Sonia Marsh is a “Gutsy” woman who can pack her carry-on and move to another country in one day. She’s a motivational speaker who inspires her audiences to get out of their comfort zone and take a risk. She says everyone has a “My Gutsy Story”; some just need a little help to uncover theirs. Her story, told in her travel memoir Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island, is about chucking it all and uprooting her family to reconnect on an island in Belize.
This is what Sonia had to say:
Most of us dream about getting away from our hectic life and finding “paradise,” but something stops us. We find excuses not to act: This is not a good time, we tell ourselves. We’ve got kids in school, bills to pay, a job, a house, and so on. So we continue getting more stressed at work, more exhausted and frustrated with life. We put everything on hold until retirement, as if something magical happens on retirement day that frees us from our burdens. Except that it doesn’t, because life will continue to throw obstacles in our way. We’ll face emergencies, more bills—and fear. And we stay put, because it’s much easier to continue our daily routine than to explore the unknown.
My husband, Duke, and I refused to let anything stop us from living our dreams. In 2004, we decided to chuck it all and move to Belize hoping to reconnect our family. We uprooted our three sons— ages sixteen, thirteen and ten—and moved from a materialistic life in Orange County, California, to a hut on stilts in Belize, Central America. Our life was out of balance. Duke worked long hours, then spent additional hours commuting back and forth to Los Angeles each day. I was upset by the entitlement attitude of teens and pre-teens in our neighborhood and wanted my kids to experience life in a less affluent part of the world, just as I had as a child in Nigeria. We decided to sell the house, our cars and everything else we owned to start a new, simple life in a third-world country without TV, gadgets or teenage girlfriends.
Some people thought we were crazy. Others were skeptical. “Yeah, sure,” they said. “Let’s see if you really go ahead with it.” The second group always asked, “So what do your kids think?” to which I snapped back, “Who makes the decisions in your family, you or your kids?” Many looked shocked, but my European accent helped. It allowed people to classify me as an alien, despite my U.S. citizenship.
Uprooting teenagers is not as easy as moving younger children. My middle son was the most reluctant to leave. He had some very close friends in his neighborhood and was thirteen at the time. Surprisingly, my oldest, a sixteen-year-old who was getting in trouble, never complained once about our move. It almost seemed like he was relieved that we were taking him away from his peer pressures. My youngest son, ten, thought he wouldn’t have to go to school in Belize, so he was happy. He didn’t seem to mind as long as Cookie, our rat terrier, came with us.
Although a gutsy move to many, my husband and I did go a scouting trip prior to moving our family, and researched three possible locations. Belize is a small country just south of Mexico, in Central America. I fell in love with the beautiful tourist island of Ambergris Caye and wanted to move my family there, however, Duke reminded me that we were not moving to the “Orange County” of Belize, so we settled upon Consejo Shores on the mainland, just south of the Mexican border. Duke moved three months prior to us, to get things ready, and after his first night in the hut, yes you heard me, the hut, I received a phone call from him.
“I think we made a mistake,” Duke said.
“What do you mean?” My heart started racing.
“Don’t panic.” Duke knew me well. “It’s just the hut. It’s infested with bugs. A scorpion landed on my pillow during the night.”
This didn’t sound like my husband – the man who took me camping and got upset when I asked him, “Where’s the tent?”
“Are they dangerous?” I asked, concerned for our kids.
“Evelyn says they sting, but don’t kill you.”
When Duke described our water supply, I thought he was exaggerating. “We only have cold water, and it stinks of sulfur from the well. The shower barely trickles. The pressure’s too low. I hope I can fix that.”
When the kids and I moved into the hut, we heard nothing but complaints from our kids, but I refused to let them get to me.
“Mom, I hate this place,” Alec said, as I walked in the front door. “The water stinks, there are bugs everywhere, and I found peanut husks on my bed.”
“Yeah, Mom,” Josh added. “Dad said a mouse made the mess on our beds. Why did you and Dad bring us here?” Steve remained surprisingly quiet.
After a couple of months in the hut, we decided to move to the island of Ambergris Caye. The schools were not what we had read about, and after purchasing the 9th grade English book, Alec, my studious, compliant son, threw a fit.
“There’s no way I’m going to school in Belize. There’s a chapter on how to tell time.”
Duke pulled the truck over to the side of the road. He thumbed through to the next chapter and said, “And here’s a chapter on how to add ‘ing’ to the end of a word.”
Things changed once we moved to Ambergris Caye. Our kids bonded with Juan, our twenty-one year old caretaker, his wife Teresa, and their four-year-old son, Little Juan. Juan taught my boys how to fish, iguanas, and smoke fish. Little Juan soon became part of our family. My sons taught him English, and Steve taught him how to read.
My older sons followed an Internet curriculum, while Josh attended a private school on the island run by American and Canadian teachers.
One of the lessons my kids learned from Juan and his family is that education is a privilege, not a right. This is a lesson I shall never forget when we invited Juan, Teresa and Little Juan to our house for dinner.
“I quit school at twelve to work in sugar cane fields,” Juan said. “I work from five in morning to five in afternoon, seven days a week.” My boys turned quiet.
“I got paid $75, which I give my dad to pay for food.” He paused, took a sip of water and continued. “I have eleven brothers and sisters.”
Teresa also quit school at twelve because her parents couldn’t afford the books.
My boys liked Juan and listened to every word he said. No lecture in the world could have been more effective than Juan’s story in teaching my boys gratitude and how privileged they were to get an education.
I admit that I had my own selfish reasons for moving to Belize. Not only did I want to escape our problems in Orange County, but I was also looking for my own paradise: a place that could fulfill me. Ironically, Belize taught me that paradise is a place in your mind and your heart, not a physical location.
My sons have written college application essays where they mention how they mentored a young Belizean kid and taught him English, and how their year in Belize changed them. I know this has changed their value systems. They are far more frugal today, and I am so proud of the young men that have become with a global outlook on life.
Sonia has lived in many countries – Denmark, Nigeria, France, England, the U.S. and Belize – Sonia Marsh considers herself a citizen of the world. She holds a degree in environmental science from the University of East Anglia, U.K., and now lives in Southern California with her husband, Duke.