Sonia Marsh is known as a gutsy lady who can pack her carry-on and move to another country in one day. She’s a motivational speaker and the founder of the on her blog: Gutsy Living. Having lived all over the world as a child, she’s no newcomer to expatriation, so you’re in good company given the nature of her debut memoir—Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island. Sonia holds a degree in environmental science from the University of East Anglia, U.K., and she lives in Southern California with her husband, Duke.
I have the pleasure of regular dealings with Sonia. On top of all her other accomplishments, she’s the administrator of a Facebook group called Gutsy Indie Publishers. This is an online meeting place where indie authors share tips, advice, and links to resources, as well as offer encouragement to one another. Because of my interest in the concept of change, and having published a memoir about my expatriation from South Africa to the USA in 2001, Sonia and I have a lot in common. I’ve recently had the pleasure of chatting to her about her book, and these are the insights I’d like to share with you today.
Belinda: Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island is a story about your decision to opt out of glitzy California and move to the eco-friendly island of Belize with your three sons and the family dog. Would you describe this as a rite-of-passage kind of story?
Sonia: I really haven’t thought of my book as a rite-of-passage kind of story, but I suppose it is seeing as we came back from Belize with a different set of values—an understanding of the difference between wants and needs. Our one-year adventure in Belize made me realize family and memories of good times together are far more important than purchasing a new car or remodeling my bathroom. We’ve become grateful for what we have, no longer needing to buy “stuff” to feel good or showing off our assets. We’re perfectly content driving used, compact cars; we’ve downsized to a much smaller home; we now pursue our passions rather than yearn for “things.” Since our return, our kids have not begged for cars, electronic gizmos, clothes or money; they value education because they saw how Belizean kids treated education as a privilege, not a right.
Belinda: In your book, after your move to Belize, I’m immediately drawn into the first scene as you and Duke are caught in a fierce storm, your boat being the only means of transport into San Pedro to collect your youngest son at school. Amid the tension, you give reign to your trepidations, fearing that your decision to live on a godforsaken island might’ve put your family at risk of hurricanes and drug dealers. At the same time, you’re aware that your anxiety is a stark contrast to the ‘be happy’ mindset of the Belizeans. What do you have to say about this irony?
Sonia: This is a tough question, Belinda. As a mother, I had to deal with my kids’ anxieties and difficulties in adapting to a completely different lifestyle—from one day living in a comfortable California house to the next in a primitive hut in Belize. I did not foresee that each of my three sons would react differently to their new life and that I’d have to confront my own fears about making a living in “paradise.” I honestly thought life would be much easier and that my husband, Duke, and I would get our legal transcription business going and receive a steady income. Little did I know that electricity would be sporadic, the literacy rate of the locals not what the guide books had suggested, and getting enough food to feed my three sons would become a challenge.
Belinda: I like how you tell in a flashback that all wasn’t well with your family before your move to Belize. When you discovered that thirteen-year-old Steve broke into his girlfriend’s house, you feared they were having sex so you (reluctantly) supplied him with condoms. At that point, you and Duke were already fantasizing about escaping the busyness of life in the First World. Would you say the escalating trouble in the Marsh household made the decision to uproot your family an easy one?
Sonia: Yes. When Steve’s behavior started a downhill spiral and he came home with a Satanic tattoo, we knew we had to either ship him off to a behavior modification school or take action as a family unit. All of a sudden our decision to move made complete sense. This was the right decision for our family.
Belinda: In short, easy-to-read vignettes you sketch the family’s ups and downs as you all try and engage with a Robinson Crusoe type of existence in a place where the attitudes of locals and other expats turn out to be not so ‘friendly’ after all. The physical and emotional difficulties seem to hit you from the start all at once—did the highlights of your experience compensate for all that?
Sonia: Yes, despite not being able to accomplish our dream of making a living in “paradise,” I do not regret our year in Belize as we all changed in different ways. My oldest learned that his family loved him enough to stand together and pull him away from a bad situation rather than send him away to school. He became less selfish and felt good about helping our caretaker’s four-year-old son learn English. He started bonding with his brothers.
My middle son grew more assertive and independent, and my youngest son far more compassionate. When we returned to Orange County, he decided he didn’t fit in any longer and has enlisted in the Army.
Belinda: You write from the heart and I feel your passion for the beautiful landscape, your need to be accepted by the other residents, your concern for your boys who don’t adjust all that well initially, your irritation with Duke for lacking in entrepreneur spirit, and finally your indignation at being ousted from certain social circles and the business community. So, a year after your expatriation to Belize, thanks to island politics, the Marsh family once more finds themselves with their backs against the wall. How did the decision to opt back into Californian lifestyle differ from the one to opt out of it?
Sonia: I don’t think we thought about “opting back into the California lifestyle.” We certainly didn’t care about having a nice, large home, or a fancy car. We downsized and lived with patio furniture and mattresses on our floor for a month or so. I appreciated the changes in my sons, especially my oldest, who was now back on track. I no longer had to worry about him and he focused his attention on applying to engineering schools. The biggest lesson for me was that paradise is not a place, but a state of being.
Belinda: You recently said you are ready for your next adventure. Is it just a fantasy at this stage, and would you approach the next stint differently?
Sonia: Now that all three of my sons are out of the house, I would love to live in another Caribbean location, perhaps Panama. Yes, Duke and I learned from our mistakes in trying to start a business in Belize and will approach our next stint differently. I have a desire to teach English abroad or do Peace Corps work, which is a twenty-seven-month commitment. In a year or two, I shall have a clearer picture of what to do next.
Belinda: Thank you, Sonia, for taking time to regale us with more insight into your book. I agree with your realization that paradise is a state of mind not a place.
Even though we’re living in a global world, change is never easy. And yet Sonia Marsh makes it sound like an adventure since she’s obviously trained in taking difficulties in her stride. Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island is a great read; don’t miss it. Sonia welcomes new friends, bloggers, writers and readers at her website/blog. Contact her at Facebook or Twitter. And please leave comments here on my blog; she'll be checking in from time to time to respond.
As a writer and personal coach, I believe the dynamics of change affect characters in storytelling as much as they do individuals in real life. If you’d like to share a story about what change means to you (or to one of your story characters), contact me to make a guest contribution to this insightful story series.