Bring Your Own Children: South America!

One of the most common questions asked when someone finds out that we spent a year abroad with our children is “How did the kids handle all of this change?”  It is an important question, and I am careful with my answers. Family travel has a multitude of positives, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a few bumpy days here and there. Just like life at home, not everything goes smoothly all the time.

Our next guest is psychologist Robin Malinosky-Rummell, PH.D.  Robin and her husband are travel enthusiasts and hoped that their son might grow up and catch the travel bug as well.  After speaking to her, it looks like they achieved their goal! Robin’s book about traveling with children through South America is a wealth of information for families thinking about doing the same.

Bring Your Own Children: South America! A Family Sabbatical Handbook

Robin  has been working with children and families in a variety of settings for over 20 years. She has written articles for professional psychology journals as well as travel literature. Her background affords an in-depth look at the psychological processes and emotional extremes of adapting to various cultures as well as a year spent intimately with family members on the road.

Here’s what Robin had to say!

We’ve all been there.  A much anticipated family vacation in a beautiful place.  Instead of enjoying the experience, we’re hot, tired, hungry, and annoyed.  And of course, we’re taking it out on each other.

The setting is a beautiful spring day in Venice, the city of lovers and dreams.   Beginning the day collecting information at the Visitor’s center, we connected with another American couple who had just purchased a detailed map and offered to guide us to the gondoliers to share the cost of a ride.  Agreed!  While we ogled the impressive architecture, the couple read off tidbits of interesting information from their map, led us right to the boats, and served as our photographers during the trip.  What a spectacular morning!  We parted ways and congratulated ourselves on successfully completing our to-do list.  We then stumbled upon a museum on the life and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, which appealed immensely to all of us.  My engineer husband and my engineer-in-training teenage son both loved playing with all the hands-on toys and discussing the finer points of the famous painter’s inventions, while the psychologist in me soaked up the lovely artwork and pondered the mental talents of this remarkable man.  Enjoying the spontaneous fun invoked by the interesting museum, we discovered that we could go to another museum for free due to some daily special. I just had to find it.

Shortly after that, our perfect day started to unravel.

Not only was this our second time in Venice, but we take pride in our traveling expertise.  Equipped with not one but two maps, we snuck down skinny alleyways, crossed and re-crossed cobblestone bridges, and cut through gelato shops.   At first, the adventure started out quite fun, as we stumbled upon the post office (purchasing stamps to add to my son’s extensive collection), browsed colorful shops (trying on grotesque Carnivale masks), and shored ourselves up with an occasional gelato.  But after two hours, our sense of urgency mounted as we encountered yet another dead end and realized that if we didn’t find this d@!* museum soon, it was going to be closed.

“I told you we should have spent the $10 on the other map like they did!” became my husband’s mantra.  “We don’t need to go to the stupid museum!” complained my teenage son.  I repeatedly barked at them to quit whining and to try to help me read the, not one, but two free maps.  They were both right, of course.  But I was on a mission, and a free museum in Venice was, well, a free museum in Venice.  Nothing is free in Venice, or in all of Italy for that matter.

I’m not sure what finally stopped me in my tracks.  Maybe it was the late afternoon sun glinting on the water.  Maybe it was the sparkle of what was sure to be a lovely Chianti in a glass.  Maybe it was the growing realization that my husband and son were totally fed up and wouldn’t like the museum anyway, even if we did find it.  I’d love to say that it was my benevolent feelings towards my family and their interests and needs, but in all honesty, it was probably the Chianti.  At any rate, I finally gave up my quest, corrected course, and suggested that we all sit down at a café along the water and enjoy some refreshments.

When I close my eyes and try to conjure up some nourishing travel images during times of need, the memory of sitting at that café, laughing with my family, savoring the warm atmosphere of an ancient Venetian waterway, and sipping a great Chianti come to mind.  What I can’t remember is the name of the stupid museum I tried so desperately to find.  And perhaps I’ve gained some wisdom from that experience regarding successful long-term family sabbaticals that I can pass on to fellow travelers.

1—Plan only one highlight a day and do it first thing.  Everything else is icing on the cake, and therefore, dispensable.  Overplanning causes most of the stress and frustration of travel.

2—Plan downtime just as enthusiastically as you plan exploration.  The only way to survive traveling with your family members long-term is to build in “Relaxing days” and regularly take a vacation from all of that intense togetherness.

3—Family travel is meant to bring families together.  You should never lose sight of this goal.  It’s the best part of traveling with your family!  To develop enthusiastic travel companions, you must encourage children to express their interests and honor what they want to do.  You will discover all kinds of fun things and create invaluable family memories if you explore their interests.

4—Encourage your children to take up stamp collecting (or a similar travel-related hobby).  Much as you try to fight it, you will want some type of souvenir from your travels.  Stamps are cheap, portable, and light-weight.  Furthermore, the adventure of finding and purchasing stamps can be a memorable part of your trip.

5—Build in little treats for your children along the way, particularly during adult-oriented activities like art museums, hikes or long bus rides.  It is amazing what they will do for an ice cream or a bag of chips.

6—Some of the most successful travel tales come from times of failure.  Be willing to change course and let go for the overall good.

7—Never underestimate the power of a lovely Chianti.

About the author:  As a self-professed travel addict, I have journeyed through six continents and over 90 countries around the world.  My husband and I have adopted a 5-years-on, 1-year-off lifestyle in which our first sabbatical covered the continent of South America, while our second found us on a truck traveling overland across Africa and the Middle East, then on through Eastern Europe and Europe.  Along the way, we have cultivated our own style of budget traveling, with a higher level of comfort and safety than bottom-end hostels yet more affordable and authentic than expensive luxury resorts.  We are actively passing on our passion for travel to our son, Christopher, who just spent his High School junior year learning Mandarin in China.

Given my multiple roles as child psychologist, travel enthusiast, and parent, I am very passionate about traveling as a family. Happiness is encountering novelty and overcoming obstacles, and what better way to develop and treasure each other’s unique gifts than through travel experiences.  Each family member brings something to the table, be it my planning and enthusiasm, my son’s humor and compassion, and my husband’s ability to remain flexible and calm while carrying heavy things.  During times of stress, we lean on each other for help and guidance.  We appreciate each other’s skills in the face of adversity.  As a result, we are closer than any other family I know, and I think that travel has done that for all of us.

In addition, travel is the best education I could have chosen for my son.  Of course, there’s the obvious advantage of direct, hands-on exposure to experiences they otherwise only read about in textbooks.  But travel goes deeper than academic learning by developing a child’s character and connection to a greater good.  How else can you truly motivate children to become passionate about people, endangered  animals, and the struggling environment than by meeting first-hand a little boy in Africa whose only wish is to go to school, or Lonesome George, the last remaining giant tortoise of his kind?  What has more impact than seeing large gaps in the earth where whole ecosystems have disappeared?

I wrote Bring Your Own Children:  South America!  A Family Sabbatical Handbook to give other parents the information they need to determine if family travel in South America is for them.  With my background in child psychology and professional writing, I am curious about the psychological processes and emotional extremes of adapting to various cultures as well as a year spent intimately with family members on the road.  I want to share these experiences with others so that they know what to expect and if they are anything like I am, try to plan their own adventure while expecting the unexpected.  It’s the best way I know to encourage others to develop compassion towards our world that I have tried to nurture in my son.  ¡Feliz viaje!

Our family on the Equator in Ecuador!

Volunteering with endangered leatherback turtle in Suriname.

Rehabilitating animals in the Bolivian rainforest through Comunidad Inti Wari Yassi

Ethiopian boy taking care of his grandmother.

Life viewed from a wheelchair:  Christopher with Ecuadorian friend and travel partner, Alfonso Morales.

Check out our website on, Contact us at, Available on Amazon and Powell’s books


Radical Family Sabbatical

I met the Scherr family some time ago when Diana contacted me to pick my brain about our family’s year abroad. She and her husband, Matt, had a hankering for travel and something was calling them to take their two young children and go on an adventure! Now, there were all sorts of reasons not to go. All sorts of people advising them to be reasonable. 

Of course I cautioned her as well, but I also threw fuel on the fire.

I warned her about how a family sabbatical can be life changing, exhilarating, and soul-refreshing. How it knits family bonds even tighter through such powerful shared experience.

I explicitly remember telling her how pushing past self-imposed limits might be scary, but somehow highly satisfying. That sacrifice would be involved, but so would extreme happiness and pride. She hung up the phone with a lot to chew on as they made their decision.

So it was wonderful when I learned, later, that they had pulled up stakes and moved to Ecuador. I signed up for Matt’s blog Wu Wei We Go and cheered them on as they found their way in a new and exciting culture.

Matt Scherr of Radical Family Sabbatical is our guest for today. I know you will enjoy his words of wisdon~

Psychosis is not usually a rapid-onset disease. It typically takes years to develop and hindsight to piece together the telltale symptoms that confirm a positive diagnosis. And so it was — after we announced our plans to quit our jobs and take our children to Ecuador for almost two years on a “sabbatical” — that a number of our friends and family looked back through our past to determine just how long we had been insane.

For both my wife, Diana, and me, one of the first indications of “drift from normalcy” was our first international travel. Diana had a job opportunity in Ireland (backpacker-style, working in a pub). I took a trip with my family to Thailand and then to visit my sister’s Peace Corps site in a village on a remote island in the Philippines. These trips were transformative for us both and undeniably marked our progress down the crazy path.

It is at least where I began to see everything that I thought was “normal” in a completely upside-down way. Until that time I certainly used the word “conventional”, but I didn’t truly understand what it meant. And I used “unconventional” as a synonym for “abnormal”, but would later come to believe (as only a crazy person can) that it was a synonym for “enlightened”. Diana’s experience was less wonkish, but we had both discovered entirely different worlds of human experience, which in turn made us see our own life experiences in a different way.

Had you forced me to define “conventional” before my travels without the aid of a dictionary, I’d have said something like, “the most common, rational, tested, and agreed upon way to manifest oneself in the world” (one tends to puff things up a bit in college, doesn’t one). Conventional suggested to me a “right” way of being that naturally occurred through something like cultural evolution. The group that coexisted the best wins, and however they “are” is best, and that is conventional. There was a value implied to my understanding of convention.

But then I started to go insane. I began to see convention in a truly evolutionary way. That is, evolution only says that in a given environment, the fitter organism survives. There is not good or bad, right or wrong. I began to see conventional only as “a way” but not “the way”. And I also began to see how limiting it is to see things in “ways” at all. The scales fell from my eyes and unfathomable possibility opened up before me. And I began to talk to myself, giggle inappropriately, and wear tinfoil and antennae on my head.

Well, not really that last part. But as others examined our decision to take a sabbatical, they all pretty much agreed they’d seen us do stuff like that somewhere along the line, and boy they really should have seen this coming, and should they intervene or just hope Matt and Di come to their senses?

I should be honest and confess that my insanity makes me exaggerate a bit. Those who were not absolutely excited about and supportive (and envious) of our sabbatical represented a small minority. Maybe that’s because where we live (Vail, Colorado), unconventional is, well, pretty conventional. You have to be pretty crazy to live willingly in a place with half the income and twice the cost of living. Either way, we actually got a lot of support for our adventure.

The genesis of what we call an unconventional life (and others may call crazy) doesn’t necessarily explain why we would quit our jobs, take our kids out of school, and go live somewhere we’d never been and didn’t speak the language. Maybe to some it does (because, duh, why wouldn’t you?). But we did have to elucidate our decision for many, whether they were supportive or not. If someone asks you why you decided to do this, you can’t just say, “None of your business” or “We’re just pretty sure it’s the right thing for us to do.” Well, maybe you can say the latter, but we tried and it leaves people still looking at you askance as they carefully make their diagnosis.

So here’s my revisionist justification. Diana and I were both transformed by our travel (for the better, we still believe). We believe we are more respectful, open-minded, empathetic, generous, and responsible global (and local) citizens because of what we learned about the world and our role within it. That transformation happened relatively late in life. I often think about how much better a person I might be had I learned a number of things earlier in life.

And so the question for us was, what would it be like to have a more global cultural experience as part of one’s fundamental development — during the sponge kind of learning that happens when you’re young and you don’t even know that you’re learning? Well, we had two prize-winning guinea pigs in our care. (Man, they’ll let anyone have kids, won’t they?) And to be honest with ourselves, we really were experimenting with our children. We believed this experience would be valuable for them in the long run, but ultimately that was just a hypothesis.

We still don’t know. Within months of our return from Ecuador, our oldest, Piper, asked if we could go back to Ecuador, at least to visit. “I miss Ecuador more than I ever missed Colorado while we were gone.” This from she who constantly clarified to people we talked to in Ecuador, “We don’t live in Ecuador, we’re only visiting for 21 months.” She was six when we went to Ecuador.

Duncan was only four, so he doesn’t have the compartmentalized memory Piper does. There is no geography at four, so he can’t yet differentiate his memories of there from home. He just knows what happened. That the people in his memories had brown skin, and that no one eats chicken feet here, will likely be the facts that will help him make a historical timeline for himself later.

We are home now and working to infect others with the crazy with our website promoting family sabbaticals and helping people do them. But different stages of a child’s life represent different stages of learning, and it’s important to impact as many as possible. So once more unto the beach, dear friends; we’re planning on another sabbatical. We will again rip up our children’s tender roots and plant them, for a time, somewhere else. Poor little darlings. But, alas, such is the life of an unconventionalist-in-training.

Matt Scherr has traveled to 23 countries with occasional visits to jobs and the real world. The last real job he quit (to take a family sabbatical) was as executive director of a local environmental sustainability organization. He launched Radical Family Sabbatical to help families live extraordinary lives through travel, learning, and entrepreneurship. He also kept a blog for the family’s
Ecuador experience, called (for some reason) Wu Wei We Go. You can follow Radical Family Sabbatical on Facebook and Twitter, and follow your dreams by signing up at

Exploring the Peruvian Amazon

I have long been a fan of Lynn O’Rourke Hayes, the founder of Family   Journalist, traveler, mother of three, she is the first to pack a suitcase and grab a camera when adventure calls.  I know you will also enjoy getting to know her through this thoughtful essay on travel and risk.

Thanks for joining us here on Expat Chat, Lynn!

Travel involves risk.

I think we can all agree on that.  How much each of us is willing to lay on the line is an interesting question to ponder. And do the stakes change when we go exploring with our children? Or once they reach a certain age, should assessing the range of possibilities become a part the education we hope to impart?

By mere coincidence,  I was in Hawaii with my sons Alex and Ted when the effects of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami rolled through the islands. Thankfully, the worse that happened was that we were evacuated from our rooms and slept in the more elevated public spaces. The giant slumber party was actually interesting  and made for a good story.

Alex and I recently went swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. Both the destination and activity raised more than a few eyebrows.

My friends and family who take an interest in my travels often inquire or express concern for my safety. And I have to say, beyond the basics, I don’t think about it too much. Perhaps it is my Midwestern upbringing. By nature, I am trusting and  optimistic that things will work out in the end.  I believe people are basically honest and want to do the right thing.

Still, every now and then, I tell myself I should shore up the program. Lock the doors. Look over my shoulder. But, the effort soon wanes.

When I think about changing my ways, I am always reminded of our trip deep into the Amazon.

 ( Forewarned: this tale involves snakes!)

                                                                        ~ ~ ~

Our dug out canoes, landed smoothly on the sandy filled river bank.  We carefully disembarked and  hiked up a short path to meet our host family. 

We had come to this home on the secluded banks of the Peruvian Amazon to search for the elusive poison dart frog in the adjacent jungle. The woman before me, her husband and four children cooked, dined and slept beneath a thatched roof, covering a raised platform. There were no walls.

 No doubt they received a small fee from our guide’s lodge to allow us to slide our canoes on to their riverside beach and to welcome us for a short visit in their home.  But the woman’s demeanor was in no way welcoming.  Did she resent our intrusion?

We soon learned it was not our presence that veiled her eyes.  It was this: a few weeks prior the couple’s oldest son was sent 100 yards down to the river to collect water for their cooking. He did not return. Soon they went searching for him and discovered he had been struck by the deadly fer-de-lance snake. This creature, deeply feared by the river people, is sometimes called the “three-step snake” – so deadly you can only walk three steps after its bite.  

The family had no way to get their son to modern medical treatment. The local shaman was called, but the boy did not survive.

                                                                              ~ ~ ~

With this story thickening the already hot and humid air, we wandered into the jungle and located many small, colorful frogs.  We were told their poison is still applied to the tips of darts used for hunting within the region. We returned on the path, crossing near the family’s home, climbed into our canoes and paddled back to our lodge. 

During our stay at the jungle lodge, my sons and their friends were asked to join the local villagers in their soccer matches. The games took place at sunset. I, somewhat sheepishly, felt compelled to warn my sons not to venture into the jungle for the ball. We were told this was prime time for the deadly snakes to hunt.


With the grieving mother’s pained expression still haunting me, I studied the natural floor during our jungle hikes, determined to spot the mottled skin of the exotic, mysterious snake. It didn’t happen. Within a few days, after fishing for piranha, visiting a native village and zip lining through the canopy, we returned home to the States.

                                                                                         ~ ~ ~ 

Within weeks after our return to our Scottsdale, Arizona home, we were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon. Teddy was watching a movie in the study.  I was finishing some work at my desk. As my husband walked toward the hall powder room, he stopped to chat with me for just a moment. Fortunately, as he spoke, he put his hand on the door, moving it in slowly. In doing so, a loud noise erupted. Was it a gurgling water pipe? Some sort of electrical malfunction? 

No. It was the rapid tail movement of an angry Diamond back rattlesnake. Stunned, we realized that the rattler had done his part. He had warned us with surprising  vigor, an alarm designed to be heard in the desert.  It now echoed strangely off thick, slate floors.  

My husband and son wisely stuffed towels under the bathroom door so the snake would not disappear into the house. I called the fire department.  

The firefighters arrived quickly, amazed that the snake had slithered into our home. Using their cleverly designed extraction tool, they removed the Diamondback to the natural desert beyond our patio.

 Later, we discussed how easy it would have been to have an unpleasant encounter with the poisonous rattler as he meandered within a few feet of each of us.  We spoke of our rigorous planning and preparation and the safety measures exercised in the wild places we explored.

And how ironic it was that our closest call came within the “safety” of our own home.

Author’s note:  I have read many stories about Grizzly bears in the wild and have gone to great lengths to avoid being in their habitat. Thus, it was a surprise to encounter a 500-pounder within six feet of our Montana cabin late one night this summer. Yet, another  example of how we can attempt but rarely succeed in controlling our environment.

Lynn O’Rourke Hayes 
Syndicated Columnist – Dallas Morning News
Editor –;
Follow me on Twitter:!/lohayes
Visit us ( like us! ) on Facebook:!/FamilyTraveldotcom

All Photos in this post by Susan Cook.

Expat Alien

Meet Kathleen Gamble!

By the time Kathleen was eighteen years old she had lived on five continents.  She traveled around Europe, saw the sights from London to Athens, hiked up Swiss mountains, and lived in Africa. She survived a plane crash, a coup d’etat in Burma, earthquakes in Mexico, driving through the Andes in Columbia and army ants in Nigeria.

When she came back to live in the U.S., her college peers talked about football games, high school proms and television shows she’d never heard of. She couldn’t relate to them, and they thought she was bragging about all the places she has been. It was like an alien landed in their dorm room talking about visiting the rings of Saturn.

Kathleen has just published Expat Alien so you can journey with her through the ups and downs of being a Third Culture Kid.

Here’s what Kathleen had to say:

” I am what you might call a “reverse” expat.  I was born in Burma and lived almost my entire life outside my passport country until it was time to be sent off to college.  My father worked in international agriculture and we lived in Mexico, Colombia, and Nigeria.  I went to boarding school in Texas and Switzerland.  We weren’t expats because my parents were looking for a better job or because they wanted a change.  They really believed in what they were doing and hoped they could have an influence on making the world a better place.  After they had been at it a few years they realized they weren’t going to change the world but their philosophy was if they could help just one person to have a better life, it was worth the trouble.

I made my first round the world trip when I was 7 months old.  When I was 6 we moved to Mexico City where I attended a British school with kids from over 30 different nationalities.  I lived at 8600 ft. in the Andes Mountains for two years and met all kinds of interesting people.  My junior year in high school we moved to Lagos, Nigeria.  I thought I had seen poverty in Latin America but it didn’t even come close to Nigeria.  Some of my best times were spent in Africa wandering around the countryside.  We didn’t always have electricity and the phones rarely worked, TV was non-existent, and every Sunday I religiously took my malaria pills.  We read every book in sight and when all else failed, we played a good game of cards.

That is how I grew up.

In 1974 I went off to California to college totally unprepared for life in the USA.  I knew nothing of the culture, history, or pop culture of the time.  I spent my junior and senior years in high school at boarding school traveling around Europe visiting art museums, famous landmarks, eating gelato and veal parmesan in Italy, and drinking beer in Germany.  I had seen ruin after ruin in Greece and the silence of Dachau.  On top of that I spent my holidays in West Africa amid poverty and filth that no American could ever imagine.  I was an American by birth.  I looked like an American.  I talked like an American.  But I was very different.

Needless to say, I had an adjustment problem.  My first year in college was a low point in my life.  I could not relate to my peers and they could not relate to me.  I thought there was something wrong with me.  I had never had adjustment problems before.  I had moved often and been to many new schools.  What was wrong?

I learned to keep my mouth shut and listen.  I listened to all the stories my peers told, and I smiled and nodded and I kept my mouth shut.  Over time, they came to accept me and I slowly learned their language.  I watched TV and could relate to their references, I picked up their slang, I listened to the radio and became familiar with their music.  I slowly became one of them.  And they slowly accepted the fact that my winter break consisted of a camera safari through East Africa, or a trip to the Ivory Coast.

 It was a hard lesson to learn, but I learned it and I went on to form close friendships and lived happily in the USA for many years.

Fast forward twenty years later.  I was sitting in a dark, drab apartment in Moscow, Russia, cruising the Internet.  My one year old son was in the next room sleeping.  My husband was out who knew where.  I came across an article titled “Global Nomads”.  This woman, Norma McCaig, had written an article about me.  I couldn’t believe it.  She was describing me perfectly.   She had the same experiences and feelings I did.  Could it be possible somebody else had been through this very same thing?  This article led me to others.  Here I was at 40 years old discovering I had a label.  I was part of a group.  I belonged to a group!  Wow!  It was the most amazing feeling.  Global Nomad, Third Culture Kid, TCK.  Hey, that’s me!

I learned there was research being done on me.  People were studying me!

… TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries… they suffer reverse culture shock… face an identity crisis…don’t know where they are from…have trouble settling down…prefer to socialize with other TCKs… develop chameleon like ability to become part of other cultures…

Yup, it was all there.  Can you imagine not knowing who you are or where you are from for 40 years and then finding out?

Okay, it’s not that easy but it really helped a lot.

I have had an amazing life with outrageous experiences in different cultures and places around the world.  And I have loved every minute of it.  But it would have been even better if I had known I was in the TCK club a little earlier.

Expat Alien is a book about my journey through the ups and downs of growing up among cultures and living as an adult between cultures.  I hope that in addition to entertaining, it will also help spread the word about a unique and interesting group of people, the TCK.

  Kathleen Gamble is a Third Culture Kid who has lived in 18 cities on 5 continents and travelled to over 40 countries.  She has a degree in Spanish from Mills College in Oakland, California.  Kathleen has worked in publishing, printing, translating, visa processing, and purchasing.  She currently works for a non-profit in Washington DC.  In her free time she creates original needlepoint.  You can follow her blog at


Twitter:  @ExpatAlien

Freeways to Flip-Flops

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.

Sonia welcomes new friends, bloggers, writers and readers at ( Contact her at: or

Expat in China

Our second Expat tale is about a brave family who spent a year in China.  At age 40, Greg and Heidi Rhodes kept a rash promise to each other made 17 years earlier, when the naive, mortgage-free expats swore to return to China with their own children. Arriving back in the Middle Kingdom in 2005, they were surprised to find their former home city, Chengdu, unrecognizable. Familiar landmarks and expectations had been swept away by China’s rushing tide of progress, replaced by glass skyscrapers, McDonald’s restaurants, and a frenetic scramble to get ahead.

Armed with a scant few remembered phrases of Chinese, two unsuspecting offspring, and (sometimes) healthy curiosity, the Rhodes set about learning to navigate their city, and their family, on brand-new terms.  You can read all about their adventure in Greg’s book, Expat in China: A Family Adventure.

Now a few words from Greg!

 “It was delightful to watch our 13 and 10 year children operate flawlessly, beer drinking and all.  We were eating Chengdu hot pot, and they didn’t fuss over the trays of pig brains or pans of eels at the huge buffet line where we chose which morsels to cook.  Both Nikki and Tommy were good humored and gracious to our hosts, our drunk friends, to each other, and even to their parents.  We attended the party for over two hours, pounded by the noise and washed by the damp, spicy heat, nibbling, conversing, sweating and toasting.  The kids never flinched.

 When we’d been planning for our year away, we expected our children to have interesting experiences and enter into Chinese life.  The hot pot dinner certainly met that standard, as did many other encounters we had – with the Muslim family who ran our favorite noodle stand, with the Buddhist monk who traded blows with Tommy using inflatable bats (on Christmas Eve no less), and with a group of Chinese university professors who included us in their family activities throughout the year.  We had only to leave our apartment to find adventure and interest.  Our kids learned that the whole world does not look like their American suburb – and learned to appreciate both their lives and the fact that others are different.

 If the big picture of moving to China was about seeing a broader world, the small picture was about being a family.  American life is busy, with both parents and kids going many directions.  As parents we wanted to downshift, to enjoy our kids and hope they’d enjoy us.  China allowed that.  While our Chinese friends worked themselves ragged, Heidi taught 11 ½ hours each week and I taught 7, for 26 weeks of the year.  It was almost criminal how little we worked.  Our kids studied for three hours each morning, sprawled across our sofa, for the same 26 weeks or so.  The rest of the time was ours, and we spent much of it actually interacting, walking or biking around town, reading the Harry Potter series aloud together, folding paper airplanes, or laughing at dad’s terrible Chinese pronunciation.  We ate virtually every meal together, breakfast, lunch and dinner, for the entire year.

 It wasn’t always easy, but this is true for the best things in life.  Our 10 year old son struggled most, missing home more than the rest of us.  However, any struggles were worth the outcome, and Tommy would positively acknowledge that today.  He’s become a confident, self-possessed 17 year old, and China played a big part in that.

 As I write this, our daughter Nikki is just over a week from leaving to visit Senegal on her way to a semester of study in Morocco.  Our once fiercely inwardly-focused daughter has opened herself to the world, and we watched that happen over our year in China.

 China often confounded our expectations, and that was the joy of travel, to be surprised and tested.  It also provided far more than we hoped in terms of shaping our kids and supporting our family.  We have breezed through the teen years mostly unscathed, and credit a piece of that to China, the year our kids had to rely on themselves, each other, and their parents.  To anyone who asks, I say, “Take your family overseas.  You won’t regret it!”


Twice Greg Rhodes and his wife, Heidi, have lived as expats in China, once many years ago (1988-1989) and again more recently, in 2005-2006.  The first trip was a post-college, pre-career exploit in the still-emerging country, and the second was a family adventure with their two children in the rapidly-modernizing nation.  Between trips Greg has worked for others and worked for himself while always wondering where those planes taking off at the airport were going.  Greg has a passion for photography and local people when he travels, and his list of places to visit just keeps getting longer.

For an opportunity to see photographs and learn more from the experience in 2005-2006, visit or on facebook at

Life in Seville, Spain: Karen McCann

Our first chat features Karen McCann.  Karen and her husband, Rich, moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Seville, Spain.  Her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, is a breezy and engaging look at how moving overseas hits the reset button on your life.  I loved her book and her sense of humor. Now that they split the year between Spain and Northern California, she is somewhat of an expert on moving between cultures.

Culture Lag

By Karen McCann

When I moved to Seville in 2004, people started asking me what I miss most about America. I always say my family and friends, because of course it’s true, and besides, if you don’t say that, everyone thinks you are totally heartless. But to be perfectly honest, what first springs to mind is Saran Wrap. Oh, they have plastic wrap in Spain, but — and I don’t mean to shock you — it doesn’t come with a little metal serrated edge for cutting off a piece the desired length. The cardboard container (so deceptively like the US kind in appearance) has perforated ends that let you poke your fingers through to get a two-handed grip on the roll. You then invite a companion to grasp the plastic wrap and pull, while a third member of the party finds the scissors and cuts off a piece of the desired length. By the time I have mustered the personnel and equipment for the task, the half lemon I was planning to wrap has withered, as has my interest in the whole procedure. Nowadays, I try to find recipes that call for complete lemons, and I insist my guests drink enough gin and tonics to use up the entire lime.

As you can see, living abroad means that even the simplest activity requires considerable thought and ingenuity. You can’t count onanything being the way it was back home.

This can be disorienting, especially at first, but it has its benefits. Moving to a foreign country lets you reinvent yourself in a way that rarely exists outside of the witness protection program. No one knows anything about you except what you choose to reveal.

Have you ever noticed how the people you grew up with always seem to have the longest memories about the things you’d most like them to forget: undesirable boyfriends, dubious jobs, certain weekends in college? I grew up longing to write fiction, and in my youth I made the mistake of telling people I was working on a novel. I finally realized that nonfiction was my forte and that my efforts at fiction were best consigned to the trash bin. But for decades afterwards, well-meaning acquaintances kept cornering me at parties to ask how my novel was coming along. And I’d have to find a cheerful way of explaining that it was an unmitigated disaster that forced me to abandon one of my most cherished childhood dreams. Kind of a buzz-kill, any way you put it.

Living to a foreign city means never having to say, “Oh yes, my crummy unpublished novel…” It also reduces to virtually nil the chances of running into people from the past you’d rather avoid: ex-bosses, disgruntled former lovers, the mean girls from high school, people who want to ask about your career in fiction writing.

Of course, sooner or later you’re likely to go home again, if only for a brief visit, and that’s where things can get tricky. My husband and I maintain a cottage in my native California, and Rich moves back and forth between Seville and San Francisco with the ease of a man strolling from one room to another in his own home. But I often become overwhelmed by all the unexpected changes in the social, political, economic, and cultural scene. What’s taken for granted — what defines words like “normal” and “home” — changes, if only subtly, every time. That’s one of the reasons Rich and I make regular visits back to the States. America is something you have to stay in practice for. We don’t want to lose our touch.

Going back and forth so often, I’m rarely on automatic pilot anywhere. And that’s OK. Unlike those of my friends whose goal is a life of untrammeled ease, I like facing up to the challenges of life in transition. It adds a lot of zest to the daily round.

Many years ago in Seville, Rich needed to make a small household repair, and after consulting the dictionary, we set out for the hardware store muttering “destornillador, destornillador, destornillador” (screwdriver, screwdriver, screwdriver). Unfortunately, when we arrived, my mind went blank and Rich blurted out a similar word, ordenador (computer), causing such mutual confusion that we had to flee the scene without buying either a screwdriver or a computer.

At the time we felt foolish and frustrated, but once we got over our embarrassment, we enjoyed a good laugh and have told the story for years. That’s when I realized that what expats need most is a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. When a simple trip to the hardware store becomes a test of skill and wit, I know that even if I walk away without a screwdriver, at least I am acquiring the tools I need to keep my brain — and my sense of humor — ever more finely honed.  “There are good days, and there are bad days, and this is one of them,” Lawrence Welk once remarked. And that is the essence of expat life.

Karen and Rich McCann

An award-winning journalist, author, editor and blogger, Karen McCann has been living in Seville, Spain, since 2004. Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world, with frequent visits to California to maintain ties with family and friends. For more about her book and her travel adventures, check out her blog, Enjoy Living Abroad