July 8, 2011

Into the Unknown: A Gutsy Lady tells her Story

Sonia Marsh is the lady behind the Gutsy Writer Blog. She and I have become blogging friends over the past year. When I found out she was prepared to turn part of her fascinating life story into a book, I asked her permission to pose a few questions. This post is longer than what you normally find at Satisfying Retirement but Sonia's story is worth bending the rules a bit.

View from the Marsh's house in Belize
A few years ago she and her husband packed up their family, left southern California, and moved to Belize, a small country in Central America. The reasons behind such a gutsy lifestyle change and what she gained from that adventure are the basis for these questions:

Q: Sonia, what motivated you & your husband to pack up the family and head for Belize?

We felt that living in Orange County, California, clearly compromised the future of our three sons, with its culture of sexually active, pill-popping, value-lacking teens who are not taught the consequences of their actions. At thirteen, our oldest son entered the dark tunnel of suicidal girlfriends, teenage sex and satanic tattoos. This threw our love-filled home into turmoil and forcing his younger brothers to receive nothing but leftover attention.

My husband and I were desperate enough to take an unconventional approach: we sold our lakefront California house—and everything else we owned—and moved our family to Belize. We wanted to instill a new set of values upon our children.

But, Bob,  it wasn’t just for our kids. My husband, Duke, and I wanted some adventure in our life before we retired. Duke couldn’t wait to swap LA’s gridlocked freeways for flip-flops, and I longed for my own slice of Caribbean paradise.

Q: Why did you pick Belize?

“Had it not been for a leaking toilet, we may never have healed our family,” reads the first sentence in my book, Freeways to Flip-Flops: Our Year of Living Like the Swiss Family Robinson. Our plumber, who fixed our toilet told me about Belize, a country that sounded like a place we could afford. English is the official language and you could buy ocean front property for as little as $15,000, I Googled Belize and he was right. Although $15,000 might not offer the ideal plot of land to build your dream house, it was possible to find cheap water front properties in many parts of Belize.

Q: What were the biggest adjustments you and your family had to make?

One thing we learned very quickly in Belize was: “If they don’t have what you want, want what they have.” If the store didn’t carry what you wanted, just accept it and go with the flow. This was an excellent lesson for my kids, especially coming from the U.S., where we have so many choices. This taught us to always question, “Is this a want or a need?” before buying something. We have brought that attitude back with us.

We had to adjust to the lack of water and food, and the abundance of bugs, especially after a rainstorm. We relied on rain water to wash. I never realized to what extent I valued water until we were in a drought. It taught my family how much we had taken for granted.

Finding food was a major problem. Stores would rarely carry what you needed, like fresh milk or cheese or brown bread, on a regular basis. Feeding two teenagers and a growing ten-year-old became a full-time job, especially when you learn we had to shop by boat. There were no cars up north on the island of Ambergris Caye where we lived.

Q: What do you wish you could have brought back to Southern California with you?

I would love to have the beautiful, warm Caribbean turquoise water in front of my house again. Apart from that, I wish we had the slower pace of life that locals enjoy in Belize. I learned one thing about people who live in poorer parts of the world that I wish we could incorporate into our life. As long as you have enough money in your pocket to pay for your food for today, you’re happy. Local Belizeans don’t seem to worry about tomorrow the way we do.

 Q: Tell me a bit about the book you have written about this experience.

The Marsh family
Freeways to Flip Flops: Our Year of Living Like the Swiss Family Robinson is the story of our family moving to a tropical island in Central America. Writing this book has made me realize that my childhood in Africa and Europe molded me into a woman who believes in being gutsy, and taking risks. I have a desire to inspire and motivate people to follow their passion and quit postponing their dreams. So, it’s not just about my book but about my message: Life is too short to play it safe. Be Gutsy and find your paradise.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in writing your first book?

For me, an unexperienced author, it was the length of time it takes to write a book. I'll never forget the first class I took called, “How to write a book proposal.” The teacher, who later became a close friend, started the class by saying, “It can take six years to write your first book from start to finish.” I laughed and made a silly comment which I now regret. “How can it take six years to write a book, only a stupid writer would take that long?”

Now I realize how ignorant my comment sounded. At the time I thought it would be so easy to turn my 600 page journal into a book, I didn't realize how much I had to learn about the craft, the fact that great memoirs have to use the same concepts as great fiction, that my story needed to follow a specific structure, and that I had to have a message to leave with my readers.

 Q: When do you hope to have Freeways to Flip-Flops published?

As soon as possible. The big New York publishers are unwilling to take a risk with an unknown author unless that person has a huge on line following. By huge, I mean around 100,000 to 200,000 subscribers and thousands of hits/day on your blog. But, I'm making progress.

I started blogging three years ago, network like crazy, both on line and in person, volunteer at writers associations, and use all forms of social media. I’ve hired a professional to develop my new author website and blog, soniamarsh.com. I also speak about blogging and now want to expand my presentations to topics related to Gutsy Living. Three months before my book comes out I plan on hiring a publicist whom I’ve already spoken to and like.

One thing I recommend to all aspiring writers is to learn how to market your book. Unfortunately we now live in a world where author promotion is just as important, if not more, than simply writing a great story.

Thanks for the interview, Bob. There are many advantages to retiring in Belize. If anyone has specific questions regarding the expat life in Belize, or writing, or blogging, I’d be happy to help. You can contact me at sonia@soniamarsh.com.

Thank you, Sonia. I'll be anxiously awaiting the publication of your book. You have done something that many of us dream of but just aren't gutsy enough to try.


  1. Great interview! Thanks Bob and Sonia. I will hop over and ask Sonia how she kept the spirit of living in Belize alive when they returned to the US.

  2. Thanks, JBO,

    I'm going to let Sonia respond to most of the comments from now on. And I'd like to know how she kept the "Belize attitude" alive also!

  3. Bob,
    Thanks so much for interviewing me and for posting on your wonderful blog. I shall answer comments I see from your readers with great joy.

  4. Thanks JBO for your comment.

    My family has been back for six years and I remember not fitting in at all in the beginning. Our family grew very close in Belize as we had no outside entertainment, except nature. For three years we lived without TV, and my kids' friends thought we were strange. We had patio furniture inside our house for a long time because we didn't want to waste money and our priorities had changed. We had no cars, no furniture and had to start over when we got back. We bought two old Saturns and I think my friends from before, thought we were crazy because we didn't "conform" to what was "expected" in Orange County, by so many. My sons never expected "cool" cars, didn't care about clothes, like their peers, and basically grew up after realizing how lucky they were to get an education when they saw kids in Belize who couldn't afford school books and quit school at 13. So many other things too. With social media today, it's difficult not to get involved in the "busy" aspect of life here, but as far as materialistic stuff, we no longer care. Memories and trips are far more important.

  5. That is an amazing story. I don't know anyone who would be willing to give up everything like that.

    I did wonder how you supported yourself. Was your husband working? Did you sell a book or something?

  6. @Anonymous
    We were fortunate to sell our house at the boom time in the U.S. and then our cars, furniture etc. That gave us savings. We tried to start a business or two, but that's another adventure. We chose to live more like the locals, rather than buying expensive imported food from the U.S. So we didn't buy food items that were imported, like cereal, crackers, chips, wines, cheeses, but local stuff, or foods imported from Mexico or grown in Belize. There were a few times we caved in, but only as a treat.

  7. I don't think my kids would have let me take them away from their school and friends like you and your husband did. That must have been hard on them and you. My boys were in sports. If they had stopped playing for a year that would have been it.

  8. My husband and I sold all of our belongings and lived in an RV for almost 3 years. It was tough leaving our friends behind but we got to visit our kids and grandkids. With an RV we could stay for a week and really catch up on family time.

    The hardest part for us was deciding where to live when we got sick of living in a bus. Once you have traveled around where you used to live doesn't hold the same place in your heart. We finally decided to get an apartment near our daughter.

  9. @Patricia
    Great point. Each child is different. Our oldest son was not doing well in high school with influences from peers in Orange County, CA at the time, so we took action as a family, rather than send him away. My husband and I discussed many options, and came to the conclusion of moving to Belize. I can tell you this was the best decision we ever made for our three sons, when you see how they turned out today.

  10. @Jane
    Good for you and the spirit of adventure. I bet you have many stories to share and adventures that made your life interesting. I would love to hear more. Did you stay in the U.S. or go to Canada and Central America?
    You bring up an excellent point about "where you used to live doesn't hold the same place in your heart." When we returned to Orange County after Belize, I no longer cared as much about where I live. You start to see how many other parts of the U.S. or the world who wouldn't mind moving to. Thanks Jane for commenting.

  11. I'll add my two cents worth to these last two comments:

    I've always wanted to be gutsy enough to live in an RV. I'd like to hear more from Jane, too. I am ready to be a vagabond for awhile.

    Sonia, I like your answer to Patricia. Sometimes being a parent involves tough choices. Even so, I doubt it went without problems and anger.

  12. Sonia, this was a great interview.
    I'm very proud to call you and Duke my friends.
    You're the gutsiest person/people I know, moving the family from their comfort zone to embrace a new, simpler life-style. It worked for you, meeting challenges head on, and reaping lasting rewards because of it.

  13. Sonia,
    That is an amazing adventure. I wish I could have even considered taking that step when our kids were young. I couldn't see past earning a living and keeping up appearances in LA. Our kids disappeared into a dark tunnel at about 12 and long years later we are still struggling to get close. Good luck with that book. It's a story that needs telling.

  14. @GulfGal,
    Thanks for coming over Nancy and your comment. Yes, our family was lucky that things worked out, which is why I believe in taking risks in life.

    I met Nancy in Florida through my blog. She reached out to me when I asked my readers if they knew what we should do and see in the Naples/Ft. Myers area. That was about 3 years ago and we have remained friends. This also points to the fact that we can reach out and make new friends anywhere in the world.

  15. Hi Ralph,
    Thanks for your encouragement regarding my story and I can understand the significance of what you said about your own situation.

  16. Hi Bob and Sonia,

    I loved this interview! This is the first time I've really heard you're whole story, Sonia. I admire your courage to pick up and move. How wonderful that you kids were able to have their eyes opened to a different set of values. I really like what you said about the people of Belize ~ as long as they have what they need for today, they aren't worried about tomorrow. That's the way to live!

    It was also fascinating to read what you learned about writing a book - the time it takes and the skills you need.

    Thanks to both of you.

  17. Hi Sandra,

    I have enjoyed learning more about Sonia and her gutsy approach to whatever her challenges.

    Like my friend Pascal Marco and his first book, I am really looking forward to the day Sonia tells me my copy of hers is in the mail!

  18. Hi Sandra,

    Thanks for your interest in my family's story. I also wish we could live with the same attitude of not worrying about tomorrow as long as we have what we need for today. I know this is a struggle for most people.

  19. Bob,

    Wow, that was exciting for me. Thanks for the interview and I enjoyed answering your readers' questions. It's amazing how you forget what might be of interest to others when you've lived through an adventure like ours.

  20. Sonia,

    I'm so happy you enjoyed the experience. I've got great readers!

  21. Slow and late to the party.

    The times I've lived in free-fall have been the richest in stories. I look forward to yours, Sonia.