February 17, 2021

Life After Living Abroad


As I write this post, I am sitting at my parent’s home typing from my makeshift office in my childhood bedroom. I spent the past 5+ years traveling on and off, and for two of those years I called Mexico home.

You could say that travel is a big part of my life. And when the world shut down in early 2020, that all changed.

Let’s rewind to January 2020: We were living in Mexico City in our apartment and spend most of our free time traveling around Mexico. It was pure freedom. The coming weekend always begged the question of what adventure we would take next. From sitting under a palapa all day on the beaches of Puerto Escondido and swimming in hot springs in rural Hidalgo to watching millions of butterflies migrate in Michoac√°n… our lives were filled with adventure.’

Little did we know that come early March, the world would go on lock-down and we would be spending the next 4 months in that little Mexico City apartment of ours. The days that once looked like discovering new restaurants, going out to listen to live jazz with friends, or wandering local markets turned into a lot of coffee at home and an unhealthy amount of hours playing Animal Crossing (I know I’m not the only one!)

But even in the middle of a lockdown, life was still beautiful. We would start our morning on our patio sipping on fresh-squeezed OJ we got for $2 down the street and listening to the birds chirp in the nearby trees. Then we would walk 10 minutes to Parque Mexico, where our dog Kibo would reunite with all of his four-legged friends every morning.

We workout in the park and stay until our stomachs told us to go home and make some breakfast. We would order our organic groceries and make delicious meals and dream up the next places we would travel to. But then the months went on… and on.

As full-time photographers, the world didn’t just shut down — our jobs did, too. So as the months went on, we started to wonder how we would be able to pay rent when we had zero dollars coming in and no hope for that to change anytime soon.

And once we realized the pandemic wasn’t going to be over within a couple of months, we realized that we needed to do the thing we dreaded — we had to move back home to help our family.

That July, we packed up our apartment and boarded our flight with 7 suitcases ready to move our life back to the States. I felt that it was the right thing to do, because having two disabled parents, I needed to be there for my family — at the very least to go out and buy the groceries.

But 6 months later my world came crashing down when my mom caught a blood infection called MRSA. At 3am one night I was woken up by the sound of EMT’s talking in my parents bedroom and saw the red ambulance lights flashing outside my window. My mom was rushed to the hospital and that’s when she was diagnosed with MRSA, and she was in the hospital for a week before being sent home on 6 weeks of antibiotics in IV drip.

I had heard of MRSA before but had no idea how serious it was, and all of the doctors made it seem like everything was going to be fine. That she was going to be fine. And she started to get better, back to her old upbeat and joyful self who could never sit still.

And then in a matter of weeks, she was rushed back to the hospital just as things were looking up. And within a few days, her heart stopped for the first time, and it happened again and again until we knew it was our time to say goodbye.

I will spare you the rest of the details, but all I can say is that my life in the span of a few months went from filled with peace to more pain than I can describe. And in the few months it’s been since she passed, it hasn’t really gotten better.

How do you go from living in a place where you spend your days walking, have access to beautiful parks, fresh organic produce, and friendly neighbors to a country where everything around you is unhealthy?

The list is never ending – from the food, work culture, social media addiction, lack of green space, and a toxic political environment… life in the US is hard in every way.

And the funny part is, you grow up surrounding by these things and it isn’t until you leave them that you start to realize how unhealthy the culture truly is. Anyone who has lived abroad knows all too well what I am describing, and it’s part of the reason they left, too.

So how do we cope when we have family to take care of at home? For me, the only way I can is by choosing to be the change I wish to see. And what I mean by that is instead of just treating our time in Mexico is a chapter closed, taking everything we learned and infusing it into our American life.

For us, that means moving away from the city where we are surrounded by noise, chaos, and distraction. By doing so you have to let go of certain friends who were just there out of convenience. You also will be letting go of the need to constantly fill your weekend with social activities like going out to restaurants or bars which do nothing but empty your wallet and add to your waistline.

It also looks like learning to grow our own food. Now I’m not talking being an off the grid hippy that eats nothing but coconut meat and spends all day barefoot (though being barefoot has a lot of health benefits). I mean learning what it means to sow something that takes time and reaping the reward once it produces fruit.

It means choosing to know our neighbors instead of avoiding them every time they go to take their trash out because we never even learned their names (if you live in a big city, you know what I mean).

And in our case, it means investing in the Mexican community and sharing our love for their culture to help bring a little piece of their home to them. Whether that be making chilaquiles for our Mexican friends or dancing to cumbia on our patio.

All of this feels like a far off dream right now, but I’ve learned that change doesn’t come by only focusing on what we can have right here and right now — it comes in little steps we choose to take every day.

Although we no longer live in Mexico, it will always be our home and I’ve learned that home isn’t a place but the people around you. So although it will never be the same and our time abroad is invaluable, we get to bring those lessons with us wherever we go and play a role and making our city a little more beautiful.

meet the writer

I'm Donna Irene.


A photographer, writer, and educator with a passion for helping people quit the hustle and live filled with purpose. When I picked up
a camera over 10 years ago, I had no idea it would take me around the world getting to photograph for everything from fortune 500
companies, brands, and people like you.

And now that I've been to 40+ countries and counting, I want to
use my talents to inspire others to use their creativity to make the world better. Follow along for resources on authentic travel experiences, sustainability, and building a business with intention.



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