I met Yvonne and Alfredo Villoria in Belize. Having heard about them, I expected them to be an interesting couple. Little did I know how interesting.
When we arrived at their 20-acre homestead in rural southern Belize–and had to ring a repurposed empty propane tank used as a gong to let them know of our arrival–I knew I was right: they were certainly interesting. In fact, “interesting” doesn’t quite do it. Impassioned. Enlightened. Completely counter-cultural. And elegantly fearless. A couple who have exited normal to take a path ideal for them. This couple has certainly taken the path less traveled: trailblazing their expatriate way into one of the most remote areas of Central America to prove that they can take care of themselves simply and completely and find true happiness within.
As soon as I saw the diminutive Yvonne making her spry way to me across her property (despite her 74 years), I knew she was a kindred spirit. She embraced us all in a hug, as if we were friends she hadn’t seen in a long time instead of people she’d never before met. Happiness emanated from her every pore. I couldn’t help but smile while in her presence, just as you’d laugh when someone is tickling you. She had a depth about her that you don’t often find in people in the modern world. She wore no makeup and dressed in man-like clothes. Still, she was as delicate as a princess, with small hands and soft skin. Her sweet, lady-like presence was completely at odds with her tall rubber work boots. I loved her immediately.
Yvonne led us through a jungle path a foot deep in grasses (the driveway) to their unique house. I’d chosen what I thought to be footwear hardier than my usual flip-flops: Crocs. I realized too late, however, that the ants crawl in the holes of Crocs and have a biting fest before you can get the shoe off. Suddenly Yvonne’s tall boots were making more sense to me.
The house was the typical Belizean style wooden structure on stilts. She guided us to their main living space, the area underneath the house. Sitting at the huge table that they built even before they built the house, we were intrigued by the Villorias’ story, which they told together, finishing each other’s sentences and teasing each other at every chance. Although I’d never been there, this place felt like home.
Seventy-eight-year-old Alfredo knocked down a bunch of coconuts and whacked them open with his machete, offering us each one to drink. Since we had no straws, we slurped thirstily at the holes, holding the coconut with two hands, all of us, like baby monkeys. When we had finished the sweet water, Alfredo cut some of the meat from them and we ate that. In the meantime, Yvonne brought down from the kitchen thick hunks of banana bread and savory pieces of fried chicken. We hadn’t expected them to offer us lunch but it seemed sharing food with guests is just what you do in Belize.
The Villorias lived most of their young adult life in Los Angeles, where Yvonne worked as a stock trader while Alfredo was a scientist for Jet Propulsion Labs.
“We thought we had the good life,” Yvonne told us. “In the 60’s and 70’s, we were living the good old American dream of having two cars, two homes, dining out 4-6 times a week, theater/stage performances, vacations, Las Vegas once a month, Tijuana, Mexico at least twice a month, parties and outings with friends and family, and a yearly vacation to Mexico, Central America, or the Caribbean islands. But, despite all this luxury, we knew something was missing. We thought there had to be more to life than just working and having material things.”
“We thought we had the good life. But, despite all this luxury, we knew something was missing. We thought there had to be more to life than just working and having material things.”
As they worked, took care of their stuff, and managed their busy schedules, they traveled quite extensively during their vacation time. Witnessing simpler living in so many places south of the border, they decided they would eventually pull up stakes on their old lives of work, stress, and worry to move to one of the places they’d visited. They set 1980 as the year they would move. At that point, they knew the when, but not the where.
They wanted a place that was similar to the Hawaii they’d both grown up in: a natural environment that was safe and free and where kids still acted like kids. They wanted a simple and peaceful place to live.
They liked Belize because it had a safe and stable form of government very similar to the UK. When they decided Belize would be the place they started their new lives, they put an ad in Mother Earth News to ask for people’s experiences about moving there. They got a lot of responses, including one that told them about 20 acres for sale near Punta Gorda, Belize’s southernmost town which, at that time, was a remote outpost of only 2,000 residents.
The thing that swung the deal was the fact that the owner of the property, a “real flower child-type,” according to Alfredo, had become a monk in an ashram. “The guy sent us this tape recording of himself preaching, saying, ‘if you buy this place, we will put our karma on it and you’ll get protection.'” That was the selling point. We said ok!”
They bought the 20-acre property in 1980 for $1,800. They wanted a break from the frantic pace they’d been living in Los Angeles and they needed a new challenge. They knew in their hearts that 1980 was the year, so… they quit their jobs, sold all of their stuff, bought a second-hand motorhome and drove all the way through Mexico to Belize.
“When we arrived in Belize on September 6, 1980, more or less our challenges began,” Alfredo laughed. “We gave ourselves five years. If we didn’t make it in that time, we would go home and integrate back into the business world again. But… more than 30 years later, we’re still here.”
They had a deep desire to live a sustainable lifestyle, to be self-sufficient and rely only upon Mother Earth for survival. The challenge came in the fact that they were city folk and really had no idea how to do anything that had to be done in the jungle.
“When we arrived, we had to chop the bush. Even though we didn’t know how to chop the bush,” Alfredo laughed. They chose Rosewood lumber and worked on drying it for a year in preparation to build their house, which Alfredo designed.
When I asked them if they had experience in architecture and design, they laughed at my question.
“No!” Yvonne cackled. “We came down with a lot of books. Our whole house is nothing but books we used to learn. We don’t have furniture, only plastic chairs. That way we have more room for shelves and shelves of books.”
“I can tell you how to dance. You want to learn how to juggle? I can show you how. How about growing cucumbers? Information about snakes? I learned from my books.”
At one point early in their life in Belize, Yvonne and Alfredo were preparing to kill a rabbit, their first protein since arriving. Alfredo held the rabbit, and after killing it, he looked over at Yvonne and said, “Ok, turn the page. What’s next?”
The piggery was part of their master plan, too. They used the pigs for meat, but they also used the waste for producing their own biogas. After doing their research, they found that there was a biogas system that would reproduce methane. They knew pigs would produce the manure they needed so–they started a piggery! (After learning about it, of course, from their books. And once they learned it well, they began to do workshops for their Belizean neighbors, who were mostly Mayans, to teach them what they learned about raising pigs profitably.)
They drink filtered rain water that comes off the roof. They developed a two-tank system that lets the water settle in the top tank, with the excess flowing into the lower tank. The settled water they use for cooking and drinking while they use the unsettled stuff for bathing, watering, etc. They also dug a well, which they used to water the pigs.
By early 1982, their house was finished enough to move in. When it was finished, they dismantled their motorhome and repurposed all of the electrical items for the house. They also installed a solar system that they bought from a manufacturer in Phoenix which completely powers the house.
All told, the Villoria’s monthly expenses are less than $500 now. Now that they’re getting older, they don’t grow all of their own food as they did back in the 80’s, but rather buy it from the local markets. They’ve since closed down their piggery, so now they buy tanks of butane for cooking. They don’t own a truck anymore, arguing that the vehicle had to give back financially to their life in order for it to make sense to own. They hitchhike with neighbors when they need to go into town or hire a charter vehicle. Or they walk.
No house payment, very little utility payments, no car payment, and food is cheap. Talk about a peaceful retirement.
Also a huge part of their master plan was their seed exporting business. During the bulk of their 30 years in Belize, they sold seeds from their fruit and teak trees and other ornamentals to a seed company in the States. This was largely how they made their income. Now that they are living more of a retired life, they closed down their business but the possibility for seed exportation remains for any future owners of the 20-acre property.
Yvonne and Alfredo invited us to walk around with them. “Everything you see, we planted. Nothing was here when we first came. Nothing of value, anyway. We do a show and tell with people, letting them smell and taste…”
As we walked through their property, we saw allspice (which makes a nice tea), a butterfly house, heliconias, cinnamon, nutmeg, bamboo, jippi jappa, mangosteen (a tree that produces xango juice, which is an antioxidant nectar that improves your respiratory health, immune system, intestinal health, and joint health) and all other kinds of medicinal plants.
Yvonne pointed out where they’d parked their motorhome and truck when they first moved to the property. The motorhome didn’t have a shower so they bathed outside. And she didn’t have a clothes washing machine until around 2000, so for the first 20 years, she washed all of their clothes by hand, just like their neighbors have done for thousands of years.
Suddenly Alfredo appeared with a long stick with a hook on the end. He let our son Brenny take a try at picking his own grapefruit.
Yvonne showed us the fruits of the Moringa tree, too. She said it was something she and Alfredo were used to growing up in Hawaii and it’s now a plant being promoted in Belize. “You put it in soups or salads. It’s a little bitter, but everything bitter is good for you! We put it on rice and cereal, too. It’s great for your health.”
I’m not sure if it’s the variety of fruits and herbs they showed us that day that’s keeping this couple so vibrant and in love with life. It could also be that they weren’t afraid to change things up for themselves when they realized their old life of work, materialism, and the worry that goes along with both was no longer feeding their souls.
This is a couple who personifies the principles of Exit Normal: they opened themselves to the risks of pursuing their dreams in order to reap the incredible reward of finding the best, most authentic life for them. Living in a remote jungle paradise might not be for everyone, but it was right for them. And they never would have known that until they tried it. They’re an example for all of us to keep searching for our ideal life.
Even though I’ve only spent about four hours with these people, however, I feel like I’ve known them forever. And I miss them quite a lot. If we ever get back to Belize, you can be sure we’ll be ringing their gong.
By the way, the Villorias are selling Dem Dat’s Doin’, which can include any contacts and equipment they have for their seed export business. Maybe that’s a dream come true for some of you, as it was for them?