(Originally appeared as a 9/4/12 blog entry at HuffingtonPost.com.)
In 1998, I left a boyfriend who admitted he couldn't commit to anything more than putting food in the cat's bowl. We were in our early twenties, living in the West Bay district of the Cayman Islands. I trained horses and worked the breakfast shift at the hospital kitchen; J was a SCUBA dive master with a marine biology eco-tour company.
We were stumbling along, a few years into a relationship that seemed to have no future, so I pulled an Escape Hatch Back-up Plan from my files and moved on. I left J and trekked to Tarifa, Spain, with my dog to study windsurfing and Spanish and mend my broken heart.
What I didn't know when I set out on this adventure was that J would show up three months later. As we sipped sangria in my rented room in a 13th-century converted convent, he stunned me by whispering about diamond rings and a future. I said yes, yes of course.
Neither of us imagined that fourteen years, six moves, two big dogs, five careers and three kids later, we would be planning another escape-hatch journey out of the United States – this time to the remote bay island of Útila, Honduras, population 2,500.
I was increasingly disenchanted with the suburban Americanization of our life. Initially it was J's soul-crushing commute to New Jersey and the politics of corporate America. But I was also weary of the over-scheduling of our children – an entire weekend slamming coffee and shuttling them to endless sports practices and birthday parties. I was tired of the dull khaki uniforms, microwave lunch policies and busywork of prep school. This is not to sound unpatriotic or ungrateful for the many benefits of our life in the States. It was just that I was noticing holes in the way I had hoped to raise my children, the things I dreamed I would nurture. I was aware that they were becoming very good at exactly what we were teaching them – to be American children – growing up in a culture of consumers and Super-Sizers.
Last spring, as we soccer moms jogged the track around our kids' practice field, there was discussion about who was paying their children for good grades, and how much. One mom reported that her daughter's swimming teammate received an iPad for beating a certain time; another that there would be a new hockey stick for a straight-A report card. There is inherent in our culture a pervasive, assumed privilege.
Back in the dreamy days of early parenthood, J and I imagined our children growing up as citizens of a larger world. We wanted them to understand that water came from rain, food from the ground and that there were children who played sports for the love of the game, not the accumulation of championship trophies or artificial rewards. We hoped to create an appreciation for the wonder of diversity, interacting with people who spoke multiple languages and played music on instruments instead of Guitar Hero. I imagined my children would be friends with kids who had never seen, much less gone to bed sobbing over the loss of, an iPod.
J and I were also hungry to return to a life that is more connected to nature and the ocean, that original salty sea from which we all crawled. Over the years, we frequently visited family and friends back in Grand Cayman. We introduced our children to the water – we taught them to fish and kayak, how to clean and prepare conch and kite board and surf.
They have all learned to snorkel the reefs there with appropriate reverence for these delicate treasures of the ocean. They have loved this experience – but for them it was vacation, not their reality. Last summer, that changed.
When J received an opportunity to develop a luxury, eco-friendly community on the south shore of Útila, we returned to the island roots of our relationship as a family. On a remote side of the island where the only commute to Utila Town is by boat, where there are few cars but the narrow streets are thick with tuk-tuks and motorbikes loaded with families of five, where fifty-foot whale sharks commune with swimmers in the turquoise waters a hundred yards offshore and saltwater crocs cruise the mangroves, we embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.
Last year, our oldest son hit double-digits and was swept up in an increasingly huge social and sports life, with a little brother and sister whose schedules and appetite for activity and play dates are equally voracious. J and I realized that the opportunity for us to do this, to take our family on an extensive, international adventure, might not come along again. At least, not with children who are willing. We will homeschool them (the least of my worries, as we have done this before when I was on book tour) with the added bonuses of hands-on marine biology and Spanish immersion.
This journey embodies our longstanding family motto: One of the very best things you can be is flexible. Inspired by a quest for rich experience, we are quenching our innate wanderlust and our attempt at a life that is simpler and more connected to nature.
My blog La Vida Tranquila captures our transition from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the mangroves and crystal water of Útila, to a life that is muy rustico y autentico. Feel free to follow along as we take the plunge!