“Have you ever flown in a chopper?” the emergency responder asked me. We were walking from the back of the local medical centre to the airport’s helipad. Nope, I’ve never been in a helicopter. I was about to get my first ride, and I wasn’t that excited about it.

I’d been building our new garden beds alone a few days earlier with pieces of timber too large and heavy for me to lift when I’d whacked myself accidentally in the side of the head with one. I sat down, cursed my own stupidity, and felt thankful I hadn’t passed out. For days it hurt to wear my sunglasses or lie on that side of my head at night.

But I didn’t think anything of it until Saturday morning when I got a nosebleed, had spotty vision in one eye, and then got a pounding headache that didn’t go away with ibuprofen the way I would have expected. “Is this a migraine?” I wondered aloud to Isaac. "I’ve never had one." My sister called and urged me to go get myself checked out. So, that’s what we did.

Medical care on the island is great but basic. The tiny medical centre is a single story building next to the airport and across the street from the itty bitty pharmacy. The GPs who staff it are capable and thorough, but if anything requires imaging or testing, they send patients to Auckland City Hospital. And so the doctor encouraged me to jump on the chopper for a scan in town. Isaac zipped home to grab me pajamas and a tooth brush, and I was off with no idea when I’d be back.

Ever since we’ve gotten here, it’s been surprising to me how easy it is to get medical help. If you need a prescription, you get it. If you need to go to the doctor, you just go in. And, turns out, if you need to take a helicopter to the hospital, they call one for you. It’s more straightforward than I’d ever imagined healthcare could be, and costs way less per capita than the US system.

The ER at Auckland’s busiest hospital was no exception. Kind doctors and nurses got me a scan within a few hours, which showed no head injuries. To be extra careful, the doctor recommended a lumbar puncture to test spinal fluid to see if I’d had an aneurism. The whole thing took about 8 hours and at 1am I was deemed healthy and free to go – I must have had a migraine, they reasoned. Before I left the doctors made sure I had a safe place to go for the night, and then I simply walked out, an even bigger fan of single-payer healthcare than I had been before.

It was a treat to be in Auckland, given that islanders aren’t allowed regional travel right now due to COVID restrictions. The smell of concrete and the glare of city lights felt oddly familiar, like I’d stepped back in time to our old fast-paced life. I stayed in the city an extra night to rest up, run errands (Christmas shopping!), and get a little alone time before flying back to the island.

I did all the city things I would have normal done back in San Francisco on a day off. I loved waking up and walking to my choice of multiple cafes. I slurped up yummy ramen and savoured vegan ice cream on a park bench. I hopped on a LIME bike and zipped through traffic to the bank. I lingered in the book store.

But I also noticed the smell of exhaust from all the cars, and the din of traffic. Auckland is impeccably clean, but I passed several homeless and mentally ill people on the streets and remembered how bad it had been in SF. And as the city gobbled up my money, I remembered how expensive urban life can be. After a day, I was ready to come home to the island.

Not a soul in the Auckland airport

My ride home

Waiting for me on the tarmac <3

And that’s really what my little medical-emergency-weekend-away taught me: that this island is home now. All the oddities of our off-the-grid life here were familiar when I got back to them.My own barefoot and dirty kids waving me off the tarmac brought me so much joy. The old house we’re living in smelled like home, with its creaky stairs, the missing upstairs window that we cover with cardboard when it rains, the way you have to turn the tap in the bathroom just so, the noisy parrots in the big tree out back. We’re so far from our old city life now, in so many ways, and our roots are here now.

Our toddler asked at dinner tonight, “Why did we move here?” I told him what I have said before when we asks this question – we came to play outside more, live by the beach, and be close to Nana and Grandpa. He didn’t look satisfied, so I asked him what he likes about the city. “The toy store, and ice cream,” he said. Fair enough. I promised him we’d go to the secondhand shop (the “tip shop” it’s called) here on the island to find some new toys soon, and that I’d buy him an ice cream bar next time we go by the store down the road. He seemed satisfied. And so was I.

Back home, watering our grass next to our new garden beds.

Beach bum.

Whenever we’re in the car together, Isaac and I make a joke of criticising each other’s driving. Each hairpin turn is a chance to prove to the other how careful and skilled we are at navigating these narrow roads. And lately they have been busier than ever. Lockdown rules have eased up and the summer sun arrived this week. Everyone is OUT.

This is something we’d hoped for since moving here. People! Families at the beach! People at the cafe! With COVID restrictions, none of the typical tourists or vacation home owners have been allowed to come to the island (nor can residents leave), so everyone we bump into is a local.

Because the 900 permanent residents on the island are spread far and wide, people are almost always happy to chat or say hello when you bump into them. In fact, most of the time they know someone you know or grew up here with Isaac and his brothers. The place is small enough that once you’ve met someone once, you inevitably see them again – at the tiny post office where we all go to collect our packages, at the cafe, at the only gas station on our side of the island.

Knowing the names of our neighbours and the local shop owners has been enough to help us feel settled here. It’s always been like that for me wherever I have lived – once I know my neighbours and am recognised at my local coffee shop and grocery store, it feels like I really live there. Like I’m part of the place. We’re finally getting that here. It’s so nice.

A rural off-the-grid island like this attracts all kinds of people, but the common thread is that everyone is a bit strange in their own way (including us). After all, living here full time means devising some creative way of generating enough power, water, and waste disposal to survive on your own. The majority of locals aren’t rich, at least in the monetary sense. In fact, some are just getting by. But New Zealand does a fairly good job looking after its population with support and health care for everyone, so it’s possible to live on the island without a huge income. People grow their own food, make do, and help each other out. It’s a world away from the wealthy San Francisco tech scene we came from.

Everyone living here develops an island “look” after a while, it’s a hardy, weathered, relaxed one. A lot of adults and most kids – including ours – go without shoes except in the worst weather. One’s clothes get a bit muddied up and worn out living here after a while, there’s simply no way around it. Few homes have enough power to run a hairdryer, and there aren’t salons on the island. My own hair gets so tangled and messy from the beach and the wind that I wear it up every single day, combing it just twice a week.

Each person we meet has a unique story about how they ended up here. It’s my favourite question to ask when we meet someone new. Plenty of people grew up here and could never find it in their hearts to leave. Others left and came back as soon as they had kids. Some have vacationed here enough times that they finally decided to put down roots. One person arrived on a sailboat, came ashore in his dinghy to find the local real estate agent, bought a house right then and there, and hasn’t left since.

And here we are, characters in our own sense, with our own strange story. It’s taken coming here to make me realise how unconventional Isaac and I are, willing to give up the comforts of city life and the status of careers in order to live simply and cheaply in this odd part of the world. But right now there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Twisting up and down the roads here on our way to one beach or another, I can’t help but feel like I’m on vacation. The air is warm and humid, and we can go everywhere barefoot. Parrots live in our yard. Every beach or trail or creek is uncrowded and free.

While talking to another local the other day, she said people sometimes ask her what she does here on the island. Her reply is always, "What do you mean? I live." Living here, off the grid and with kids, is a full time job. But it opens something in my heart to be here, doing this. It really feels like living.

Hiking to a rocky beach not far from our house.

Most tiny houses are on wheels, ours won't be. Here's the 3 meter x 10 meter spot where it'll go.

A post all about the tiny house! I’ve been meaning to write more about the project, but so much else has been going on that it hasn’t been top of mind. Plus, without building materials to do some of the more impressive stuff like framing and, well, building, what we’ve been working on seems boring to me. And muddy. But when I mentioned to a friend that I’d built a rock staircase over the weekend she said, “I want to see it!” So below is a bit about that and more.

As mentioned previously, Covid and NZ’s lockdowns for the past few months have wrecked havoc on the supply chain for pretty much everything. Building materials included. Getting things to the island is hard enough as it is, but the only supplier on island recently told us the list of timber we want won’t be available until after Christmas. There might be some magical other way to locate timber and get it here on the ferry, but so far we haven’t discovered it. So here we are, ready to put on our tool belts but with nothing to actually build with. Turns out, there is actually a TON of work to do that has nothing to do with a hammer. Although we imagined building the house itself and then working in the infrastructure around it, we’ve decided to do the opposite. And there are lots of benefits to doing it this way anyway. So, here's what we're up to.

Our landscape and infrastructure plan so far.

Our water tank, taller than I am.
Water Tank

We purchased a 6000 litre water tank here on the island. With the spot for it cleared and levelled, Isaac and the boys brought a trailer full of sand up from the beach and built a giant sandbox platform for it to sit on. He then wound piping through the forest down to the main house where water is collected off the rooftops of the existing structures on the property. We can pump water up from there and fill up the tank. We’ll need water to mix concrete up at the site, so this is a big win to have finished this!

Picking up hay to mulch on our newly planted grass.

Putting down grass seed under a layer of hay in the rain. Muddy work.

After excavation and clearing was done, a weeklong rainstorm blew in and turned everything to a mucky mess. I was eager to get grass seed down, both to capitalise on the rains for germination, and also to do away with the mud as soon as possible. Once we have grass established, the kids will be able to play on the site more (they love the mud for five minutes and then complain when it clumps to their boots and they can’t walk). So, grass would mean Isaac and I will be able to work side by side while the kids play rather than switching off like we do now.

My eagerness for grass had me slipping and sliding around in the mud to sprinkle seed on the steepest hillside of the site today. We purchased several bales of hay from the farmers next door and I spread that across the soil to keep the grass seed from washing away. (a great tip from my father-in-law!) There isn’t much top soil, but I’m hopeful that the grass will find a way.

Rock walls , steps, paths

When we laid metal (fancy name for rocks, apparently) on the driveway, the digger driver picked out the biggest rocks and dotted them around the property in piles to be used for other projects. We’ve got a few staircases to build for the landscaping, as well as a retaining wall behind the house. With no timber available, we’ll use – you guessed it – rocks. I spent yet another muddy day in the rain cutting steps into the bank leading to our future veggie garden and fitting heavy rocks in as steps. The mud was actually helpful – the rocks went in easily and I could push mud into the cracks between them. I’m pretty proud of the steps actually. I finally feel like I’ve built something!

A ledge where we'll put raised garden beds.
Veggie Garden

We cleared a ledge in the steep hillside below the house where we can put a few raised garden beds. I haven’t worked out the design of them yet, nor have I figured out how we’ll build them without timber (we may just have to wait), but I can’t wait to get started. A muddy pile of topsoil we saved from the excavation is just waiting to be dropped into a future garden bed.

Foundation posts, ready to be cut.

We did manage to get a stack of timber foundation posts of various sizes, which was a win. With careful cuts to each, we can just manage to get the number of posts we need (with a little left over too). Our digger driver can bore the holes and help with the concrete, so as soon as this rain dries up we want to be ready. That means we’ve got to get a truly accurate string line up and mark where to dig each posthole. This is the first of many technical steps to come, and we’ve got to get it right. But once those foundation posts are in, it’ll feel that much more real. I can’t wait.

Until next time!

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