April 3, 2013

A Permanent Attitude Adjustment

Blogging friend, Sonia Marsh, has written a book about her family's experiences in exchanging a southern California lifestyle for a seriously more rustic locale on an island off the coast of Belize. For one year she, her husband, and three sons managed to not only survive the abrupt lifestyle change, but learn some valuable life lessons and grow together as a family.That adventure, detailed in Freeways to Flip-Flops, is her story.

Recently I asked Sonia to reflect on what changes in her outlook have survived for the eight years she and her family have been back in Orange County. I was interested in whether the lifestyle adjustments made upon their return have become permanent. Here are her answers:
1) Your book, Freeways to Flip-Flops, details a year in your family’s life when you abandoned Orange County, California for Belize. What prompted that radical change?

Our decision to move to Belize, Central America, was a two-year process based on several things going on in our lives:

*My husband, Duke, was fed up with his stressful job and commuting through the Los Angeles gridlocked freeways. He wanted to live a simple life with more time to spend with his family, and to experience adventure in his life.

*Duke’s father passed away a year after retiring, and my mother passed away at 57, so this made us realize we did not want to postpone our dreams until retirement.

*Our oldest son was getting in trouble in high school, and we had two choices: either to ship him off to a behavior modification school, or to move as a family.

*We did not like the entitlement attitude of young people in Orange County, California, and wanted our kids to experience life in a less developed part of the world.

*I was looking for “my paradise.”

2) Upon your return to Southern California how different was your life from the one you had left just one year earlier?

 Life wasn’t different when we returned to California, it was still just as hectic, but my family had changed. I think the biggest change for all of us was how people in OC, California seemed in a hurry, not really having time for others, except themselves. No one made eye contact, and only a few people had time to chat and enjoy “life.” It took me a good six months to start driving at the speed that everyone else was driving.

We learned that we didn’t need all the “stuff” people accumulate. We had become frugal and didn’t care if our plates and glasses didn’t match, and we slept on mattresses on the floor for a month. We had nothing when we came back, so we had to start over, and we knew we didn’t want to collect“clutter.” Nothing seemed to impress us the way it had before. Expensive cars and homes that so many wanted to flaunt didn’t mean a thing. My teenage sons no longer cared about brand name items like their peers.
In Belize, locals were happy as long as they had enough money in their pocket to eat, and they enjoyed living in the moment. This was the first time in my life that I understood what “living in the moment” truly meant. They didn’t seem pre-occupied with making lots of money. If things didn’t get done right away, no one worried. We learned acceptance, and to go with the flow and to say, “Maybe there’s a reason it’s not getting fixed today.” Belize taught me to become more patient and to give up trying to control everything in my life. In a way, it made me feel free.
3). You have been back in Southern California for almost 8 years. What life changes after Belize are still part of you and your family’s everyday life? What are some of the lasting changes or did you find yourself slipping back into the old ways?

There are certain things that the stress of living and working in Orange County, CA have brought back. The gridlocked freeways are worse than ever, and my husband is still working in a law firm and wants to quit and move to Naples, Florida. We’ve decided that it’s not worth sacrificing your health and happiness for a stressful job. Belize taught us there are always options in life. You can move to a cheaper area; southern California is not cheap. We also want to travel, but since money will be tight, I know we can teach English abroad, and get room and board while renting our house in the U.S.
Once you’ve sold everything you own, it’s liberating and addictive, and the second time around, it’s so much easier. My husband and I crave change, and get bored with predictable routines.

We are careful not to waste water and electricity. We try not to use the A/C in the summer, and [instead] use fans, like we did in Belize. The gulf coast of Florida offers a compromise: the Caribbean laid-back lifestyle that we miss, and a Home Depot for hurricane supplies. In Belize we had hurricanes, but no Home Depots. 
4) For someone interested in exploring life in another country, either full or part time, what advice can you share from your experiences?

The best piece of advice is: Don’t try to start a business as an expat in a foreign country. Stay low-key and if you need to work, do something over the Internet that doesn’t interfere with the locals or the expat community. If you want to work, find something that doesn’t compete with the locals.
Remember to slow down and take it easy. Life is slow in so many beautiful Caribbean locations. Don’t expect repairs to take place on the same day or week. People take their time so you need to adapt to their way of life.
Research the location or country ahead of time and go on a scouting trip to figure out where you might want to live.
If you move to an island, or an expat community, get used to gossip. It seems that people like to go back to “high school” and gossip about others. I don’t care how old you are, everyone does it.
Relax, don’t try to be controlling or to impose your ways in a foreign country. You need to adapt to them, not the other way.
Relax, take your time and you’ll learn whom you can trust. Just enjoy life and stay in the moment. That’s what nature teaches you.

Thanks, Sonia. The permanent changes in mindset that occurred from your time in Belize are fascinating. I always come back from an overseas trip with great plans to eat more slowly, use kerosene lamps in the evening, or go for long walks everyday at sunset, or..... Then, a few weeks later I'm back to my normal routine. Of course, I've never been on a year-long cultural change. It probably takes such a complete break from our version of normal to accomplish lasting change. Your experience shows it is possible and positive.


  1. Fascinating and truly earthy. Thank you, Sonia.

    1. You are welcome Banjo Steve. I like your name as well.

  2. Such a pleasant surprise to see this interview with Sonia Marsh today! We go back quite a ways in our blogging/publishing friendship. She is truly a Gutsy Woman! I love her book and encourage everyone to read it and think about what's really important. She and Duke took a huge risk, it seemed to me, and I think it proves how important it is to shake up the status quo.
    Great interview! Thanks Bob.

    1. Barbara,

      I am so glad we met through blogging and commenting. We have to meet in person one of these days. I like your statement, "Shaking up the status quo," and feel the need to do this again soon. So glad you enjoyed, "freeways to Flip-Flops," and for your review. Sonia.

  3. After reading your recommendation last year, I bought and read Sonia's tale. A great read that I would recommend to everyone. We experienced a lot of what Sonia said are the positives from their experience, simply by moving from one hectic state in this country, to another that is less so. We are less frazzled, more inclined to stop and smell the roses, and so forth. Work is still stressful no matter where, but I still appreciate being in an area where we are not trying to keep up with the Joneses.

    If anyone is thinking about Belize as a retirement destination or otherwise, get Sonia's book. It may or may not dissuade you from moving, but it will give you a great feel for the country at the least.

    1. Chuck Y,

      Thank you so much for reading and recommending "Freeways to Flip-Flops." I agree, you don't have to move as far as we did to enjoy a slower pace of life. I am curious where you moved to. Yes, work is stressful, no matter where you live, even when you think you're in paradise.

    2. Sonia, we moved from NY to the mountains of TN. I work from a home office, so it does not matter where I live, as long as I can get to an airport (in my case I have three major airports pretty equally distant). We love the beauty of the state, the people, and of course, the lower cost of living. It is conservative so if someone has difficulty with that, I would not recommend it. But if one is outgoing and does not try to change the attitudes of the natives, you'll be welcomed here.

      Best of luck with your next move.

  4. Sonia is a hard worker and someone who sees a problem and looks for a solution. I found her book inspiring and I'm pleased there were some permanent changes in her family's lifestyle after the Belize "experiment."

    1. Bob,

      I am glad we've kept in touch throughout the years, and thank you for the interview(s).
      You've become a real expert on how to have a satisfying retirement.

  5. We moved to Prescott from Thousand Oaks, CA. I was presenting at the Conference on Positive Aging in LA in February and decided to take a couple of days to hang out with friends. On the weekend I stayed with a former colleague, we drove from Marina del Rey to the San Fernando Valley, then down to San Juan Capistrano, back to the San Fernando Valley, all in two days. I have no idea how many hundreds of miles we drove in those 2 days. While I loved the visit, I am so glad 'commuting' is the 7 miles between Prescott Valley and Prescott.

    1. Cathy,

      Glad to meet you through Bob's wonderful website. I'm curious what the traffic was like when you visited LA. The other day, it took me 3 hours to drive 53 miles to LA.
      This is crazy, and such a waste of time for those who have to do this on a regular basis.
      I'm happy to hear you like where you live now. My cousin has a house in Thousan Oaks, CA.

  6. Very informative and enlightening interview. But tell Sonia that Naples, Fla., is not materially less expensive than So. Calif. It'll have less traffic in the summer; but not in winter. And it'll be a LOT hotter in the summer as well. That being said, I wouldn't mind at all living in Naples -- it's pretty nice down there!

  7. Hi Tom,

    After Belize, I am used to humidity, and quite frankly, I've been there several times in July and August, and it did not bother me. There is much less traffic than the 6 lanes each way on the 405 freeway or 5 freeway, and people seem friendlier and more patient than in OC, CA.
    There is no state income tax, and taxes are increasing in CA, which is why many are leaving. Where do you live Tom?

  8. It's amazing how an experience like that can transform your life so long after the direct experience is over. I spent several years overseas, too, and although I've been back in the US for many years, I learned things in my expat life in the tropics that stay with me even now. This book sounds like a good read for many reasons.

  9. Galen,

    Where were you in the tropics? Did you write a memoir about your experiences? Thanks for sharing your comment.

    1. Sonia, I was in Thailand for three years, and then in Cote d'Ivoire (in West Africa) for two years. After that, I was in Paris for two years before moving back to the US. I didn't write a memoir, but some of my experiences do show up in my book, 10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place (and Staying There), and on my blog by the same name.


This blog has ceased publication of fresh content. Comments are no longer being accepted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.