon (and hopefully a few more).

What inspired you to travel?

I’ve been traveling since I was a baby, back and forth to see my Colombian family many times. As an adult living in NYC, I started to feel stuck. In fact, I fell into a quarter-life crisis. So I left for Japan not knowing how long I’d be gone. I figured I’d stay for as long as it took to learn the language—maybe half a year—and then move on to China. As it turns out, it took me four years, not six months.

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Was it hard to stay somewhere for four years when you hadn’t meant to?

As much as I loved (and still love) Japan, there were moments when I wanted to leave. Even for people who love immersing themselves in different cultures, there are fleeting moments when you wish you were back in familiar surroundings. Homesickness hit me pretty hard.

How did you get through your homesickness?

Having a specific goal helped me pull through in Japan. I knew I was there for a reason: to become fluent in Japanese. So even at the 6-month mark, when I felt like leaving in many ways, I couldn’t allow myself to leave because I had a clear goal for myself. The great thing is that, having transcended the first serious pangs of homesickness, I felt like I catapulted to a different – more advanced – level of comfort living in completely “non-home” surroundings.

The longer I stayed in Japan, the less homesickness I experienced, and the more I fell in love with Japan. Although it wasn’t till I returned to the US that I realized just how deeply I loved Japan.

Do you have a memorable story from Japan?

I spent this past winter living in Kyoto with Christina. One night, after a few drinks, we grabbed a taxi to head home.

We started chatting with the taxi driver, and all of a sudden it seemed he had an idea. “Have you seen any cherry blossoms yet, this year?” he asked us. As it was January, and far too early for cherry blossoms (which bloom starting in late March), we said no.

He said, “I know of a tree not far from here that’s already in bloom. Shall we make a detour to go see it?”

When a taxi driver proposes making a detour to see a cherry blossom in bloom, you know you’re in Kyoto. We said, “Sure!” and he promptly proceeded to turn the meter off (again, only in Japan).

Our taxi driver slowly drove us past the lone tree, and we extolled its beauty to his satisfaction. Then he dropped us off at our place, and we paid him the abbreviated meter fare.

This was a moment of pure generosity from a stranger, who simply wanted to share something beautiful with us. If it had been in almost any other country, we might have suspected ulterior motives, but our driver wasn’t even interested in a tip.

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You mentioned you have a few businesses. Tell us about those.

After working at a Japanese surfer-run Mexican restaurant and tequila bar, I had the idea to get into travel business (which has gone quite well!). I started Boutique Japan.

Then, Christina and I were inspired to sell everything and leave San Diego together after she battled stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma for 16 months. We’re launching The Cancer GamePlan soon, a website and podcast to help inspire cancer patients and survivors live big during, and after, cancer.

Has cancer impacted your traveling in any way?

We’re not very active travel hackers nowadays, but in 2013 I did open a few credit cards for the points bonuses, and accrued over a hundred thousand points. Not that this is a good reason to go and get sick, but when we were fighting Christina’s cancer, we dealt with a few fairly large medical bills, which naturally went on our points cards.

The great debate: aisle or window?

Aisle!

Best travel tips. Go:

1. Pack less.

Part of the wonder of travel is NOT reliving your home experience while traveling.

2. Ditch the smartphone.

This may seem crazy, but we have been traveling the world, while working, without smartphones or tablets. How we manage is a long story … but the beauty of it is that when we’re out, we’re THERE (in the moment).

3. Stay longer.

You can’t see or do everything – you may as well have some deep experiences and get to know some people and places along the way!

Where are you two headed next?

Next up, San Diego, Tokyo, Hokuriku (Japan), followed by Thailand and Vietnam!

Follow Andres’ journey on his blog, Boutique Japan or via Twitter @BtqJpn

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