Borders opened recently in New Zealand, and by that I mean domestic borders. In a country the size of California, it’s surprising to people when they hear that for the past four months we couldn’t leave the cities in which we lived. Or in our case, the island on which we live. We jumped at the chance to set foot in Auckland for a few days just before Christmas to visit Santa at the big department store, gawk at decorations, and play at some new playgrounds. Our three-year-old was thrilled, mostly about the Santa part. And Isaac and I were excited to see what it felt like to live an urban life for a few days after being off the grid for the past few months.
Within an hour of setting foot in the concrete jungle, I remembered how stressful parenting two energetic kids can be in a city. Watch out for that, don’t touch that, hold my hand a car is coming! But it was exhilarating to be in the bustle of things, with trucks and people everywhere. Our kids were giggling and running circles around our airbnb the first night. “I do miss the city sometimes,” Isaac and I said to each other as we loaded the dishwasher (!!) and tossed our clothes in the washer and then the dryer (!!).
We stayed down by the aqueduct, which is a happening nighttime scene, and a calm yachter’s paradise by day. I popped the kids in the stroller and we walked the waterfront to the grocery store – I have missed being able to walk to the supermarket. We stopped for ice cream and explored the park, where other kids ran around and adults exercised. It all felt familiar, like visiting the best parts of a past life for a few days.
But our visit to Santa was overwhelming (the 30 minutes waiting in line didn’t help). It was impossible to find kid-friendly places to eat, so by the last night we had decided to cook for ourselves and sit on the balcony, which faced multiple other apartments and felt a little like a stage. I prayed no one had been looking when our supposedly potty-trained toddler dropped his pants on the balcony’s fake turf grass for a pee. “No, that’s not real grass, you can’t pee on it like at home!” I whisper-yelled as I swept him to the bathroom.
On the day we planned to leave, we were all so exhausted that we called the airline to get on an earlier flight. “I’m ready to go back to the island,” I said to Isaac, who agreed. Before we left, I put all the clothes we’d brought through the hot washer and dryer, making them fluffier than we’re used to now, and we set off for home.
Stepping back into life off the grid felt familiar and relaxing, even if it is so much more work. During the cooler months of the year, power is a problem as our solar panels struggle to get enough sun to keep up. But now that it’s summer, water is the issue. A few days after coming back, I woke up early with our youngest and went to the kitchen to make some tea. The faucet sputtered and dripped, but nothing came out.
Normally when this happens, it means the smaller pressurized tank which flows into our faucets is empty and just needs to be refilled from the massive rainwater collection tank on the property. But this time, even that massive tank was empty. We were really out of water. Isaac jumped in the car with one of the 7 litre jars I use for brewing kombucha and drove down the driveway to the creek to fill it up. “This should get us through the morning,” he said walking in and thunking it down on the counter. Did I mention our life is a little like camping?
It’s not unheard of to run out of water here in the summers. But it’s early for it to be happening. We just haven’t had a good rain in weeks, and there are still baths to be taken, laundry to wash, and a garden to water. Thankfully, we have access to the creek that runs down the valley behind our house. The watershed is big enough that it doesn’t run dry, and any farms or pastures are all downstream. We can run a generator to power a pump from there up to the tank (below).
We spent half a day troubleshooting the old pump when it didn’t work as expected. Isaac walked the line of piping from the house to the creek through the forest to see if there was a leak, which there was. He fixed the pipe and we pumped water up all day. When I turned on the tap and clear water gushed out, I was thrilled. (We should probably filter it but we don’t. No one has gotten sick to date, and Isaac’s family has used this system for decades.)
We aren’t the only ones in this position right now on the island. A big tank truck pulled up at the creek yesterday and pumped full from the bottom of our driveway, filling up to take it to other islanders who had also run dry. Everyone on the island is affected equally by the weather out here, rich or poor. The environment is an equalizer of sorts when you're off the grid.
Having the water off all day while we filled the tank meant that there was none in our system for the solar power to heat. So, when bath time came around for our kids, who were salty and sandy from a day at the beach, I put both our tea kettles and some pots of water on the stove to boil. After three rounds of boiling and refilling, I had enough hot water in the tub to call the kids inside for bath time.
On days like this, Isaac and I often comment on how much like camping this is. Infrastructure creates an invisible ease in modern life. The romance of most of this has worn off, if there was any, but for some reason I still wouldn’t trade it for life in an apartment in a busy city. When we want to see Santa or walk to the grocery store, we can always go for a visit.